I am excited because we soon are taking off on an overnight trip to the wilds of the North Coast of California, Humboldt County. I always love a good road trip, and am someone who would travel a hundred miles in a day to check out a supposedly great piece of pie (e.g. Julian, California, San Diego County at the other end of the state). I know someone else who always sought out the local root beer floats on car trips. From previous trips up to the Mendocino-Humboldt area in the past year, I’ve learned that along with the plentitude of grass fed beef, they’ve got damn fine beer up in those parts.
Most people head north on the Golden Gate Bridge thinking about wine, not beer. I’ve come to be much more of a beer than wine enthusiast over the years, and I can trace that development through visits and sojourns to places where I connected with the place, in part, through the local beer. As a college student, who only knew from the weak taste and strong smell of beer badly handled by underage drinkers, the messiness of kegs or worse yet, the tawdriness of cans, I thought beer was repulsive.
Then I spent a semester abroad in London. Going to pubs was something that had to be done, and I enjoyed visits to these glamorous places (to me, an English major about to turn 21) immensely, but I didn’t start drinking beer there right away. At first I only ordered hard cider because a) it was not beer, and b) it was served cold. As you likely know, beer on draft in the UK is traditionally served warm or at least tepid. Enter Australian beer. That the pubs will serve to you chilled, along with a derogatory comment about the Aussie’s poor taste on this issue. Fosters was the first beer I came to like. Then the following summer I was fortunate enough to find myself, as part of the all girl/college singing group that had just graduated, touring Australia for five weeks. I officially started loving beer and understanding that it was worthwhile to try regional ones: Victoria Bitter in Adelaide and looking for XXXX when we moved on to Sydney.
Another summer down the road, I had transplanted myself from NY to Los Angeles where my beer of choice was typically Mexican. I’d confound waiters by asking for Dos Equis lager, the one in the green bottle, and if they didn’t have that switching to Negra Modelo, the darkest beer on the list. (Why ask why?) Then there was the work related Spring in Montana (where I learned to add a bump to the beer) and the summer on location in Eugene, where there was a beer empire, a First Family of craft beer, known as McMenamins plus lots of other great microbrew brands from the region.
And my husband, I may remind you, hails from Minnesota.
Mmmm. Leinie’s. Not even a fancy craft beer, just a fantastic local brand that is totally worth a mosquito bite or two. Though here’s a tip I learned from a woman who grew up in Africa: beer makes you taste bitter to fleas so they won’t bite you when you’re sleeping. Bonus! Maybe it reduces your allure to mosquitoes too. Before my dear hub and I got married, we had a 6 month sojourn in Miami. This convocation was an attempt on the part of two people to get over the geographical challenge of their relationship. I never could quite fall in love with Miami, and today as I write I may have the insight as to why – no regional beer to speak of or that found its way to me. We roadtripped across the country then, to re-settle in California (“anywhere! as long as it’s California!” had been my fervent request).
So now that I am rounding out my 9th year of living in the SF Bay Area, I still remain a regular customer of the Mexican beers and favorite British beers, Bass Ale and Newcastle Nut Brown Ale – especially since I can chill them to my palate’s content. In the last year, though, when we started enjoying Way Northern California as a a target for more local trips, I’ve added some Sonoma and Mendocino County microbrews to my list of true beer loves. When it comes to an introduction to a great beer, though, sometimes you just had to be there. I won’t forget my first bottle of Red Tail Ale that was handed to me by a thoughtful host at the conclusion of a long drive, drinking it on the bank of the Eel River while watching the fading daylight filtering through the redwood trees. Imprinting, pure and simple.
Below is my “Wish They All Could Be California Beers” highlight list, touching on the finest craft beers from Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. They can claim excellent sustainability report cards, though these did not wind up on this Top Ten list of eco-friendliest breweries compiled for The Daily Green. There is also a well established, award winning Brewery and Brewpub in downtown Eureka itself, The Lost Coast Brewery, but I haven’t tried any of their beers. I think that must be a mandate for this trip, as I will be there by sundown. In the spirit of investigative journalism, I think I should make a point of sampling at least one jewel in their crown.
If you are driving to The Land of Tasty Beers (or just looking for something good and a little pricey at the market):
From Sonoma County, this lovely beer is a Petaluma local. I don’t usually like such hoppy beers, but I make an exception for Lagunitas IPA. Petaluma, less than an hour drive north from San Francisco, is a favorite town to visit when I feel the need for some short-term escapism. Unlike San Francisco and Santa Rosa, Petaluma’s downtown was not damaged in the great earthquake of 1906 and is a unique source in the area of wonderfully Western, late 19th century architecture.
Further north in Mendocino County, you can explore more off the beaten track wineries, some quite amazing, and the Mendocino Brewing Company in Hopland, just south of Ukiah. I love their Red Tail Ale, which the MBC calls their flagship brand. They have many others.
This link will take you to the MBC’s in depth description of how their beer is brewed.
All the way up in Fort Bragg, north of the town of Mendocino, is the North Coast Brewing Company, which was called ‘one of the ten best breweries in the world’ by the Beverage Testing Institute in the World Beer Championships competition.
On a getaway weekend to Mendocino last winter – a trip that introduced us to this area and these beers – my husband and I had dinner at the North Coast’s brewpub restaurant. There was no reason to resist that flight of beers tasting option with my entrée. All were delicious but Scrimshaw has become for me an instant classic. To my delight, I’ve lately started seeing it in nicer grocery stores and at Trader Joe’s. It costs about as much as a six of Bass Ale. I highly recommend it.
North Coast also sponsors a museum in honor of ACME beer, which no longer exists but was produced for decades in San Francisco. ACME had at one time could claim 50% of the California beer market, owing its significant rise in the mid-1930’s to targeting it’s marketing to an untapped area: women. This site has a fascinating, in-depth history of ACME and supplied these cool Vargas and Petty drawn vintage ads: http://brewerygems.com/acme.htm