Beer The Triangle: NorCal Edition

I think most UMass hockey fans are long past dissecting the 2011-12 season and the positives and negatives that came out of it.  The upheaval of the offseason with Toot Cahoon agreeing to step down, the drawn out coaching search that followed, and ultimate selection of John Micheletto to steer the program is now behind us and pretty much covered at this point.  Players do not report to campus until next week and it’s probably a little early before FTT typically gets intp season preview mode.  And, we’re still waiting on the last news of the season which will be the radio deal, though I do expect that to come any day.  So what is there to write about?  Well, if I don’t have anything to say about hockey, I might as well go to my other love; beer.

If you’re part of the FTT reader segment that doesn’t really enjoy the road trip page or my weekly Beer The Triangle features and are just here for hockey stuff, you’ll probably want to stop reading right about here.  There is nothing to do with UMass hockey from here on, so why not turn on the Olympics or something.  Don’t worry, I’m not offended.  Be sure to stop by soon for some new hockey content!  But if you enjoy the joining of water, barley, hops, and yeast please read on.

In recent years I’ve made beer and breweries a central focus of vacations.  It started with going places for various reasons and making sure to stop by the local breweries nearby when time allowed; like hitting Stone and Pizza Port on a trip to San Diego.  But somewhere along the way beer went from being a side attraction while on vacation to being the reason for going there in the first place.  First my wife and I completed the Vermont Brewery Passport during a couple long weekends up to the Green Mountain state.  Then we concocted our Volcano and Beer vacation to Oregon and Washington a couple years ago that saw us hit legendary breweries like Rogue and Deschutes while hanging out on the top of volcanoes and choking down Charbucks coffee.  Last year we took a trip down to the Mid-Atlantic to see the sites in the capital but also so I could visit Dogfish Head and complete my “Holy Trinity of American Breweries” (the others being Stone and Rogue).  In the middle somewhere we had some side trips like spending a weekend in Portland visiting Allagash, Geary’s, and even hitting Portsmouth brewery on the way home.  But this year, we outdid ourselves.

On our recent trip I’m happy to say we hit 15 different Northern California breweries in the eight days of well-earned vacation.  Honestly it’s really easy to hit those kind of numbers just driving basically in any direction in that area.  There’s a high quality brewery at off what seems like every exit on Highway 101 north of San Francisco.  As a prelude to the actual breweries, my wife and I kicked things off at Jack’s Cannery Bar in the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Fran.  There I had a Big Sky Moose Drool, a solid brown with one of the best names ever, and a Deschutes Obsidian Stout.  Deschutes is one of my favorite breweries, one I actually made sure was served at my wedding, but unfortunately they’re still just getting into the midwest and are virtually unheard of in New England.  From the quick lunch at Jack’s we had an enjoyable sail under the Golden Gate Bridge, but then it was time to get down to business:

Speakeasy Ales And Lagers
The Speakeasy Brewery was a fun place, though a little tough to get to, loacated in the industrial areas south of San Francisco.  It had a very laid back feel as the tap room was really just a bar and some chairs on the production floor of their brewery.  Open garage doors provided ventilation as patrons watched old Ren & Stimpy cartoons on the nearby TV.  Their beers were all quite good.  I enjoyed the Payback Porter but was really intrigued by the Pier 98 Rye Pale Ale.  One of the best beers I had on the trip.

21st Amendment
Of course out our way 21st Amendment is known for their Hell or High Watermelon, which is why it was appropriate to see whole watermelons when looking into the small brewhouse they still have on the premises of their original brewpub.  But they do a lot more as well.  There I had a couple beers named for musicians.  First was Devil’s Friend, a tribute beer for Jerry Garcia, then I followed it up an MCA.  The wife had a very intriguing beer while there, Mr. Poom’s Thai’d Ale.

Lagunitas Brewing
From San Fran it was time to head north on Highway 101, the yellow brick road of California brewing.  First stop was Petaluma and Lagunitas Brewing, which had an amazing beer garden filled with couches, picnic tables, sunshine, and live music.  While there I tried to have a few beers I’d never heard of, like their draft only Fusion series, but also wanted to hit some of the favorites I always enjoy like their Gnarlywine and The Kronic Censored.  Lagunitas puts out some great beer and that was definitely true while sitting at the source, but their beer garden was epic.

Russian River
From Petaluma we made a diversion into Napa Valley and Wine Country where we were thoroughly disappointed by fermented grapes.  So why not get back on track by drinking some of the most sought after beer in the country, Russian River.  Despite being a Monday night, this small pub in a downtown Santa Rosa was absolutely packed due to this crazy, mythological event they call “Happy Hour”.  I know, a foreign concept to us Massachusetts people.  Anyway, the beer there was extremely good.  They had 20 beers on tap and I’m happy to say I had a taste of all 20.  Best in my opinion was the Happy Hops, Supplication, Consecration, and of course one of the top IPAs and beers ever, Pliny the Elder.

Bear Republic
Another stop north on 101 was Healdsburg and Bear Republic.  Their brewpub, for a long time their only production facility, was probably the friendliest place of the trip.  That was mostly due to the bartender, Ryan, who claimed to have served the very first Racer 5 many years ago.  Of course I had to have one of those, but I was really impressed by some of their other beers too which do not make it east.  One was a sour Tartare, which was excellent.  The other was Double Aught, perhaps the best pilsner I’ve ever had.  Not sure how you can have so much flavor and still only be 4.2%, but it was very impressive.  What kept my attention at Bear Republic was the fact that their brewing facility, particularly their brew kettle and mash tun, were literally about 10 feet from the end of the bar and you could sit there and watch the next batch of beer being made before your eyes.  Now that’s a brewpub.

Ukiah Brewing
Further north on 101 was the town of Hopland, which used to be a major source of hops for the country in the mid 20th century, but now is just full of boring grapes.  Beyond there was Ukiah, an interesting little town with an equally interesting brewery.  First, it’s situated in a great looking building, complete with spire, right in the middle of town and some excellent space inside.  Second, it’s all organic.  I enjoyed their double porter, Palace Porter.  We hit this place in a sort of dead afternoon time but I loved the building itself and seems like it could be a vibrant place on weekend nights.

Anderson Valley Brewing
From Ukiah it was time to temporarily leave 101 and head towards the coast.  First stop was Anderson Valley Brewing.  I’ve been drinking their Winter and Summer Solstices and other distributed beers for years, but was really impressed by the immense and diverse selection on at the taproom at their brewery.  From ESBs to Pale Ales to Belgians, they had it all.  I enjoyed their barleywine, Horn of the Beer, but I think the one that stood out the most was their Wee Geech, a session APA with some amazing hop aroma.

North Coast Brewing
From there it was to the coast itself, Fort Bragg, and North Coast Brewing.  Before hitting their taproom and restaurant we hit a little dive pizza place the night before where I enjoyed an amazing beer from Deschutes in bottle, Hop Henge Experimental IPA.  Unbelievable.  I cannot say enough about Deschutes.  But I didn’t overdo it there because I was looking forward to North Coast and the prospect of getting some beers I love like Pranqster, Brother Thelonious, Old Coast Ale, and Old Rasputin on draft and straight from the source.  Needless to say, none of those disappointed.

Eel River Brewing
From there it was time to go back inland and see some Redwoods.  And just after emerging from the Avenue of the Giants was Eel River, probably the nicest surprise of the breweries hit on the trip.  Located in a semi-remote area this seemed to be a very popular place with the locals and for good reason.  I had an excellent choice of beers to choose from , some totally organic, to accompany my excellent tri-tip sandwich (ordered having no clue what the hell “tri-tip” was).  Their Kristall Weizen was an excellent crisp, yet tasteful beer but I really enjoyed the Triple Exultation and even grabbed a bottle to bring back in the suitcase (it survived along with a number of samples from Russian River and Anderson Valley).

Six Rivers Brewing
We continued north from Eel River seeking more magnificent Redwoods and an elusive beach made entirely of agate stones.  Along the way we talked to people and told them about our Beercation and those we talked to kept suggesting a brewery unknown to us and our research, Six River Brewing.  So as when we left Redwoods National Park in search of beer and some lunch we sought out the hilltop brewpub in McKinleyville.  Great decision.  My wife and I enjoyed a sampler of all their beers, most of which I considered top notch.  The two that stood out to me most were their Chile Pepper Ale, which absolutely set my mouth on fire but didn’t stop me from wanting more, and their Paradise Moon Porter, a double porter infused with Kona coffee.  Both were excellent.

Mad River Brewing
Next we continued our river themed breweries with Mad River Brewing in the tiny town of Blue Lake.  We sat down at their impressive taproom bar (constructed literally across the street) and were quickly joined by what seemed like the entire shift just getting off work from the brewery for beers and conversation.  I was familiar with Mad River after having some of their beers locally, but again enjoyed having the more rare brews most are unable to get back East.  Their Mad Belgian was excellent but I was really impressed by their Bourbon Steelhead Extra Stout.  I’ve had a lot of bourbon aged stouts and I’ll put this one up against any of them.

Sierra Nevada
From Blue Lake we crossed the mountains and went back inland to some extremely hot temperatures and some In-and-Out Burger which I’ve determined is inferior to Five Guys.  After spending a day exploring the active volcano of Mt Lassen we descended into Chico and the immense Sierra Nevada Brewing complex.  You know a place takes their brewing seriously when you park your car next to several acres of hop fields.  Sierra Nevada is probably the biggest brewery I’ve ever visited and it makes sense given their wide distribution but that doesn’t mean their beer is lacking in quality.  I really enjoyed imbibing their flagship Pale Ale with a draught-style twist that gives it a little more sweetness while making a little more of a session style.  They also had a number of their Beer Camp styles on, including an enjoyable Imperial Pilsner.  Sierra’s Beer Camp helped produce beer for and from two of my favorite beer hangouts, Union Brewhouse and Amherst Brewing, so it was cool to see their facilities.   I want to go to Beer Camp.  Those facilities are nothing short of spectacular with every brew kettle made of copper in total old german style.

Moylan’s Brewing
By this time our vacation was reaching its final stages and it was time to make our way back towards the San Francisco area for our impending Saturday night redeye back to Boston.  But for lunch that day we stopped off at Moylan’s, back on Highway 101, just north of the city.  Moylan’s was a brewery I’ve enjoyed at brewfests before and it was good to get to the source of their beer to try firsthand.  They’re best known for their Hopsickle, a triple IPA, but I found their double IPA very enjoyable.  Of course you can’t go to an Irish bar without trying their stout, and the Dragoons was quite good.  What I thought was the most interesting part of the bar was a blackboard they keep up where patrons can pre-pay for beers for other friends and regulars to cash in on at a later date.  Definitely something I’ll adopt in my planned Beer The Triangle brewpub whenever I win the lottery.

Drake’s Brewing
After stopping off in Berkeley to see the West Coast Amherst and the still being renovated Cal Memorial Stadium, we went off to find Drake’s.  Drake’s is not a brewery that was on my radar before I started researching for this trip, but when you do a google search for best breweries in Northern California , Drake’s always comes up.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy to find though.  The brewery is actually on the backside of a WalMart south of lovely Oakland.  Picturesque huh?  Well the beer made this one of our best stops on the vacation.  Like Speakeasy the taproom was a bar, some tables, and a big garage door at their brewery facility in an industrial area.  An unimpressive locale made special by some of the best beer I’ve ever had.  The wife had an Aroma Coma IPA which literally had you wanting to dip your nose into your beer.  They also had on draft a High Water Campfire Stout.  It was like the brewers took a Smores and put it into a stout.  It has a chocolate flavor attached to the stout itself, yet somehow has qualities of graham cracker and, yes, marshmallow.  I have no idea how they did it.  But it was incredibly impressive.  Not a beer I’d want to drink a six pack of, but worth drinking.  But my favorite at Drake’s was their Dark Duck.  It was a stout, fermented with wild yeast to give it a sour flavor, then aged in bourbon barrels.  Now I’ve had sour stouts and enjoyed them.  I’ve had many bourbon barrel stouts and liked them as well.  I’ve never seen a brewery do both and do so with amazing craftsmanship.  It’s not a beer for everyone, but it’s one of the best beers I’ve personally ever had.  I went to California looking forward to Russian River and left thinking about Drake’s.

Steelhead Brewery
So Drake’s was supposed to be the last brewery on the trip and as it turns out would been a great one to close things out on.  But, we were heading towards the airport, needed dinner, and stopped at this chain of brewpubs, Steelhead.  Mistake.  Awful water downed crap.  In no way did this constitute craft brewing.  I think I’m an OK to good homebrewer, but I make far better beer on my stovetop while fermenting in my laundry room than these guys do in real facilities.  I was psyched to see a Lord Stanley Stout on the beer list.  It ended up being black colored water.  Ugh.  After all the great breweries/brewpubs seen on vacation I was almost embarrassed to hit this place on the way out.  We at least made up for it somewhat by hitting the Anchor Steam bar in the airport terminal.  Due to their limited hours we weren’t able to hit the actual brewery in the city, though we wanted to, but it seemed fitting to have the last beer of the trip to be the granddaddy of craft brewing.

So that was Beercation 2012.  All in all an unforgettable mix of beer, natural beauty, great memories, and some incredibly friendly people.  I absolutely loved the conversations I had along the way at each stop.  The people I talked to during the trip were extremely hospitable and enjoyable, from the laid back surfer type guy at Russian River who surprisingly bought me a Pliny The Elder hat to the guy at the bar at Bear Republic who was contemplating starting a hop farm to bring back the industry that used to dominate that particular part of Highway 101.  But the beer and breweries is just a means to see some spectacular parts of the country that normally may be off the beaten path.  I do enjoy making and drinking beer but I equally enjoy the obscurely beautiful locales in America that my love of beer has led me to and the wonderful collection of people who inhabit those places.  I’m already starting to think what part of this great country I can explore in Beercation 2013.