While vacationing in Sonoma with our friends Dorrie and Jason in May, we worked out a deal: the ladies would have a day of wine tastings at a collection of vineyards, and the guys would have their day at the breweries. We chose, for the most part, the three breweries in the area that anyone else in their right mind would: Bear Republic, followed by Russian River, and finally Lagunitas. We were in for a tasting trip of epic proportions.
Things started out great at Bear Republic, which is tucked in back of a small shopping center. Jason and I started off strong, each with our own sampler of 12 two-ounce pours. We made our way through, commenting on each beer and dutifully checking in on Untappd. We remarked that it was a shame the best beer we had was a collaboration between Bear Republic, Stone and Fat Head’s, and not one of Bear Republic’s own—though it may not be a fair assessment as we have plenty of access to other Bear Republic standbys like Racer 5 and Hop Rod Rye and may have grown used to them by now.
Russian River was the most anticipated stop and we arrived at the perfect time on a Friday afternoon, as we were told that on Saturdays the wait for their famous sampler of 18 two-ounce pours can be up to two hours. We each had ours in a few minutes, along with some food, and proceeded to make our way down each side. The list of –ation beers was mind-boggling compared to what we get in Philadelphia, as was the amount of hop-forward adult beverages. And, as a nice change of pace, we were also treated to their Porter and O.V.L. Stout—Russian River not being known much for their dark beers in these parts.
Next, we got a ride to Lagunitas, oddly situated in an industrial park. We were feeling quite good at this point and were ready to take on whatever they had to offer. We hit the gift shop first, then found a spot to sit inside and Jason and I each ordered the sampler. Our server cautioned us that we should split one, as it was 16 four-ounce pours. I scoffed—how dare she try to tell me how much I was capable of drinking!—but in the end we agreed to split one. And it was a damned good thing we did.
I don’t know what happened to me on the drive from Russian River to Lagunitas, but as soon as the first sip of their Lucky 13.alt hit my tongue, I hit a wall. It felt like I had a mouthful of pure hop syrup, and I knew then and there I couldn’t keep up the pace from earlier in the day. I wasn’t sure why; we were going to finish with the equivalent of just under six pints in one day—which I’m sure I’ve done before—but my body just wasn’t having it at this point. I struggled through my half of the remaining beers—not even half in many cases—and started pounding water that our patient server kept bringing. Not even the lighter Czech Style Pilsner or the sour Sonoma Farmhouse Gueuze could cut through the hop flavoring my body seemed to want nothing to do with. Even though I had at least tasted all of them, the day ended with me being shamed by a sampler at Lagunitas, which is unfortunate because I really enjoy their beer.
The next day, on our drive back into San Francisco, we stopped at Marin Brewing Company for lunch. While Jason chose to forgo the beer—he had finished all my leftovers at Lagunitas and had had enough—I opted for their sampler, which consisted of four-ounce pours of only about eight beers. I had really enjoyed their Point Reyes Porter earlier in the week, and thought they did dark beers exceptionally well. The rest, however, left something to be desired. What did not leave anything to be desired, though, was proving to myself that I could still do it. While throwing fuel on the fire may not have been the best idea, I wasn’t going to let California or a few beer samplers get the best of me.
And neither should you. There is plenty of beer in California, no matter which area of the state you’re in. Whether it’s San Diego, San Francisco, Sonoma or somewhere else, take the trip and sample what they’ve got. We’re lucky in Philadelphia in that we get most of the big breweries, but there are always smaller places and hidden gems to explore when you travel with beer in mind.