During Harvest Time,
Beer Is A Winemaker’s Best Friend
Wine may fuel the economy in these parts. But beer, on
occasion, fuels the making of wine. Especially at harvest, when winemakers
are earning their sweat-equity and when the thought of a cool beer at
day's end keeps the mind focused. Yes, even the locals can get wined to
death, seeking a more thirst-quenching drink; when the grapes have reached
their picking point, it’s definitely time for a frosty one.
As it happens, Wine Country is also a burgeoning beer country. The region
is home to several boutique breweries where the suds are taken seriously
and the harvest of hops is no small matter. A survey of some of the area’s
microbreweries reveals the same craftsmanship and skill that have made
wineries famous. It comes as no surprise, then, that winemakers are often
spotted sampling the wares of their brewmaster counterparts.
At the Calistoga Inn, winemakers are known to dip in for a sip of the
handcrafted suds from the Napa Valley Brewing Company. Although beer was
brewed in the county before prohibition (1920 to 1933), it wasn’t
until 1987, when Napa Valley Brewing Company began filling its brew-making
vats, that a craft beer renaissance in the area was launched.
main styles from the brewery are wheat ale, pilsner, and red ale, although
the brewmaster introduces the occasional porter, stout, or India pale
ale (IPA) (see sidebar on page 5 for descriptions). A true local brewery,
some 95 percent of the production is poured through taps at the Calistoga
Inn itself. The balance is snapped up by the kegs-full by local residents,
a few restaurants, and specialty markets. The Calistoga Red Ale earned
a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1991, and the Calistoga
Wheat Ale won gold in 1994. The inn's pub is a popular gathering place
for locals, with its well-trodden wooden floor and interesting assortment
of old beer memorabilia giving the pub a European feel.
Just a bit south from Calistoga is the Silverado Brewing Company, located
on Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga. Built into a beautifully
restored 1895 stone building that originally housed a pre-Prohibition
winery, the brewery is on the same property as the Freemark Abbey winery.
Partner and brewmaster Ken Mee is a fourth-generation Napa resident, and
has been brewing beer since 1978. He’s well known among his winemaking
counterparts and, in fact, there are more than 60 wines on the restaurant’s
list. But winemakers typically come to sample his beers, especially after
the hard hours of harvest time.
our neighbors stop in for a cold one after the work is done,” says
Colin Wright, one of Silverado’s managers. “We get the Mondavi
crew in here quite a bit, as well as the Duckhorns, and people from several
of the Mom and Pop vineyards in the area.”
Mee’s forte lies in American-style ales and in classic European
lagers. Staples on the menu include a rich amber ale — a deft mix
of strength and smoothness with the perfect amount of hoppy bitterness.
The pale ale is slightly malty with a clean finish that pairs well with
food. And the “certifiable” blonde ale is a workmanlike beer,
with a nice golden hue and light body. Silverado also makes a hefty oatmeal
stout for those classic Napa autumn days, as well as a handful of seasonal
beers that keep the locals returning time and again.
The brewpub itself is a lively, neighborly spot that serves up a hearty
menu well suited to its beer selection. Steaks, chops, and Italian-inspired
classics rule the roost. The wines of Freemark Abbey are always available
and Silverado also offers a fine house-made root beer and cream soda.
In Sonoma County, where the cool coastal fog gives the hillsides a misty
morning dusting, locally crafted beers have something of a cult following.
There are several top-notch brewpubs countywide, spread far enough apart
to provide the local winemakers each their own beer-drinking turf.
The Third Street Aleworks in Santa Rosa has a self-proclaimed goal to
make great beer, great food, and have a great time doing it. Since it
opened in 1996, the large, lively brewpub has become something of an institution.
At once a social hangout for locals and a bastion for beer lovers, the
pub is the brainchild of Jim Tasley, Todd Hedrick, and Chris Hagan, lifelong
friends and beer enthusiasts.
Third Street takes a craftsman’s approach to beer-making, using
top-quality ingredients blended with care. The “Brewster”
is Denise Jones, who has at the ready about a dozen beers at any given
time. A specialty of the house is cask-conditioned ale, a time-tested
method found only in the most serious brewer’s repertoire that creates
a more subtle carbonation in beer. AleWorks also has three flagship ales
— the Annadel Pale Ale, the Stonefly Oatmeal Stout, and the Bodega
Head IPA. Additional beers are brewed seasonally or for special occasions.
The brewpub is large, more than 7,000 square feet, with seating for 150
beer fans. The traditional pub pursuits are all accounted for: billiards,
darts, and meandering conversation. The kitchen is ably skilled to keep
pace with the brewmaster, serving a vast and varying menu of updated pub-grub
and American comfort food. The daily made soups are a perfect place to
Also in Sonoma County is the Bear Republic Brewing Co., an award-winning
brewery just outside Healdsburg’s downtown plaza. Bear Republic
is a father and son operated establishment built into a handsome building
with rich wood and glass appointments that show off the beer-making hardware
— fermenting tanks are directly behind the bar, creating the impression
that beers from the tap are straight-from-the-vat fresh. And indeed, they
are. Ingredients are part of the décor at Bear Republic —
sacks full of grain can be seen in the pub, awaiting their turn to get
made into beer.
The well-crafted suds come from a recipe that uses
two yeast strains (usually only one strain is used) that are blended into
an infusion mash, creating a more complex set of flavors. The result is
an excellent list of beers that nobly stake their claim in a region dominated
The star brew at Bear Republic is the gold medal-earning Racer 5 IPA,
a dark amber-colored beer with a malt flavor and a hoppy finish. The Cream
Ale is another hit, with a light gold hue and flirty hop flavor. The English-style
ale is more malty and one of the best in the lineup. And for the hearty,
only the Big Bear will do — a dark and malty stout, sweetened with
hints of brown sugar.
Food on the Bear Republic’s menu includes a good selection of hearty
burgers and fresh salads. But the highlights here are daily soups and
chilis, offered with fresh-baked breads.
In Napa Valley
Tasting at EHLER'S ESTATE WINERY, is like tasting used to always be in
the Napa Valley: friendly, conversational, and non-commercial. I almost
hate to tell people about it. Situated north of St. Helena, the 1886 stone
winery overlooks 42 acres of vineyards. There is a lovely 100-year-old
olive grove on the property that shades the bocce court, and an outstanding
elevated picnic deck.