A day’s drive reveals wine country’s sudsy underbelly.
By Sarah L. Stewart
As thirsty vintners in Napa Valley, Calif., will tell you, “It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine.” In the past three decades, a handful of craft brewers have revived the area’s 19th-century brewing tradition, giving discerning local palates some hometown beers to be proud of. After a daylong brew tour through Napa Valley, you’ll agree: This is beer country, too.
1. Silverado Brewing Co.
Head north 19 miles from downtown Napa on State Route 29 past postcard-perfect vineyard rows and rugged hillsides en route to Silverado Brewing, housed in the 115-year-old former Freemark Abbey Winery building. The castlelike structure is among the oldest remaining stone buildings in the valley, but the beers have a modern twist, embracing organic ingredients whenever possible. Call ahead to join the 11 a.m. daily tour ($5, includes a 10-ounce pour), or settle into the rustic taproom with a six-beer sampler including the easygoing, nearly organic Certifiably Blonde Ale and the sweet, malty Meebock, a spring seasonal named for co-owner and head brewer Ken Mee. 3020 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena, silveradobrewingcompany.com
2. Gott’s Roadside
For lunch, backtrack a couple miles south through quaint downtown St. Helena to Gott’s Roadside, a walk-up outdoor diner featuring six California brews on tap. This updated outpost from the ’40s serves all-American fare like a hormone-free burger topped with bacon, blue cheese and a crispy onion ring alongside garlic-butter fries—perfect for prepping your palate for more beer tasting. Pair it with GABF gold-winning Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, a smooth NorCal favorite brewed 70 miles away, or take it slow with North Coast Brewing’s 4.5%-ABV Blue Star Wheat. 933 Main St., St. Helena, gottsroadside.com
Continue north 25 miles to the charming 19th-century Calistoga Inn, which became Napa County’s first commercial brewer since Prohibition when it launched Napa Valley Brewing Co. in 1987. Here you’ll find selections like the murky Calistoga Wheat Ale, which won GABF gold in 1994, and the 13-malt Red Ale, which claimed bronze in 1991. Catch a free tour with brewmaster Brad Smisloff (weekdays, by appointment only) to explore the water tower-turned-brewhouse out back; in the grain room, sample raw ingredients like roasted barley. 1250 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, calistogainn.com
Return to Napa proper via Silverado Trail, a winding, less-traveled road shrouded in gnarled oaks, for dinner at this local-favorite gastropub. The cozy, barnwood-paneled space boasts about 30 ever-changing beers (evenly divided between bottles and taps), including drafts like the coveted Back in Black from San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery and seasonals from Lagunitas Brewing in nearby Petaluma. Reward a tough day of beer drinking with spinach-and-goat cheese dip and fish ’n‘ chips battered in Napa Smith Amber. 1401 First St., Napa, normanrosenapa.com
5. Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant
Close out the night a few blocks away at Downtown Joe’s, a riverfront brewpub with a bustling after-hours scene and live music most nights. Here you’ll find nine rotating house brews, including favorites like the limited-release Double Secret Probation IPA (a floral, 9%-ABV double version) and the best-selling, caramel Tail Waggin’ Amber Ale, named for the female patrons who shake their tailfeathers here on weekends. Befriend brewmaster Colin Kaminski for a chance to spend a day with him as a guest brewer—but be ready to pay up in the form of mash-tun shoveling. 902 Main St., Napa, downtownjoes.com
OFF THE MAP: Napa Smith Brewery
About six miles south of downtown sits Napa’s largest and broadest-reaching craft brewer, Napa Smith. The 3-year-old brewery, which distributes beers like the apricoty, 70-ish-IBU Organic IPA to 15 states, is set to go nationwide in 2011. Monday through Friday, schedule a tour of the production facility with 30-plus-year veteran master brewer Donald Barkley or one of his fellow brewers ($10, includes a pint glass and samples). A tasting room is slated to open in May, providing space to enjoy spring seasonals like oaky Coolbrew and flagship brews like Napa Smith’s locally bestselling Amber Ale. 1 Executive Way, Napa, napasmithbrewery.com