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

There are about 30 of us sipping Lagunitas brews in its Loft, a tasting den that reminds me of an off-campus college clubhouse. It’s dimly lit and decorated with ratty old couches and spaghetti western posters. I could live in this room forever. The man behind the bar pours another beer, A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ ale. I lean in for a whiff—citrus, grass, lots of hops—then nudge my cup to Nate. (My day to drive.)

“We planned our whole vacation around this,” says the guy next to me, Vince Rinaldo, a homebrewer and graphic designer from Akron, Ohio. He and wife Taylor are in the middle of a four-day beer run from San Francisco to Portland. “We’re not much into sightseeing. If you want to know a place, drink its beer.”

We take the full brewery tour, zip through a maze of stainless steel tanks and massive bins packed with hops, then jump back into the Challenger and rumble 20 minutes north, past fields of grazing cows and roadside fruit stands, to downtown Santa Rosa.

A Zen-like hush comes over Nate as we enter Russian River Brewing, considered by some to be the Holy Temple of American craft beer. Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo came up in the wine industry, then bought a brewpub with wife Natalie in 2004. The place has been buzzing ever since. During Russian River’s February release of Pliny the Younger—a high-powered triple IPA—hopheads from as far away as Australia and Japan stake out on the sidewalk for hours just to get a taste.

Though famous for his hop-heavy IPAs, Cilurzo likes experimenting with Belgian-style sours, which call for local fruits, oak-barrel aging, and in some cases spontaneous fermentation, where the wort (pre-fermented beer) is exposed to the open air in order to suck up naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria. These beers—with names like Temptation, Supplication, and Beatification—taste unlike any brew I’ve ever had. They’re tangy and brightly acidic, with a complex, dry fruity finish that brings to mind a sparkling wine. They taste, I suppose, like Sonoma.

It’s late afternoon when we’re whirring down dirt roads northwest of Santa Rosa. Nate is air-drumming to early Who while I wrestle with the GPS. I’d heard about Moonlight Brewing, a one-man operation in the middle of Zin country. No tasting room. No brewpub. But some of the most amazing beer I’ve never had, I was told.

I find Brian Hunt at his private brewery, where he kegs about 1,500 barrels, most of which travel 60 miles max—less than Nate and I drove this morning. “Beer is like bread,” Hunt says, tilting a glass of straw-colored Reality Czeck pilsner so it catches the light. “You want it fresh, and that means you want it local.”

We’re plunked down on lawn chairs at the top of his driveway. Behind us is a boneyard of empty kegs and the old barn where Hunt concocts his brews, including some flavored with mugwort and wild bergamot instead of hops. His Working for Tips, a copper-colored ale, is spiced with the sticky ends of redwood branches from his front yard.

Hunt tells us about New Albion, the Sonoma brewery that set the path for the industry 30 years ago, about its founder, Jack McAuliffe, an engineer and homebrewer who applied his skills to make real beer, ingredient-driven and full-flavored, about how McAuliffe welded together old Coca-Cola drums and dairy tanks to cook up 15 barrels a week. No tasting room. No brewpub. Just beer so innovative that it helped start a revolution.

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