How do you get to the heart of the craft brew craze? Go taste at the source: along the Sonoma and Mendocino ale trail
Nino Padova

We leave Hunt’s feeling light and energetic, ready for whatever might lie around the next bend. In Healdsburg, we march past $600-a-night hotels in flip-flops to taste wheat ale from a barrel at Bear Republic. The next morning, we hang a left onto Highway 128, a snarl of hairpin turns that passes through vineyards, a goat farm, and a redwood forest before spitting us out at the coast. It’s a glorious drive, with the V8 Hemi humming and Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” on the speakers. In Boonville, we stop to pose for snapshots beside an antlered bear, Anderson Valley Brewing’s “Beer” mascot.

The Pacific peeks in and out of view as we coast the last stretch from Mendocino to Fort Bragg. It’s right on top of us, then behind a clump of trees, always hiding. We drop our things at the motel and hike out to a headland to watch the surf, then over an old railroad trestle once used to haul lumber. For more than a century, Fort Bragg was a booming mill town. And even today, the last of the saws long silenced, a scruffy blue-collar spirit remains.

I notice it in the taproom at North Coast Brewing. An early player in the craft scene, the brewery specializes in sturdy, slow-sipping beer—Belgian darks and Imperial stouts.

And I notice it at Piaci, a one-room pub that serves the best thin-crust pizza in the county. The bar is three-deep. Locals, mostly. Men in baseball caps and sweaters with thick, calloused hands that make the pint glasses inside them look small. The beer menu reads like a road journal from the last 48 hours. There are Lagunitas’s hopped-up IPAs and a tasty black lager from Moonlight Brewing.

The pub is loud in the way that pubs get loud when everyone knows each other. Voices rising excitedly over other voices. We grab two stools beside a group of truckers. One of them is telling a story, waving his hands wildly, and his friends are laughing. Nate and I are laughing too. This is the last night before we point the car south and return to our regularly scheduled lives—back to our spread-sheets and youth soccer and fuel-efficient compacts—and I want to spend it right here in this room, with these guys. And that’s not the beer talking.

TASTE NORCAL'S BEST BEER

Take a 125-mile trip from Petaluma to Fort Bragg.

Lagunitas Brewing. The free brewery tour starts with a tasting and ends in the taproom for live music. Tap into: A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale, a “wheatish” beer with a huge hop finish. $; lagunitas.com

Russian River Brewing. More than 15 selections await in the busy brewpub. Tap into: Supplication, a brown ale brewed with sour cherries aged in Pinot Noir barrels. $$; russianriverbrewing.com

Bear Republic Brewing. The Healdsburg brewpub’s full-bodied ales pair well with its spicy chili. Tap into: Racer 5, a classic West-Coast style IPA. Big, bold, and balanced. $$; bearrepublic.com

Anderson Valley Brewing. The brewery sits on 30 acres that include a taproom and plenty of picnic tables. Tap into: The caramely smooth Boont Amber Ale. avbc.com

North Coast Brewing. The sampler tray covers all the beer bases. Tap into: Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Dark, strong, bitter, beautiful. $$; northcoastbrewing.com  

Piaci Pub & Pizzeria. The 14 tap handles rotate like the tides with local beers. Tap into: Moonlight’s Death & Taxes, an easy-drinking black lager. $$; piacipizza.com

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