When raising a glass in California’s wine country, the drink in question doesn’t have to be one of those renowned chardonnays or cabernets. These vineyard-striped regions are also full to the brim with America’s other favorite beverage — beer. Move over, grapes; it’s time for hops to get some attention.
All over California, winemakers happily admit that “it takes a lot of beer to make fine wine.” Lucky for them there’s no shortage of good beer in the state’s top wine regions: Napa and Sonoma counties and along the Central Coast. In fact, these areas helped kick off the renaissance of American craft-brewing. In the past 20 years, California has led the country in developing distinctive, deliciously complex, handmade beer.
Ales of every description — from blond to stout — predominate at California microbreweries, but lagers are another favorite. Many California brewers take their inspiration from old British or Belgian styles, tweaking them to sometimes extreme levels of intensity (and alcohol content!). You’ll find monstrously malty porters, deep-golden lagers, and hefty wheat beers, plus lots of generously hopped — even triple-hopped — pale ales that start with a floral nose and finish with an ultra-bitter kick.
Many breweries operate tasting rooms and tours, just as the wineries do. Look for brewpubs and local beer festivals to try more of the state’s finest. Below are five outstanding California breweries to visit.
Anderson Valley Brewing, Inc.
Established in the tiny town of Boonville, this brewery names some of its ales in Boontling, a local lingo that dates back to the late 1800s. Join a brewery tour or hit the tasting room to sip a Hop Ottin’ India pale ale. 707/895–2337, www.avbc.com.
Bear Republic Brewing Co.
Hops rule the Racer 5, Special XP Pale Ale and specialty draft brews at this Healdsburg brewpub. A new brewery is under construction in nearby Cloverdale; it’s slated to open to the public in 2007. 707/433–2337, www.bearrepublic.com.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company
Using a rare oak-barrel-based brewing system, this brewery turns out a bracing pale ale, along with British-style amber ale and porter. You can try these in the Paso Robles tasting room. 805-238-2556, www.firestonewalker.com.
Mendocino Brewing Company
They don’t call this agricultural town Hopland for nothing. This company was a big player in the early microbrew movement, starting the first post-Prohibition brewpub in California back in the 1980s. Now you can visit the tap room to try their amber Red Tail Ale, Red Tail Lager, or creamy Black Hawk Stout. 707/744–1361, www.mendobrew.com.
Russian River Brewing Company
It’s all about the double IPA and Belgian-style ales in this brewery’s large pub in Santa Rosa. The brewmaster used to be a winemaker, and he now uses wine barrels to age his beers. Along with serious-sounding beers and Belgian-style ales like Redemption, Damnation, and Supplication, you’ll find seasonal brews like Parking Violation pale ale and a harvest-time ale. There’s often live music at the pub, too. 707/545–2337, www.russianriverbrewing.com.
— Jennifer Paull