California's best craft beer

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

“You guys thirsty?” Before we can answer, a hand yanks the tap and fills two tasting cups with an orangey golden ale. I’d been warned about this. Lagunitas pours heavy, enough people told me that we made it our first stop. Sneak a quick tour, then get back on the road. That was the idea. But here we are, early on a Friday afternoon, two guys in cargo shorts and T-shirts far away from the frenzy of our daily lives. Yeah, we’re thirsty.

Two weeks before, I’d sent my buddy Nate an email: Beer run … 3 days, 6 epic breweries. Book a flight! It was more of a challenge than an invitation, the torqued-up chatter that passes for dialogue between us. Years had gone by since we’d last seen each other, and somewhere along the way our lives had outgrown us—marriage, kids, premium cable. The next day he texted me his itinerary.

Our route started in Petaluma, about an hour north of San Francisco, and snaked through Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, home to some of the most exciting beermaking on the planet. We’d slip through wine country’s back door to taste toasty lagers, mouth-puckering sours, stouts the color of crude oil, and the West’s signature brew, the hoppy India Pale Ale. Bud country this was not.

There was, of course, the matter of the car. My 2004 Toyota Corolla with its Cheerios-encrusted car seat wasn’t fit for the occasion. So we rented the biggest, loudest ride we could find, a bright orange Dodge Challenger. Our only rule for the next three days: No Bad Beer!

“Beer speaks, people mumble” is the motto at Lagunitas Brewing, and judging from the line of trucks streaming in and out of the Petaluma brewery, beer has a lot to say. What started as a stovetop operation in Tony Magee’s home has mushroomed into the second-largest craft brewery in California (behind Sierra Nevada). Lagunitas cranked out 160,000 barrels of beer last year—almost 5 million gallons. This year, the company plans to bump production up to more than 200,000 barrels, which would make it about a fifth the size of Anheuser-Busch ... in 1902.

Microbrews account for 9 percent of U.S. beer sales—a mere drop in the industry keg. But in recent years, overall sales have slumped while craft brew has exploded, growing 110 percent in the last decade. There are now more small breweries in more places making more styles of beer than at any time since Prohibition. Just walk down the beverage aisle at your local grocery store. Notice all the new sixers and bombers taking over the shelves? That’s beer talking.

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