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Swell suds: A visit to Surf Brewery in Ventura, California

January 29, 2013 By: mike Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Travelin'

Surf Brewery -sign

If you ever visit the tasting room at Surf Brewery in Ventura, Calif., get the sampler. Five-ounce samples of your choice — on a mini surfboard, no less — ride the craft brew wave right into your belly! A “short board” gives you four tasters, while the “long board” comes with six, eight or even 10 pours of Surf beers.

I stopped in at Surf Brewery last week and was impressed with this small California operation that was opened by a pair of homebrewers, Bill Riegler and Doug Mason, in 2011. It’s now the only packaging microbrewery in Ventura County, self distributing in kegs and bottles, and featuring a tasting room, growler sales and a homebrew shop right in the brewery.

Surf Brewery - samplerMy sampler included Mondo’s Cream Ale, County Line Rye Pale Ale, Surf Black IPA and the South Swell Double IPA. The cream ale, named after a local surf spot, was smooth and refreshing. The rye packed a lot more hops than I was expecting (not that I’m complaining!) The Black IPA was solid. And the South Swell is what you’d expect from a hoppy, West Coast beer.

Surf Brewery-menuI also tried the Oil Piers Porter, a nitro beer that was more stout than porter. Meanwhile, the Lemon Wahine Wheat, with peels of local lemons added in at the end of the boil, was a lemon bomb of a beer, but I liked it!

Surf Brewery-taproomThe brewery is located in an industrial park off Market Street, with a large tap room with seating for 70. (This photo was taken long after “last call.” It was actually pretty busy all night.) There’s no kitchen, but there was a food truck outside the night I visited that delivered food right to your table.

Surf BreweryNot only is Surf Brewery making good beer, it’s doing good, too. The brewery donates 1% of total sales, not just profits, to the Surfrider Foundation.

A beer tour through wine country, Part 2: Bear Republic Brewery

January 02, 2013 By: Nate Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Travelin'

While I could have spent every day at Russian River Brewing (see part 1 of the “Beer tour through wine country”), we had more to see in Sonoma County, Calif. We drove north along the Russian River toward Healdsburg. Along the way, we encountered this impressive structure.

Walters Ranch Hop Kiln, built 1905, has since been turned into a winery.

Walters Ranch Hop Kiln, built in 1905, has been turned into a winery.

Before mechanization, Sonoma County was one of the largest hop producing regions in the country. That history is still visible in the large hop kilns scattered around the valley. While this one had been turned into Hop Kiln Winery, a few comments about homebrewing just might get you a behind-the-scenes tour of the old kilns.

Once we arrived in Healdsburg, we quickly located Bear Republic Brewery and headed in for a pint (or two).

Home of Hop Rod Rye!

Bear Republic Brewing Company’s tap room in Healdsburg, Calif.

Bear Republic is well known to craft beer lovers for its hop bombs such as Hop Rod Rye, Racer 5 and Racer X. We managed to sample all of these and more, including a few selections available only in the tap room.

In the end my favorite was still Hop Rod Rye. This was the beer that first got me thinking about brewing with malted rye and has lead to many experiments with the grain since. The beer is a great balance between malty and hoppy and the rye adds a wonderful spiciness that lends to a moderate body. It’s a must for any IPA lovers out there that still like some malt in their beer.

The draft selection at Bear Republics taproom. A lot more than just Racer 5!

The draft selection at Bear Republic’s taproom. A lot more than just Racer 5!

I had hoped to stop by Lagunitas Brewing Company to complete the Sonoma County trifecta, but alas they were closed on the day we were passing through Petaluma on our way back to San Francisco. We’ll have to stop by next time.

So my advice to all you beer lovers out there, take a trip to wine country. There’s a lot more to see (and taste) than just the wine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

A beer tour through wine country, Part 1: A visit to Russian River

December 31, 2012 By: Nate Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Travelin'

During a recent trip to Sonoma County, Calif., I was able to squeeze in some brewery visits amongst the wine tasting. Yes, it’s OK to enjoy both wine and beer, one just has to keep his priorities in order…

We were staying in Santa Rosa, so the very first item of business upon arrival was a stop at Russian River Brewing Company, one of my absolute favorite craft brewers.

Russian River!

Russian River’s brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa, Calif.

So many choices!

Currently on tap a Russian River: A lot.

I should say up front that I will not be going on and on about Pliny the Elder. This is not because I don’t think it is a great beer — I do. And we drank a lot of it on this trip. No, the reason is that I had come to Russian River seeking barrel-aged sour beer, and Russian River makes some of the best in the world.

Where the magic happens!

What’s living in these barrels is the key to Russian River’s unique Belgian-style beers.

So I started out with their Belgian-style sampler which included (below, left to right): Redemption, Little White Lie, Damnation, Erudition, Perdition, Benediction, Salvation, Temptation, Brux, Supplication, and Consecration

Also needed is more than one trip

With so many beers on tap it is difficult to try them all, so thoughtful planning is needed.

The sour beers in the sampler (below) were: Brux, a collaboration between Russian River and Sierra Nevada; Temptation, a blonde ale aged in old Chardonnay barrels; Supplication, a brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries; and Consecration, a dark ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with currants.

Sour! Yum!

In all their sour glory: Consecration, Supplication, Temptation, and Brux.

The collaboration beer, Brux had a very soft sour note and a rich mouthfeel. It was more funky than sour. The remaining three were much more intensely sour, with the acidity increasing as the beers got darker. These were extremely complex beers, and were a tough sell for those in the crowd not already fans of the sour (read: everyone but me… Ah, well, more to myself!). Owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo’s background from a wine-making family really shows through in these beers.

Even though Russian River is one of the more famous craft breweries in American and a mecca for beer nerds everywhere, it just feels like a neighborhood brew pub, with great pizza and live music.

Who wouldn't want this place as their local...

Who wouldn’t want this place as their local?

The pub is decorated with lots of old signs and breweriana. One of the best examples is the original sign from New Albion Brewery, the first craft brewery in America.

Lots of history here!

The brewpub now houses the original sign from New Albion Brewery

After working our way through a couple of pizzas, the sampler (and a few other selections), it was time to call it a day. But don’t worry we were back a few days later to work our way through the hoppy side of the menu, listen to some live music and even drank a few Pliny’s…well more than a few!


The carnage. We did our best to taste everything on the menu. I think we did a pretty good job.

Next in this series: More beer in wine country as we move on to Bear Republic.


No fizzy yellow beer here: A visit to Stone Brewing in California

May 24, 2012 By: mike Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Travelin'

Mike and Stone Greg

I’ve been to a lot of breweries, big and small, but Stone Brewing Company in Escondido, Calif., may be the swankiest brewery of them all. The brewery features the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, which includes a 300+ seat restaurant, open-air patio, one-acre organic beer garden and company store.

And by sheer luck, I happened to show up at Stone on the day of the book release of “The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.,” a behind-the-scenes look at the history of Stone Brewing, with recipes from the bistro and never-before released homebrew recipes for Stone beers.

As a result, I got to meet Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, co-founders of Stone Brewing Co., and Randy Clemens, public relations coordinator at Stone, who are co-authors of the book. (That’s me and Greg pictured up top.)

And that’s not all! I happened to show up at Stone for a special tasting of the excellent 2010 Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine, which was aged in bourbon barrels. Later, on a tour of the brewery, I also got to sample Stone Pale Ale, Stone Smoked Porter, Stone India Pale Ale and Arrogant Bastard Ale. It’s hard to beat fresh Stone beer on tap.

Stone - tabletStone was founded in 1996 in San Marcos, Calif. The first keg of Stone Pale Ale was sold on July 26, 1996, to Vince Marsaglia of Pizza Port fame.

Stone - bottles & grainsThe tour at Stone started with everything you need to make beer!

Stone- tour guideOur tour guide’s sage advice: “If you’re worried about calories, ride your bike to the liquor store.”

Stone - Long view of tanksStone projects that it will produce 180,000 barrels of beer in 2012.

Stone - tanksThe brewery is among the fastest-growing in America over the past 15 years, averaging 43% year-to-year growth in that period.

Stone - bottling lineStone’s bottling line can produce 20 cases per minute.

Stone - Cases of Stone IPAStone IPA, along with Stone Pale Ale, are Stone’s flagship beers.

Stone- WussiesStone is known for brewing beers with “big character.” They are not for wussies.

Stone - restaurantStone’s restaurant, which seats 385, has 32 craft and specialty beers on tap, plus more than 100 bottles, as well as an extensive wine list.

Stone - GargoyleA gargoyle is the mascot for Stone Brewing Company and appears on Stone’s labels, which are some of the coolest labels around.


So it’s been eight months since my visit to Stone Brewing Co. in the San Diego area, and I’m just now getting around to posting these photos from the trip. And guess what? I’m headed back to San Diego very soon. So before I head that way again, please leave a comment below and tell me what breweries and brewpubs I need to check out in San Diego.