This past December during his Christmas break, Matt and I visited California for probably our biggest “beercation” to date. In a bullheaded effort to experience as much west coast beer as humanly possible in 9 days, we flew into San Francisco and drove down beautiful Highway 1 to San Diego. We sampled so many beers that by the end my liver was weeping and begging me for mercy. But it was totally worth it!
Where did we go? Allow the following visual aid to inform you:
But also, here’s a list … if you like that sort of thing:
Russian River Brewing Company
Sante Adarius Rustic Ales
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
Firestone Walker Barrelworks
Stone Brewing Co.
And here’s another treat for you fans of the listicle–my top 5 beers from the entire trip:
Cellarmaker Brewing Co.‘s (San Francisco) Bourbon Barrel Vastness of Space
American Imperial Stout, 11%
Russian River Brewing Co.‘s (Santa Rosa) Supplication
American Wild Ale, 7.75%
Russian River Brewing Co.‘s (Santa Rosa) Consecration
American Wild Ale, 10%
AleSmith Brewing Company‘s (San Diego) Vietnamese Speedway Stout
American Imperial Stout, 12%
Seeing the sights in San Francisco
Yes, we tried a lot of beer. Yes, it was (mostly) all tasty. But we also saw tons of animals in the wild. And if you know me, you know that I love me some animals. We saw elephant seals (moms, dads, and new babies), sea lions, seals, grey whales, a crazy variety of sea birds, and – SEA OTTERS! DRINKING BEER! IN THE SEA! Ok, they weren’t drinking beer in the sea, but they were holding hands. And this is how I shall always remember the moment in my mind:
So, since that was pretty much the most amazing moment of the trip, I’ll categorize the remainder of our journey in superlatives to try and bring them up to the same level of awesomeness.
Most Favorite Brewery:
Russian River, omgrrrsh, everyone should go here at least once in life. They give you a ginormous sampler with EIGHTEEN tastes! The pizza is amazing! You can walk back to your hotel room a few blocks away! Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will be on TV! (Ok, I can’t guarantee that last one… ah Venice!) Yaaaaaaay!!!
18 tastes at Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, CA
Most Ridiculous Moment:
Realizing at 4pm and 200 miles later that we had left our Russian River growler and 6 bottles of beer (2 Pliny and 4 Russian River sours) in the fridge in our Paso Robles hotel room from the previous night. (“NNNNnnnoooooooooOOOO!”) Did we go back for it? You bet we did. 5 hours later, we were back in Ventura. This incident sparked a few conversations about our level of beer geekery and how obsessive we considered ourselves … but to be fair, these were the only bottles we had purchased on our trip, and we had already dragged them halfway down the CA coast with us. We both agreed it would be terribly sad to just give them up for lost when we actually had the time to go retrieve them. But to give credit where it is due, Hampton Inn in Paso Robles, you have the most honest and angelic staff in the world, and you will always hold a special place in my heart. Also thank you for having an amazing cable package because we were able to watch SO MUCH American Ninja Warrior on our giant TV.
Sampling at Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, CA
Most Fun We Had:
Ironically, this was on Santa Cruz Island, where there was no beer to be found. We spent New Year’s Eve camping on the Channel Islands off the coast just north of L.A., where we sat in a tent decorated with a string of blinking battery-operated lights (courtesy of Uncle Jim). After a pretty rough 19-mile boat ride from Ventura to the island, we spent the day hiking about 9 miles, taking in scenery and checking out the native foxes and Game of Thrones-sized ravens. By 8:30pm, we had retired to our festively-lit tent where we played Rummy 500 until we zonked out about 30 minutes later. The next morning, we even saw whales and dolphins swimming off of the island’s cliffside coast–it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Hope you’re well, Ranger Casey!
Camping & hiking on Santa Cruz Island of the Channel Islands, CA
Biggest Surprise Beer:
Without a doubt, this was Cellarmakers’ Bourbon Barrel Aged Vastness of Space stout. These guys have only been open for a year and they’re already serving this Bourbon-county-esque delight. Some locals from the San Fran suburbs said they had come in just to drink it, and it was obvious why.
Cellarmakers’ Bourbon Barrel Aged Vastness of Space in San Franciso, CA
Absolute Favorite IPA, in the Land of IPAs:
Sante Adarius 831 (American IPA, 7.2%), which was actually another surprise to me, since I expected to prefer their sours/funkier stuff.
Unfortunately they didn’t have West Ashley and they didn’t have bottles to purchase because they had just run out of them. However they DID have this delicious, juicy hop bomb that was the exact “IPA taste” I had been craving since we got to Cali. Also, their raw-edge wood furniture was really beautiful. Cheers!
Delicious beer and beautiful furniture at Sante Adarius Rustic Ales in Capitola, CA
If I did it all over again, I would limit to 2 breweries per day and cover less ground overall. It was terribly satisfying but equally exhausting to visit that many places in just over a week. Damn, I can’t believe we did that!
I would revisit:
City Beer Store
I would try to visit again, and not on a Monday:
Firestone Walker Barrelworks – I really wanted to try some of their sours that just don’t make it to Chicago. So this is a PSA for all of you – unfortunately the sour taproom is closed on Mondays. So don’t expect to ride into the home of split pea soup* and drink sour beers on draft. You will be disappointed and you will not find split pea soup to be a satisfactory substitute.
*Yes, Buellton, CA is known as the home of split pea soup (see picture below for proof). I mean, why wouldn’t you want that claim to fame?! Haha. Weird, but true.
Buellton, CA: Home of Split Pea Soup (Everything for the traveler!)
So, after spending a week in beer mecca, what was my major takeaway? I actually came to appreciate that Chicago has some damn fine beer. While the beer in Cali was overall truly delicious, (and beyond Russian River and a few standouts) I truly think that the beer in Chicago and the Midwest is just as good if not better in some cases than the beer I came across on our trip. While I was sitting at the bar in Cellarmaker’s (San Diego), my grubby, brewery-sticker-covered Nalgene bottle sat below me on the floor. This bottle goes with me almost everywhere as a portable canvas for all the brewery stickers I’ve collected over the past couple of years. It has a few layers on it now (you can hardly see the Crabtree Brewing sticker I appended almost two years ago in Colorado), but one that remains uncovered is my Bell’s Brewery sticker. A stranger walked up to me just to gush about this very sticker, “Are you near Bells?? You are SO. LUCKY.” And you know what? She was right.
It’s easy to glorify beer that you can’t get your hands on (maybe that’s what the girl in Cellarmaker’s was doing). And while I will never pass up an opportunity to try beer from around the globe, we Midwesterners are a lucky bunch when it comes to our craft options.
I will concede, however, that California has Chicago beat on scenery and weather. Holy moly, that place is beautiful.