Walking Among Giants

It’s not everyday that I have a chance to tap into my inner-hippie/tree hugging self, but on the second full day of our trip, I had the perfect opportunity to do just that. Having made the bulk of our additions to “The List” on Friday, Saturday was about communing with the stunning and majestic nature of California’s North Coast.

The 346 foot Founders Tree

We started our trek south by taking a drive on the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic 31-mile stretch of the old Highway 101 which runs through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and parallels the modern-day highway. The winding road was shrouded in the shade of the Redwood forest, which reminded me a lot of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It wasn’t until we stopped at Founder’s Grove that I realized just how much bigger and taller these trees were in comparison.

Founder’s Grove is a half-mile guided loop that offers a quick and easy way to get a real sense of California’s famed Redwoods. It was there that we got our first up-close and personal look at these “giants,” including the still standing Founder’s Tree (which was the first of many trees to get a hug) and the fallen Dyerville Giant. Measuring 370 ft. after it fell in 1991, the Dyerville Giant’s fall registered as a small quake on the Richter Scale and reports stated that it sounded like a train wreck. Words can’t convey what it was like to stand next to it. This tree was amazingly huge! That was just the warm-up, though, and we soon got back in the car and headed for the Rockefeller Forest.

The giant redwood is sprouting giant redwoods

Off of the Rockefeller Loop, Chris and I started our hike on the Bull Creek Flats North trail where 3.7 miles later we crossed the river and returned via the Bull Creek Flats South trail. The adventure was more of a strenuous walk, but it was long and tiring nonetheless. Along the way we wandered through the largest remaining old growth Redwood forest in the world, alongside Bull Creek , and around the base of a hill. Simply amazing! I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Like a giant shark mouth
Enjoying an evening at North Coast Brewing

Afterwards we drove an hour and a half to Fort Bragg on the coast. Our day’s adventure surely deserved a giant-sized reward and North Coast Brewing fit the bill perfectly. Our quaint motel was a short walk down Main Street from the brewery and its Taproom & Grill across the street.

The Taproom & Grill seemed to be Fort Bragg’s hot spot. We were lucky enough to get a small table in the bar, while the crowd continued to grow around the hostess station. We eventually moved up to the bar and the number of people waiting to be seated in the dining room remained steady throughout our whole visit.

Chris is really enjoying his cask Red Seal

Scrimshaw Pilsner is one of my favorite beers, but I opted to drink something different and instead chose Acme Pale Ale. Chris was excited to find Red Seal on cask and he showed little hesitation in ordering one. Both went well with our popcorn shrimp starter. Despite the busy dining room, the service in the bar was efficient and friendly, which meant Chris downed several pints before I had a chance to finish my first one. Luckily our motel was walking distance away.

Our first pint or two (or four in Chris’s case) took the edge off and our tired bodies started to relax. It was time for dinner. My Carolina pulled pork was full of tangy goodness and was accompanied by a yummy jalapeño-spiked corn cake. Chris thoroughly enjoyed his thin-sliced pork chop with mashed potatoes and vegetables. It was a good-sized portion but Chris still wished there was more of it.

Brother Thelonius ice cream with beer brittle

The crowning glory of our North Coast Brewing visit was dessert. It didn’t take me long to down my large bowl of Brother Thelonius ice cream with beer brittle and Chris had to act quick in order to get a taste of it. Rather than pair it with Brother Thelonius, however, I finished up my pint of Pale Ale before moving on to Le Merle, a tasty high alcohol saison. Chris went dark and ordered mud cake a la mode, which he appropriately paired with Old No. 38 Stout, an ingredient used in the cake. We were so absorbed in our respective desserts that we barely spoke until they were finished.

We concluded our night with a competitive game of Scrabble, which I lost. However, after a day of walking among giants and an evening at one of my favorite breweries, I’d say we were both winners.

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Three Rivers, a Coast and a Curtain

Despite California’s North Coast being home to some of our state’s pioneering breweries, Merideth and I, in almost 20 years of beer travel, have never journeyed to that remote part of the Golden State. Over the years, several trips were planned and for various reasons, aborted. With 2011’s unofficial theme being “Trying New Things,” we figured it was high time to make the long trek north to Humboldt and Mendocino Counties.

We split the 7-hour drive in two, staying the night in Santa Rosa. A couple of hours into the second 3½-hour leg, I came up with a possible reason why we hadn’t made this trip before. It’s a long drive! It was with great relief that we finally pulled into Eureka, the main city in Humboldt County.

Lost Coast Brewery's cafe in Eureka

A gray, foggy pall hung over Eureka as we made our way to the historic downtown district and our first stop, Lost Coast Brewery. Thanks to our friend and Lost Coaster, Jack, we were treated to a short tour of the production brewery. After that we made our way to the pub for a beer. Opened in 1990, their pub and original brewery are housed in a historic 1892 building.

Some of the artwork at Lost Coast

The pub was bustling with a lunchtime crowd and we grabbed the last two seats at the bar. Very familiar with the Lost Coast lineup, we passed on a taster set and ordered brews that aren’t usually available to us. Merideth ordered the Harvest Wheat while I went with Over the Top IPA, a pub exclusive. Despite it’s name, this 7% ABV IPA was quite balanced and made for a pleasant first beer of the day.

While we drank our beers, we gazed around the pub at the varied artwork. Those familiar with the Lost Coast labels would appreciate the creations, many done in papier-mâché, that adorned the walls and hung from the ceiling. With a busy day ahead, however, we couldn’t get too distracted. We finished our beers and pressed on.

Six Rivers in McKinleyville

A short drive north through the college town of Arcata, we arrived in McKinleyville, home of Six Rivers Brewery. The brewpub was just off the highway on the town’s main drag. I have to admit I was quite surprised by the building. Expecting old and rustic, Six Rivers was housed in a brightly-painted, modernist building.

Merideth and I planted ourselves at the bar and ordered a taster set and lunch. The brewery’s motto is “the Brew with a View,” so we admired the Pacific Ocean in the distance as we ran through the nine beer sampler.

Sampler set at Six Rivers

Admittedly, alarms went off at first. Not only were there two garnishes in the nine beer sampler, but also a dreaded Chili beer. Not a fan, one whiff of the overwhelming aroma told us this beer was not for us (neither one of us dared taste it). We found the two fruit beers, a Raspberry Lambic-style and a Strawberry Wheat, to be a tad sweet. Otherwise, the beers were quite solid with the standout for me being Trula Pilsner, a delightful Saaz-hopped Bohemian-style Pilsner. Merideth’s highlights were the Bluff Creek Pale Ale and Moonstone Porter.

Mad River Brewing Tasting Room

Taking a few minute journey inland from Six Rivers to the town of Blue Lake, we pulled into the parking lot at Mad River Brewing. Located in an industrial park, Mad River was somewhat difficult to find despite Blue Lake being a tiny town. We blame the directions provided by my douchephone which were quite convoluted. It didn’t help that every street in Blue Lake seemed to be called Chartin.

The reigning GABF “Small Brewing Company/Brewer of the Year” was my most anticipated stop of the day. At the Boonville Beer Festival, Mad River poured some excellent cask beer and I was hoping to get more of the same. Much to my disappointment, no cask beer was to be had on this day.

The taster set at Mad River Brewing

We ordered the taster tray and set up out in the beer garden as the sun finally made an appearance. Most of the beers were very familiar, being part of the regular lineup of brews readily available in our area. However, I have to say, having the brewery-fresh versions of these beers for the first time made me look at them in a new light. The hop aroma and flavor really popped on the two standouts, Jamaica Sunset IPA and Steelhead Double IPA. Of the Seasonal/Specialty/Pilot beers, the ESB stood out with it’s refreshing, sessionable quality.

Merideth at Redwood Curtain Brewing

It was also at Boonville Beer Festival that we first tried beer from Redwood Curtain Brewing. At that time, we were already discussing making the North Coast trip sometime during the summer. Learning there was new brewery in the area to visit reinforced our decision. Somehow, six breweries to add to The List sounded a lot better than five. Little did we know that Redwood Curtain would be a potential “Top 5” stop of 2011.

Located in an industrial park just off Highway 101 in Arcata, Redwood Curtain’s tasting room was from the minimalist school. Our favorite beer places these days seem to be the ones that are spartan on decor. Basically, the message being, it’s all about the beer. The seats at the small bar were filled with locals so Merideth and I grabbed the stools at one of the barrel tables by the brewing kit.

Redwood Curtain's taster set and snacks

Merideth was already won over by the free gold fish snacks, but it was the beer that eventually stole the show. The seven brews were all well made. The beer that stood out for me was the IPA. At 6.4% ABV and 50 IBUs, it was one of the more well-balanced IPAs that I have had in recent memory. And the Columbus, Centennial and Amarillo hops gave it that punch that I love in the style. Merideth fell in love with the Belgian Pale Ale, so much so that she insisted she get a growler for home.

Eel River Brewing in Fortuna

Our final stop of the day was Eel River Brewing in Fortuna, just south of Eureka. Its location two doors down from our hotel set up perfectly for an epic evening of dinner, beer drinking and Scrabble. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep, long drive, and busy day finally caught up to us. We managed a yummy dinner and a taster set before we had to call it a night.

We had finally done it! After 20 years of beer travel, we finally ticked off California’s North Coast. That wasn’t the end of the trip, though, and we still had one more glorious day ahead.

View all the images from our day…

The Legend That is Boonville Beer Fest

In Northern California beer lore, one beer festival stands out amongst all others: the Boonville Beer Festival. The stories beer geeks brought back from Mendocino County were the stuff of legend. Great beer aside, it was the tales, especially of the campground parties, that piqued the interest of people who missed out. It took us fifteen years, but we finally made it to our first Boonville Beer Festival to experience the legend for ourselves.

Disclaimer: Merideth and I don’t camp. We spent Friday and Saturday night comfortably in a hotel room. Therefore, we didn’t get the full Boonville Beer Festival experience. And, we are OK with that.

The crowd lined up for the 15th Annual Boonville Beer Festival...

The threat of rain didn’t keep the crowds away. The scruffy looking bunch began lining up over an hour before the opening time of 1pm. After being ID’d and banded by one of the festival staff, Merideth and I joined the line a bit before noon. Being our first Boonville, we looked over fellow festival-goers to gauge what the our day could be like. They were a rough looking bunch. Friday night in the campgrounds must have been a good time.

Merideth's first beer at her first Boonville Beer Fest

At 12:45, the doors were opened and the eager crowd streamed into the Mendocino County Fairgrounds. Not knowing the layout of the festival, Merideth and I bee-lined for the first set of taps we could see, just off to the left. In this grouping amongst others, was the festival host, Anderson Valley Brewing, Triple Rock and Russian River Brewing who already had a lengthy line. Around the corner, I found Moonlight Brewing and  Twist of Fate on cask was soon filling my tiny tasting glass. Merideth’s first beer was Mammoth Brewing Golden Trout Pilsner.

Conveniently located in the animal pens...

With our first beers in hand, it was time to explore the lay of the land. The festival was spread out over a large portion of the Fairgrounds. Breweries were grouped in the animal stalls that ringed a redwood grove. More were grouped on the opposite side in a giant field where the wrestling matches later occurred. The spread out nature of the festival was somewhat annoying when we were first trying to figure out where everyone was located.  But later with the festival was in full swing, the roominess was a godsend. When one area became too congested, we just found another area that was less crowded.

One of the more popular festival brews...

Overall, the beer selection at Boonville would make many beer festivals jealous. The list included a Who’s Who of California breweries. And a few hearty brewers made the long trek down from Oregon and Washington, including one of our favorites, Double Mountain from Hood River. There was even a couple of breweries we never heard of.

Merideth enjoying a Moonlight Reality Czeck

We sampled a number of beers over the course of four hours. Some of the beers of Merideth and I thought were of note:

  • Ballast Point Sculpin
  • Cherry Voodoo Triple
  • Double Mountain Hop Lava & Vaporizer
  • Drake’s Denogginizer
  • Firestone Walker Double Jack
  • Moonlight Bombay by Boat, Twist of Fate (firkin) and Reality Czeck
  • Mad River Dry Hopped Amarillo (firkin)
  • Marin Brewing White Knuckle
  • Sierra Nevada Hips Helles
  • Triple Rock “The Judge”
The late afternoon crowd...

We’ve been to drunk-fests before, but Boonville made these other festivals look like a little old lady tea party. And I don’t really mean that in a bad way. From the opening bell, people were eager to party and party hard. Despite this vibe, there was never  a feeling that things were going to get out of control. I think large amounts of marijuana being smoked mellowed the crowd. Even the wrestling in the big field appeared to be good-natured hijinks between friends. When the taps were finally shut off, the large number of people snoozing on the ground was evidence of a great day.

Our beer of choice in the Brewers Campground

Despite not camping, we did get a taste of  the campground experience after the festival. We wandered over to the Brewers Campground behind the Anderson Valley Brewery. For the next hour or so, we walked around that magical place where so many of the legendary Boonville stories are set. We popped in on our friends’ campsites, sharing stories and beers.

A necessity for any campsite...

Merideth and I finally settled in the Marin Brewing’s campsite where a large number of people were gathered. The centerpiece of their area was a huge grill-mobile, an impressive piece of food cooking engineering. We enjoyed an Anderson Valley sunset chatting with friends, watching Whiffleball and eating amazing grilled lamb and chicken.

Groping our way back to our car in the dark with rain drops beginning to fall, Merideth and I talked about our fun-filled day. Our first Boonville Beer Fest was quite an eye-opening experience. We’ll probably be back and next time we may even camp. Many thanks to Sierra Nevada, Marin Brewing, and New Belgium for all their generous hospitality!

View all the images from Boonville Beer Festival