Sacramento craft beer connoisseurs spill about their ‘gateway beers’

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has made some of the most popular “gateway” beers including their first, pale ale, since the early 1980s. Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in Chico, Calif.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has made some of the most popular “gateway” beers including their first, pale ale, since the early 1980s. Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in Chico, Calif.

In Noah Baumbach’s excellent 2015 film “Mistress America,” there’s a scene where one new college student sagely informs her dormmate that only “Christians and home-schooled kids” go to orientation. “How do you already know this stuff?” responds the dormmate. “School hasn’t even started yet.”

That same too-cool-for-school attitude often permeates the beer world, but as with any discipline, no one is born an expert. You don’t start out reading Faulkner and Joyce, you start with the alphabet, then move on to Dr. Seuss, and craft beer is no different.

Like most people, I started out drinking macro beers like Pabst and Corona, but my journey from casual beer drinker to craft beer fanatic would not have been possible without several gateway beers that ignited my interest. The following are the brews that informed my developing palate, challenged my perceptions and made me fall in love with craft beer:

▪ These days I’ll take tap water over Boston Lager, but Samuel Adams’ mixed 12-packs afforded me an entry-level education to old and new beer styles. Samuel Adams gave me my first gose (pronounced GOZE-uh), my first Scotch ale, my first smoked beer and more. And while the brewery certainly made simplified versions of those styles, that was just what my rookie tongue required.

▪ I was familiar with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale well before my craft beer conversion, but it left me ambivalent about hoppy beers. Instead it was Sierra Nevada’s resinous Torpedo that resonated with my senses, although much like fellow gateway IPA New Belgium Ranger, that once palate-wrecking beer now seems strangely tepid.

▪ The opening of Pangaea Bier Café in 2008 thoroughly changed the game for me, introducing me to styles I could never access before. I was blown away by the unusual strength and complexity of dark Belgian beers such as St. Bernardus Abt 12, Malheur 12 and Chimay Blue. Those beers led me to the stateside versions being made by Orange County’s pioneering The Bruery, which became my first brewery obsession.

▪ Once in vogue, black IPAs (or Cascadian Dark Ales, if you prefer) have fallen out of favor in the beer world, and most breweries don’t make them anymore. However, the unusual mix of hoppy and roast-y bitterness in beers such as Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous confounded and captivated my senses in my early craft beer years.

▪ It was while sampling barrel-aged beers at Drake’s Barrel House in San Leandro that my wife Darcey Self came up with the idea for our blog, His and Hers Beer Notes. We had different tasting notes for Brette Davis Eyes, a Belgian blonde aged in wine barrels with wild yeast, and she came up with a concept that could accommodate our different skills (she’s an artist; I’m a writer) and different palates.

Gateways of perception

We asked some of the top figures in the Sacramento beer scene about their “gateway beers” – the brews that helped spark their passion for craft beer. Here are their responses:

▪ Kenny Hotchkiss, Capitol Beer and Tap Room/Capital Hop Shop: “One of my former co-workers introduced me to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It was so bold and in-your-face, different than anything I had prior to that. I was already into beer, but that was the one that opened my eyes.”

▪ Rohit Nayyar, RoCo Wine and Spirits: “One of the best nights that I’ve ever had with Julien (Lux from New Glory Craft Brewery) was when he brought me the Alaskan Smoked Porter (from Alaskan Brewing Co.). I had never had stronger, darker beers like that. We ended up finishing a whole case.”

▪ Rob Archie, Pangaea Bier Café/Urban Roots Brewing: “My gateway beer for sure was St. Bernardus Abt 12, that Belgian quad. It was so different – the fermented dark fruit notes, that was very unique to me. I didn’t know beer could be like this.”

▪ Patric Hillenbrand, Hillenbrand Farmhaus: “It was all the sours at Cascade (Brewing Barrel House in Portland, Ore.). I personally never liked what I experienced as craft beer – it was always high-bitterness, super-hoppy IPAs and double IPAs. I went to Oregon and experienced another world of beer.”

▪ Ryan Graham, Track 7: “My gateway beer was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, back when I was going to UC Davis. It was surprisingly different than all the domestic lagers that I was drinking at the time, and it gave me an appreciation for hops in beer.”

Beer of the week

Less than 10 years ago, the gose was a near-defunct style of unfiltered German wheat beer that hardly any American had ever sampled. Today, however, the style is experiencing a renaissance and most craft breweries make multiple goses.

Shift Change (4516 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento) recently stocked two new ones from Baltimore-based Stillwater Artisanal Ales, including a “Oaxacan-style gose sour ale” called Levadura (4.6 percent ABV).

It pours a pale, translucent yellow with an aroma of citrus peel and agave, and like any good gose, it tantalizes up front with crisp tartness, while the saline finish draws you back for another sip.

Daniel Barnes is a freelance writer, film critic, beer enthusiast and one half of the blog “His & Her Beer Notes.” He can be reached at