North Bay Beer-cation

I have admit that I don’t get to Sonoma County nearly enough. Merideth regularly travels to the North Bay for work and I have accompanied her on a few occasions. But my house-husband duties usually keep me from spending more time in one of the the true gems of the US beer scene.

Another one of  my moments of brilliant inspiration had the planning wheels in my head spinning. I would have Merideth drop me off in Santa Rosa and I would bike the 20 plus miles to Guerneville while she was working. When Merideth was finished, she would meet me there. Like all great plans, mine had one flaw — the weather. When the day of the trip finally arrived, biblical amounts of rain scuttled any idea of a bike ride. I spent the day hanging out at places such as the Santa Rosa library waiting for Merideth to finish work.

Merideth in front of Sonoma Springs Brewing Co.

Our first stop of the day was Sonoma Springs Brewing Co., located along the main drag in Sonoma. Being mid-day on a rainy Thursday in  March, we were the only customers when we entered the quaint brewery and tasting room. Bellying up to the bar, we greeted the brewer/bartender/owner and his tiny assistant — his young son. A long day ahead, we ordered a taster set of beers to share.

The tasters at Sonoma Springs

The brews fell mostly into two categories: German-style  beers and hopped up California ales. The two German-style Wheats, Divine Harvest Dunkelweiss and Mission Bell Sour Wheat, were both sour despite only one having ‘sour’ in its name. Merideth and I both found them very strange, though I found the Sour Wheat more acceptable. Maybe because it was appropriately named. I did like the New Bavaria Roggenbier.

On the other hand, the two California hop bombs Lil Chief Pale Ale and Noma Coma Double IPA were excellent. My favorite, Lil Chief, was redolent of running naked through a pine forest after a summer downpour. [Did I just plagiarize Chris Devlin?]

After finishing our taster set, we bade farewell to our hosts and headed north towards Guerneville. The drive down River Road was reminiscent of the Santa Cruz Mountains, except the hippies were much more menacing looking. The last time we were in Guerneville was in 1997 when we visited the original location of Russian River Brewing at Korbel. Thirteen years later, we ventured another mile down the road to visit our second new brewery of the day, Stumptown Brewery and Smokehouse.

The required photo from the Stumptown Brewery's deck overlooking the Russian River

On this dreary afternoon, we were two of maybe seven or eight customers. The large u-shaped bar wrapped from the inside to the outside which  serviced Stumptown’s expansive deck overlooking the Russian River. Despite the weather, I forced Merideth to sit outside, even after she had already expressed her wish by sitting down at the inside bar. I had visions of playing Scrabble on the deck while watching trees flow down the rain-swollen Russian River. In my defense, at least it wasn’t raining.

Merideth much happier in front of a fire

Merideth ordered the Bushwacker Wheat, another oddly sour-ish Wheat beer. My choice, Blimey the Wanker, beside having a great name, was a much better choice. It was was more of an English style,  nicely hopped but not an over-the-top enamel-eating brew. By the way, after a few sips of our beers, we moved inside.

Despite the miss on Merideth’s beer, we can’t wait to return in warmer weather to take advantage of Stumptown’s deck. I can see myself enjoying a few Blimey the Wankers out there on a sunny summer day. Plus, I still need to do the Santa Rosa to Guerneville bike ride.

Hop Kiln Winery, California Historical Landmark #893

We took Westside Rd., the scenic route between Guerneville and Healdsburg, to our next stop: Bear Republic Brewing. As we passed flooded vineyards and swollen creeks, we reveled in what we thought was a new back road adventure. Then we came upon Hop Kiln Winery, a stop we made on our first visit to Sonoma County in 1997. Obviously, we had taken the same road between Russian River and Bear Republic back then.

Built in 1905, the building is, according to its California landmark listing, the “most significant surviving example of a stone hop kiln in the North Coast region”. Inside, there are vintage photos and equipment from the era when hops were king. Hop Kiln Winery is a must  stop for any beer geek touring the area.

Not the comfiest seat at Bear Republic

A few minutes after leaving Hop Kiln, we were in downtown Healdsburg. Despite being one of my favorite breweries, Bear Republic was mainly a growler fill stop in our busy Thursday schedule. Arriving at happy hour, we finally encountered our first crowds of the day. Grabbing the only two seats at the bar, Merideth ordered a Peter Brown Tribute Ale, a Brown Ale while I performed much needed research.

With only one Bear Republic growler, I needed to choose wisely. My first beer and first choice for the growler was Hop Rod Rye, their amazing IPA brewed with 18% rye malt. At home, our Bear Republic beers tend to be a bit it dated. So, I was in heaven to be drinking fresh Bear Republic beer again. I was pretty satisfied with Hop rod Rye as my growler choice but did have a Racer 5 just to make sure.

Our final stop of the day was Russian River Brewing in downtown Santa Rosa. Riding over from our hotel in the taxi, I thought it was going to be a semi-quiet evening — a few beers, dinner and a game of scrabble. With the Craft Brewers Conference events happening 55 miles to the south, I assumed all the beer geeks were there.

Russian River Brewing packed on a Friday night

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Walking in the back door, we could see that the bar and dining areas were packed all the way to the front door on the opposite side of the building. Luckily, there was a high table by the back door free. Merideth staked that table out while I walked up front to try to satisfy our desire to be closer to the action. Seeing that the table where Merideth sat was the only one free, I returned to her and settled in.

Enjoying a Defenestration at Russian River Brewing

If there was maybe one mistake on the day, it was going to Russian River last. There were a number of new beers I wanted to try but was losing steam quickly. I passed on the three Pale Ales, Gaffers, Segal Select, and Happy Hops, though the last I would bring home in a growler. Moving over to the Belgian-style Ales, I chose the excellent Defenestration, a 7.25% ABV Hoppy Blond in the Houblon Chouffe mold. My second and last beer of the day was their Craft Brewers Conference Collaboration brew with Sierra Nevada, a Sour Brown. A bit on the lighter side, it was probably what I needed. A Pliny probably would have put me under the table.

It was Merideth’s evening. She got to drink her favorite Russian River beer, Damnation, their Belgian-style Strong Golden Ale. She ruled the Scrabble board, destroying me 335 to 265, but most important, she go to spend the afternoon and evening with her wonderful husband. If she had one disappointment, she felt that she should have scored 400 in Scrabble. Maybe next trip…

View all the images from our North Bay Beer-cation