Touring Four Innovative California Breweries

(An edited version of this post was published in the Oct/Nov 2012 issue of Adventure Sports Journal.)



This isn’t a museum.  It’s Anchor’s Historic Brewhouse
(Photon courtesy of Anchor Brewing)

There’s revolution going on in this country, born largely in California that has nothing to do with music, politics, or some insanely great gadget.  It’s a revolution in beer, a beverage that’s existed for over 5,000 years of human history that continues to be reinvented to this day.    Large breweries run by multinational corporations producing unoriginal light, flat tasting yellow lagers are dramatically losing market share to a growing fleet of smaller independent breweries concocting a wide variety of rich, flavorful, and unique brews.   People are enjoying the endless flavor combinations and possibilities of beer and becoming more aware about where their beer comes from.  California breweries are major pioneers of this movement.

Unlike most businesses with tightly protected company secrets, many breweries happily throw open their doors to let you experience their sights, sounds, and tastes.    You can tour four of California’s leading breweries changing the way our nation experiences beer, and here’s what you’ll find.

Go to Anchor Brewing and you’ll see a piece of San Francisco history.   The brewery is housed in a four story Depression-era brick building in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.  Visitors meet in brewery’s tap room, with its classic carved wooden interior and old brewery photographs, which include Janis Joplin happily enjoying an Anchor Steam.    The brewery itself, with its old copper kettles and brick interior, looks like something out of a museum, but is where all of Anchor’s beer is brewed today.

The tour starts with recounting of the tumultuous history of Anchor Brewing.  It’s one of the oldest breweries in the United States, dating back to the Gold Rush-era in San Francisco.  It survived the 1906 Earthquake and Prohibition, but nearly went out bankrupt in 1965 before Fritz Maytag, a recent Stanford graduate from a Midwestern family of prominent dairy farmers (think “Maytag Blue Cheese”)  learned of the imminent demise of his favorite beer and purchased 51% of the business.

While saving the brewery, Maytag carefully studied brewing methods from the brewery’s earliest period, when San Francisco breweries were known for their “Steam Beer” fermented in open vats often on roof tops with the cool San Francisco climate providing natural refrigeration.  It’s a brewing practice that had long been abandoned, most likely due to the likelihood of wild yeasts and other airborne microbes ruining a batch. 

Maytag developed a system of open shallow vats in a more controlled environment to replicate brewing technique, and today every drop of Anchor Steam slowly ferments in these vats.   A highlight of the tour is catching a glimpse of these vats, which had long been a brewery secret.     As brewery spokes person Candice Uyloan describes, “These fermenters are an important part of our unique brewing history and represent a marked difference from the vertical tanks found in other breweries. Except for the occasional hot day, we still simply use the naturally cool air from San Francisco’s foggy coastal climate.”

After viewing the brewing equipment and bottling line, the tour concludes back in the brewery tap room where visitor can taste between 6-8 Anchor Beers, depending on the season.   Uyloan adds “We would like visitors to leave knowing that every Anchor beer comes from the hands of people who love and are dedicated to what they do.”

Tour Information

The brewery offers two tours a day on Weekdays.  Tour reservations are taken up to six months in advance and dates fill up quickly, often weeks in advance.  Call 415-863-8350 for more information and to make reservations.  Admission is free.

 

Tiny, rustic Booneville, with its 1,000 residents, looks like a typical small town, but is like no place on earth.  It’s home to an eclectic group of artists and some of the finest Pinot Noir growing land in all of California.   It’s also the source of Boontling, a quirky, folk language of the region that sprang up in the late 1800’s.  Boontling is largely defunct, save for a few dedicated local practitioners keeping the language alive.  This includes Anderson Valley Brewing, located on the Southern edge of town, which names their beers after Boontling phrases and place names. 
Don’t let all those controls in the Anderson Valley Brewhouse fool you,
none of them actually work.

 Anderson Valley’s current brewery went online in 2000 after outgrowing its previous location in central Booneville.  The open 30-acre brewery grounds also include a Frisbee golf course, a tap room, a field of hops growing up a series of a vertical support lines, and eight goats used to “mow” part of the grounds.

The Anderson Valley Brewery tour meets in the tap room and proceeds into the Brew House, where the first thing you’ll see are three gleaming copper brew kettles recovered from a defunct German brewery.  There’s an equally impressive looking old world control panel that looks like something Captain Nemo used to pilot the Nautilus, but if you look carefully, a smaller, more modern electronic controller is actually used to control the brewing equipment.

“We like to educate people on the brewing process,” explains Rebecah Toohey, Anderson Valley’s Tap Room Manager.  “During the tour, we go over the history of the brewery, as well of each step we take to brew our beer.”   This includes a trip to the hop freezer.   There’s nothing more stimulating the walking into the cold air of the hop freezer and deeply inhaling all the fresh, piny hops Anderson Valley uses for beers such as their Hop Ottin’ IPA and Poleeko Pale Ale.  Visitors also get to go up on the brewery roof and see the solar panels which generate about 40% of the breweries electricity, while learning about the many other environmental initiatives that are part of Anderson Valley’s commitment to its unique region.

 Tour Information

Tours start Daily at 1:30 and 3:00 pm, except between January and March, when they only run Thursday-Monday.    The tour costs $5, and include two beer samples from the tap room, and a $5 coupon for any purchase over $10 in the brewery gift shop.  Call (707) 895-BEER for more information.

Lagunitas is first and foremost about having a good time.  And everyone working at Lagunitas seems to be having one, as all the staff at the Lagunitas Tap Room and Beer Sanctuary has an genuine, infectious  enthusiasm for the place.  The Tap Room and Beer Sanctuary serves food and often features live music.  Tours guides announce the start of each tour by clanging a bell and waving a small, crudely written card board sign above their head.  Anyone who wants to join simply follows them out into the brewery.
Ryan Tamborski discussing Lagunitas’s Barrel-aged Brews

Brewery tours typically have the aura of a high school science field trip, but as tour guide Ryan Tamborski tells the story of Lagunitas founder Tony Magee, he works the room like a stand-up comic.  “In the early days, there was a problem when Tony Magee flushed yeast into the community septic tank.  Does anyone know what you get when you flush yeast into septic tank?  Coors Light!”  Indeed, there’s plenty of entertaining stories behind many Lagunitas beers, and most involve either marijuana or owner Tony Magee thumbing his nose at various authorities.   The tour guides are master story tellers, and the Lagunitas Brewery tour is the most entertaining hour I’ve ever spent at a brewery.

But behind the goofy humor, one also witnesses a relentless capitalism. Lagunitas is one of the fastest growing breweries in the United States, available all over the country, and commanding high prices on the black market overseas.   Ryan happily showed off the shiny state-of-the-art equipment Lagunitas recently invested in to meet this exploding demand, and well as telling us Lagunitas’s plans to open a second brewery in Chicago at the end of this year.    Sure, Lagunitas is a place to have a good time, but touring the place also reveals how much hard work and commitment must go into creating the good times.

Tour Information

Mondays-Tuesdays 3:00 pm, Wednesday at 3:00 and 5:00 pm, Saturdays 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00 pm 

Call 707-778-8776 for more information

Sierra Nevada is where to go to learn a lot about beer. 

“We have a very technical tour, “explains Marie Gray, Tour Coordinator for Sierra Nevada.  “We get a lot of questions from beer craft drinkers who really want to know more about beer, so we do our best to answer them.  It’s a lot of fun, and we meet a lot of great people out there.”
The dignified splendor of Sierra Nevada’s Brewhouse

The tour takes over an hour and carefully goes over every step of the brewing process.  It starts in the mill room, which prepares the malted barley for brewing.  Next in the Brew House,  large room with impressive copper brewing kettles, visitors can peer into to see the mash through glass windows.  You can actually sample a taste of wort, the liquid full of extracted sugars from malted barley, used in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to understand how the hops and fermentation transforms the sweet liquid into beer.  There is also an invigorating trip to the Sierra Nevada hop freezer room as well as overhead views of the bottling and canning lines.

 In addition to brewing, visitors learn plenty about Sierra Nevada’s legion of environmental practices.  Climbing up to a catwalk above the brewery, you’ll look down on no fewer than 10,763 solar panels adorning the roof.    Guests also discover that hydrogen fuel cells provide approximately 50% of the brewery’s electricity needs and that Sierra Nevada actually paid to extend a railroad line a few miles to so that rail cars could roll right up to the brewery, eliminating the CO2 emissions from trucks transporting supplies those last few miles.

At the end, there’s a tasting of eight samples of different Sierra Nevada beers at the brewery tap room, and even this is used as an opportunity to educate.  “We try to make it an educational tasting, where people learn to enjoy the different aromas and flavors of beer,” explains Marie.  “In the end, our guests walk away with a really good experience.”  

For those more interested in Sierra Nevada’s environmentally sustainable practices, the brewery hosts Sustainable Tours on Fridays, Saturday, and Sunday the focus on Sierra Nevada’s environmental initiatives.  There is also beer tasting at the end of this tour, but is held in an outside garden, weather permitting, and consists of four samples.

Tour Information

Tour Hours:
Monday – Thursday: 11:00am 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm 3:00pm & 4:00 pm
Friday and Saturday: 11:00am 12:00 pm, 12:30pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 2:30pm 3:00 pm, 4:00 pm, 4:30pm & 5:00 pm
Sunday: 11:00am 12:00 pm, 12:30pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 2:30pm 3:00 pm, 4:00 pm
Phone:  530-899-4776

 

 

 

Published by

ramblingsofabeerrunner

Writing about beer from the California's Silicon Valley.

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