When you hear someone mention Napa or Sonoma County, long green rows of grapevines come to mind under rolling hills beneath an intense afternoon sun. Visitor Centers in Wine Country even claim one out of every three people who fly into SFO end up there. That’s a lot of people considering how many other attractions California has to offer. But what it shows is an enormous worldwide market for scenic drives, day spas, bike rides, and fine alcohol tasting experiences. Perhaps this is what the boys over at North Bay Brewery Tours had in mind when they started loading people up in buses for scenic drives not to taste wine, but beer. Anyone keeping up with craft beer in the last decade will not be surprised by the result.
Our first stop on the tour was to Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, which was cool because I had never been there before even though they are one of my favorite breweries. James and Ron even hook it up with the friendly folks at Lagunitas so that you get to post up on the well-cushioned couches of the VIP room, which was the original upstairs bar before Lagunitas went platinum. From there our sampling began, sipping the standards like New Dogtown and Censored Rich Copper Ale. Their lunch menu was also satisfyingly paired to the beer offerings. In the upstairs bar, even the old, heavily cushioned couches have a funny story. As the guys who have worked for Lagunitas through the years got married, their wives made them get rid of the ugly (yet comfortable) furniture of their bachelorhood. So while you take in the laid back ambiance, the foosball table, the old bottles, and cool posters, you can also laugh into your beer at that tale and others.
Through the large glass windows of the upstairs room you can stare down at the new 17 million dollar brewery, which has all kinds of stories attached to it as well. In fact, if there are two things Lagunitas will never run out of, it is beer and stories about the beer. Here is another good one: The Germans they imported to install the state-of-the-art brewing system at first thought it was blasphemy Lagunitas had the stones to brew a pilsner over 5 percent. They couldn’t believe it. They were offended because of the rich history of their own country and the traditions they have always known. Yet after two weeks of sampling Pils on the job (they’re German – working and drinking are one and the same), they were convincing Tony Magee he needed to brew more of it, and then export it to Europe.
Another part of our NBBT package came with an historical rendition of Lagunitas brewery and a tour of the extensive grounds. We were lucky to get our tour from Ryan Tamborski. At first Ryan seems to be a bartender, after a few beers he morphs into a tour guide, and halfway through it all you realize it’s all been a setup and you see that he’s actually a semi-sober stand-up comedian. With his combination of knowledge of the brewing process, experience with Lagunitas during its infancy, weed-infused allusions, and personal dry humor, Ryan gives out one of the best tours you’ll have in the world of beer. For real.
To put it frankly, Lagunitas is a must-see. If you are into craft beer and are interested at all in how the process works, or just enjoy drinking hella good beer, you need to have been there yesterday – this is coming from someone who went there yesterday. Lagunitas represents everything that is good about craft beer, from their funnily-sordid history with the ATF and TTB, to the legendary myths concerning how they came to be, to the sky-high quality of their beers, it is a space for beer heads who love heady beer. Plus everyone has a beard.
From Lagunitas we piled back into the bus feeling better and better with every beer that passed through our greedy lips, and travelled North to Healdsburg to check out Bear Republic- another big name in beer whose Racer 5 IPA will forever be remembered in California as one of the first true hop experiences for many beer newbies. Bear Republic is nestled into a beautiful part of downtown Healdsburg, and on a sunny day like yesterday it was hard to imagine life without beer, or as Hugh Hood said, “Nothing ever tasted better than a cold beer on a beautiful afternoon with nothing to look forward to than more of the same.” We took generous swigs of their Hop Rod Rye and Red Rocket Ale (the latter of which Alisa and I get in 22s when we can). Additionally I got a pint of their Mt. Hood pale, which was excellent. In a town overtaken by wine and their numerous tasting rooms in Sonoma county, Bear Republic is a breath of fresh hops in the snooty air of wine snob central. If you need a break and a cold one, it’s a no-brainer. I would say it’s pro-brain.
Finally the boys at North Bay Brewery Tours brought us to Santa Rosa. First we immersed ourselves in 3rd Street Aleworks, who were hospitable with a mellow stout, a kolsch, and another beer I don’t remember because I was sloshed at that point. 3rd Street Aleworks is a cool place. It is chill, they have a good menu, and the beer is excellent. James and our other guide Jack told us this was where they came to drink because the beer is great and they don’t have the crowds across the street (read on).
We then ended our night across the street at the Mecca of craft beer – Russian River Brewery. This place is packed at all hours of every day and yesterday was no exception and more of the same. Known for the double IPA Pliny the Elder and their more yearned-after Triple IPA Younger seasonal, Russian River actually bases their reputation on much more than their American-style selection. Their forte is really Belgian-style beers, and they stick to their guns, serving up sours and other experimental mixtures which always come in smooth on the palate and high in ABV. Their collaboration with Sierra Nevada – Brux – is a wonderful farmhouse ale brewed with wild yeast and just enough sour to make it edgy. It has a nice Chardonnay feel: fruity and tart, but also comes correct at over 8%. I also have to mention their Row 2 Hill 56, a 100% Simcoe Hop pale ale, which is awesome in its crisp clarity and hoppy character. Of course Alisa had to get a Pliny because, well, because you have to, as it remains one of the best American IPAs on earth.
Another plus of the bus tour is of course the people you meet. So as the bus said farewell, Alisa and I stayed at Russian River for dinner with Joe and Stephani, another couple from the bus who, like us, had also met at UC Davis. So the beer kept flowing, the pizza came hot, and evening descended on us all in the splendor known only to those who have been drinking world-class beer all day long.
At the end of a sunny Saturday, I couldn’t have asked for more from a big white bus with a keg of Little Sumpin’ Ale surrounded by a bunch of people interested in beer, brewing, and having a good time while consuming fine ales. If you find yourself in Northern California and are looking for an excellent alternative to the increasingly stuffy and expensive wine tour model, or you just want to do something cool and don’t want to drive, NBBT is a steal at $89 for the day. They’ll even pull off the freeway quick if your bladder is about to explode and let you run outside in such a panic you don’t notice you are peeing in a thinly bushed hedge facing all 14 other people in the bus. But really you just need to get to these breweries out here because what they are doing is legendary.