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Liquid Courage: Visit to the West Coast Offense (Part Two)

Submitted by on August 6, 2009 – 1:15 PMNo Comment
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Visit to the West Coast Offense (Part Two)

Matt DefaultWe had a few beers in us.  The sun was shining along West Cliff Drive, the surfers were floating in the chop, and Northern California had taken on the perfect summer atmosphere. Before we let the buzz wear out, it was off to find the next new pint of Courage nestled in the hills of Santa Cruz.

Brewery Profile: Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing

Now, I again want to emphasize how limited was the scope of my vacation: we just bummed around town for about a week, no formal itinerary, sort of making things up as we went along. I say this because I wish to point out that Santa Cruz is not the Mecca of beer, merely a hidden gem in a culture of fantastic and innovative craft brew. To an outsider, expecting some over-glorified, expensive and vast brewery where the world’s most exemplary ales and lagers are created, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing might not look like much. It’s a small place, for starters. But just walk inside, and you suddenly realize the movement you are a part of.

The brewery itself is a two-part establishment: to the left and up the stairs is a small taproom, with nothing but SCMB offerings on tap; downstairs and to the right is the brewery itself, a room crowded with metal vessels, fermenters, airlocks, lots of bottles and kegs, and of course more taps. As we stepped inside the taproom, I noticed that the décor was nautical, with a life-saver, an old fishing net, and a cool blue color scheme. Inviting, calming, and quiet on a weekday afternoon, the SCMB taproom is one chill place. Pulling up a stool, my first selection was—surprise—their India Pale Ale. It’s not only my favorite style, its something of a yardstick I use to get an instant feel for the merits of the brewery. Hops are tricky, using them is an art, and in a style that showcases a brewer’s knowledge, the IPA can speak volumes. Thankfully, the 78 International Bitterness Units of their IPA were balanced by a substantial malt profile that finished sweet and almost a little biscuity. The aroma and big hop taste were fresh, and true to the style. I enjoyed it immensely.

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Jenn went for the porter (it’s kind of her thing) and was presented with the People’s Porter, an American-style porter brewed with a portion of fair-trade coffee. Full body, and notes of chocolate and coffee made this a smooth, well-crafted beer. I tried it, and with some curiosity, immediately revealed us as the out-of-towners we were. Turning to the bartender, I asked, “What’s with the fair trade coffee?”

Her response was that free-trade coffee provided a fair price to growers and to workers in developing nations and areas, and encouraged those growers to have a role in the companies they provided for. So, good karma all around, but then she let me know that in addition to using fair-trade practices, all of the breweries beers were 100% certified organic.

The organic movement is a big part of California psyche and SCMB is definitely and organization that embraces it. (To learn more about organic brewing, click here). It was endearing to see how a small local brewer not only went the distance in creating well-made and tasty beers, but also went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that these beers supported their providers and emphasized their ethics and values. Jenn and I had a few samples of the other offerings (the Devout Stout and Dread Brown Ale notables among these) and asked if we could poke around the brewery itself.

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“Go right ahead,” was the answer, “there’s probably someone down there right now cleaning up.” Not “sorry, we only do scheduled tours” or “ok, but don’t touch anything,” it was an open invitation to get to know the brewery itself.  Feeling much like a kid in a candy shop, I grilled the part-time brewer who was there with too many detailed questions. He was a good sport, and never once begrudged our presence in what was essentially his office. The pictures tell the tale of the small size but large character of the company known as Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

California Dreamin’

It’s easy to have a blast in California, and everyone from the budding beer novice to the beer-savvy veteran will find something to fit their palate. But you don’t have to make a voyage of thousands of miles to find a taste of the West Coast. Here I give a few examples of a few California breweries readily available at the well-stocked beer vendor near you.

Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco

Anchor-Steam-BeerOften regarded as a pioneer in the craft brewing scene, Anchor has been around, in one phase or another, since 1896. After early setbacks in 1933 and 1959, Anchor found new life with a young Stanford grad and brewer named Fritz Maytag, who reopened the brewery in 1965. It would not be until the 1980s, decades later, that Anchor really became the San Francisco landmark that it is today. Their icon, without a doubt, is the staple Steam beer, which utilizes steam thermodynamics in the brewing process. To this day, all their beers are handmade.

Stone Brewing Company, Escondido

stone-brewingThough only recently celebrating their 13th anniversary, Stone has been tearing up the scene in Southern California as long as they’ve been around. Head brewmaster Greg Koch is something of a rockstar in the craft brew scene, and the accolades are well deserved. Stone’s philosophy is a pretty consistent middle-finger to the mass producers of bland lager (you know who I’m taking about) but the beer always speaks for itself. As a brewery, they are bold, and never shy away from the highest quality ingredients in insane amounts to produce excellent beers. As quoted directly from their icon, Arrogant Bastard Ale, “you’re not worthy” of appreciating their beers. Hasn’t stopped anyone yet, though.

Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburgbear republic1

A combination brewpub, restaurant, and microbrewey in Sonoma County, Bear Republic realizes the importance of the home brewing movement. They acknowledge the innovation and fearlessness of beer that is best captured by amateurs in their garages across the nation. Employing traditional methods, such as cask conditioning, they embrace California ethos and ingredients to bring you some really spectacular brews. Their icon, Racer 5 IPA, is a decidedly hoppy and bitter brew that showcases two northern Pacific hop varieties, the Cascade and Columbus hop.

In the end, I feel lucky to have taken on so much fermented liquid goodness in so few days and to do it all without ever having to resort to the ubiquitous American lager styles we are so used to. California has always been a vanguard of alternatives: alternative lifestyles, alternative sports, alternative brews, too. Get a taste of the West Coast when you can, and I promise you won’t be disappointed for your Courage.

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