A Beer Odyssey

August 14-16, 1992

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I don't much like sweet beers. The Brown Ale style is not one of my favorites. One of the best beers I've ever tasted is the Downtown Brown Ale, from Lost Coast Brewing in Eureka. It's just sweet enough, with just the right level of hops; it's one of my favorite beers of all time.

I had my first taste of Downtown Brown Ale at the 1992 Fort Mason Beer Festival in San Francisco, and I've enjoyed it at a number of festivals since then. I had always determined to visit the brewery and sample their beers firsthand, and one particular weekend in August was finally the right time. My plan: drive from San Leandro to Eureka on Saturday, visit Lost Coast in Eureka and Humboldt Brewing in Arcata (as long as I'm there), spend the night in Eureka, and drive home Sunday morning. Simple enough.

The Friday before the trip, I met my friend Jake at Brewpub on the Green in Fremont. We talked about his recent trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame, we had a great dinner (they make some fine hamburgers there, honest!), and we had a taste of all of their beers:

Wheat4.0%An American style, but hints of Bavarian (clove) character. Maybe a wheat lager?
Lager4.2%Same characteristics as Wheat, but not as sweet, no "cloves".
Amber4.2%Nice color, fruity like an amber should be. Good stuff. Very slight Irish moss (?) flavor. The more I drink it, the less I like it.
ESB6.0%Just like the Amber, only more so. Tastes very strong.
Porter5.0%OK - not impressed.

Like many of the microbreweries, the brewers at Brewpub on the Green have really improved their beers over the last year or so. So many breweries were making...well, bad beer a year or two ago, and those same breweries are making some of the best now. Brewpub on the Green is no exception.

At eight o'clock in the morning on Saturday, August 15, I got in my trusty Cougar and hit the road. I fought the early weekend Bay Area traffic and headed north on US 101. As usual, I skipped breakfast...why should today be any different? (Little did I know...) Around ten o'clock, I was feeling mighty dry. I checked my map for potential lunchtime stops...and there it was, just an hour away - the Mendocino Brewing Company of Hopland California! I had been there before...good beer, good food, and most importantly today, perfectly placed for a lunchtime respite.

Mendocino Brewing

I drove into Hopland around 10:45, just a few minutes before opening time. I waited in my car, checking my Celebrator and my map for any more potential stops on the way to Eureka. Hmmm...Anderson Valley is out of the way, and North Coast is even further. Too bad.

Magically, the clock struck eleven...it's Opening Time! And would you believe the added bonus: that particular day was the brewery's ninth anniversary. The party started immediately; the barbecue was fired up, and the Eye of the Hawk Ale was flowing. There was a geezer at the bar, named "Norm", appropriately enough, who claimed that he had been there every day since the day the place opened. There was a camera crew working on a documentary of Northern California brewpubs. I tell ya, the place was hoppin'! For lunch: a barbecued buffalo steak, done to perfection. I had a round of samplers to go with my lunch:

PeregrineThin, yellow. Very light.
Blue HeronA little better. Slightly more body and flavor, no aroma.
Red TailOK amber ale. Good color, flavor not as strong as it could be. MUCH better on tap than bottled!
Black HawkGood black thick roasty. A little sweeter than I like, but good enough for serious quaffing!
Eye of the HawkI need a pint of this to tell if I really like it.

My pint of the Eye of the Hawk Ale was really remarkable. It's their "special" ale, brewed only for special occasions like today. It's an outstanding, full-bodied ale, darker than the Red Tail, and with a similar but much more assertive flavor. It's too bad this is such a rare beer.

And up the road I went, and boy is it a long way to Eureka. I could hear the Downtown Brown calling me through the redwoods. By three o'clock, I was there.

It's a nice place, Lost Coast, with a lot of seating upstairs and downstairs, and a long brass-covered bar. A sign on the wall announces that the brewery was established on July 13, 1990; Friday the Thirteenth! I hope good luck stays with this place, because they make some of the best beers around.

The bar was nearly empty when I arrived, so I got to talk with Marty behind the bar for a while. I asked him if they had beer available for takeout in the plastic gallon jugs like many of the other California brewpubs. He told me that the Department of Recycling told him that those containers are illegal, which I find very hard to believe. I've been to too many other breweries that offered this method of takeout, and I named many of them for him. I wasn't able to convince Marty, though; he said that all he knows is what the government tells him. I'd appreciate any information that will set either him or me straight.

I had a sample of each of their beers to wash down some mighty fine Buffalo Wings:

PaleVery good pale, heavy body, light taste, well-hopped.
HefeweizenGood smooth American style. Thick, just sweet enough. VGI. (Very Good Indeed!)
Dunkel HefeweizenVery caramelly. Tastes a lot like the Brown?
BrownNope. Brown isn't nearly as sweet as the Dunkel Hefeweizen. An excellent brown! I like it better (side-by-side) than the Hefeweizen.
StoutToo burnt/astringent.

As I tasted their beers, and sipped my pint of Brown, I studied my map. I noticed that Highway 299 runs between US 101 and I-5. I also noticed that if I could get to I-5, I could stop at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico on the way home. I told Marty what I was up to, and asked him if Highway 299 was the best way to get to I-5 from Eureka. He told me that it was possible, but if I was willing to drive four hours or so out of my way, I could visit three more brewpubs along the way! I had to think about it for a few minutes, but not for too many.

(Warning: the remainder of this story is neither for the squeamish nor for the faint of heart. The admonition "Kids, don't try this at home" goes double here. Despite what you may think while reading this account, I am confident that I violated no laws with respect to driving under the influence. The words "a beer" below refer to a sampler glass, three or four ounces in size. Full pints are indicated appropriately. I made sure to wait about an hour between my last drink and my next excursion, and I had something fairly substantial to eat at almost every stop. Nevertheless, if I were to do it again, I wouldn't do it alone, and neither should you.)

(Whew.)

Marty's advice: follow US 101 north (being sure to stop at Humboldt Brewing in Arcata) to US 199, continuing to Cave Junction Oregon. There you'll find the Pizza Deli and Brewery. Continue on US 199 to Grant's Pass Oregon, and pick up I-5 South. The Rogue Brewery is in Ashland Oregon. Spend the night in Ashland, and head south on I-5 in the morning to get to Sierra Nevada in Chico. "Sure," said I, "and thanks for the tip!" And off I went.

I got halfway to Arcata (a quick six miles from Eureka) before I realized that I had forgotten the T-shirt that I had paid for at Lost Coast. At twenty bucks a throw, it's not the sort of thing you want to leave behind, so I made my only backtrack of the journey.

But soon enough I was at the Humboldt Brewing Company. I wasn't real sure what to expect, as I didn't remember tasting their beers anywhere, and I didn't have any lowdown on the brewery before I arrived. It's really a huge place, especially considering where it is! (Take a look at your California maps, and try to find Arcata.) For a very good writeup of the place, see Steve McClenathan's front-page article in the August 1992 Celebrator.

I would have liked to have spent more time here, because the beer was excellent! The real kicker: they were all served from real live hand pumps. In all my travels up to that time, I hadn't seen a hand pump on this side of the Atlantic. I was impressed! My round of samplers included:

Honey and Ginger Ale4.0%It certainly is. Pretty good! Light...sweet, ginger obvious.
Gold Rush4.5%OK, fruity light ale.
Red Nectar5.0%Good amber, well-hopped. I've seen bottles of this at Liquor Barn, etc.
Redwood Amber5.5%Better than Red Nectar, less hops, more malt flavor.
Storm Cellar Porter5.7%Pretty burnt, maybe too much for a porter. Pretty tasty, though...
Humboldt Stout5.7%Not as burnt as the porter, smoother.

Unfortunately, I didn't have more time to spend there; Oregon was calling. US 199 is a twisty path through mountains and redwoods. Beautiful scenery, and I'll bet it's even more impressive when you're the passenger in the car, rather than the driver. Distractions aside, I arrived in Cave Junction around eight o'clock Saturday night, and I found the Pizza Deli & Brewery right along the side of the road.

The name describes this place perfectly; it's a typical little pizza joint with a brewery stuck on the side! I bypassed the "Baitbucket Pizza" (shrimp, oysters and/or anchovies) in favor of a small "Deli Delight" (linguica, mushrooms, pepperoni, olives, beef, and sausage). (So sue me; I'm a carnivore.) I noted in their menu-cum-flyer that they use some imported hops, which I thought was a little strange in Oregon, considering the quality of the hops grown there. They also mention that their beers "are centuries old styles that have been the daily fare of sober, hard-working men and women - not necessarily high in alcohol or strong in flavor". That last clause - "not...strong in flavor" really caught my eye and set my expectations somewhat lower than they might have been. I was pleasantly surprised.

LightGood microbrewery pale - good pizza beer.
BlackberryIt's a porter. Can't taste the fruit.
ESBNot bitter enough to be called an ESB, but not bad.
DarkGood smooth dark ale. Doesn't taste very strong, though...
Nut Brown Ale"High in flavor but low in alcohol" - ain't that the truth.

Overall, five good beers, and some very good pizza. This stop really fortified me for what I thought would be the last leg of tonight's journey.

Ashland is a good long way from Cave Junction. You have to drive around a whole lot of mountains to get there. You can work up quite a thirst doing it. I finally reached Rogue Brewing in Ashland around 10:30 Saturday night.

It pains me to say it, but I'm going to plead the Fifth in my description of Rogue's beers, and I promise the brewers and the staff there that I will give them another go under more favorable conditions. I had been driving for some thirteen hours by then, and it was late, and (dare I say it?) I was in more of a mood to sleep than I was to drink beer. As I walked up to the pub, there were a lot of people making a lot of noise (or so I thought, but what did I expect on a Saturday night?) and a folk guitarist on a stool outside. I went inside to the downstairs bar, and the bartender told me I should go outside to listen to the music. I explained the True Reason that I was there, and ordered an IPA.

I'll be honest: I've had Rogue beers on tap and in the bottle, and I was never very impressed. I found them sour and not very appetizing at all. My reaction to this IPA wasn't much different, and I finished the pint and left.

As I was driving away in search of a motel, the taste of the beer lingered, and I thought, "You know, that beer wasn't bad at all." My state of mind had really distorted my state of palate. Once again, I apologize to the folks at Rogue, and I promise to stop by again and do them up right. Like so many of the beers I tasted on this odyssey, I think they've probably improved immeasurably over the past year or two.

I drove through the streets of Ashland, looking for a motel. "No Vacancy" signs lit my path. Eventually, I came to I-5, and I headed south, back toward California. "There must be some towns nearby," I thought, "and I'll find a place to stay in one of them."

Nobody had bothered to tell me that there are nothing but mountains from Ashland on south, and big empty ones at that. No towns to be found; nothing but dark twisty Interstate Highway. The nearly-full moon rose behind Mount Shasta, some sixty miles away by air (ninety by road). Forty-five minutes later, I was in Yreka, California.

No vacancy. I began to suspect a conspiracy.

I returned to the freeway and continued south. It was plenty late, and I was plenty tired, and about six hundred miles from home. The next town with a streetlight was Weed, California.

No vacancy.

I drove around the streets of Weed, checking all the motels, but they all claimed to be full. Reaching deep into my bag of tricks, I asked myself what I would have done back when I was young and poor.

I slept in my car in a Motel 6 parking lot.

I woke Sunday morning around 6:30 when the fellow in the truck next to me was loading up to leave. (The looks I got from him...) Just up the road was the Hi-Lo Cafe & Motel. The Cafe was a lot more interesting to me than the Motel just now; I was in desperate need of coffee. I mapped out the day's battle plan over breakfast. Since I had come this far, and was now rounding the far turn, as they say, I reasoned that I may as well visit a few more pubs on the way home. I plotted my course.

First up was Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico. As luck would have it, I reached this Mecca of Pubcrawlers at ten o'clock in the morning, opening time, and time for Sunday brunch. It's a beautiful brewery, industrial surroundings notwithstanding, and a beautiful bar inside. It reminded me of the bar at Pacific Coast Brewing in Oakland, but the one at Sierra is even bigger. Sunday bruch at Sierra consists of your choice from their breakfast menu plus a half-pint of the beer of your choice. What a way to start your day. The hardest choice to make was which beer to accompany breakfast. To make a proper choice, I felt that I should have a round of samplers first:

Draught AleLike the Pale Ale, but smoother, and more hops.
Pale AleEven better when fresh.
PorterVery smooth, with strong chocolate flavor. Not as highly hopped as I remember it, and that's good! Very thick.
StoutHeavier in body, but lighter taste than Porter. Also not as highly hopped as I remember.
Celebration AleNot available. Too bad.
Bigfoot AleHoly cow! This is not your basic breakfast beer! Again, ten times better when fresh, just like the others.
SummerfestVery smooth, heavy body, light taste. Could use a touch more flavoring hops, but maybe not.
Pale BockNot available. Too bad.

I chose the Huevos Rancheros and a half-pint of the Draught Ale. The Huevos Rancheros were served with a black bean sauce and an alarmingly hot salsa, and a fruit plate and various muffins. Not bad for six bucks! There was a good crowd for a Sunday morning; at least two dozen people were there for brunch. Their prices are more than fair: brunch, the samplers, a pint each of Pale and Porter, a T-shirt, and two pint glasses for $25. It's a deal! Be advised they're closed on Monday.

My next scheduled stops were Willett's and Brown Street, both in Napa. Check your maps - Napa is a good long way from Chico, and the nearest intervening brewpub involves a detour to Davis. (Which wouldn't have been a terribly bad idea, since Sudwerk makes some mighty fine brews.) About halfway there, my human frailties overcame my drive for beer, and around 12:30 I pulled off the freeway at Maxwell for an hour's nap.

I awoke a new man. Before long I was on Highway 128, navigating the hills between the Central Valley and the Napa Valley. (Nobody told me there were mountains there! Whose idea was this, anyway?) Willett's was closer than Brown Street, so I stopped there first.

Willett's Brewing

I was shocked and dismayed to read the sign painted in their front window: "Closed Sunday". Fortunately, Brown Street was just up the road.

Brown Street had been my favorite brewpub since my first visit not long after they opened. They always had some twelve beers on tap, from a very light ale to a very black stout. Their specialties were Ginseng Ale, which was their Porter with a bit of ginseng extract added, and California Chili Beer, which was amazing. Period. My friends and I would make regular road trips to Napa to buy the stuff two gallons or more at a time. It was incredible.

Brown Street Brewery

Then the unimaginable happened. I read it on page 13 of the August 1992 Celebrator: "Closed: Brown Street Brewing, Napa CA. The brewery has ceased production but the restaurant is still open." I was stunned. Shocked. Dumbfounded, even. Granted, they have a terrific restaurant, but no more Chili Beer? It was hard to imagine. I was sure I was dealing with a vicious rumor, but I had to find out for myself.

The sign on the door said "Sunday: 4:30-11:00". No mention of the state of the brewery. As much as I would have liked to stay, it was only 2:30, and I had places to go. I have since learned that the brewery is in fact closed. The restaurant has five excellent California and Washington beers on tap, but the brewery is closed. A moment of silence, please.

Kelmer's in Santa Rosa is just up Highway 12 from Napa. It's bigger than your average brewpub, with a long bar, a large dining area, and a separate room that looks like it would be a great place for a private party. I was stuck in traffic (traffic? In Sonoma County?) on the way there, so I didn't arrive until nearly four o'clock. Imagine my thirst. I remembered tasting their Scottish Ale on tap at Pacific Coast, and I hoped to have some fresh at the brewery, but it was out of season. I had to make do with some of their other fine beers:

Krystal (light)Wheat lager. Very light indeed. Definite wheat sweetness.
Klassic (medium)Amber. Also pretty light.
Klout (dark)Stout. Good roasty flavor, but a bit thin.
Independence Ale"Winner of the Great American Beer Festival". That's more like it! Well-hopped, well-balanced pale ale.

The notes on the menu say that the brewery was established October 1987, and that they have sold over ONE MILLION glasses of their beer! Well done! They also sell those one-gallon jugs that are supposedly illegal. I asked the bartender about them, and he was not aware of any rules prohibiting their sale. Go figure. The fish and chips, while not up to the standards of the Edinburgh Castle in San Francisco, were certainly good enough to soak up a pint of Independence Ale.

One last stop before the home stretch: Dempsey's Ale House in Petaluma. It's tucked away in the back of the Golden Eagle shopping center, but it's not too hard to find. Once again, the gallon jugs were on sale. (They're everywhere, I tell ya!) One more time, I started with a round of samplers:

Golden Eaglelight pale.
Red RoosterLess body but more flavor than Gold...
Bad Bear BrownGood brown. Just sweet enough. Could use a bit more "roasty" flavor, but maybe not.
Henry's StoutThin, a little astringent. Nope.

The jar behind the bar advertised homemade beef jerky, but the jar was empty. Too bad.

There were more stops to be made before I crossed the Bay on the way home: Marin in Larkspur; J&L in San Rafael; 20 Tank, San Francisco Brewing, and Gordon Biersch in The City; Bison and Triple Rock in Berkeley; Pacific Coast in Oakland; Tied House in Alameda; but I had to admit defeat.

Or was it defeat? Nine brewpubs, samples of forty-one of the best beers in California and Oregon, a thousand miles of driving through some of the most scenic country in America...I think I won after all.