Sean and I recently embarked on a 13-day Californian itinerary to get some inspiration and adventure after the Christmas break. Little did we know we would be blown away by the diversity of landscape and cities California has to offer, not to mention the lifestyle and the array of top-class breweries we came across.
This road trip covered just over 1000 km across 5 cities, Big Sur iconic State Parks and Pacific coastline, 34 breweries, tap rooms and brew pubs. I thought I would share some highlights and good spots we found on this trip and how travel and breweries fitted in so well along the way. We did some planning ahead by researching some top spots we wanted to hit on Beer Advocate and the rest was based on recommendations, google maps and believe or not, Lonely Planet had also some good suggestions too.
Good beer is a way of life in California, we didn’t come across any macro beers throughout the trip, even in the local 7/11 shop, the choice of craft beers was incredible. This is where I get the scale of the craft beer movement in US and how well established it is.
We arrive in San Francisco on a Wednesday afternoon and we couldn’t wait to drop our bags and head out for a look around the block in search of some food and a thirst quencher. As we walk around Market street, we stumble across the Fermentation Lab, a small bar and restaurant with a casual vibe. I indulge in a 12-month barrel aged sour ale on peaches while Sean went straight for his first ever pint of Pliny The Elder. We continue our walk and decide to head to the Mission district for some tacos. On the way, a little sign points out for Standard Deviant Brewery and we couldn’t resist the mellow tunes and edgy vibes in the tap room.
Fuelled by Mexican food, we hit The Monk’s kettle, coming in highly recommended on Beer Advocate, a small bar wit no less than 200 bottles on the menu and about 30 taps. The choice not only covers Californian breweries, but you can also find some Allagash and so many other breweries.
Day 2 and we find that one of the Mikkeller bars is very close to where we are staying in Union Square so we start our evening there and in true Mikkeller style, we found a sleek bar with state of the art temperature controlled taps and a great choice of beers. I start with an Engine House #9 Operation haze and Sean chooses Russian River Dribble Belt. We ramped things up with all things sour and I have Jolly Pumpkin La vida improvisation, an oak aged sour Saison, and Sean had Upright Expansions, a tart saison aged on gewurtztraminer grapes. We realise later that there is a specific sour tap room downstairs for more choice.
A short walk from there and we found ourselves in Cellarmaker Brewery, a typical SoMa (South Market) trendy tap room filling up with locals. One thing we have noticed here is the ABV of most beers is often above 6% so it’s hard to find a sessionable beer. I chose a Simcoe Pale ale and Sean has a Pilsner. We then hit the Saison and the funky stuff. Trimming Trees is a mixed culture collab with Highland Park Brewery from LA and Green Cheek Beer Co (Orange County). Next is a bottle shop and extensive tap room, City Beer Store where we finish off the night with a 750 ml Yazoo Saison des Bois which was wonderful.
The next day we are off on a little adventure up north to Santa Rosa for a visit and tour of the new Russian River Brewing facility, a very large complex with 75bbl barrel brew house. This was arranged by our friend who works for Allagash and has some serious connections in the industry (thanks Sean!). We first head to the original brew pub location in downtown Santa Rosa for lunch and sampling a few beers before taking a Lyft (same as Uber and widely used in California) to the new plant in the heart of Sonoma wine region in an area called Windsor. We are not far from Napa Valley here, just about over 20 km away. The visit is impressive and with our knowledgeable guide Taylor, we go through all the brewing and fermentation process with a specific focus on the open fermenters which are enclosed in separate rooms. The facility is state of the art and even the bottling and packaging room is so impressive to watch. We then proceed to a separate entity of the plant which house the mixed fermentation stuff. We walk through a galley overlooking the barrel aging facility and I’d say there was about 1000 barrels in there, nicely stacked up and it made for such a nice thing to look at. Finally, the cherry on the cake was the ‘sacred room’, a beautiful medieval style door leads to the coolship. The room is bright with windows all over and the rest was wood clad. There is something so special and peaceful about this room and it is thrilling to see such a space dedicated to making beer and leaving it open to the elements to be transformed by the local micro-flora.
The trip to Russian River was wonderful and it was so educational to hear the story of founders Vinnie and his wife Natalie, it is a truly inspiring story of determination and entrepreneurship and a passion for beer.
We top the visit to Santa Rosa by stopping in Cooperage Brewing company, a few people recommended it and we weren’t disappointed. I was overwhelmed by how busy it was despite being in a quite remote, somewhat industrial setting and it was full of locals coming in after work, meeting friends, with plenty of kids running around. Tap rooms are business as usual here, this is where people drink and enjoy themselves. It truly was an awakening of things to come for us in Ireland with this new Craft beer bill.
As if San Francisco wasn’t big enough, we also tipped across to Oakland chasing food trucks and went to 21st Amendment which was quite impressive with it’s size, ambiance, live music and two food trucks and hundreds of people enjoying themselves. The beers were also excellent and we had a great time there. We head back to the city and set our minds on exploring Haight district, a student and vibrant area not far from Castro. The streets are full of cool boutiques, vintage clothes shops and the lingering smell of marijuana gives it all a very 70’s hobo vibe. Once again, we trusted the Beer advocate listing and head for Magnolia Brew pub and I have to say it might have been my favourite bar in San Fran. It’s Saturday night and the place was buzzing. It has a nice bistro style interior and some character. The beers are excellent so is the food, it also has an interesting story, it is own by New Belguim Brewery who is Colorado based. I have a Yuza Gose made with 3 different peppers, yuzu peel and sea salt, it’s complex and extremely well balanced. Sean opted for Narrow Universe session IPA which according to him was the best we had so far bursting with aromas and flavours of papaya, and cantaloupe. We chat to a lovely lady homebrewer, a true San Fran character about sourdough, yeast and real estate, we exchange cards and we feel like locals all of a sudden!
Sunday is ‘visiting day’ so we hit Alcatraz and take in the beautiful views of the city. From the Rock, you can see why this city was chosen by settlers for the gold rush. We then hit the indoor market at Embarcadero for some empenadas and kombucha for me and Sean picked up a can in one of the bottle shops in there. Needless to say, I was in kombucha heaven out there, you can find it anywhere from Trader Joes to any gas station.
One of the highlights of our trip was the visit to the The Rare Barrel in Berkley, an all sour barrel aging facility. This is not a brewery, they just blend and sour age wort they buy from local breweries. The facility is impressive, the tap room is sleek with its grey wall and wood tables. The beers are also impressive and it is no surprise, our host Richie has a background in wine. It is very clear to us that the The Rare Barrel are at the cutting edge of barrel aging and mixed fermentation in the US.
After a few days walking the street of San Fran, it feels good to pick up our rental and kick off this road trip. Pacific highway 1 doesn’t disappoint, few miles outside city, the views are striking and the ocean is mesmerising.
The excitement is at all time high as we hit Santa Cruz. It was a mecca for hippies and surfers back in the 70’s and still is. First stop is the Five Guys burger joint, well we’re in the US after all, home to the great burger! The dress code is pretty chilled here and flip flops are totally accepted footwear anywhere you go. The welcoming gents at Lúpulo give us the run down on their taps and the bottle choice is impressive. We really didn’t expect such quality of bars, craft beer is everywhere and Californians take it very seriously. We settle on a refreshing 750 ml bottle of Fonta Flora Southern Saison brewed with lemon and black tea. Fonta Flora is a North Carolina based brewery, worth checking out if you come across them. We get chatting to the owner of Lupulo and as he had a stop over in Dublin in a few weeks’ time so we write up a list of recommended bars for him to hit. This earns us a complementary bottle of wild beer from Logdson Farmhouse Ales. Sean is excited as he attended Dave Logdson lecture at the last Carnivale Brettanomyces last summer.
Next stop was the highly anticipated Rustic Ales Sante Aderius tap room. The location is unassuming for what was to come. It is a modern roadside retail unit with thick wood carved tables. Here we try everything on the menu and it has all Brett, saison, mixed fermentation and sour. It can’t get any better than this but to top it off, we sit outside to watch a memorable sunset with pink skies. We found beer heaven! These guys do things with integrity and passion and it translates into the beers we’ve sampled. Upon reflection they were the finest beers we tasted on the whole trip and a brewery to keep an eye on in the future.
From here on in, we are in iconic beat generation territory (for those of you who read On the Road or Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, this was our inspiration). Monterrey and Carmel by the Sea are the prettiest coastal towns and we spend the day touring and exploring. Monterrey is home to Alvarado Brewing Company and we do a quick pit-stop into their tap room and restaurant. Back at Lupolo in Santa Cruz, one of the staff members recommended we check out Yeast of Eden which is the mixed fermentation spin out from Alvarado but based in Carmel By the Sea. I hear it is also home to Clint Eastwood, no surprise, the place is stunning, you could be on the Cote d’Azur here with exquisite villas and sea views all along. We make it our business to visit in mid-afternoon. Yeast of Eden oozes with class and elegance, it is mixed fermentation boutique tap room and restaurant. The beer is treated like wine here and we sampled some appetizers from the menu to match the outstanding beers. I had Family Miner, a 4.2% grisette, wonderfully citrussy and Sean choses Lines Dissecting, a 6% larger aged in wine barrels with house microbes, tart, earthy and oaky flavours. I think this gave Sean a lot of inspiration I was driving so we make a swift exist but not before Sean hoovered the place with merchandise and take away 750 ml bottle. This bottle made it home with us (along with about another 10!) and we can’t wait to sample it.
That evening we were excited to spend the night in our log cabin in Big Sur. The accommodation and setting are stunning, it is remote and peacefully quiet. We have dinner in the lodge and pick up some Sierra Nevada cans from the small convenience shop for a chilled-out night cap.
The morning was spent hiking in two of the State parks, the forests were lush and the views breath taking. We tick off the McWay waterfall from the bucket list, this iconic image you would often see promoting California.
A few hours of windy roads and behind a mountain, we arrive at our next destination: Saint Luis Obispo (SLO), a quaint provincial town. I was excited to be off the beaten track, to pull in our motel and park the Jeep just outside the room door. We learn that it is a student town, home to Cal Poly (California Polytechnic). Two blocks away from our motel, we stumble across Central Coast Brewing and we make a refreshing stop. In downtown SLO, we head for Libertine Brewing, tap room and food seems to be the winning combo here in the US. The food is good, portions are generous, the beers were interesting. Libertine proud themselves for their extreme sour beers and the Saison I had aged in French oak white wine barrels was spot on and paired wonderfully with the mac and cheese starter.
We hit the road the next day for Santa Barbara and once again, we are in wine country here. Not far from Saint Luis, we stop in Buellton for a look around Firestone and Barrelworks facility. It is impressive and doesn’t disappoint. Sean sampled a Rose beer hybrid from their Barrelworks spin out for which the grapes were all grown within miles of the brewery.
We couldn’t bypass the beautiful village of Solvang which featured in the movie Sideways. It was founded by Danish settlers in the early 1900 and it is reflected in the architecture. It is tiny so after a quick walk we spotted a bottle shop which turned out to be a homebrew shop called Valley Brewers with a secret tap room The Back room ran by husband and wife Sandy and Chris. Like anywhere in the world, the homebrewer community is so friendly and they gave some amazing recommendations and free tasters.
It’s wine country and we drive through Santa Ynez Valley for a tasting at Sandstone Vineyard for a taster of things to come when we hit Santa Barbara. Wine here is like beer elsewhere, free flowing in tasting rooms and outdoors patio. We hit Municipal Winemakers and watch the sunset in the Funk zone, a regenerated creative hub in downtown Santa Barbara. We didn’t expect much in terms of breweries but we were pleasantly surprised by Figueroa Mountain Brewing company with some decent beers. On State Street, we found Night Lizzard Brewing company, a neat set-up brewery and tap room with an excellent Saison which stood out for us. We get chatting to the brewer Clay about our project, yeast and koji making.
We hiked Inspiration Point the next day and built up a thirst. We venture out to Telegraph tap room and had a nice Guava Sour. They have been bought by the guys at Epic Brewing it seems as we see some of their beers here too. A short walk from there, we also tried Third Window, a slick operation with farm to table food and an excellent Saison.
San Diego deserves a separate blog spot of its own. We hit some hot spots there like Modern Times brewery, a really cool tap room serving and roasting coffee as well. We are in the home of the IPA so there are plenty of high-quality choices. It’s Super bowl day so the place is jammed with people and the take away purchases are also flying out the door as we head to Ocean Point and into Pizza Port, even our Lyft driver knew the place well and we watched the match here with some superb IPA and pizza. Brewer Tomme Arthur also has a barrel aged facility called Lost Abbey and we brought back some bottles home with us.
Ballast Point in Little Italy was an interesting visit, the high quality beers match the success story of Ballast who recently sold for just over a billion dollars. Still in Little Italy, we hit Bottle Craft, a lovely little bottle shop and tap room, this set up is fantastic, we need more of these in Ireland. When you see De Garde on tap, you can’t pass it and we reminisce about meeting head brewer Trevor last summer in Amsterdam. There are so many other brew pubs and tap rooms we visited including iconic Stone brewing who has no less than 3 location across San Diego.
The highlight of San Diego was for me the visit to White Labs, the yeast company who supply brewers worldwide with the magic stuff. They have a tap room on-site and you get to taste beers in a flight, the same wort fermented with different yeast. The experience is educational in addition to being pleasant! We also got a tour of the facility which was essentially an analytical lab, a micro lab and a clean room. We also watched the packaging lines and learned about the inception of the company set up by Chris White.
California didn’t disappoint as a holiday destination and also firmed up our passion for making beer using mixed fermentation and taking the time to barrel age it. It was a fantastic break for the eye, the Pacific coast views were breath taking and our taste buds got used to drinking amazing beers on a daily basis!
Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully it gives someone out there the inspiration to make a similar trip.