SAN DIEGO — Less than one hour into our tour of San Diego-area breweries, it's clear the group "after" photo is not going to be pretty.
"Oh, yes, I want that Arrogant Bastard!" cackles the mother of three from Temecula, skillfully holding her Stone Brewing tasting glass between pink glitter-tipped acrylic nails. The tasting room bartender refills her glass with Arrogant Bastard Ale, one of the Escondido brewery's most popular brews.
"My mom doesn't drink much," her daughter says by way of apology, twirling around to the T-shirt racks in the sleek floor-to-ceiling glass-walled tasting room. The twirling is an impressive feat after downing several generous pours of the brewery's full-bodied, high-octane ales and porters on an empty stomach. "Do we have time to shop?" the daughter yelps. "I want to shop!"
The spirited mother-daughter duo is among the hops-crazed enthusiasts, including me, who have signed up for a five-hour beer tour with Brewery Tours of San Diego. Our motley crew includes my husband, a stand-up comedian, a local nurse, a preschool teacher visiting from Denver and a young pint-glass-collecting couple from New York's Long Island, astounded by the low price of glassware in Southern California.
"Five-minute warning," says Mindy Eastman, our 26-year-old tour guide, in a friendly-yet-firm school chaperon tone of voice. I manage to barter for 10 more minutes so we can take a quick stroll around the brewery's expansive outdoor garden scattered with waterfalls, a koi pond and plenty of large boulders for a not-so-subtle reference to the brewery name.
Eastman and her boyfriend, Jon McDermott, 29, a home brewer, founded the brewery tour company two years ago.
Customers were coming in to Ballast Point and "complaining about getting lost and weren't sure where to go next," says Eastman of the San Diego brewery, best known for its light, summery kolsh-style German pale ales, where she formerly worked as the tasting room manager.
Ballast Point, a microbrewery that maintains the laid-back vibe of the home brew shop where it was originally launched, is hidden in an industrial office complex miles from other breweries with public-tasting rooms. The distance alone can make scheduling several tastings in one day tricky, and some small breweries, such as Green Flash Brewing in Vista, are open to the public only a few hours a week.
Scheduling an individual tour also can be tricky. Even at Stone Brewing, the largest brewery in the area, reservations are not accepted for the free tours, and the walk-in list fills up quickly on busy days.
Such inconveniences prompted Eastman and McDermott to create several brewery tours in San Diego County. They offer a weekday north-central tour and a more northern excursion to Vista and San Marcos on Saturdays, although the breweries visited may vary by season.
"Mindy, are we going to another place with booze?" the Temecula mom yells as we head to Back Street Brewery's pub in Vista. Giddy laughter erupts from the back of the van.
By this point the nine of us -- all older than 30 -- have managed to turn an otherwise perfectly clean, albeit basic, van into a post-middle school field trip disaster zone.
Half-empty water bottles are strewn across the floor and shopping bags lie crumpled between the seats. Even when a pair of flailing legs flashes in the rear-view mirror, accompanied by a high-pitched scream, Eastman remains remarkably calm.
"Every once in a while I have to ask someone to behave, but usually people are pretty good and are just having fun," she says.
One topic on which Eastman and McDermott are unyielding is driving under the influence. The tours include picking up and dropping off customers at their homes, hotels or even the San Diego train station.
"Does everyone like their food?" asks Eastman, patrolling our table at Back Street, a brew pub reminiscent of T.G.I. Friday's, as the waiter sets down glasses of full-bodied Rita Red Ale. "You need to eat and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!"
Lunch, included in the $85 tour fee, is basic turkey sandwich and Cobb salad-type fare. It's hardly inspiring after watching platters of wild boar baby back ribs and pasilla-smoked duck tacos paraded around the gorgeous outdoor bistro at Stone Brewing earlier in the day. (Back Street is known for its pizza, not sandwiches.)
The beers are pretty good too, but seem tame after quaffing Stone Brewing's innovative ales. But we're having too much fun soaking up the free table-side entertainment to critique the food and drink.
Our final stop is Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey, breweries that share the same owner and the same bohemian warehouse space in San Marcos.