Pull up a chair at one of coastal OC’s many craft breweries to kick back and enjoy a pint—and maybe some pub grub, too.
By Tanya A. Yacina and Newport Beach Magazine Staff
Breweries abound in Southern California, including more than a dozen that have popped up in coastal Orange County. From the beach towns of Newport, Huntington and Laguna—and inland to Costa Mesa—there’s no shortage of curated craft beer for aficionados to taste and try. Whether you’re looking for the latest small-batch craft creation or a favorite from one of the larger brands like BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Golden Road Brewing and Karl Strauss Brewing Co., which have local brewpubs, Newport Beach and the surrounding area doesn’t disappoint.
For more than two decades, Newport Beach Brewing Co. was the only craft brewery in town. After it closed in 2018, Helmsman Ale House took over the Balboa Peninsula space and began making its own beer the next year. From India pale ales like Double Down and Hop Comedor to Blackfin Lager and even some hard seltzers, Helmsman gets creative with what it puts on tap. But there’s a lot that goes into making these sought-after sips.
“The art of brewing wouldn’t be possible without a good understanding of the science,” says Juan Higuera, Helmsman’s head brewer. “There is a lot of reading and studying before a brewer can start to be an artist, but the art is what makes craft breweries so special—the creativity and passion is on full display. That is something macro-breweries can’t match.”
Helmsman Ale House is a family-friendly, full-service eatery (even hosting trivia nights on Tuesdays, game nights on Thursdays and occasional paint nights), and is touted as the only craft beer spot that brews in-house in Newport. All of Helmsman’s beers are brewed either at the Newport location or at its sister site, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewery in Rancho Mirage.
Helmsman focuses on making quality brews with flavor profiles that guests will enjoy whether ordering a pint or a plate of food to go with it. While Helmsman also serves wine and cocktails, it’s well known for its beer, particularly the Hazy IPA; Brett Newton, the company’s certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and a bartender at Babe’s, suggests trying a pint with CBR Crispy Tacos on the menu because the citrus in both pairs well and the juicy, tropical flavors in the beer add to the flavor of the tacos, which feature savory, marinated chicken, topped with crisp bacon bits, cotija cheese, lime and a chile-ranch sauce in a hard shell.
When making a new beer, Higuera and Rydelle Hall, director of brewery operations at Helmsman, discuss the flavors they would personally enjoy and get input from Newton and owner Lucky Callender. From there, they research ingredients and techniques that will achieve the desired taste and say that, for them, it’s really about what they would enjoy drinking. “We take a lot of inspiration from beers and drinks we like,” Higuera says. “It’s not necessarily creating new flavors, but creating the flavors we want.”
It can take two to four weeks to make a beer, depending on whether it’s an ale or a lager. Grain is milled and mixed with hot water to convert the starch to sugar. This liquid is strained into another vessel, where it’s boiled for an hour and hops are added. Next, it’s cooled and put in the fermenter with yeast—and then they wait the allotted amount of time for it to be finished and they can finally taste the results. Hall and Higuera agree that attention to detail is an important part of their process—everything matters, from what goes into the brew to how you develop those ingredients.
“Either something is well-made or it isn’t,” Hall explains. “The best thing about large-scale commercial beers is the consistency they can achieve. With small craft breweries, you get more of an artist’s approach in comparison—creativity at its finest.”
To support local brewers and find your favorite beers in the area, head to Helmsman (helmsmanalehouse.com) or visit one of these other breweries in the region.
Although it’s not made in Newport, Chihuahua Cerveza’s Primero, a premium Mexican-style lager, is served at its Balboa Peninsula taproom (which opened in 2018) along with several guest taps. Chihuahua Cerveza brews its beers in Buellton, California, including lagers named Rico, Limón and a guava-lime variety, all available for purchase in bottles and cans elsewhere. Deemed “The Original Mexican American Beer,” the Chihuahua Cerveza brand seeks to highlight Mexican American culture through stories of those who represent the Mexican spirit historically and inspire the next generation. The beer pairs well with Chihuahua’s cantina vibe and street-style food, including nachos and tacos with mahi mahi, carnitas or other proteins. The taproom also offers a large mezcal and tequila selection on-site and hosts classic car shows and cruises every Sunday at 9 a.m. (chihuahuacerveza.com)
Four Sons Brewing
With more than 20 different beers on tap and frequent new releases, the family- and dog-friendly Four Sons Brewing taproom on Gothard Street has something for all tastes. A unique option is the CocoNutorious, a coconut amber, but the most popular brew is a smooth and malty imperial IPA called The Great One. The brewery has won multiple awards, but its most decorated beer is O’Sonset, an Irish red ale. Four Sons also offers sours and hard seltzers including flavors like passion fruit and Blue Raz Lemonade. Several events are also hosted at the taproom, such as comedy and trivia nights, and a rotating lineup of food trucks can be found on-site. New and vintage pinball machines can be played in the barrel room, when not closed for private events; check out the current selection at brewcades.com. Since starting in 2014, the brewery has added a second taproom on Main Street in downtown Huntington Beach and HB Hot by Four Sons Brewing, a beer and hot chicken sandwich outpost at Bella Terra shopping center. Four Sons also has a distillery and operates a craft cocktail bar next to the Gothard Street taproom; reservations are required for the intimate space that’s only open Friday and Saturday nights. No matter which location you choose, Four Sons has a way of bringing people together. “We love that we’ve made so many new friends and that others have made friends while hanging out at our place,” says owner Duke Dufresne. “It’s especially gratifying to see people meet at the brewery and then [even] end up getting married.” (foursonsbrewing.com)
Laguna Beach Beer Co.
Founded in 2014 by Laguna Beach natives and childhood friends Brent Reynard and Mike Lombardo, who started the venture in their garage, Laguna Beach Beer Co. names its brews after local landmarks and history. Best known for its flagship West Coast IPA called Thousand Steps (named after a Laguna beach), this particular beer is dry-hopped with aromas of citrus, tropical fruit, blueberry and pine coming through. LBBC makes a wide range of beers plus a peach-mango sour and a hibiscus lemonade hard seltzer currently on the menu. Enjoy a brew with a flatbread pizza, soft pretzel, sandwich or wrap at the Laguna Canyon tasting room and kitchen, which boasts a large, shaded outdoor area and 20 taps including other brands of cider and hard kombucha as well as a full selection of wine and nonalcoholic beer. “We’ve just recently introduced a deli-style sandwich menu that has received resounding praise from our locals and visitors alike,” says Christian Emsiek, the brewery’s co-owner and chief operating officer. “In my opinion, the Thousand Steps pairs incredibly well with our Italian sub served on fresh baked Dutch Crunch bread from our good pals at Bread Artisan Bakery.” To pair with the food and drink, trivia is on Tuesday nights and a spring/summer concert series kicked off March 4 with Burritos, a Sublime tribute band. (lagunabeer.com)
Flashpoint Brewing Co.
After celebrating its second anniversary over the summer, Flashpoint Brewing Co. won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the fall for its Churchill Browns, a Kenucky common, which is a dark-colored but light-flavored and malt-accented beer. But Flashpoint also brews everything from a coconut IPA to a mango hefeweizen and Mexican lager. Consider also Purple Tears, a Belgian golden strong ale; Endless Variants, a West Coast IPA; Amberdexterous, an American amber ale; and Too Much Sun, a brown porter. Hard seltzer fans will rejoice, too, with choices like strawberry lemonade, raspberry, blood orange or grapefruit. With indoor and outdoor seating, the family- and dog-friendly locale has also hosted events like trivia and paint nights as well as karaoke. And Orange Pig Smokehouse can often be found serving up brisket, tri tip tacos and more on weekends while food trucks are typically there on other days. (flashpointbrewingco.com)
Riip Beer Co.
With Riip Beer & Pizzeria located in the inland part of Huntington Beach and a dog-friendly brewery and taproom on Pacific Coast Highway with a large patio, views of the beach and trivia every Wednesday night, Riip Beer Co. has beer lovers covered for any type of gathering. Riip plans to also open a pizzeria in fall 2023 within the same strip mall as the taproom, giving visitors more choices for food to bring in and pair with their pint. At the taproom, “we brew on-site so you can see all the production happening while enjoying your beers,” says Ryan Rasmussen, who co-founded the business in 2014 with his brother-in-law. He says Riip’s most popular beers are the hoppy ones like IPAs. The brewery has won several awards at the Great American Beer Festival including four over the past five years for a black IPA called Black the Riipper, and two in the most impacted category (American IPA) for Super Cali in 2016 and Dankster Squad in 2022. At the San Diego International Beer Festival, Riip was crowned Champion Brewery of the Year in 2022. And Riip turns out a hard seltzer called Black Fang, playing with different flavor combinations such as Tiger’s Blood (a mix of coconut, strawberry and watermelon). The inland pizzeria—complete with arcade games, 18-inch pizzas and some options by the slice as well as sandwiches and wings (not to mention beer and wine)—is a family-friendly place that often hosts Little League celebrations and occasionally presents live music. (riip.beer)
An independent brewery since 2011—started as an offshoot of Beachwood BBQ restaurant in Seal Beach, which closed during the pandemic—Beachwood Brewing has several locations in the region including both a taproom and Beachwood Pizza & Beer in Huntington Beach, serving up everything from IPAs to sours, an imperial porter and even some hard seltzers, so there’s something for every taste. Co-owner and brewmaster Julian Shrago says the brand’s most popular beers are its West Coast IPAs, but most notably Amalgamator due to its aromatic and flavor intensity, yet high drinkability. “Amalgamator pairs perfectly with one of our 16-inch, handcrafted sourdough pizzas, either a classic pepperoni pizza or our Benny Blanco with black garlic, mozzarella, ricotta, lemon juice, black pepper and Parmesan,” Shrago says. The company also has a sister project, Beachwood Blendery, a small-batch producer of tart, funky brews inspired by the lambic-style beers of Belgium, with some available at the local taprooms. Tip: Steely Jam, a specialty West Coast IPA collaboration with Urban Roots Brewing in Sacramento, was set to release March 9. (beachwoodbrewing.com)
Gunwhale Ales is an independent brewery, blending house and taproom in Costa Mesa, located near The Camp and The LAB Anti-Mall with two large outdoor patios that are dog- and family-friendly. The brewery was co-founded in 2016 by friends Justin Miller, JT Wallace and Bobby Fitzgerald, who grew up surfing, fishing, camping and boating together. Inspired by the spirit of Old West pioneers, the untamed coastline and expansive ocean, the brewery’s founders aim to preserve the region’s wildness through craft food and drink. Gunwhale’s most popular brew is Bait Ball, an unfiltered West Coast IPA. Miller says this is one of the first beers the company brewed and it has been a staple of the community for six years. “[Bait Ball] is a low bitterness, tropical IPA with lower body, making it easy to pound,” Miller says. “We are a small-batch brewery that serves many different styles of beer in our taproom. We do not serve food now, but we are thinking about adding a kitchen very soon—stay tuned.” Check out happy hour on Wednesdays and events like kids skateboard lessons every other weekend as well as comedy shows. (gunwhaleales.com)
Brewing Reserve of California
With names like If You Cake It, They Will Come and Hell Hound imperial stouts to Magnificent Beard barleywine and Good Day for a Wheat Wedding, the creativity abounds at Brewing Reserve of California. “Our most popular beer on tap is the OC Tropical Blonde,” says Brian Nolan, one of the owners and operators. “It is brewed as a traditional blonde ale, then steeped with Hawaiian tea to give it a sweet flavor and reddish color. Our customer base enjoys pairing our delicious craft beers with just about any food type.” The establishment hosts food trucks that change every week from Vikings Burgers & Wings to Vinegar & Smoke, as well as tacos, pizza and more. Special events include game nights on Wednesdays, trivia nights on Thursdays, Bend & Brew yoga sessions every other Saturday and Brushes & Brews paint nights once a month. (brcbeer.com)
Green Cheek Beer Co.
Green Cheek Beer Co. is a small, independent brewery owned and operated by friends Evan Price and Brian Rauso, who share a love for good beer. The company, started in 2017 in Orange and expanding to Costa Mesa and Sunset Beach in recent years, has won awards for its West Coast IPAs and is also known for its hazy IPAs, but doesn’t follow the traditional model of consistently brewing the same types and flavors. Instead, the brand’s leaders choose to make different styles of beers all the time with slight tweaks to the recipes to keep things fresh and show off their brewing creativity. Consider varieties like Pet the Tiger, a California IPA; Skeleton Wings, a double dry-hopped West Coast IPA; and the Birdhouse Pilot, a collaboration with Bottle Logic Brewing that’s a Tiki cocktail-inspired sour aged in rum barrels. There’s even a Lavender Lemonade hard seltzer. The establishment’s most popular food item is The Double Smashburger, which pairs perfectly with Green Cheek’s IPAs. Wings, sandwiches and vegan options are also offered as well as wine by Green Cheek Wine Co. (same owners as the brewery)—and there’s usually a cider on tap, too. Comedy nights are scheduled every other month plus a number of paint nights and some live music at the Costa Mesa tasting room and kitchen, which has a large patio and event room. Other locations are in Orange and Sunset Beach, which has an ocean-view rooftop patio; both have a few free retro arcade games. All locations are dog-friendly. In addition to the traditional Oktoberfest, watch out for Marchtoberfest coming soon. (greencheekbeer.com)
Started in 2006 in Fullerton, Bootlegger’s Brewery has created a familylike atmosphere in its local tasting rooms—including one at The LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa—in the hopes of bringing new people through the door while keeping the regulars coming back again and again. Bootlegger’s brews about 7,500 barrels a year, with at least 10 different beers in tanks at any given time for a constantly rotating variety. This also allows the tasting rooms to offer as many as 30 different brews on tap including sours and hard seltzers. Some of the year-round brews include Far Out, a West Coast IPA; Golden Chaos, a Belgian-style ale; and Rocco, an American red ale. But co-founder and CEO Aaron Barkenhagen says the brewery’s most popular beer is El Chango, a Mexican-style lager that the company has been making for well over a decade. “Easy drinking lagers are seeing a resurgence in popularity, especially Mexican-style lagers,” he says. “El Chango is locally-brewed in Fullerton and is an approachable beer that is light and refreshing—perfect for the Southern California weather.” (bootleggers.beer)