California is spoiled. From top to bottom, the Golden State’s beer scene is well ahead of almost every state in the nation. But with San Diego’s long-established status as a beer mecca and the recent surge of incredible breweries based in and around Los Angeles, the focus often seems to be on the state’s southern half. So, what’s happening in wine country? To find out, I toured the breweries of San Francisco (or Frisco, as the locals enjoyed me calling it), Santa Rosa and Sacramento. I learned a lot; I drank a lot, and these are the most interesting bits I discovered about the NorCal beer scene.
San Francisco’s Thirsty Bear Organic Brewery just celebrated its 20th year in operation and its ninth as a fully organic brewery. It remains the only certified organic brewery in San Francisco, which isn’t surprising given the challenges of going fully organic. Organic malt, for instance, is more expensive than the standard stuff—Thirsty Bear owner and founding brewmaster Ron Silberstein revealed that he pays around $1.20 per pound for his malted barley, whereas non-organic malt costs about 30 cents per pound. It’s also much tougher for organic breweries to procure in-vogue ingredients. Thirsty Bear wasn’t able to get Citra hops (the darling of IPA-focused brewers since their premiere in 2007) until last year.
Anchor Brewing Co.—grandaddy of the American craft beer movement—has been expanding its dry-hopping capabilities. In September, the brewery began selling versions of its Steam Beer dry-hopped using the classic method of plunging a muslin bag with hop cones into the tank. Anchor also recently procured a few tanks designed to be filled with hops and recirculate beer through them while it ferments. The vessels are uncannily similar to the “torpedo” pods utilized by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which might explain the name Anchor’s brewers have given them: Odeprot. Anchor’s Go West IPA and Odeprot imperial IPA are both dry-hopped with these tanks. The brewery’s more traditional methods are still in place, however. Steam Beer, which makes up just over half of the brewery’s production, is still fermented in shallow, open tanks; and Liberty Ale, Anchor’s single-hopped IPA, also gets the coolship treatment.
Anchor also celebrates Christmas rather early. The first brewday for its Christmas Ale occurs in July so the beer can fully ferment to be distributed to Europe and points beyond in time for the holidays. Anchor exports its wares to approximately 20 countries.
Pliny the Elder makes up more than half of Russian River Brewing Co.’s total beer sales. Even more surprising: sales from the small package shop in the front of the brewpub match the food and draft sales nearly every day. (“It’s Pliny cases walking out the door nonstop,” one employee told us.)
Russian River will break ground on its new production facility in Windsor, California, (about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa) in March 2017. That spot will have the capacity to produce close to 40,000 barrels of beer a year, up from the 11,000 produced at Russian River’s current offsite facility and the 4,000 barrels made at the brewpub. Without construction delays (there are always construction delays) the location should be open by summer 2018, but don’t expect to start seeing Pliny in stores in your state if you don’t already. The plan is to continue sending Russian River beer where it’s currently available (California, Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania) and fill in distribution gaps in those areas.
21st Amendment Brewery’s Mexican-style lager, El Sully, is going into the NHL Hall of Fame. The beer earned its place in history after it became a magic charm for Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan (nickname: Sully) throughout this year’s Stanley Cup finals. You can read the whole story here.
Trumer Pils will be available in cans beginning in January. The Austrian brewery’s Berkeley, California, facility (which operates inside an old ink factory built in the ’50s) will begin packaging its lauded lager in aluminum via a mobile canning line.
Trumer is also one of few breweries in North America that practices “endosperm mashing,” a process that separates barley husks from the internal endosperm prior to combining the malt with water. Malt husks contain tannins that can impart harsh bitterness and astringency to a finished beer. By taking them out of the equation, Trumer’s brewers believe they can make a smoother brew. The husks are returned back to the mash, however, when it’s time to lauter.
Fogbelt Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa owns its own hop farm, a ¼-acre patch on which grows Cascade and Chinook hops as well as a wild-harvested hop that’s most likely California Cluster. Champions of locally grown hops, the brewery also formed a collective with small hop growers in the area—the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance—to share and promote the region’s hops.
Plow Brewing Co. brewer and owner Kevin Robinson (a graduate of UC Davis’ master brewers program and former brewer at Lagunitas, Speakeasy and Russian River) basically built his Santa Rosa brewery by hand. Because he couldn’t find any available from brewing equipment manufacturers, he built his mash tun himself. The boil kettle, from a defunct juice factory, came without a steam jacket, so Robinson crafted that too. (“It gets raging boils,” he says.) Old dairy tanks act as the lagering vessels for his unique Sonoma Coast Pils; his heat exchanger, acquired from an old Gatorade plant, is hilariously oversized for the as-yet small brewery. As ad hoc as the brewhouse is, everything works perfectly—well enough, in fact, that down-the-road Cooperage Brewing Co. produces all its wort at Plow.
Speaking of Cooperage, as the name would suggest, barrels are the focus—the facility currently houses about 80 red and white wine and whiskey casks in which are aging several dozen sour ales. But the brewery’s only been open 15 months, so none of those sours have actually been ready to drink yet. Instead, an ever-changing array of mostly Belgian and hop-focused ales has kept the bar full; in those 15 months, the brewery’s produced more than 60 different beers.
And finally, some stats gleaned from the California Craft Beer Summit: There are now 729 operating breweries in California—more than any other state in the nation. In 2015, those breweries contributed $7.3 billion to the state’s economy, and the craft beer industry, as a whole, created more than 50,000 jobs. Pretty good, California. Pretty good.
For more information on what’s going on in the Golden State, head to visitcalifornia.com.