Night has fallen and the temperature is quickly dropping when tour guide Josh Denton and beer expert Charles Bamforth join forces with a reporter for a tour of three Sacramento-area microbreweries.
Denton, 31, has chosen American River Brewing Co. as the first stop. It's part of a tour he typically offers the public from a 15-seat party bus. He has offered tours since Thanksgiving, slaking two of his desires. Denton is a home brewer and a graduate in recreation and parks tourism administration from California State University, Sacramento.
The American River microbrewery and tasting room is not easy to find it's tucked in the rear of a forlorn industrial park off Sunrise Boulevard in Rancho Cordova.
The hunt for the entrance reveals an unassuming mini-warehouse with a charmless tasting room and gleaming brewing tanks, mashers and fermenters behind glass.
On the tasting menu are two cold ones brewmaster David Mathis has crafted with head brewer Andrew Armstrong Sunrise IPA and Coloma Brown ale.
Mathis, who started brewing beer at age 13, gave a thorough tour of the 15-barrel operation which he has conceived with ample room for growth.
"This area meets every criteria for a growing beer market," Mathis said.
Unlike home brewers, Mathis and Armstrong look at the beer through a microscope and undertake procedures called "staining" to determine bacteria content. No batch is sold unless it is perfect.
Of all the region's breweries, this is one of the cleanest.
But in the final accounting, what matters is the beer.
"The best scientific equipment in the world is the human palate," Mathis said.
Many defer to Bamforth on that subject. After all, he is the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at the University of California, Davis, and when he shows up at a local brewery, he gets showered with much deference and is met with something akin to stage fright when he's recognized.
But the England-born Bamforth is as soft-spoken as he is unassuming, as his focus is intensely on the qualities of a given brew. He looks for a balance of flavors in brews and believes pilsners are as admirable as stouts and IPAs.
He weighed in on the Coloma Brown.
"It's a very well-balanced beer with a respectable bitterness that is tempered with a rich, malty, direct character," he said.
After Bamforth gave his comments, the tour moved about a mile east, to another industrial park, where Lockdown Brewing Co. is found. This tasting room is a smaller counterpart to its Historic Folsom location. The beers are brewed off-site.
This tasting room lies behind a roll-down garage door where an inviting bar awaits. Eight brews are dispensed here from the crisp but malty Emma's Blond Ale to the robust Folsom Breakout Stout. This tasting room is made for socializing, with a foosball table near the bar and a pool table situated above a closed-in sitting room with couches. Whatever brewing does occur here is of the "test batch" variety and is done next door with a portable, 15-gallon brewing setup in a crowded garage.
Right now the brewery contracts with St. Stans Brewing Co., but that will likely change since demand for Lockdown brews is overwhelming its current order, said Andrew Mering, brewer with Lockdown.
"We've been happy with the quality but not happy with the scale-up because right now we need 150 barrels of beer brewed and only have 60 brewed," he said. "We want to eventually have a full-fledged brew system."
Mering poured samples of four beers, two of which made a lasting impression on Bamforth.
"The IPA had a very nice nose," Bamforth said. "But the one I was really interested in was the Honey Porter. It had a nice, chocolatey roast character balanced with a sweet honey character that was quite interesting."
The last stop was Hoppy Brewing in east Sacramento, which offers a long bar topped with a large mural and a brewery operation behind large glass windows that can be seen from the pub's dining room.
Ten brews are dispensed at Hoppy, including a Liquid Sunshine Blonde Ale and a Stoney Faced Red Ale.
So, with a name like Hoppy Brewing, just how hoppy are the beers? Not as much as you would think.
"People complained in the past that some of our beers are not as hoppy as some others out there," said brewer Ed Kopta. "What we provide is a good portfolio of beer diversity."
Bamforth is served a Hefeweizen, and it comes with a lemon wedge. It's a tradition started by Widmer beers, and one Bamforth abhors.
He dispensed with the lemon and took a healthy swig of the brew.
"It has the right amount of yeast that gives it that banana, bubble gum and clove character," Bamforth said. "But I'm not looking for a slice of lemon."
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