Every town with a brewery thinks that it’s the best beer town in the world. We thought it was time to see what the hubbub was all about at some of these self-proclaimed “Beer Cities,” so some good friends and I (fellow beer aficionados David Skinner, Moseley and Jason Ballard—our walking beer encyclopedia) have decided to explore these beer meccas first hand and see which ones live up to the hype. First stop, Sonoma County. Known primarily for its stellar wine, but also home to the monster trifecta of Lagunitas Brewing, Russian River, and Bear Republic. We hopped in the truck and spent a few nights in the heart of Sonoma’s beer scene to see just how good the brews are.
Turns out, the beer is pretty damn good. In the interest of sampling as many beers as possible, we went the taster route, snagging as many 4oz. tasters as we could handle (and then some). Here’s what we discovered.
Lagunitas Taproom and Brewery, Petaluma, Petaluma, Calif.
Our first stop was Lagunitas Taproom and Brewery in Petaluma, home of the coffee-brewed Cappuccino Stout, one of my favorite beers. The TapRoom features live music, a huge covered outdoor patio, and the laid-back atmosphere that copious amounts of beer tends to foster. If you get there too early to work up a good buzz, they’ve got free brewery tours (no reservations needed).
Drink This: The Cap Stout is my favorite, but the Unfiltered Pilsner, Daytime, and Hop Stoopid are all stunners. If you can’t decide, go for the secret menu items like the Sumpin’ Stupid (1/2 Little Sumpin’, 1/2 Hop Stoopid, all delicious).
Eat This: The Smoked Pork Nachos. Nacho chips topped with pork, bbq sauce, jalapenos and sour cream. Pairs well with life.
Third Street Aleworks, Santa Rosa, Calif.
“Are you sure? That’s a LOT of beer…” – the waitress at Third Street
Founded in 1995, Third Street Aleworks is in the middle of downtown Santa Rosa, and offers a wide enough range of beers to please just about any palate. Among their stacks of awards over the years are two wins in 2013’s Great American Beer Festival (a Bronze for Bombay Rouge and Gold for Blarney Sisters’ dry irish Stout). When you go, just get the big taster plank. We got 11 4oz. tasters each, and got a great overall feel of 3rd Street’s flavor profiles, which are extensive, to say the least. This is a brewery that makes it a point to experiment, and we’re impressed with the results. You will be, too.
Drink This: It’s tough to narrow it down, here. We dug the Stonefly Oatmeal Stout (strong coffee up front, not too viscous), and the Festbier’s light and spicy profile.
Eat This: We actually went to town on the beer, then staggered out without eating. But I’ve been told that the Deluxe Mac and Cheese with bacon is spectacular.
Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, Calif.
“Consecration tastes like unicorn blood…in a good way.”
Walking (or weaving) distance from Third Street, Russian River Brewing Company has garnered rabid fandom for their Pliny the Elder double IPA and Pliny the Younger triple(!) IPA beers, but don’t think for a second that they’re standing on those laurels. Their entire selection is compelling; even if you don’t love one of their beers, you’ll have to admit that it’s damn interesting. The brewery was bouncing when we showed up for dinner, with a 45-minute wait at 5 p.m. (so we wandered off and irritated the folks at a nearby Barnes and Noble). When we finally sat down, we ordered three sets of 18 2-oz. tasters and a couple of pizzas, then finished with a pint of Pliny the Elder for each of us. TIP: if you order the taster, don’t feel the need to finish them all. Give them all a taste, then finish your faves and order a pint of the best one. Trust me.
Drink This: You have to drink the Plinys when you go. If you have room for more, the Consecration (a sour aged in used wine barrels) is by far my favorite, and at 10% ABV, a little will go a long way.
Eat This: Snag a pizza to soak up those sours. The pepperoni was just assertive enough to hold its own with the Consecration.
Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburg, Calif.
We woke the next morning, shook off the previous night, and made the 15-minute drive north to Bear Republic Brewing Company. Developers of the spectacular Racer 5 IPA, Bear Republic’s taproom always has 14 beers on tap, and they’re always unfiltered. Given the last evening’s festivities, we opted to go for a single beer instead of the taster platter. The menu’s burger section was drool-inducing and each burger had a suggested beer to pair with it. The only way I could pick a burger was to decide what beer I was in the mood for. Great solution to a great problem, right there.
What to Drink: The Racer 5 is amazing, but the Peter Brown Tribute Ale is sweet, malty goodness. Goes great with…
What to Eat: The Western Burger. Barbeque sauce, bacon, onion rings, cheddar cheese. And do NOT forget the garlic fries. I got the regular fries, and watched Skinner and Ballard nosh on their garlic-y taters with loathing in my heart.
Follow Billy Brown’s adventures at Trek Tech, a blog covering gear, adventure and occasionally booze.