You may have noticed a few postings on our Facebook page and recent blog posts about California breweries. We took a little sabbatical from Colorado beer to explore breweries both big and small from San Diego to Sonoma Counties. During 600 miles of driving, we visited 25 breweries and wineries, including three beer meccas that were simply magical. The Webster Dictionary regards meccas “as a center for a specified group, activity, or interest;” Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, Lagunitas in Petaluma, and Russian River in Santa Rosa fulfill Webster’s definition exactly. And though all three breweries offered very different experiences, it seemed that angelic choirs of beer gods sang to us as we walked up to the front entrance of each location, acknowledging our arrival to very special places.
This section must begin with a big thank you. Prior to our trip, I connected a few times with Elizabeth Kagan (Firestone Walker’s Territory Sales Manager for Colorado) at Crafty Ladies. Elizabeth hooked us up with a semi-private tour of the whole operation, which was a real treat, especially considering the massive size of the Firestone facility.
We started with some tasters and lunch in their beautiful restaurant, and then walked across the street to their friendly and lower-key taproom. We were then guided to their yeast lab, (more on this in our inaugural “Lessons in Beer” post later this weekend), through the main brewing area, and then back outside and over to a relatively hidden barrel room (a place I could set up a cot and live a long, happy life). The barrel room is packed with more than a 1000 barrels, aging everything from the Velvet Merkin, Double DBA (Double Barrel Ale), and Parabola to super-secret specialty brews we couldn’t sample no matter how hard we begged.
Another jaw-dropping stop on the tour was witnessing their keg line in action. We’ve all heard of bottling lines, of which Firestone Walker has an impressive custom made beast, but Firestone also has a keg line that picks up, cleans, fills and sets down their kegs on pallets for shipping. This human/automated hybrid process reduces the keg fill time to seconds.
After the tour, we wandered back to the taproom and sampled a few specialty sours and barrel aged brews, all quite rare to visitors from Colorado: Sucaba (a Barrel Aged Barleywine with bourbon and American oak notes), Sticky Monkey (an English Barleywine brewed with brown sugar from Mexico that provides a nice molasses and caramel flavor), and UDBA (an unfiltered Double Barrel Ale). Every single sample represented the well-crafted, and delicious beer being produced by Firestone Walker.
Like Firestone Walker, Lagunitas has a facility that rivals any of Colorado’s largest craft beer makers, and it’s accompanied by a huge beer garden and grassy performance area (Emmylou Harris played there this week). With 15 beers on tap, (and all high in ABV), you can easily get sucked into the cool vibe as you work your way through their “Around the World” taster tray.
We love places that offer taster trays, especially those with so many beers on tap, but the Around the World is a 5 oz sample of everything available. Yep, that equates to 75 oz of beer . . . definitely a tasting tray to share with 2 to 4 people if you want to survive, or revisit beers you remember liking. Though revisiting might be a drink of futility as your taste buds will surely be spent by Lagunitas’ monster IPAs and Double IPAs.
Some of the highlights: Pale Ale, (the first beer they started distributing stood out amongst the higher ABV and IBU brews as a straight forward Pale with balanced malts and hops), Lucky 13, (the May seasonal with great Amarillo hop flavor), Little Sumpin Sumpin, (best described by Lagunitas as,”sneaky smooth with a touch of what we call wheatly-esque-ish-ness), Maximus IPA, (brewed to provide a mouthful of fresh hops and malts during the heat of the summer), and Hop Stoopid, (whose name says it all).
Last, but certainly not least, Russian River, where I felt like a kid in a candy store due to the amount and quality of beer they are producing. We actually had to make two visits in as many days in order to truly do justice to tasting the beers they offer (poor us, right).
One might think that a brewery with a beer as famous as Pliny the Elder would occupy a gigantic monstrosity of a building, something like New Belgium or even the aforementioned Firestone Walker. Not so with Russian River. What we encountered was a modestly sized restaurant and bar in a strip mall off the main drag in Santa Rosa. The interior of their facility is beautiful and their staff is some of the most knowledgeable around. As with this past February, I will surely wait in line again next year for their Pliny the Younger, because this is a brewing company definitely worth supporting and enjoying as they focus their efforts on making every one of their beers great.
Russian River Brewing blew all my expectations out of the water. I’ve gone on in other posts about Pliny the Elder, and expected to do so again here, but something else dominated my taste buds . . . the 10-deep, Russian River Belgian-beer board (with a finale of three sours), that perfectly complimented the 8-deep, Russian River California-inspired board.
Here are the highlights from our day one journey through the Belgian beer: Supplication (the brown ale aged for 12-15 months in Pinot Noir barrels with Brett and sour cherries), Sanctification, (a golden ale fermented with 100% Brett), and Consecration, (a dark ale aged for 4-8 months in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with Brett and currants).
Highlights from day two, enjoying the California-inspired side of the beer menu: Happy Hops, (a hoppy pale ale with spice and blueberry notes), Row 2, Hill 56, (an impressive single hop beer brewed with 100% Simcoe hops), the O.V.L. Stout, (on nitro, making it an impressively creamy and rich dry stout with burnt malt notes), and the notorious Pliny the Elder, (Double IPA with a dominating piny hop profile).
California has been known in the recent decade for pushing the envelope in craft beer. After tasting across the Golden State, we can see why. California breweries opened our eyes and palettes to new styles and to new approaches for brewing beer. We came home with an increased appreciation for barrel aged beer, sour beers, and different hopping methods; it was a great beer tasting vacation, but we are happy to be home revisiting some of our favorite Colorado breweries, (and sharing some of the California beer we picked up along the way).