by Billy Brown
Every town with a brewery thinks that it’s the best beer town in the world. So me, my associate editor David Skinner, and our good friends Matt Moseley and Jason Ballard (our walking beer encyclopedia), are going to head to these beer destinations and see just how good they really are. First stop? Sonoma.
While California’s Sonoma County is world-renowned as a wine destination, it’s also a mecca for beer-lovers. Home to the monster trifecta of Lagunitas Brewing, Russian River, and Bear Republic, Sonoma is a 90-minute drive away from San Francisco International Airport and a day trip from just about anywhere North of Monterey, so you’ve got no excuse to not visit and sample the delicious fare. Last week, we took a quick road trip and spent a night in Santa Rosa to see just how good the drinking is down there.
Turns out it’s pretty damn good. In the interest of tasting as many beers as possible, we went the taster route - they’ll give you 4oz servings of any four beers on tap. Here’s what we came up with.
Lagunitas Taproom and Brewery, Petaluma
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 Stupid 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 Stupid, all delicious).
Eat This: The Smoked Pork Nachos. Nacho chips topped with pork, bbq sauce, sour cream, jalapenos and sour cream. Pairs well with life.
3rd Street Aleworks, Santa Rosa
Founded in 1995, 3rd Street Aleworks is in the middle of the 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: Great American Beer Festival: 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
Walking (or weaving) distance from 3rd 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 5pm (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 2-0z 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
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.
Where to stay:
Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa, Santa Rosa
As far as lodging goes, the Hyatt represents the perfect Brew Tour Trifecta: Clean, spacious rooms: There was plenty of room for two dudes to split a room without killing each other, and the rooms were clean, well-furnished, and perfect for sleeping in after a long night of tasting. Excellent amenities: The heated pool and hot tub were great for sweating out any lingering booze. The attached restaurant sported a great bar for a late-nite whiskey and fries, and the huge firepit sitting area in the plaza for impromptu philosophical discussions. And most importantly, it’s in a perfectly centralized location. It’s walking distance from 3rd Street Aleworks and Russian River and the best downtown eateries, and it’s about a 15-minute drive from both Lagunitas and Bear Republic.