Tucked away in the crook of California’s border with Nevada sits a seemingly bottomless lake, clear and pure with sandy shores, ready to be your respite from the heat. Many know Lake Tahoe as a winter destination with legendary Sierra Nevada snow and bustling resorts. But for those who live close, off-season may just be the best time to go. Not that there is an off-season at the Lake, because the party and the beauty are always on. Every season has opportunities for boundless recreation, from skiing to paddle boarding to mountain biking. Yes, Lake Tahoe is rightly famous for many things. Until now, beer was not one of them.
Over the course of five days we explored the treacherous roads that line this treasure of North America to attempt to taste every local beer we could find. We went to seven breweries and tap houses, including one in Truckee. The water, so deep and alluringly blue, was in every beer we tasted. Regrettably, we were only able to sample one Nevada institution; with apologies to Carson City and Reno, we’ll be back.
In a non-descript shopping center behind the DMV sits a wide open room stacked with pine tables and tastefully decked with vintage alpine memorabilia. Shelves full of board games in the corner highlight the fact that this is a place to bring friends and wile away the hours in the company of good brew. There is a TV projected onto an entire wall. I imagine during football season, after a Saturday of snowboarding, I could spend all Sunday there, working my way through the beer menu and compromising my diet on appetizers. The full menu looks good, but we focused on beer. At the three-month-old brewery we spoke with Chris, one of the five owners. His vision is to focus on barrel aging and sours, looking to perfect some off-the-wall beers. Unfortunately, the brewery was so new that their first forays into interesting beer territory were still in the barrel, yet to be poured.
Across the board the brews we were able to sample felt as blue and clear as the sky, refreshing after a day of recreation. Here are a few highlights of our “around the lake” sampler.
Brewrocracy Red Tape IPA was named for the fun, quick licensure process. It starts full and fruit forward, with citrus sweetness, then plunges down to bitter glory. Lastly, it finishes sticky, full and fluffy in the mouth.
Cluanie Farmhouse is a Belgian style that has the full funk of that style of yeast. A touch of sweetness hangs at the edge of the mouth, with a hay bale finish. My wife said it has, “a little kick that’s fun!”
Appropriately named, this was the first brewery in South Lake and boasts the same owners as Stateline Brewery (see below). Right on the main drag, The Brewery looks like a house, and feels like a German Gasthaus (hotel/restaurant) inside. A narrow, dim bar backed with brewing tanks greets guests, and a narrow stairway leads up to the restaurant where seating is compartmentalized into smaller rooms that allow for an intimate, homey feel. Tahoe’s Breweries tend to be tied to restaurants since there are many nuances to licensing, and food allows for drawing a more diverse crowd.
Bad Ass Ale is their famous, trademarked beer with a style all its own. It starts with burnt malt flavor that is comforted by a hop blanket. Feeling a little like the edge of a forest fire, this brew smolders through its 9% ABV all the way to a warm finish.
White Out Wit is a Belgian wheat style that bursts at the seams with tangerine flavor. It’s refreshing and true to style, with the experience enhanced by a citrus garnish.
Paramount Porter is a unique take on the classic dark, smooth style. This one is airy—dark in color but smooth like a cup of medium roast coffee. It finishes with caramel overtones.
Situated in a Swiss chalet style shopping center on Highway 50 as you enter town from the southwest, Cold Water features a wide open dining area with picture windows, welcoming travelers like an apres-ski for all. They serve excellent, innovative twists on American bar food and have plenty of room for large groups. There’s a party room off to the side featuring a giant Jenga set; combine that with a huge TV screen set into a wall made to look like stacked firewood, and Bob Marley on the PA, and you know you’re in for a good time. The brewing setup is tucked into a concrete room in the back with conditioning tanks visible in the dining room through a glass-front walk-in cooler so beer-nerds like me can peer in on upcoming offerings.
Owner Debbie Brown was a home brewer for more than 20 years. She worked with Stateline for some time, then made her own dream come true with this all-grain brewery in which she uses her Dad’s old recipes to delight the public. The philosophy at Cold Water is to have fun playing with recipes, swapping hops, and improving on every successful batch. Along with tasting every beer on tap, we ate the Tahoe Loaf, an instantly legendary sliced sourdough loaf stuffed cheese dip, and accompanied by a side of artichoke dip. In the spirit of collaboration that weaves through all the South Lake breweries, Cold Water hosts a homebrewer’s club and Brewer’s cup contest for the best amateur brewer to have his or her brainchild put on tap.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Rye is an effortlessly nutty, smooth caramel brew. It trails off on a tangent of spicy rye bite but balances out with hop oils hitting the edge of your palate.
Citra-Ass Down IPA smells like oranges and has a hazy look. It’s full of bitterness overlaid with mild malts. The character is an eclectic mix of aggression and balance, like a hop pillow fight.
For now, Cold Water is the only South Lake establishment where you can fill growlers to enjoy off-site.
Nevada represents the free, wild west. California promises gold and great weather. Here at Stateline, they have room for everyone who seeks the confluence of these epic Western states. The huge restaurant is stocked with decadent food set up for busloads of adventure seeking tourists. We descend a spiral staircase into the amber-lit space below the border. Behind decorative screens to the left sits a long plank fit to seat your whole crew in one line for sampling the brewmaster’s wares. I’m told the man himself sometimes bartends, and laments the many partygoers who still get irate over the lack of Macro-Light on tap. In true Tahoe fashion, the entire brew setup lines the back wall beyond the bar.
I ended up meeting Scott, the brewer, in the stairwell as I headed out to check the meter. He was completely gracious, even though I caught him rushing in to start a batch. We sat for precious focused moments in which he described how the high volume of Avalanche Pale Ale sold creates a situation in which he can’t seem to get other batches in edgewise. Of course, selling too much core-brew is a good problem to have, but like many craft brewers, he longs to experiment more. As such, they prefer not to put the same seasonal on twice, so if it’s a special batch, make sure you jot your tasting notes, because it may not be back.
Avalanche Pale Ale is their signature. It’s tart with a citrus blast up front. A refreshing, palatable American pale that will satisfy most thirst.
Easy St. Chocolate Porter is a floral offering, with vanilla and cream in the mouth. Its lactose additions leave it light bodied though it’s almost black in color.
Acclimator IPA was a chewy affair that started right off with a hop bite. It then mellowed and brought out tones of orange and lemon. A full pint is definitely recommended, as character grows throughout the glass.
Walking into this place, it almost feels like I’ve been transported to Montana. “Rustic” is the word here. Tahoe Mountain started brewing at the lakeside location almost three years ago in a tiny upstairs room but quickly expanded to a larger space in Truckee. The picturesque lakeside restaurant sits perched at the entrance to Tahoe City on the side of a mountain that slopes precipitously down to the lake. Their Truckee location boasts 15 taps with oak-aged and sour experiments while the restaurant on the windy highway focuses on ‘food friendly’ beers. Rightly so, for their food is innovative and tasty.
Ranch Dog Red, a mild ale with a cocoa butter hint, nips you with toasted malt and a subtle layer of hops.
Ms. Coco Stout is an utterly creamy brew. It smells like a latte and finishes like dark chocolate. Do I need to convince you further?
Alibi, when we cruised through, was the only brewery in the town of Incline Village. An industrial yard with no parking houses Alibi’s corrugated metal buildings. Alibi’s jaunty bowler-hat logo is perched above the door, winking at passers-bye. Inside, the space manages to be charming and comfortable in its industrial skin. A rustic plank bar is backed by more chalkboards than a beer nerd can wrap his head around. The friendly bartender knew just what I was after, though, and created a wagon wheel style tray of tasting glasses with sips from every tap. Having come this far around the lake, I began my journey around Alibi. Normally, as an IPA lover, I don’t go for Belgian yeast flavor; I respect the craft but don’t dig the taste. Alibi enticed me to revise my prejudice.
Somehow, each quality beer was followed up by an offering better than the last. The brewer seems to take each beer, make it good, then improve upon that with an improvisational flair. For so many complex, enigmatic beers my notes are sparse. My only alibi? Alibi’s infectious party atmosphere. Don’t tell anyone about it. Just make up an excuse, and quietly get yourself to Incline Village.
Mandarin Kölsch and Blueberry Kölsch were both smooth, fresh and delicious. The mandarin finishes subtly orange and refreshing, while the blueberry version is completely delightful and true to its name. The color is even a little purple.
Dark Saison is a burgundy Belgian ale that tasted like cherry tart, amazing in its ability to draw me in for more. It was already complex and rich, but was joined by a cousin version that was barrel-aged. This built upon the sour/syrup juxtaposition and added whiskey overtones, finishing with a touch of candy…like dessert for the imbibing poet.
Fifty Fifty Brewing Co.
Tucked in to a rustic, pine log shopping center, the brewery has a busy feel inside. There are stacks of wax-sealed bottles. Posters explain the aging code, based on what color the wax is, you can tell how old it is and what type of barrel was used for curing. The brewery’s philosophy is simple: balance life and work, 50/50. Brilliant.
Grand Cru is loaded with plumb and dark cherry notes that assail the senses. It’s smooth and sweet with mild bitter tones that hang on the back of the tongue. There is licorice and coffee, a complex black syrup. It is comfy on the tongue.
Cherry-Bourbon Barrel Aged is like cherry preserves, raisins and prunes over a thick sweet base. A touch of hops overhangs the fruit medley. It sports hazy topaz and garnet color. A hint of strawberry? Maybe. Drink it.