Xmas Trees & Beer on the Central Coast

Apparently, we have a new Thanksgiving weekend tradition. For the second year running, we journeyed down to the southern Central Coast to check out their growing beer scene. Last year, we concentrated on the San Luis Obispo/Paso Robles area [Read A New Beer Destination – California’s Central Coast]. This year, our focus was the Santa Ynez Valley.

Blue skies reigned on our Christmas tree hunt

But we had one piece of business to take care of first. With a busy schedule prior to leaving for Europe in early December, we needed to get our Christmas tree. Limited time meant that driving an hour and half north to our normal Christmas tree farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains was out of the question. After a quick internet search, I located Holloway’s Christmas Tree Farm in Nipomo, just south of Pismo Beach.

Merideth hunting for the perfect tree

Three hours after leaving our house, we were wandering the fields of Holloway’s Farm under a warm California November sun. Out of our familiar Santa Cruz Mountain Christmas tree farm environment, we struggled to pick just the right tree. After taking 45 minutes to explore the whole farm, we finally chose the very first tree Merideth had picked out as a possible candidate.

Rooney’s Irish Pub houses Shanty Irish Brewing Co.

With our Christmas tree hunt completed, it was time for a beer. We hoped to satisfy our thirst at Rooney’s Irish Pub, a short drive away in the tiny town of Orcutt. Visiting Rooney’s was a gamble because we weren’t sure they were pouring their own beers yet. Rooney’s opened last summer, but due to construction issues with the brewery, there was a delay getting Shanty Irish Brewing Co. up and running.

We’d been to Orcutt before. In fact, it was last Thanksgiving when we visited Orcutt Brewing Company. Having been to this seemingly sleepy little burg, we were somewhat surprised to discover that Rooney’s was one of those ‘upscale’ Irish pubs. Bustling early on a Friday afternoon, the pub was filled with multiple large family groups. The bar area was crowded with college football fans watching Auburn vs. Alabama. After some difficulty, Merideth  ascertained that they did have ONE house beer on tap. One beer was all we needed to count Rooney’s on The List, so we grabbed a table in the bar area.

Sausage Plate and Pork Belly Sliders at Rooney’s

The beer was a 9% ABV Amber. Admittedly, I thought that was an odd choice for a first beer. The dark amber brew had a very mild flavor with a slight amount of alcohol hotness, which became more prominent as it warmed up. Nothing in Rooney’s first beer said ‘wow’ to us. But, it was a credible first effort.

The star of the show at Rooney’s was the food. Merideth and I shared Pork Belly Sliders and a Sausage Plate with Pickled Vegetables to accompany our beer. Both were excellent.

We look forward to visiting Rooney’s again in the future when they have their full beer lineup available. When we do, I think I’ll get my own order of Pork Belly sliders.

A crowded ‘soft’ opening

With fortuitous timing, we visited Figueroa Mountain Brewing, located in an industrial park just off Hwy 101 in Buellton, during their ‘soft’ opening. However, nothing said soft as we walked through the crowded reception area into the even more crowded tasting room. A boisterous and lively crowd chatted in groups as the staff busily tried to keep the beer flowing and glasses full.

Sample set at Figueroa Mountain Brewing

Three of their five beers were available to try on opening day. All were clean and well-crafted, very impressive for a new brewery. Wrangler Wheat is a unfiltered American-style Wheat beer. Davy Brown Ale, named after a Santa Ynez Valley pioneer, was a delicious Brown Ale. Most impressive, though, was the Hoppy Poppy IPA, a 6.5% 65 IBU brew that even Merideth, a non-hophead, really liked. It’s not often we agree on the favorite beer.

While drinking our sample set of beers, Merideth and I both marveled at the swanky tasting room digs. The owners seemed to spare no expense in making an industrial building feel warm and cozy. The dark rustic wood tables and wood paneling in the tasting area were a nice contrast to the cinder block walls of the brewery.

Success is never guaranteed, but we left thinking that Figueroa Mountain Brewing is going to do very well.

The Taproom restaurant in Buellton

Still in Buellton, we finished our day across the highway at Firestone Walker’s Tap Room Restaurant. Huge fans of their beers, every visit to the Central Coast requires a stop to fill our growler. While we are frequent visitors to the tasting room in Paso Robles, this was our first visit to the restaurant. Despite being much larger than the tasting room, the restaurant had a familiar and comfortable vibe. The only difference was the addition of an open kitchen and large dining area.

My Union Jack and Fish Tacos and Merideth’s Velvet Merlin and Mac-n-Cheese were a perfect way to end a productive day on the  Central Coast.

View all the pictures from our day…

A New Beer Destination – California’s Central Coast

We took the opportunity on Thanksgiving weekend to make another road trip to the southern portion of California’s Central Coast [see SLO Saturday and What is a Beer Geek?]. Quickly, our brethren to the south are building quite a beer community, something that makes us both happy and jealous. Early Saturday morning we were heading south on Highway 101 for the almost three hour drive to our first stop.

The dog friendly patio at Orcutt Brewing
The dog friendly outside seating at Orcutt Brewing

Our first destination was the newest brewery addition to the beer scene, Orcutt Brewing in a town of the same name. Ten minutes off of Highway 101, Orcutt was formerly a bar, the Loading Dock, that recently added a small brewhouse. On a beautiful late November day, we found a nice spot on their expansive, dog-friendly deck to try some beer.

The one house beer
The one house beer

Typical of a new brewpub, Orcutt is trying to match production with demand. At this point, demand is winning. While the plans are to have three or four house beers plus a seasonal on at all times, there was only one beer available on our visit: Frick N’ IPA. We were thankful they had the one beer; otherwise we couldn’t have counted Orcutt on The List.

Some of the taps at Orcutt Brewing
Some of the taps at Orcutt Brewing

Complimenting the house beer was a nice selection of guest taps. Among the 13 handles was Sierra Nevada Celebration, and a couple of Firestone Walker beers including the Robust Porter, which we don’t see here in our beer backwater.

All in all, quite a pleasant experience. Enjoying the sun out on the deck, we had a tasty lunch and beer. We look forward to our next visit when there will be yet another brewpub opening up next door.

Two of lifes pleasures; my pups and beer
Two of life’s pleasures; my pups and beer

Heading back up the highway, a short 15 minute drive had us at another dog-friendly establishment, Santa Maria Brewing in Nipomo. This was our second visit to Santa Maria Brewing, our first being St. Patrick’s Day 2001.

What struck us then was that Santa Maria was basically a clubhouse, complete with all manner of memorabilia, where friends gathered over a few beers. And it was no different the second time around. While we seemed to be the first customers of the day, soon a steady trickle of people arrived. They all knew each other and soon were chatting over beers.

Relaxing over a beer, Blonde Ale for Merideth and Belgian Brown for myself, we talked about how some places just have that vibe that transcends the beer. The brews are good, not great, but there is much more to Santa Maria Brewing. If we ever had a beer place, Santa Maria would be one of the places we would want to emulate.

The beer selection at Spikes
The beer selection at Spike’s

Back on the highway, our next destination was Spike’s in San Luis Obispo. Spike’s was one of the original beer bars in California. Mentioned in the 1988 version of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer, Spike’s has been around for 25 years. Despite its long history, this was only my second visit, Merideth’s first, to this California beer institution. A return visit/first visit was long overdue.

Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Life & Limb at Spikes
Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Life & Limb at Spike’s

However, the main reason to stop at Spike’s was my search for Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Life & Limb on draft.

I had the bottled version on Thanksgiving Day and loved it. It was rich, malty and I really enjoyed the extra sweetness added by the maple syrup. It was a nice beer to sip in front of a fire on Thanksgiving evening watching Blazing Saddles. But I wanted to compare it to the draft version. Since we probably weren’t going to get draft Life & Limb in the backwater, I needed to go find it. I was pretty confident Spike’s would have it.

They did. The draft version had a thinner mouth-feel than the bottled version which made room for much more of the alcohol taste to come through. Not a fan of the hot alcohol taste, I preferred the bottle. Chalk one up for bottle conditioning!

World class beer at Firestone Walker tasting room
World class beer at Firestone Walker tasting room

If there is a center to this growing beer scene, it would have to be Paso Robles. San Luis Obispo has more beer establishments, but Paso has Firestone Walker. With its world class beers, and location on a main San Francisco/Los Angeles thoroughfare, the Firestone Walker tasting room is a magnet for travelers heading both north and south.

The chocately goodness that is Black Xanthus
The chocolaty goodness that is Black Xanthus

And on this Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, the tasting room was doing  a pretty brisk business. We even met several friends returning from their trips further south.

I was looking forward to a pint of the repeat GABF gold medal winner, Union Jack IPA but there was something special  in store. Those, like us, who stopped in this holiday weekend were in for a treat, Black Xantus on draft. Produced under their second label Nectar Ales, I had tried it at the BevMo Holiday Beer Festival in San Francisco. It was nice to revisit the chocolate-bomb Imperial Stout at its source.

We also took the opportunity to pick up a few bottles of Firestone 13.

New on the Paso beer scene: the Pour House
New on the Paso beer scene: the Pour House

Our final stop of the day, the Pour House, was a hundred yards down the street from the Firestone Walker tasting room. Only open since July, the Pour House sports a dozen taps and 80 some odd beers in the bottle.

Housed in one of those  office/warehouse type buildings, the Pour House was very reminiscent of Ol’ Factory Cafe. We found a cozy spot on the couches in the front corner with some friends.

Unfortunately, we hit the Pour House at the end of a long day. One beer and some delivered pizza was it for us before we headed home. We need to get back down to Paso Robles soon to give the Pour House a real visit.