Craft beer in Wine Country: Santa Rosa makes push for breweries

Fogbelt Brewing in Santa Rosa offers a tasting flight of its year-round and seasonal beers, along with planting and harvesting several varieties of hops.
Fogbelt Brewing in Santa Rosa offers a tasting flight of its year-round and seasonal beers, along with planting and harvesting several varieties of hops.

Santa Rosa is best known for wine, but more and more folks are heading there for the beer.

While beer will never gain an equal footing with the 400 or so wineries in Sonoma County, craft breweries are attracting an ideal demographic that is eager to explore and willing to spend. They’re seeking out a wide variety of beers, including world-famous Pliny the Elder, an Irish stout that has won prestigious awards, a variety of famous barrel-aged beers, and even a beer brewed with the tips of branches from local redwoods.

Wherever craft breweries are flourishing, folks are planning their vacations and weekend road trips around beer. Beer-cations can include anywhere from a handful of brewery visits in one area to a full-bore West Coast bonanza targeting craft beer hot spots in Oregon and throughout California.

“It’s definitely already happening,” said Russian River Brewing co-owner and president Natalie Cilurzo, whose husband, Vinnie, is a brewing legend. “It started for us a few years back with the turnout for Pliny the Younger.”

That one beer, a triple India pale ale, or IPA, is rated among the best beers in the world and has inspired visits from as close as Sacramento and as far away as Europe and Asia simply for a taste of this coveted brew. During the two weeks in February when it’s released, Younger, as it’s known to beer insiders, attracts lines of four hours or more before the downtown Santa Rosa brewpub even opens its doors each day at 11 a.m. Pliny the Elder, an award-winning double IPA, is available in bottles and on draft year round, although its availability is still the stuff of legend in some quarters, including Sacramento, where many retail outlets limit sales to two bottles and even hide the beer in the back. Regulars know to ask for it.

Many consider Russian River’s lineup of barrel-aged and sour beers even more compelling than the hoppy IPAs.

“It’s great to see craft beer is so popular here and people plan their entire vacations around visiting breweries,” Cilurzo said.

A Sonoma County economic impact report published in 2013 counted 18 craft breweries, including eight that had opened in the past two years. They accounted for an economic impact of $123 million and 499 jobs in 2012. Now there are 25, with more slated to open.

“I’m a brewer and I have a hard time keeping up with it all,” said brewmaster Tyler Laverty, who started working for the established Third Street Aleworks six years ago.

The area has a rich history in craft beer well beyond the recent Russian River phenomenon. Opening in 1976, New Albion Brewing Co. was the first craft brewery to launch in the United States since Prohibition. Although New Albion was in business for only six years, it inspired others. Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, considered one of the best, is the sixth-largest craft brewery in the nation. As of 2013, it was producing 73 percent of the county’s beer and employing more than half of its craft beer industry workers, according to the report.

Many of the best breweries say they have taken pains to focus on styles of beer that stand apart from their nearby counterparts.

Cilurzo said that when Russian River Brewing opened 11-plus years ago, it made sure that it wasn’t competing directly with Third Street, which recently celebrated its 19th anniversary and has a long list of prize-winning beers. Its Blarney Sisters’ Dry Irish Stout has won four gold medals at the prestigious Great American Beer Fest. Third Street began bottling three of its beers three years ago, but the bulk of sales still happen at its bustling pub filled with regulars.

One of the hot new breweries is Plow Brewing Co., whose owner, Kevin Robinson, spent three years brewing at Russian River. He built his brewing system himself, buying some of Russian River’s used equipment that brewed much of the Pliny the Elder output.

“I designed this whole place to be operated by one person,” said Robinson, who was behind the tasting room bar pouring beer during a recent visit.

Fogbelt Brewing is not only producing a large lineup of year-round and seasonal beers, it has revived the area’s hop-growing tradition by planting and harvesting several varieties of hops. As noted on the brewery’s website, “Sonoma County was once one of the largest hop growing regions in the nation, but all that remains today are the ghostly shells of old hop-kilns.”

At Moonlight Brewing, Death & Taxes, a San Francisco-style black lager, drinks more like iced coffee than a porter or stout, said Brian Hunt, who’s not a big proponent of hoppy beers. Moonlight’s beer called Working for Tips uses the springtime tips of redwood branches instead of hops for flavor. The brewery sells to restaurants and bars, and has designs on opening a taproom for visitors to taste its beers on site.

“I don’t really do West Coast-style IPAs because to me they are out of balance and too hop forward,” Hunt said. “The kinds of things I’m doing here are not crazy – they’re just older. The redwood branches give the beer a lemony/citrus flavor with a little pit of pine. Hops didn’t show up on the scene until the end of the 1400s.”

Hunt, a Sacramento native, says Santa Rosa has taken to beer so readily because of its longstanding wine and food reputation. Foodies and oenophiles, he says, tend to embrace flavors of all kinds, including beer.

“I confess to being somewhat of an ambidextrous person myself,” Hunt said. “If you go to so much effort to appreciate the nuances in beer, chances are you will appreciate those things in food or wine or spirits.”

The Santa Rosa Convention and Visitors Bureau began pushing the area as a center for beer after visiting San Francisco Beer Week in February.

“The inspiration was seeing what is happening in the beer world. It really started with Russian River and their line,” said Brad Calkins, executive director for Visit Santa Rosa, and himself a beer enthusiast. “Wine is still the bulk of the reason people come here, but breweries are coming on so strong.”

Santa Rosa is in the final stages of nailing down a new major beer festival for 2016. Partnering with RateBeer, the influential online forum and rating service, the city will host the RateBeer Best Awards and Festival, with a proposed date in late January. The event will include the annual release of RateBeer’s latest “best of” ratings, which routinely spark a major surge in sales for the beers that top the list.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from online and print versions to correct that Pliny the Elder is an IPA, not an Irish stout. Corrected at 9:23 a.m. on July 27, 2015.