A few months back I took a trip to Northern California for the first time in about nine years to visit some friends, old stomping grounds, and, of course, Beer Mecca! It really was a bit of a whirlwind trip with only five days to spend, but as a parent of two young children, time is limited.
After flying into San Francisco International, wandering around aimlessly trying to find the economy car rental agency, which turned out to be about 5 miles away, I finally got my rental Corolla and was off directly to Yosemite Valley. Four short hours later, I was in the Valley.
Despite having spent two summers working and climbing in Yosemite, I found myself acting like a typical tourist – hanging out of the window with my camera – as I rounded the bend and the majestic El Capitan came into view. I don’t think I can ever be anything short of amazed every time I see “El Cap” in person. For those of you who aren’t aware, El Cap is a monolithic chunk of granodiorite rock about 900m (3000 feet) high. It creates the single largest climbable cliff face in the US and is probably the most iconic rock “crag” in the world. But instead of spending a week aid climbing up “The Nose” of El Cap, I set my sites on something a bit more up my speed these days – bouldering.
I hooked up with a couple friends and we hit a couple boulders with moderate problems near Housekeeping Camp. Gazing up at the Royal Arches area, Washington Column, Half Dome, and the Apron sent me spinning off into fond memories of après-climb Sierra Nevada Pale Ales, Anchor Steams and Grateful Dead tunes. Shortly thereafter, we were
descended upon by armies of highly skilled mosquitoes and the song of the beer sirens was far stronger than my will to prove that I was tougher than the mozzies. So after about three boulder problems, we fled to Yosemite Village market to buy beer!
The craft beer selection had increased greatly from the days dominated by Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale 20-odd years ago. I picked up Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA in a can and a bottle of Hops of Wrath IPA from Dust Bowl Brewing Co. in nearby Turlock, California. These were solid beers that made for a perfect close to a beautiful summer evening in Yosemite.
Dwarfed by Half Dome
The following morning I took a trip down memory lane visiting a few places I spent a lot of time in back in ’90 and ’91. I bumped into a couple
Yosemite locals I hadn’t seen since then – Ron Kauk and Josh Helling. It
was great to see these people still living the dream of the Sierras, and it gave meaning to the ethic of being true to one’s self. Outside of the bigger
beer selection and everyone getting on by twenty years, things really didn’t
look that much different overall (would John Muir feel the same?). It was
a poignantly nostalgic visit for me and I was grateful for the opportunity to
visit again, even if for only 24 hours.
Off to Sonoma County! Sonoma County is home to three world class breweries – Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, and Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg (listed from south to north). While I love all of them, Russian River is probably the most renowned of the three and certainly one of the most highly respected breweries on the planet. And not only are there three great local breweries from which to choose, Sonoma County boasts a very large population of craft beer aficionados and well stocked bottle shops that cater to them.
First stop – Russian River. Finally! Originally founded by Korbel Champagne Cellars, Russian River really only became widely famous after Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife and Natalie bought the brand from Korbel in 2003 and moved it to downtown Santa Rosa in 2004. So, unfortunately, I missed it during it during my frequent visits to the area back in the mid- to late-nineties. Oddly enough, I became acquainted with Russian River while living in South Africa through my favorite internet radio beer program called The Brewing Network. I listened to a couple of interviews with Vinnie, read stuff on the internet about his willingness to help homebrewers, including lectures he gave at American Homebrewers Association National Conferences, and read countless testimonials about his legendary beers. So it was a bit of a dream come true to finally go to the brewpub and drink Pliney the Elder double IPA as fresh as you can get, not to mention barrel-aged and sour beers like Beatification, Consecration, Supplication, Temptation, and Sanctification.
Ladies and gentlemen, just in case you have had any doubts, there is no hype about Russian River; it is indeed the real deal and their beers lived up to my lofty expectations from their legendary status. Pliney is one of the smoothest beers, and certainly the smoothest double IPA, I have had. Piney, citrusy,
fruity hop aroma backed with a bit of malt leads into firm but balanced bitterness (never guess it has a lab measured IBU content of 90-something!) and an amazingly dry finish. To be able to drink it on draught just a few days old – as it is meant to be – was a real treat.
Sour beer lovers will definitely find a good seat at Russian River. Their sours rival the Belgian likes of
Cantillon, Boon, and Drie Fonteinen with a Russian River signature of creativity that doesn’t leave you feeling like they are merely trying to be copy something. Rather, it is as if they are paying respect to the Senne Valley fathers of these styles and sailing the sour boat in a new artistic direction.
Next stop – Bear Republic. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a good friend call Healdsburg home for twenty years now. I first visited Bear Republic in 1995 and was last there in about 1998. I have some great memories of drinking a few too many delicious Red Rocket Ales (a California Amber IPA…. I mean, Amber Ale) and wandering around the town square! Rough
mornings were quickly smoothed out with coffee from the Flying Goat coffee house nearby – mmmm, Goat Bars! This time around, 15 years on, I notice that the quaint town square of Healdsburg isn’t so quaint these days. In fact, I
didn’t even recognize it as it is now completely developed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different. Bear Republic had moved to a new location, but their beers were still as great as I remember.
My friend, who is a near fixture there, introduced me to one of the servers behind the bar and mentioned that I was a brewer. We chatted a bit and she was kind enough to give me a sampler of their specialty beers on the house as a welcoming for fellow brewers – I love the camaraderie in the craft beer industry. My favorites are still Red Rocket Ale, Racer 5 IPA, and Hop Rod Rye. To me, Red Rocket Ale is still the benchmark California amber ale – relatively big and definitely hoppy.
I was fortunate enough to also have on draught a fantastic, hoppy American brown ale brewed with molasses and brown sugar called TBA, which was a collaboration between Bear Republic, Fat Head’s Brewery, and Stone. I’d had the beer a month earlier in the bottle in Albuquerque, but having it on draught brought out the real beauty of that beer. For some interesting insight into the name, Texas Brown
Ale, check out this blog from Stone: http://blog.stonebrewing.com/?p=3066.
I grabbed a few bottles from Bear Republic for take away and headed over to Big John’s Market to pick up dinner and, yes, even more beer. It was quite a challenge for an indecisive Virgo to make decisive beer selections while buzzed when faced with seemingly hundreds of world class beers. Thirty short minutes later and I was out of there with about a dozen stellar beers from the likes of Lost Abbey, Lagunitas, 21st Amendment, and more Russian River.
The next day I had planned to visit Lagunitas down south in Petaluma, but wasn’t able to pull it off due to my friend’s tight schedule. I was actually quite disappointed by this, but hope to make it there this coming summer. I was fortunate enough, though, to have enjoyed a bottle of their Hop Stoopid double IPA the previous night – dank and delicious! As a consolation for not being able to make to Lagunitas, we went to Russian River again – ag shame!
There is no doubt why that place is so f%!<ing popular. Even at 2pm the place was packed – and they weren’t drinking Radlers with their burgers! One of the aspects I love most about Russian River’s business approach is that they are
completely dedicated to their home market. Despite being one of the most renowned breweries around, 60 percent of their profits apparently still are generated from their brew pub. For those that aren’t aware, they built a production brewery only about a mile away from their brew pub in downtown Santa
Rosa, largely based on the insatiable demand for Pliney the Elder. They could seemingly expand exponentially, but instead, they chose to focus on maintaining extremely high quality over quantity, which is a real risk for any growing brewery, and take care of the loyal local customers first. I’m certain that over time as Vinnie masters the art of quality and quantity, fans all over the US will be able to enjoy their beers in their distant home towns.
The trip was over far too fast of course, but I was grateful to have been able to reconnect with some great friends and make my pilgrimage to Beer Mecca. I left Sonoma County even more inspired to continue my pursuit of excellence in my brewing. With my pilot brewery system on its way, I look forward to putting some of this inspiration to work. Great things are on the horizon for South Africa's craft beer scene and beyond!