A Heady Experience in Napa

The beer is heavenly and the atmosphere down-to-earth at Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, Calif.
The beer is heavenly and the atmosphere down-to-earth at Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, Calif. (Photos By James Newman)
By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

The signs are inescapable: Vineyard ahead! Winery open! Tastings today!

We're trolling the main drag of California's Napa Valley, and the endless array of exclamatory signage crowding the roadside is a constant reminder that this is indeed the heart, soul and, yes, business capital of America's wine country. Unfortunately, these signs aren't helping me at all. It isn't a search for vino that has me and the menfolk of my wife's family crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 29 on a hot Napa afternoon. No chards or cabs or zins for us, thanks. We are looking for stronger, headier, frothier stuff.

Boy, did we find it.

Hoping to avoid the sniffers and spitters of the wine-tasting rooms, we have instead trekked to Napa seeking great American . . . beer. Oh, go ahead, make your jokes, roll your eyes. Napa for beer? What's next, a trip to Wisconsin dairyland to find great hummus?

Well, surprise, surprise: Turns out if you want great beers, the towns plopped deep in California wine country offer some of the best craft brews being made in America today. In fact, the area has a craft-beer pedigree like no other. The first microbrewery in America after the end of Prohibition was the New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma. Founded in 1976, the brewery lasted just six years, but it spirited a national craft beer renaissance that gained steam in the '80s and '90s and is now at its all-time peak.

On separate day trips with my father-in-law and brothers-in-law, I tasted fantastic brews in wine country towns from Healdsburg and Santa Rosa to Sonoma, St. Helena and Calistoga. Beginning and ending in charming Healdsburg, where we are spending a week, the drives -- totaling about 100 miles, if you do it in a loop -- are easy and often beautiful, and can be done in much shorter chunks as well.

We've Googled ahead, of course, so our planning is immaculate. Well, except for a trip to downtown Glen Ellen (pop. 992) to visit the Humes Brewing Co. Nope, never heard of it, a local tells us. Are you sure that's the name, another asks helpfully. Humes, we later find out, has been closed for years. Damn you, outdated Internet! Let that be a lesson for the Google-dependent among us.

Aside from that one miscue, our beer search is extraordinarily fruitful. It helped that we had called ahead to Tom Dalldorf, the friendly, wonderfully opinionated Bay Area-based editor of Celebrator Beer News. A former wine guy who jumped on the craft beer bandwagon in the early '80s, Dalldorf knows the lay of the land in these parts and directed us to a few stellar spots. "It's a glorious time to be a beer lover," he tells us, and that serves as a mantra for our journey through wine country -- which, it turns out, is a glorious place to be a beer lover. Here are some of the stops that make it so.

Bear Republic Brewing Co.

Located just off the beautiful main square of Healdsburg, a town of cutesy stores and high-end boutiques, this family-owned brew pub feels more like a regular-Joe kind of hangout. Loud and bustling, it is almost an antidote to the highbrow community that surrounds it. Or as Dalldorf puts it, "In a town full of artsy-fartsy wine-tasting rooms and wine-oriented restaurants, you have a world-class brew pub with an extraordinary selection."

Among the notable brews we enjoy here are Racer 5 (a terrific India pale ale) and the delicious Black Bear Stout. "The beer is as fresh as can be," Dalldorf says. "And they built their brew pub right in the coolest part of wine country."

345 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707-433-2337,

Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery

We visit this historic inn on Calistoga's main street on a warm day and head to a wonderful garden setting out back, where patrons and guests linger at tables under shade trees. At the small bar, a saucy waitress takes our beer order and dispenses amusing if unsolicited advice. She starts us off with the lighter, tasty Calistoga Wheat Ale before moving on to Calistoga Pilsner and then Calistoga Red Ale, a hoppy, happy culmination. What the brewery lacks in beer-naming inventiveness it makes up in taste and charm.

One of the first brew pubs in the wine country, the Calistoga Inn began brewing in 1987 and "sort of set the standard for the compatibility of wine and beer drinkers and for a local brew pub making good beer in wine country," Dalldorf says. He also tells us that Phil Rogers, founder of Calistoga Brewery, poked a little fun at his winemaking neighbors by printing up buttons that said "It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine."

1250 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 707-942-4101,

Russian River Brewing Co.

Set in downtown Santa Rosa just a few blocks off Highway 101, the inside of this award-winning brew pub feels like a shrine to American beer history. Vintage brewer signs (Hamm's, Schmidt's, Ballantine) decorate the walls, and a huge chalkboard lists the beers available that day. Sampling here is not just encouraged, it seems a foregone conclusion. A wooden wheel holds small glasses of up to a dozen beers, with each style identified by a bottle cap next to the glass. Drink carefully, though. The super-hoppy Pliny the Elder, a Gold Medal winner at the 2006 World Beer Cup, is 8 percent alcohol by volume, and even that is not as strong as Old Gubbillygotch Barleywine 9.5 percent abv. (Clearly whoever named it must also have been drinking it.)

Owner and brew master Vinnie Cilurzo's beers are "phenomenal," Dalldorf says. "The brewery features two distinct approaches: It creates the pale ales and very hoppy IPAs, but it also creates wonderful Belgian brews with a more exotic, yeastier taste." Though there is a full pub and pizza menu to choose from, the $6.95 Beer Bites -- basically a basket of crispy delicious pizza dough and a marinara dipping sauce -- was all we needed as accompaniment. Well, that and a designated driver.

725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-545-2337,

Silverado Brewing Co.

Driving along 29, it's possible to imagine that St. Helena fairly sinks under the weight of wineries. Every scrape of land seems destined for grapeness. And yet smack in the middle arises this sprawling brew pub in a beautifully refurbished historic building (circa 1890s) that once belonged to the Freemark Abbey Winery and almost dares the wine drinkers to pass it by. We arrive for lunch and tuck into garlic fries, onion rings and burgers, all the while sampling the brewery's offerings, including a terrific amber ale and an oatmeal stout that is, thankfully, not as heavy as it sounds.

When we spoke to Dalldorf, he let us in on a little secret about the brew pub. "Silverado is often full of wine industry people having a beer after work because they're thirsty," he says with a laugh.

3020 St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena, 707-967-9876,

Third Street AleWorks Brewpub

As with all journeys, sometimes you don't find out about a great place until after you get back home. That's the case with Third Street AleWorks, a brewery that, while not as famous as its neighbor, Russian River, is still highly regarded. Third Street has made a name for itself with attention to producing outstanding beers of its own. "Their focus is on beer styles, and they'll have 12 to 15 styles of beer any time you go in there," Dalldorf says. "Their porters are just spot on, and the food menu is pretty adventurous." Alas, we'll have to wait until our next trip out west to make a visit.

610 Third St., Santa Rosa, 707-523-3060,

The Wine Exchange of Sonoma

Located on the Sonoma Town Plaza, the Wine Exchange might seem an unlikely place to track down beer. We walk in and are duly impressed by the wine selection, but . . . that's not why we're here. It's not until we're deeper into the store that we find the tasting bar and owner Dan Noreen. Noreen is a craft-brew enthusiast and an expert on the region's small breweries. He always has several fine beers from local breweries on tap and a bevy of adventurous bottled beers (imported and domestic) as well. On this visit he proffers five-ounce samples of such beers as Russian River's Blind Pig IPA and Eye of the Hawk Select Ale from the Mendocino Brewing Co. He also tips us to creations from the Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma.

4 52 First St. E., Sonoma , 800-938-1794,

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