Rule number one: never drive yourself to the Legendary Boonville Beer Festival in northern California (yes, “legendary” is officially part of its name). Rule number two: leave the parents and kids at home. Boonville, a sleepy town of 1,000 that’s set amid towering redwood forests and bucolic pastures in Mendocino County, has an independent streak. The residents even created their own system of slang, called Boontling, back in the 19th century, and locals still say “bahl hornin’” (“good drinking”) when raising a glass.
The drinking is certainly good – and heavy – at the rollicking annual May beer fest, which features more than 80 small, mostly west coast breweries spread across the Boonville fairgrounds. For four hours the taps flow freely, serving 5,000 visitors everything from German-style pilsners to Belgian-esque sours to American imperial stouts and IPAs (or India Pale Ales), the citrusy, often high-alcohol versions of the hoppy beers once shipped from Britain to the subcontinent. The brewers pitch tents on the grounds of the host Anderson Valley Brewery, cooking on grills and sharing their latest experimental beers.
“A real slice of old-school California – no stop lights, no chain stores, no traffic jams, just a lot of beautiful countryside,” said Anderson Valley’s brewmaster, Fal Allen. The taps stay open late in Anderson Valley’s barnlike tasting room, open year-round to visitors who can sample 10 to 15 draught beers, including the brewery’s signature Boont Amber and Hop Ottin’ IPA.
I had to settle for a takeaway bottle of the award-winning Brother David’s Double Abbey Style Ale for later, as Boonville was just my first stop on a beer-drinking tour that took me from Mendocino County down through the celebrated corridors of Napa and Sonoma, both about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. It might seem an unlikely itinerary to those who know the area as the US’s pre-eminent wine country. But these Elysian fields for oenophiles are also home to some of the top names in the flourishing US craft beer industry, which in the past five years has seen annual sales jump by more than 50 per cent to nearly $8bn, according to the Brewers Association. Among those who care about food and drink, it’s becoming almost as essential to be able to appreciate the malty molasses flavours of your brown ale as it is the earthy barnyard notes in your pinot.
If you’re coming for the wine and food first and simply want to mix in a few hoppy diversions along the way, expect to spend time on the road, as the best breweries are scattered around. Designated driver take solace: what glorious scenery it is, especially on the back-country roads, winding through ancient forests and golden meadows, past old farmhouses and endless fields of cabernet, chardonnay and pinot noir.
The next stop was Healdsburg, a place of undeniable charm – its main square lined with speciality shops, restaurants and wine bars – although some describe its recent upscale development as the town’s “Napafication”. I stayed in the eco-chic H2 hotel, which offers minimalist luxury wrapped in architecture that has won awards for its environmental friendliness. It provides bicycles (pick up a picnic lunch at the Oakville Grocery and peddle out among the vineyards along Dry Creek). Its lively restaurant Spoonbar emphasises local and seasonal food and is noted for its creative cocktails, alas, rather than its beer selection.
But I had to walk only a couple of blocks to get to the brewpub of Bear Republic, named best small brewery at the Great American Beer Festival in 2006. The 15-year-old family business ships its beloved Racer 5, a drinkably decadent, heavily hopped IPA with citrus and pine notes, to 34 states. Owner Richard Norgrove said: “The last five years the number of people coming in on weekends has probably tripled.”
Sitting down for a tasting, with the unmistakable smells of brewing emanating from the copper tanks next to the bar, Norgrove and I had a couple of his mainstays – Red Rocket, a rich, caramel-malt Scottish-style ale, is a personal favourite – as well as a few of his eight rotating speciality brews. Then we headed next door to check out his latest project: a 1,200-sq ft warehouse that he plans to turn into a tasting room and shop selling bottles of limited-release barrel-aged beers. “We’re even going to try to do what some wineries do and sell futures,” Norgrove said. “People can taste and buy from a barrel before ageing, then we’ll package it up when it’s ready.”
The following morning, I drove down through the Alexander Valley – surely one of the most picturesque stretches of wine country anywhere – to Calistoga, the spa town famous for its natural mud baths. At Solage Calistoga, a hip spa resort (and a great spot to detox after indulging), I picked up its Michelin-starred chef Brandon Sharp, a beer enthusiast who agreed to join me for an afternoon of tasting. At his restaurant Solbar, Sharp offers a modest selection of beers on tap, including Napa Smith Brewery’s Cool Brew, a crisp, mildly hoppy pale ale that pairs nicely with Sharp’s robust, spicy dishes, such as his excellent chilli-rubbed pork cheek tacos.
For our first stop we dropped in on Brian Hunt, who operates Moonlight Brewery in an out-of-the-way farmhouse near Santa Rosa. A quick-witted Dennis Hopper look-alike, Hunt announced that he prefers his beer “dry and bitter, just like my personality”. His best-known brew, Death and Taxes, is a rich, malty black lager that’s surprisingly clean and crisp. “A hot weather beer,” said Hunt. “To me, it’s like drinking an iced coffee.”
We moved on to Hunt’s more adventurous brews like Left for Dead, a sour-mash dark ale with coffee aromas and tart, funky notes. Sharp remarked that it “would be smokin’ with a reuben sandwich’s rich salty, fatty, caraway flavours”. We also tried Legal Tender, an unhopped style of beer called gruit, which gets its astringency and woody, earthy flavours from redwood branches and herbs. “It tickles my fancy to make something people don’t know what to do with,” said Hunt. “I’m known for making weird-ass stuff.”
Downtown Santa Rosa is a prime destination for beer fanatics, especially because of our next stop, Russian River Brewing. Owner Vinnie Cilurzo has an almost cult following for his exotic and hop-heavy creations, especially his double IPA, Pliny the Elder, ranked among the world’s top 10 beers on the websites Beer Advocate and Ratebeer. Over lunch at Russian River’s convivial brewpub, we sampled Cilurzo’s other speciality, sour beers. Consecration, a mouth-puckering dark ale, boasted flavours ranging from burnt toffee to a tobacco-chocolate character as well as intense dried fruit notes that come from maturing the beer in cabernet barrels with 30 pounds of currants added to each cask.
On our way back to Solage – via the beautiful Petrified Forest Road (there’s a visitors’ centre with giant redwoods turned to stone 3.4m years ago) – Sharp and I made a stop at the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery to sample a few beers from its house-only list, including a very good red ale. It’s a low-key spot that reflects Calistoga’s laid-back vibe. “It’s definitely the Haight-Ashbury of Napa Valley,” remarked Sharp. “A funky, tight-knit community, as much about wellness as wine.”
Afterwards, I headed to central Napa Valley and checked into the Hotel Yountville, contemporary yet rustic and a short walk from the town’s inviting shops and world-class restaurants such as The French Laundry, Bouchon and Redd. You don’t want to eat only pub grub in Yountville, said to have the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita on the planet.
The next morning I picked up Jamey Whetstone, best known for the luxuriant pinot noirs he makes under his Whetstone Cellars label. He’s also an avid beer drinker, especially during harvest when, as he put it, “Nothing’s better after a long day than a couple of cold barley soups.”
Together we drove to the town of Sonoma to visit the Sonoma Springs brewery, started two years ago by a trained chemist named Tim Goeppinger. Goeppinger’s passion is German-style beers and in his no-frills tasting room – a few stools around a plain wooden bar – he poured us his excellent New Bavaria Roggenbier, a yeasty rye ale with banana and clove flavours, and Volkbier Kolsch, a crisp lager with floral and grapefruit notes.
Next, Whetstone and I headed to Lagunitas Brewing on the outskirts of Petaluma, which will boost its production from around 200 barrels a day a few years ago to more than 1,700 barrels a day once an expansion is completed later this year. At Lagunitas’ festive beer garden, guests can enjoy 20 different beers on tap and live music in the afternoons. Despite its growth, it retains an irreverent northern California spirit, evident in its cheeky labels. Take the one for a limited-release strong brown ale called Wilco Tango Foxtrot (or WTF), which reads: “A Malty, Robust, Jobless Recovery Ale! We’re not quite in the red, or in the black ... Does that mean we’re in the brown?”
After dinner on my last evening, I popped into Downtown Joe’s, an old standby in Napa with brusque bartenders, well-oiled patrons and close to a dozen English-influenced brews on tap. I ordered for a nightcap the dry, hoppy Golden Thistle Very Bitter Ale, purportedly first made by mistake. The menu actually likens it to “chewing on a thistle”. How could I resist?
When it was time to head back to San Francisco, I left myself a few extra hours to drive down the legendary Highway 1, where the scenery ranges from gently rolling meadows to windswept, vertigo-inducing sea cliffs. I paid a quick visit to the Stumptown Brewery, a roadside brewpub with a majestic back terrace that overlooks the Russian River. After sampling the colourfully named Rat Bastard, a clean, dry pale ale, I drove straight south for one last stop: the famed Hog Island Oyster farm on the edge of Tomales Bay. Looking out across placid waters under a late-afternoon sun, I enjoyed a half-dozen extra-small Pacifics, sweet and briny and fresh in the way that only oysters just pulled from the sea can be. And I washed them down with a local Bear Republic Racer 5. Of course.
Rooms at H2 in Healdsburg start at $205 (www.h2hotel.com)
Solage Calistoga spa has 89 urban loft/country cottage bungalows from $325 (www.solagecalistoga.com)
The 80 rooms at Hotel Yountville start at $395 (www.hotelyountville.com)