05/18/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

American Craft Beer Week: John Coltharp Names The Best Breweries & Brewpubs In Southern California

Once while dining at Incanto, a restaurant in San Francisco, I ordered an Anchor Steam beer. "That came from down the street," said the waiter. "It doesn't get more local than that."

Anchor Brewing Company, which has been operating since 1896, wasn't exactly down the street from Incanto. But it was less than three miles away, and I was impressed. Los Angeles isn't there yet in terms of local craft beer, but we're getting there -- and fast.

I spoke with John Coltharp, a beer, wine and spirits expert, about our emerging craft beer culture, and he agreed. "The scene is very much in its infancy, but it's full speed ahead. Craft beer in LA has a long way to go, but it is really exciting right now."

"We have the luxury of having great craft beer cities around us," Coltharp continued, "and we emulate very, very well in Los Angeles."

Coltharp is a spirits expert thanks to his time at downtown LA bars Seven Grand, a whiskey joint, and Caña, a rum bar. For the past two years, he's been working with Chef Casey Lane and head bartender Justin Pike on the cocktail program at Tasting Kitchen in Abbott Kinney.

Now he's moving on to manage the bar at The Parish, Lane's English gastro-pub concept opening in June. To shape The Parish's 21-tap program, he plunged headfirst into Southern California's craft beer world. Barring one cider from San Diego, he'll be serving craft beers exclusively from Los Angeles and Orange County.

Craft beer, made in small batches with a commitment to quality and flavor complexity, defies definition. There are no official standards that differentiate craft beers from micro brews or "banquet beers" (the term for mass-produced beers made by the big three: Miller, Budweiser and Coors), which is part of what makes the scene so complex.

For example, said Coltharp, most people don't know that Coors makes Blue Moon, a popular "handcrafted" brew. "It's fairly subjective, and it's up to the consumer to decide that they're drinking a craft beer," said Coltharp.

On the other end of the spectrum, just because a beer is brewed by a small, independent operation, there's no guarantee that it will be any good. "I had a beer that was made in LA that was awful," remembered Coltharp. "I could tell they were using substandard products to brew it, that it was a beer that was meant to be sold that didn't cost a lot to make."

So what's a beer lover to do when it comes to deciding between local or micro or craft or independent? Don't get be so hung up on it, advised Coltharp. "If your beer tastes great, then that's great. And it doesn't really matter what it's called."

After swimming in craft beer for months, Coltharp has come up to the surface to reveal the best of what he found to The Huffington Post -- and it is delicious.

The best beers, breweries, brewpubs and craft beer bars across Southern California.