A friend (and serious beer geek) asked me the other day to name the top five breweries in the region.
I promptly listed five with relative ease. I mean, I just rattled off some really good breweries that would be considered really good anywhere. Then I glanced at my five and realized: “Oh no, there are some other really good breweries that are not on my list.”
Welcome to Sacramento craft beer 2016, where plenty of breweries could make a compelling case for being in the top five. My friend and I, by the way, only had two duplicates – Berryessa and Knee Deep. He and another friend/beer expert had listed three of the same names. We’ve come a long way from when there were barely five breweries.
I won’t give you my entire rankings because I don’t want to influence anyone. But I do want to hear from you. Who makes it into your top five and why? I will publish some of your answers in an upcoming Beer Run. To qualify, please list your full name and, just for kicks, you must be 21 or older to opine. Anyone related to Adolph Coors and folks who put an orange wedge in their beer bottle need not apply. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I have concluded for quite some time that, with the explosion of craft breweries in the past four years, a pecking order is sorting itself out. Nothing is definitive yet, but it is becoming apparent which breweries are committed to quality, growth, distribution, etc.; which breweries are content to serve as a neighborhood hub; and which are still struggling to figure what exactly they are doing in the beer business.
On a whim, I asked people on Twitter to weigh in with their top fives, and I was amazed by the lists – which breweries were included and, just as important, which were overlooked. It’s safe to say that some of the places named are overrated and some of the omitted might be under-appreciated. Beer is a market-driven product. It is democracy in action, a popularity contest in which consumers vote with their wallets. The breweries that make top-five lists will thrive; those that don’t might take a look at what they are getting wrong. Is it the beer? The message? The image? Everything matters.
Only one person in this Twitter string listed Auburn Alehouse. Sure, it’s a little out of the way and not necessarily flashy when it comes to experimental beers, but the quality and consistency are top-notch. The Pilsner is among the best in the nation.
Then there’s New Glory. It’s celebrating its third anniversary right now. With its small lineup of year-round beers along with an array of seasonal and edgy/experimental brews, New Glory could make a case for being the most interesting – and the most distinctive – brewery in town. Seems like it could also be among the most underrated.
Sudwerk? Have people forgotten about Sudwerk because it has been around so long? Sudwerk is a top-five contender for at least three reasons: 1. The new owners have reinvigorated a brand that was making good beer but was out of touch with what the marketplace wanted; 2. Several of the new-style lagers, including the first-rate California Dry Hop Lager, have elements of India pale ale hoppiness without the rough edges; and 3. Its barrel-aging program is producing some of the very best beers going – rife with complexity, nuance, mystery. This was your grandpa’s brewery that caught up with the times without losing its grasp on beer history and tradition.
Mraz was not mentioned in the Twitter string, either. If you’re not from El Dorado Hills, you need a GPS and a Saint Bernard to find it, but it’s worth the trek. Mike Mraz has established himself as a master of barrel-aged beers. He has a palate that shines through in his beers, the best of which are loaded with flavor and held together with a sense of balance.
Impressively, Bike Dog seems to be on everyone’s list. That explains why the West Sacramento brewery is in the middle of an expansion. So is New Glory. So is Device. Ditto Mraz. Auburn Alehouse will open a 20,000-square-foot production brewery in 2017. Nevada City’s ol’ Republic just invested $1 million to get bigger. Where does Rubicon fit in? Is Ruhstaller still on your radar?
Newcomers such as Moonraker, Tilted Mash, Claimstake, Three Mile, Fountainhead and Sactown Union are developing devoted followings. Don’t forget about Out of Bounds, which has been on the upswing; Jack Rabbit, which keeps brewing quality beer; and GoatHouse, which offers a one-of-a-kind brewery experience in rural Lincoln.
All of these places and more are competing for your attention and vying to be in your top five. The good news is that in 2016 we have so many worthy breweries that this is now a debate worth having. Who is in your top five?