Fall /Winter 2008
Something's Brewing in Wine Country
Innovative beermakers in Napa and Sonoma are giving wine a run for its money.
By Matt Markovich
Up in Wine Country, where the grape is king, a quiet revolution has been taking place. Scan the wine lists of the world's most discriminating sommeliers and right alongside Chardonnay and Pinot Noir you'll find craft beer. As burgers make their way onto upscale menus, India Pale Ales (IPAs) are edging out California Cabernets as the pairing of choice in the very heart of Wine Country. Even the vaunted French Laundry has teamed with brewers to come up with its own brand of signature suds.
To Northern California beer drinkers, this is not necessarily news. Brewers in the region have continuously pushed the envelope of craft brewing since well before Mendocino Brewing Company opened its doors in 1983 as the first brewpub in California after Prohibition (the second in the United States). Independent brewers, brewpubs, and the ever-growing legions of homegrown breweries, such as Bear Republic and Anderson Valley Brewing, prove that the movement is stronger than ever.
But how do you find the best beer in Sonoma and Napa? With brewpubs springing up across the nation-many of them corporate operations that feel as authentic as Chuck E. Cheese-honing in on the real deal may require a little digging. Luckily, in Wine Country, you won't have to look too far. In Santa Rosa, Russian River Brewing is a beer lover's Valhalla-an experimental brewing lab that happens to serve food, too. Brewer Vinnie Cilurzo, who co-owns the brewery with his wife, Natalie, is a 17-time medalist at the Great American Beer Festival and 10-time medalist at the World Beer Cup. One might think that with all that acclaim he could rest on his hops, but Cilurzo continues to innovate. A quick glance at the daily chalkboard reveals an astounding array of styles-heavy-hop California ales, wild-fermented beers, beer aged in Pinot Noir casks, Belgian-style sour ales, wet-hopped beers; the 12-beer sampler is like a trip through local and international brewing history. If you consider yourself a beer lover, and you have time for only one visit to a brewpub, Russian River Brewing is your stop.
Down the road is serial beer entrepreneur and 20-year beer-making veteran Dean Biersch (he's the Biersch in Gordon-Biersch), who feels that "the quality of craft beer in the Sonoma and Napa area is at an all-time high." He created his Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol to showcase not only the fresh, regional beers he so loves, but also to highlight the vast variety of unique, foreign beers that often have been unavailable in the United States. Hopmonk features a rotating selection of 16 beers on tap and more than 100 bottled, as well as a full-service restaurant, beer garden, and music venue, all on-site. Sticking to Hopmonk's draft beers alone, you can take a virtual pub crawl of the best breweries in the region without leaving your bar stool. Sonoma beers include brews from Moonlight Brewing, Russian River Brewing, Bear Republic, and Lagunitas Brewing Company; North Coast Brewing and Anderson Valley Brewing represent the northerlies; and from the east there's Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico.
If you're looking for a quick pint to break up the monotony of wine tasting, the bustling confines of Bear Republic can be a welcome respite. Since it's located just off the main drag in Healdsburg, it's easy to duck in for an honest pint of what has become a cult favorite: Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA. Sources say that due to the recent hops shortage, this hop bomb costs the brewer an additional 40 percent more per keg to brew than other beers, which is truly saying something-both about the price of hops and the amount of hops in the beer. A family business since its inception, Bear Republic has won innumerable medals, with Richard G. Norgrove bringing home Brewer of the Year honors from the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. Bear Republic has recently expanded its operations to include a massive new off-site brewing facility, making its bottled beers even more accessible.
Over in Napa, the Calistoga Inn is home to the first place to brew beer commercially in Napa since Prohibition: Napa Valley Brewing. While some of its fellow brewpubs went into large-scale distribution, the entire production capacity of NVB is made to be consumed at the Calistoga Inn or from its precious few hand-filled 22-ounce bottles. With four standard beers, a rotating selection of seasonal styles to choose from, and a mellow atmosphere, the taproom and restaurant are perfect for relaxing and having a frosty pint after a day of wine tasting on the Silverado Trail. On sunny days and warm evenings, head to the outdoor deck overlooking the Napa River. The brewpub is actually housed in the Calistoga Inn, so if you'd prefer not to drive after your visit, you can check into its B&B to sleep off the suds.
Further north, Anderson Valley Brewing Company has long been recognized for its mascot, the Beer (a BEar with deER antlers), and its beautifully balanced Boont Amber. Anderson Valley Brewing has been continuously advancing its operations since it started in 1987.
In 2005, the operation went solar and is now partially powered by 12,160 square feet of solar panels. In addition, the environmentally friendly brewery has its own water treatment system, which uses wastewater from the brewing process to irrigate its land, and it donates 2,000 tons of spent grain to local ranchers for feedstock. The visitors center doubles as a pub, where you can purchase and sample the full range of its beers, including the seasonal Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema and the bold Brother David's Triple Abbey Style Ale (10 percent alcohol by volume).
Nearby, Mendocino Brewing Company is a true pioneer in the American craft brewing movement, serving its Red Tail Ale from the day the first taps were opened in 1983, and at one time bottling them in champagne magnums and selling them in six-packs weighing 42 pounds apiece. Brewing is now done at a larger facility in Ukiah, but the venerable taproom, housed in a 100-year-old brick building in Hopland, California, still serves up some of the freshest examples of MBC's beers. Available in 35 states with an additional brewing facility in Saratoga Springs, New York, MBC was instrumental in bringing NorCal beer to the nation.
Hops are no longer cultivated in the Napa-Sonoma region on a large scale, but the funky fragrance of their flowers still fills the family field of one of the most respected brewers in the Bay Area: Moonlight Brewing's Brian Hunt. Hunt is at the micro end of the spectrum: a wholly independent brewer subject to no one but the drinkers who seek out his beer. "I think of myself as a yeast farmer," says Hunt with a sly grin. In reality, Hunt is a one-man beer army, considered by many to be more alchemist than brewer. A graduate of UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, he not only grows some of the hops that go into his beers but also brews, kegs, and hand-delivers the beer throughout the Bay Area. It's little surprise that he often works 14- to 16-hour days, six days a week to keep the taps flowing. His busy schedule also explains why his beer can be found only on tap-he doesn't bottle or allow visitors at the brewery. Hunt's brews are constantly evolving. Recently, he's been experimenting with redwood tip beer-similar to spruce tip beers common in Scandinavia, but with cuttings from the new growth of redwood trees replacing the hops. According to Hunt, locally made beers such as his Sonoma-born pints might be the freshest foodstuff you'll ever consume: "I deliver it cold; it could have left the brewery an hour ago."
Sitting in Hunt's yard sharing a pint in the shade of the very redwood tree from which the tips were harvested, it is impossible not to be inspired by his passion, born of a pride of place that pervades the brewing community in Northern California. "If a beer doesn't taste like where you live and what you experience every day, it's not right. A beer should take the person who is drinking it and make them go 'ohhh.' I want to sell people something. Not quite a vacation in a glass, but something special."