Bay Area Brewing Backroads

Day 1: The plane reached the gate at Oakland International at 1 AM, hours late due to poor performance on the part of United Airlines. Memories of the Rio Grande Desert Pils at Albuquerque Sunport's Route 66 Microbrewery and the Fat Tire at DIA's B concourse had long since faded. The closed rental car counters were just the beginning, even the hotel lounges were shutting down faster than they could be located. The morning faired better, after transportation was obtained. Destination: Lake County, a few hours north of the Bay Area. The first stop was Downtown Joe's at 902 Main Street in Napa. After the agonizingly slow traffic on Route 29 along winery row, it was time for a beer.

The brewpub is easy to find and, surprisingly, so is parking. From the outdoor patio the meandering Napa River is in easy view. After sampling the six brews, tasting the pasta, and getting a quick tour of the 7 bbl system by assistant brewer Lance, it was time to move on. Fortunately there was time to select a few choice brands from the 260 bottled beers available across the street at Geezers. Next stop: Calistoga.

The Napa Valley Brewing Company is located at the Calistoga Inn where Route 29 meets Hwy 128. The small patio bar allows for sampling their five beers, conversing with out-of-state visitors, and viewing yet another portion of the Napa River. The four tasted beers were clean and flavorful, the Barley Wine was left for another occasion that wouldn't require piloting up the winding mountain roads in competition with oncoming logging trucks for territorial rights to the center line.

With final lodging secured it was time for some serious tasting. The chosen location was Mount St. Helena Brewing Company in the sleepy village of Middletown. Its pizza parlor atmosphere was unimposing and accommodating. Their full range of beers; Honey Wheat, Pale Ale, Brown, and Imperial Stout, all went well with the filling pizzas and pastas.

Day 2: With the craft beer presence in Sonoma minimal, the decision to head west seemed appropriate. Destination: Sebastapol, the former apple-growing community just east of the coast. The daunting one-way streets and perplexing street signs provoked a stop for directions at Main Street Bar & Grille. Just to be polite, I ordered an Acme Brown Ale and documented the advised route to the Powerhouse Brewpub two blocks away. Good news; building spotted. Bad news; they don't open for lunch until noon! Once inside, the first impression is formed from the spacious, open design offering seated views of the decorated bar, stainless steel brewing system, and outdoor patios. Flavors ranged from subdued to bold across styles that included Wheat, Blonde Ale, ESB, IPA, Porter, and Powerhouse Ale Winter Warmer. The ex-streetcar power station is attracting appreciative locals and visitors in its latest incarnation, supported by old-fashioned Grundy brewing vessels whose life and dimensions have been extended by expert welders in neighboring Santa Rosa.

Continuing toward the Russian River area, signs soon appeared announcing Korbel Champagne Cellars. Only the informed realize that "there's beer in them thar hills", specifically in the shiny new copper Liquid Assets brewhouse. Following the public facility tour the deli and bar appeared very accommodating. Their four beers are poured from non-distinct handles adjacent to the walls of bottled champagne. The shaded outdoor deck makes it hard to resist the temptation to buy a little cheese, a fresh baguette of French bread, and then settle down with good company and a good bottle. These beers should soon find their way into distribution.

After the filling day it was now time to think about happy hour. Although nearby Santa Rosa has a great beer bar called The Rose, I opted to visit Santa Rosa Brewing company in the downtown district. For a Friday after work time period the place was dead. No one at the dartboards, no one watching the sports TVs, and no one seated in the German bier hall area or the cozier pub lounge near the brewhouse. After trying and liking most of their beers it was time to find a place to stay and get the car stationary.

Day 3: The distances called for extensive driving from central Sonoma County through Marin country and around the East Bay to end up at Mountain View. By 11:30 AM the marching band was already working the crowd in the tent at the Small Brewers Festival of California. $15 got customers a sturdy 10 ounce tasting glass with a marked 4 ounce pour line along with 7 sample tokens. More than 40 West Coast breweries brought 150+ beers to taste, with volunteers doing the pouring. Food vendors were cooking up a storm outside the single 18,000 square foot beer tent as musical groups took the stage nearby with both shaded and unshaded seating under the 90 degree sun. There was a good representation from Northern and Central California breweries and brewpubs. Wash stations in the corners and kegs of drinking water among the central picnic tables met the needs of the dedicated tasters. The tent layout featured tasting tables across three sides facing inward, but as the afternoon crowds grew, lines at popular booths quickly clogged all walk-ways and frustrated paying customers. By mid-afternoon the sawdust ground cover was producing a massive dust cloud and the roar under the tent approached the deafening levels typical of the Great American Beer Festival during their Saturday night "quantity beer" session. By early Saturday evening the crowds began to thin but unless organizers improve the interior layout I would recommend going for the Sunday session (11:30AM - 7 PM) rather than Saturday (11:30AM - 9PM). Also needing attention was the token sales operation. The only clearly marked signs showed that you must stand in the long 'first-time' ID/Entry line just to buy more $1 tokens. This was absurd! Not clearly marked was some scribbling at the designated T-shirt booth ($15 ea.) that announced tokens for sale. Cisco Systems, the data communications/networking people, had their booth staffed with reps yelling "free beer", and it was true! In exchange for your business card they provided a couple of sample tokens. They were also accepting resumes, and when asked, said they would supply the equipment so employees could work at home and telecommute. I failed to mention that I lived 1000 miles away. Lacking another 150 tokens to try the remaining beers I settled for a judicious selection. The John Russel Best Bitter, hand-drawn from cask, really stood out.

Knowing that the satiated feelings I had wouldn't last, I plotted the next stop as Dublin Brewery in Dublin, California. Actually a pub rather than a brewery, the wall behind the long bar features an incredible selection of local, regional, and national micros. Seating was rearranged to accommodate a 30-piece band, on hand for the festivities to honor Judy Ashworth who was retiring as publican. Judy is well-known throughout the Bay Area for her years of strong support bringing craft beer and imports to customers.

With the ringing from the horn section starting to subside it was time for a nightcap. The chosen site was Main Street Brewery in Pleasanton. Open about two weeks, their lineup looked good for starters and judging from the decor and early late-night crowds this should become a popular neighborhood bar.

Day 4: Originally planned as a 'down day', circumstances dictated change. An invitation to a home-cooked brunch a the home to Real Beer Page author Mark Silva and his TV producer wife Darcy necessitated a journey through San Francisco's BART and MUNI systems. The experience taught this writer that featuring New Glarus Belgian-style beer can make any meal a memorable one.

With time short, a taxi was chased down and commanded to proceed to Steelhead Brewpub at Fisherman's Wharf. The newly-opened building looked very classy inside and there was just enough time to decimate a sampler tray of their eight beers. The return journey via Oakland Airport afforded on plane change at Denver's DIA, where micros are starting to appear. Terminal B has various locations worth visiting where $4.50 pints can be obtained from Left Hand Brewing and New Belgium. Late again, thanks to United Airlines, the journey ended. Time for a homebrew.

Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri - August, 1997

Downtown Joes          Napa Valley Brewing          Powerhouse
902 Main street        1250 Lincoln Ave.            268 Petaluma Ave.
Napa, CA 94559         Calistoga, CA 94515          Petaluma, CA  
(707)258-BEER          (707)895-BEER                707)829-9171

Russian River Brewing Co.     Santa Rosa Brewing Co.     Mt.St. Helena Brewing
13250 River Rd.               458 B Street               21167 Calistoga St.
Guerneville, CA               Santa Rosa, CA 95401       Middletown, CA 95461
(707)887-2294                 (707)544-4677              (707)987-3461

Main St. Brewery          Dublin Brewery          Steelhead at Fisherman's Wharf
830 Main St.              7294 San Ramon Rd.      353 Jefferson
Pleasanton, CA            Dublin, CA 94568        San Francisco, CA
(510)462-8218             (510)820-9071           (415)775-1795

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