With nearly 500 breweries statewide (and probably more by the time you read this), it’s safe to say that the craft beer movement isn’t just booming in California, it’s BOOMING—capital letters intended. From the state’s northernmost stands of coast redwoods, south to the sun-scorched Mojave Desert, the craft beer movement has reached every corner of the Golden State. Even serious wine-producing regions like Napa Valley now tout their latest microbreweries, to say nothing of San Diego and other cities that have become synonymous with great craft beers at appealing brewery destinations.
The craft brewery explosion came pretty early on to San Diego—the San Diego Brewers Guild now has more than 70 breweries. Two of the best-known are Karl Strauss Brewing Company, begun in 1989 by and named after co-founder Chris Cramer’s cousin (who just happened to have been a master brewer from Germany), and Stone Brewing Company, which has its massive headquarters (complete with beer garden) in Escondido as well as several stores, a farm, and pubs at PetCo Park, Liberty Station, and San Diego Airport. Craft brewers Lost Abbey (famed for its bottle-conditioned ales), Alesmith (focusing on English-style ales), Ballast Point (brewers of such seasonal beers as Habanero Sculpin IPA and Curry Export Stout), and Green Flash all get rave reviews from locals and beer wags alike.
Beer tours, like the entertaining Brew Hop, are big here too, with a chance to sample craft beers at cool locations, then have someone else do the driving, sharing more brew-centric insights and information along the way.
Northern California was the wellspring of the craft beer movement, which can be loosely traced from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco to Sierra Nevada Brewery in the young-at-heart college town of Chico, and then to the world. Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way we drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but connoisseurs too.
"Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way we drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but connoisseurs too."
Get a taste for where the movement started with a visit to Sierra Nevada Brewing’s expansive tasting room/restaurant/brewery complex. Take a self-guided tour, or join a guided one, with offerings including a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration (limited to 5 beer geeks) of the brewery’s inner workings. No tour is needed to cool off with a frosty pint in the trellis-shaded Taproom & Restaurant. Sierra Nevada Brewing has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area—and it helps that it’s a college town. Stop by the Handle Bar for a great selection of craft beers on tap.
With nearly two dozen members in its brewers guild, all brewing within the 46 square miles/127 square kilometers of the city’s borders, the City by the Bay stands out as a beer-lover’s mecca. Top of the list is Anchor Brewery, making its signature “steam” beer and a dozen others in its brewery in the sunny Portrero Hill neighborhood since 1979 (the brewery actually began in the late 1800s; beer guru Fritz Maytag purchased it in 1965). Maytag inspired a new generation of brew masters who have spread out across the city (a great reason for you to explore the city too). Head to Haight-Ashbury for cask-conditioned brews at local favorite Magnolia Pub; in the hip and diverse Mission District, sample experimental brews using yerba mate, a South American herbal tea, at Cerveceria de MateVeza. In South Beach, 21st Amendment Brewery (known for its Brew Free or Die IPA, gets especially lively after Giants baseball games at nearby AT&T Park. Two of the city’s edgier up-and-coming neighborhoods have notable breweries: 16 beers on a rotating tap at Triple Voodoo Brewery in Dogpatch, and Speakeasy Ales & Lager, tucked between the scruffy-hip neighborhoods of Bayview and Hunter’s Point.
If you’re venturing across the Bay Bridge to East Bay, you’ll land in another hotbed of craft brewing, with standouts including Linden Street, Drakes, and Pacific Coast in Oakland, as well as the enormous Pyramid Brewery & Alehouse, the under-the-moon beer garden at Jupiter, and the roudy-good-fun of Triple Rock, all in Berkeley.
Compared to other parts of California, Los Angeles took a little longer to fully join the craft revolution. Now, it’s on board big time, with hip taprooms throughout the region. Start in East L.A. at Eagle Rock Brewery, opened in 2009 and arguably the city’s first major player. It has now a neighborhood-y outpost on Colorado Blvd., too, serving its signatures brews such as Stimulus Coffee Belgian Amber and Manifesto Witbier with some surprisingly sexy dishes (pork cheeks with pearl onions and celeriac; Cornish hen with potato, radish, and nettle chimichurri). Next, sample what’s on tap—and see what’s on the walls—at Angel City Brewery, also known for displaying local artworks in its airy, gallery-like space. Head to leafy Glendale (a favorite address for celebs) to visit the pub-y atmosphere at relaxed Golden Road. North of the city in the Conejo Valley, follow locals to Ladyface Ale Companie. And south of L.A., discover a trio of outstanding craft brew finds: El Segundo Brewing (in El Segundo), Monkish Brewing (in Torrance), and Belmont Brewing Company, founded in Long Beach in 1990.
With hundreds of craft breweries across the state of California, it’s no surprise that Sacramento, the state’s capital, has its own artisanal beer scene, including the annual Sacramento Beer Week festival. Rubicon Brewing Company got it all started back in 1987; visit its downtown pub before or after touring the nearby State Capitol building. Hoppy Brewing Company draws a young crowd from nearby California State University at Sacramento. The taproom of Track Seven Brewing Company is also known as a hub for food trucks, often parked on the street out front. At New Helvetia Brewing Company, try the multiple-award-wining Homeland Stout. Finally, head northeast of Sacramento to the town of Folsom and Lockdown Brewing Company, self-proclaimed (with a tongue-in-cheek nod to singer Johnny Cash) as the “home of the Folsom Prison Brews.”)
Dozens of artisan beer makers have sprung up all over this sunny region of Southern California. Riverside and the Temecula Valley (already a popular wine region) are the two big centers here. In the Western-style town of Temecula, breweries serve up some unique—and uniquely named—craft brews: Aftershock Brewing serves its Candied Yam Brown Ale; Black Market Brewing pours Aftermath Pale Ale, Refuge Brewery has Blood Orange Wit, and Ironfire Brewing serves 6 Killer Stout. In the sprawling university city of Riverside, Polymath Brewing Company serves up guava and mango versions of its Polymath Pale Ale, while Wicks Brewing Company has 16 taps plus a “guest tap” for local home brewers.
Other Inland Empire towns are getting into the brewing boom too. Visit the appealing college town of Redlands to sample what’s on tap at Hangar 24 Craft Brewery and Ritual Brewing. In the town of Upland, pick your favorite from at least eight house-brewed beers at Dale Bros. Brewery.
If there’s ever a time in California where you might feel especially ready for a beer, it’s after a day exploring the dramatic desert parklands around Palm Springs. Fortunately, a handful of artisanal breweries invite you in for a cold one. In Rancho Mirage, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse offerings include a gold-medal-winning Blackfin Lager. In Thousand Palms, Coachella Valley Brewing Company slakes your thirst with cleverly-named Kölschella. Just down the road in Palm Desert, visit the friendly tap room at La Quinta Brewing Company; try Heat Wave Red Ale. And in La Quinta itself, sample a Backstreet Brewery Jagged Little Pilsner with your cheesy-gooey pie at Lamppost Pizza; the two local companies have smartly partnered to offer up the perfect combo: pizza & beer.
In a region known for internationally acclaimed wines, craft beers don’t typically come to mind. Well, now they should, especially in Sonoma County. First stop is the appealing town of Petaluma, where brew masters at Lagunitas Brewing Company have gained a huge following (and multi-state distribution). Taste why at the company’s in-town taproom; favorite brews include a classic IPA, plus Little Sumpin Sumpin and Hop Stoopid ales. Another Sonoma County notable is Russian River Brewing, with 20 of its beers, including legendary Pliny the Elder double IPA, served in its Santa Rosa taproom. (Expect a crowd; this brew has gained cult-like status.) Some breweries want to make sure you don’t go hungry: Woodfour Brewing Company, in boho-chic Sebastopol, pairs fine foods like heirloom beans and braised pork belly with its own beers. Guerneville’s Stumptown Brewery (look for the big white fermentation tank out front) pours three of its own brews as well as guest beers, ales, and stouts from other parts of the state. In swanky but friendly Healdsburg, where in-town wine tasting rooms abound, hang out with winemakers (yes, they drink beer) and other locals at Bear Republic Brewing Company. Raise a pint in nearby Napa Valley at Napa Smith Brewery, also know for its “Grateful Dog” barley wine.
“Welcome to altitude.” That’s the slogan of Mammoth Brewing Company in Mammoth Lakes, one of the kick-back-and-relax taprooms and beer pubs dotting California’s mountain country. After a wintry day carving the moguls or riding in the terrain parks, or hiking a granite trail in summer, these craft breweries are the perfect place to chill out with a cold one. Mammoth Brewing uses local ingredients, such as wild elderberries and hops grown near the White Mountains to the east, to flavor its signature beers. Sample the results in the tasting room or at picnic tables outside.
In the mountain hamlet of June Lake, just north of Mammoth Lakes, June Lake Brewing offers a full suite of beers in its high-elevation taproom. Try a creamy, slightly spicy Alpers Trout Pale Ale, or Hutte Double IPA, proclaimed “a goliath of beer.”
The Lake Tahoe region has almost a six-pack-full of microbreweries pouring ales, stouts, pilsners, and more. In Truckee, enjoy the brews and relax in the restaurant at FiftyFifty Brewing Company (be sure to try the oak-bourbon-barrel-aged Eclipse Imperial Stout). In Tahoe City, Tahoe Mountain Brewing and Brew Pub offers free tours of its brewery. At the California-Nevada border on the lake’s south shore, Stateline Brewery & Restaurant is practically at the bottom of the Heavenly Gondola, making it a popular après-ski hangout.
If we believe (as we should) that San Luis Obispo (aka SLO) County has the correct relationship of breweries per capita, then there should be at least 33,000 breweries across the United States (at last count, there were only 3,040 or so). Clearly the rest of the country has some catching up to do. This is a beer-lover’s paradise: more than a dozen microbreweries now produce award-winning beers here. First to enter the field, way back in 1988, was SLO Brew—naturally popular in the youthful and lively university town of San Luis Obispo. SLO Brew is still going strong, and has been joined by others, including Central Coast Brewing, as well as Tap It, Creekside, and Bang the Drum breweries. In Paso Robles, 30 miles north, the enormous—and highly-decorated with medals—Firestone Walker Brewing Company invites you to take a tour of its facility then relax with seasonal bistro fare in The Taproom restaurant. On the coast itself, in the out-of-the-way gem of Morro Bay, the gastropub brewer The Libertine Pub offers an eclectic menu and spirited beers. Heading south a bit into the heart of the Central Coast’s wine country, you’ll find father-and-son run Figueroa Mountain Brewery.
The Central Valley stretches for hundreds of miles--fortunately for beer lovers, so does the valley’s craft brew scene. Starting in the north and working south, the first stop is the Lodi Beer Company; grab a doppelbock from its copper Bavarian brew system. Then it’s on to Dust Bowl Brewing Company in Turlock to sample its “Hops of Wrath” IPA. Fresno sports Sequoia Brewing Companies, Tioga-Sequoia, and Full Circle. In nearby Clovis, the House of Pendragon Brewing Company has its taproom; try a pint of Merlin’s Midnight Mild. In Visalia, at the valley’s south end, stop in at Brewbakers Brewing Company for a taste of its signature Sequoia Red. The tour ends in Bakersfield with Lengthwise Brewing Company—take your pick and sample its dozen beers from its brewery, pub, or marketplace locations.
Is it possible to sip a locally-brewed beer on one of the OC’s famous beaches? Definitely. Orange County has you covered, starting with The Bruery’s award-winning ales and wheat beers (the brewery is run by the Rue family, hence the name). Anaheim has the Anaheim Brewery (closed during Prohibition but re-established in 2010 after a 90-year hiatus) and, on each side of the Santa Ana River, less than 2 miles away from each other, Noble Ale Works and the Old Orange Brewing Company, both with tasting rooms. In the hills of Rancho Santa Margarita sits the Cismontane Brewing Company (the name means “this side of the mountains”). Others to try are the Tustin Brewing Company in Tustin, Bootleggers Brewery in Fullerton (with their unique Black Phoenix Chipotle Coffee Stout), and Orange’s Valiant Brewing Company, with more than a dozen beers to try in its taproom.
The North Coast’s evocative coastline and foggy, redwood-studded interior is a perfect setting for a local brew. And from Boonville to Eureka and everywhere in between, beer is waiting to be sampled, starting with Mendocino Brewing Company, which began in 1983 in aptly named Hopland. Visit its alehouse in Ukiah for a sip of its famous Red Tail Ale; also check out Ukiah Brewing Company, “America’s first organic brewpub,” for one of its dozen or so organic brews on tap in its pub. Just south in Booneville, Anderson Valley Brewing Company has been satisfying locals since 1987, especially with its Boont Amber and Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout.
On the coast, Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewing Company, founded in 1988, is a must-stop, especially for award-winning Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Humboldt County’s lumber-industry past is immortalized by in Eureka at Lost Coast Brewing and in Fortuna at Eel River Brewing: both are housed in the remnants of old lumber mills.