Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
I complain too much about traveling. I’m the jerk Facebooking a picture of a Kona bottle on a Hawaiian beach while summoning the gall to bitch that the brewery-funded work trip has me neglecting my diet, fitness routine, house maintenance, and dating life back home. So naturally, it was with some trepidation that I booked flights to spend a month on the west coast to research early craft beer history, and visit some of the 1980s-era people and places who first made this whole crazy craft brewing experiment happen.
But although I griped as I drove, flew, bussed, and trained my way from San Francisco to Seattle (just ask my Californian bestie-slash-tour guide, Herlinda Heras), I also met a ton of my beer heroes, and got to see up close what it must have meant to build a brewery -- and an industry -- piece by piece, dairy tank by dairy tank, and dollar by dollar.
I did stop at next-gen spots like pFreim Family Brewers, The Commons, and Heidrun Meadery, and hit up fantastic older breweries like Magnolia, Stumptown, Buffalo Bill’s, Lagunitas, Russian River, Hale’s Ales, and Elysian Brewing -- but will have to cover them in a future story. As for Anchor Brewing Co., the granddaddy of them all, I’m scheduled for a visit next year.
The rest of my stops are amongst the 10 breweries below -- those that have survived in some form or another for two or three decades or more. These are the real O(cb)Gs: the Original (craft brewing) Gangsters.
Santa Rosa, CA
I laughed my you-know-what off here with the offbeat and irreverent Brian Hunt, who founded Moonlight in 1992 after brewing professionally throughout the ‘80s. Armed with money from selling half his equity to Lagunitas/Heineken, Hunt is trading in a few stools and a makeshift bar for a legit tasting room in his barebones office-park brewery. He produces so little beer that he refuses to let the majority of inquiring bars sell his flagship Death + Taxes black lager or his Working for Tips “redwood ale” brewed with (you guessed it) foraged redwood tips. But the good news is that you can easily try them on site, along with other British-style and American recipes. [Pro Tip: You'll need a car (or Herlinda) to get around mountainous Sonoma County.]
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If you’re prepared to drive three hours east from Santa Rosa to Chico, you have to visit Sierra Nevada, America’s oldest surviving independent 20th century craft brewery. Possibly the most revered beermaker in America since opening in 1980, Sierra invites visitors to see its original equipment and brewing space alongside its uber-sustainable, state-of-the-art toys. A variety of tours allow participants to zero in on themes like engineering or agriculture (which includes a visit to the estate hop farm), though even the most blasé beer drinker can find other fun stuff to do, from eating in the full-service restaurant to listening to bands in the live music venue. If you’re smart, you’ll drink a Pale Ale from the source; it’s the beer that launched the hop revolution.
I stayed at this Portland ‘burbs-area location of McMenamins (courtesy of the company), and there just aren’t enough words to describe how fanciful, entertaining, quirky, and just plain old f-ing cool this place is. This is not the spot for someone who craves the comforting familiarity of a Ramada. The largest in a circa-1983 chain of 54 sibling-owned Northwestern hotels, theaters, bars, breweries, wineries, and distilleries, McMenamins Edgefield makes its own beer, wine, and spirits on a campus that used to house a poor farm (i.e. a place paupers and the elderly could stay, courtesy of taxpayers).
McMenamins has perfected what I call the “pocket bar,” a mind-bogglingly small, yet fully stocked pub, and I managed to have a drink at two of the four on this property. I also reveled in the curious murals, dipping pool, fire pits and walk-in flower garden. I even spent a late-night hour sipping a Maple Stone Sour whiskey cocktail outside the Distillery Bar, next to a legit miniature pony wearing a rainbow unicorn horn. (Keep Portland weird, as they say.)
Note: I also stayed at McMenamins in Centralia, WA, and Bothell, WA, but Edgefield set an impossibly high bar for the others to meet. (If you’re planning on visiting the PDX-based Widmer Brothers Brewing pub, Pink Boots Society founder Teri Fahrendorf and her husband hand built a rentable, two-story, beery-as-heck Brewmaster’s Cottage nearby.)
credits:"McMenamins / Kat Nyberg"
Hood River, OR
Though you can Uber from Troutdale to downtown Portland for about $25, I rented a car for the week so I could drive an all-too-quick 45 minutes east along the stunning Columbia River to the town of Hood River. Anchoring the vibrant brewing scene there since 1986 is Full Sail, co-founded by trailblazer Irene Firmat and still brewing beer under the supervision of the highly respected Jamie Emmerson, who joined soon after it opened. A 30-minute tour demonstrates the superior sustainability processes that Firmat has made a hallmark of her business -- but it’s the full-service taproom’s huge windows overlooking the Columbia Gorge that really generates the wow factor. Try the two beers that made Full Sail famous back in the day: Amber Ale and Session Lager. If you’re not too proud, stay at the very clean, very cheap Hood River Hostel -- I did, and had the whole place to myself.
The commercial fishing town of Newport is 2.5 hours southwest of Portland on the Oregon coast, and it’s home to the 29-year-old Rogue. The brewery/distillery has public locations and a private farm that dot the northwest, but to feel the full old-time hippie surfer vibe -- and maybe get famed head brewer John Maier to pour you something he’s working on -- you have to visit the mother ship. There, you can ask head distiller Jake Holshue about his American single-malt whiskey project, learn how to make barrels at the nation’s only craft brewery cooperage, and see how America’s 30th largest craft brewery successfully churns out experimental-style suds using well-worn equipment.
Squeeze up the old staircase into the narrow wooden bar postered with memorabilia from Rogue’s history, and finish up by inhaling the view of the Yaquina Bay in the adjacent dining room (order the MoM Hefeweizen cheese curds). To keep grooving on that Rogue energy (and take advantage of a spacious two-room accommodation with a balcony, kitchen and washer/dryer), stay in one of the Bed ‘n Beer apartments above its downtown Newport public house.
(Disclosure: the brewery kindly put me up for the night.)
credits:"[Rogue Ales & Spirits / Flickr](https://www.flickr.com/photos/rogueales/5140272286/in/album-72157625297546436/)"
Here’s a neat trick: if you ever drive from Newport to Portland, stop at Ponzi Vineyards along the way. Not only will you experience one of the wineries that put the Willamette Valley on the winemaking map, you’ll be patronizing the establishment owned by Nancy and Dick Ponzi, who opened BridgePort Brewing in 1984 as the first craft brewery in the state.
Once in town, find BridgePort’s pub in its original location in a restored cordage (rope) factory in the newly hip Pearl District. Though the aging brewery equipment isn’t much to see, you can pair pizza and pub fare with a few OG west coast IPAs in the more modern taproom. It’s a place that’s about to get a serious upgrade -- soon it’ll have a pilot brewing system close to all the action in the pub. Maybe next time you visit, you can eat, drink, and chat with longtime brewer Jeff Edgerton while he brews.
Like sours? Grab beer from one of 18 taps at Cascade’s offsite taproom and you may just meet owner Art Larrance, who not only engineered some of the first sours in the country, but became a major American craft brewer when he opened Portland Brewing Co. in 1985. Sit on the streetside patio and graze on a baked brie paired with the Sang Noir blended imperial red ale aged on cherries. If you're there on the right night (as I was), you may be able to listen in on a planning meeting for the history-making Oregon Brewers Fest.
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Back east, Amtrak is expensive. Out west, you can drop just $26 for a totally scenic three-hour train ride from Portland to Seattle. Of course, then you’ll be forced to navigate the infuriatingly confusing Seattle bus system. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Pyramid has recently transitioned its brewing elsewhere, but the Seattle Alehouse -- the first site to open after the brand’s original owners sold the company in ‘84 – still serves up the old brewery standards, including Hefeweizen and Apricot Ale. Expect to run into hordes of Mariners fans readying themselves for a game at Safeco Field, conveniently located across the parking lot.
By the time you read this, Redhook will have opened a shiny new production brewery and taproom in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. But construction crews made visiting impossible while I was in town, so I hopped a Lyft (damn you, bus system!) out to Woodinville.
In Woodinville, tons of winery tasting rooms (including Chateau Ste. Michelle) and a few distilleries (sample Woodinville Distilling Co.’s highly awarded straight bourbon) cozy up next to the old Redhook brewery. There’s not much to tour anymore at the 36-year-old brewery’s production plant outside of some cool breweriana. But a sizeable pub with lots of outdoor seating make sampling more than two dozen beers from Redhook (and its corporate sisters Widmer Brothers and Kona) a relaxing change from all the vino. And if you don’t try its old flagship ESB, you haven’t tried Redhook.
Pike, oh Pike. I’m so in love with founders Rose Ann and Charles Finkel that I saved this 28-year-old brewery for last. Nestled into touristy Pike Place and covered floor-to-ceiling with memorabilia documenting beer’s global (and noble) history, a Seattle-based friend announced upon meeting up with me in the maze-like Pike Pub that she avoided the place because she’d always assumed it was a cheesy trap for tourists. No ma’am, I assured her, before droning on about the Finkels’ six-decade crusade to bring boutique wine, artisanal beer, and gourmet food to the mainstream. Not ones to retire quietly, the couple is expanding and modernizing its brewing equipment and just opened Tankard & Tun, a contemporary seafood restaurant. You can’t go wrong drinking the iconic wee heavy Kilt Lifter, and if you spot a spry older couple kindly chatting with staff, ask them how Charles helped turn Chateau Ste. Michelle into one of the country’s best-known wineries. Then give them a hug and tell them it’s from me.
Some of the communities mentioned in this story are currently suffering from the devastating Columbia Gorge fire. If you'd like to help, here are some resources.
Note: Elysian Brewing Co. is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch. Kona Brewing Co., Widmer Brothers and Redhook Ale Brewery are members of the Craft Brew Alliance, partially owned by Anheuser-Busch.