Not so long ago, in Ye Olde 1990s, beer-loving visitors to California wine country were pretty much out of luck. They had access to oceans of Cabernet Sauvignon and all the Chardonnay they could drink, but try to find a palate-cleaning ale and they’d have been directed to the nearest convenience store with a scoff. There were exceptions, of course—Bear Republic Brewing in Healdsburg, Dempsey’s in Petaluma—but the North Coast’s wineries vastly overshadowed beer producers until recently.
It was a sad state of affairs for a part of the country once known as America’s hops-growing capital. The first vines took root in Sonoma County in 1858—a few years after its inaugural brewery opened—and soon business was booming. Northern California’s hops heyday lasted almost a century, until a combination of vine disease, declining demand for bitter beers and competition from big growers led to the industry’s demise. Meanwhile, another type of vine—the kind bearing grapes—took over.
During the past 10 years, a true revival began brewing, transforming California “wine country” into the world-class beer destination it was always meant to be. From cult classics—hello, Pliny—to beautiful experiments, there are dozens of incredible beers to discover amid the North Coast’s vineyards and valleys.
Day One: Sonoma County
Your tour starts in Petaluma, a charming historic town once known as the “Egg Capital of the World.” Within the walktable downtown, there are some great places to drink beer—namely Brewster’s, Taps and The Block—but the real action is in an industrial area on the east side of town. There you’ll find three excellent breweries, all within stumbling distance of each other.
First is HenHouse Brewing Company Palace of Barrels. HenHouse began its brewing life with just two beers: A coriander-kissed saison and a stout brewed with local oysters. It quickly outgrew two facilities before moving into a shiny new brewery in Santa Rosa with an on-site taproom. Its success inspired the owners to open a second site in Petaluma as a dedicated home for their barrel-aging program.
The original beers are still part of the HenHouse lineup, but they’re joined by a host of intriguing new ones, such as the subtly sour barrel-aged wild saison called Kumquat! and Cheetahs on the Loose, a blonde ale aptly described by the barman as “Honey Nut Cheerios in a glass.” Co-owner and brewer Collin McDonnell confesses that funkier beers are his true love, but he’s also having fun with IPAs, rolling out new versions for the taproom each week. The industrial-style space has bar and table seating and an outdoor patio is in the works.
When you’ve had your fill, walk a few doors down to 101 North Brewery, a brewery known for its edgy artwork and full-flavored, high-ABV beers. 101 specializes in bold interpretations of traditional-styles, from the amber-colored Heroine IPA, brimming with hops, to the Indigo Pale Ale, made with blue agave nectar. The taproom has a saloon-meets-industrial look, with seats at the bar, a slouchy sofa and a few high tables. Bring your own food if you like, or your dog—it’s all cool with this brewery’s laid-back bar staff.
The last Petaluma stop is just across the street: Lagunitas Brewing Company. You can skip the ubiquitous beers, such as the flagship Lagunitas IPA and Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, and go straight to the specials and limited edition beers. You might find the Lagunitas & Moonlight Sonoma Pride Red Lager, a fund-raiser for local wildfire victims, or Aunt Sally, a wild-fermented sour with pineapple and yuzu lemon. Take them in the outdoor “beer sanctuary,” while relaxing at a picnic table and listening to local bands play. Now is the time to order a round of nachos or grilled sausages to fuel up for the next leg of your journey.
It’s a 15-minute drive up Highway 101 to the city of Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s brewing epicenter and the home of Russian River Brewing Company. Hopheads the world over flock to Russian River to sample Pliny the Elder IPA at the source. Each February, thousands line up around the block for the release of Pliny’s limited-edition cousin, Pliny the Younger.
Plinies aside, there’s always a fascinating array of innovative brews to explore, from the Temptation wine-barrel-aged sour to the Brettanamyces-fermented Sanctification. Finding a seat in the crowded downtown brewpub can be damn near impossible at any hour of the day, but who wants to sit when there are more than a dozen mind-bending brews to ogle on the other side of the bar? (For all the sitters out there, they’ll be launching a second location in nearby Windsor in the fall of 2018.)
From Russian River it’s a five-minute drive to your last Sonoma destination, Fogbelt Brewing Company. Wine-inspired beer is the focus here, which isn’t surprising given the owners’ deep wine roots. Paul Hawley’s family owns Hawley Winery in Dry Creek Valley and Remy Martin is the son of the late Fetzer Vineyards winemaker Dennis Martin. Because of this, expressing a sense of place is important to the duo, from the brewery name to the beers named for California’s coastal redwood trees. This ethos also finds its way into the glass via hops grown in Hawley’s experimental hopyard in Healdsburg.
The beers have an adventurous streak running through the lineup. For IPA fans, there’s the malt-forward Screaming Giant Double IPA. The Brotherhood, a sour Belgian dubbel is aged in Zinfandel barrels and brings a welcome funk. The Dyerville Giant gives red ale an innovative twist with an infusion of bourbon-soaked oak chips. If you’re hungry again after all that beer, Fogbelt’s elevated pub fare highlights homegrown ingredients via garden tomato bruschetta and house-smoked salmon rillette.
Day Two: Napa Valley
Let’s start with this statement: Napa is no Sonoma when it comes to beer. Some say it’s still stuck in the 1990s, making the same old brews, while Sonomans experiment with gleeful abandon. Fortunately, that’s starting to change too as ambitious newcomers raise the bar.
Start your day at Mad Fritz Brewing Co. in St. Helena, in the heart of Napa Valley wine country. Co-owner Nile Zacherle approaches brewing like a high-end winemaker—which is exactly what he is when he’s not brewing. Zacherle takes an ingredients-obsessed approach to making what he calls “origin beers,” using craft malts and local hops. He even seeks out multiple water sources around the Napa Valley to tweak the flavor profiles of various beers, such as the Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino ales in his Terroir Series.
The compact Mad Fritz taproom has space for just 25 visitors, so get there early if you want to occupy one of the five bar seats. Listen to classic vinyl while you sample up to 11 beers on draft, including the terrific wine-barrel-aged Peacock and the Crane kolsch, with its notes of chamomile tea and citrus as well as Kite, Frog and the Mouse, an unfiltered rye IPA that’s bitter yet light on the palate.
Next, head south on Highway 29 to Tannery Bend Beerworks, tucked away in an unglamorous mixed-use district named for a long-gone leather tannery. The brewery is small, divided between an L-shaped concrete bar, indoor and outdoor tables and a comfy blue sofa near the entryway with an open feel. Hopheads will appreciate Tanner Bend’s selection of IPAs—session, white and Belgian—which are flavorful, yet balanced. Don’t leave without tasting the Capps Belgian dubbel with Candy Cap mushrooms—it’s the liquid equivalent of maple syrup-drizzled waffle. Speaking of treats, fortify yourself with a grilled cheese sandwich or popcorn tossed with bacon-flavored salt.
From here, it’s a two-minute drive to Stone Brewing—yes, that Stone Brewing. The Escondido-based brewery unveiled its Napa outpost in early May in the town’s historic Borreo building, where thousands lined up for a taste on opening day. Built in 1877 from native-cut stone, the structure sat empty for 15 years before the Stone crew restored it to its former Italianate Renaissance glory. The spectacular new incarnation houses a 10-barrel brewing system, patio that faces the Napa River and spacious second-story beer hall with seating around a massive rectangular bar and wooden tables.
Beer-wise you’ll find the year-round lineup of excellent Stone IPAs, plus Napa-brewed offerings, from the Stone Napa Pilot Hail to Spot Thief IPA as well as Stone Napa Pilot Brimley’s Wheat. As at other Stone locations, the food menu has an international spin, with poke bowls, Bavarian soft pretzels and Argentinean sausages sharing space with American-style burgers. Order something hearty, because you’re going to want to stay a while.
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