America’s modern craft brewing movement began in California in 1965. A young man named Fritz Maytag was enjoying a pint of Anchor Steam at a local restaurant when the bartender told him it was likely to be his last; the historic Anchor brewery was on the verge of bankruptcy. Maytag decided to buy a controlling interest in the Anchor Brewery and brought a craftsman’s touch to the brand, introducing new beers, and reviving lost styles.
Maytag’s plan worked and he had the craft beer market to himself until 1976, when Anchor fan Jack McAuliffe founded the New Albion Brewery Co. in Sonoma. With a focus on British-style ales, this new producer became America’s first modern microbrewery. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in Chico, followed in 1980, creating a new beer style called American pale ale. By 1990, some 67 breweries operated across the state.
Today, California is home to more than 850 breweries and the state’s craft beer boom shows no sign of slowing down. From Mendocino County to San Diego, California’s trendsetting, thirst-quenching craft breweries beckon. Here’s an introduction to some of the most notable craft breweries in the state, listed north to south.
What began as a cobbled-together home-brewing operation grew up to become the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, one of America’s first modern microbreweries, and the producer of one of California’s most beloved beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Founder Ken Grossman started out as a young home brewer, making beer in five-gallon batches with homemade equipment. After studying chemistry at university, he opened a home-brewing shop in Chico for like-minded brewing fanatics.
Two years later, he took the plunge into commercial brewing. To make do with limited funds, Grossman outfitted his operation with used dairy tanks, a soft-drinks bottler and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries.
In 1980, he brewed his first bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The bold, piney beer was an instant hit—so much so that Grossman had to expand the brewery twice to keep up with demand.
In the decades since that first auspicious batch of its namesake pale ale, Sierra Nevada’s line-up has grown to include many other fascinating brews, such as Hop Hunter IPA, Kellerweis, Beer Camp IPA and the intense 'High Altitude' series.
At Sierra Nevada’s taproom and restaurant in Chico, visitors can sample 19 draft beers and nosh on seasonal, farm-to-table fare. Those interested in observing up close how it all happens can select from a range of brewery tours, each of varying length. The restaurant makes bread from spent brewers’ grain and even offers a good children's menu, with organic peanut butter, golden raisins and fresh fruit on a crunchy flatbread. The brewery also has a 350-seat live music venue, so be prepared to stay a while.
California brewers pioneered the hoppy IPA craze, and it shows no sign of abating. But in a hopped-up world where it sometimes seems like brewers are vying to see who can cram the most hops into a tank, North Coast Brewing Co. offers a refreshing alternative.
An early player in the craft beer movement, North Coast opened its Fort Bragg brewpub in 1988. A carpenter by trade, founder Mark Ruedrich set his sights on brewing after a visit to England, where he discovered there was more to life than watery, mass-produced American beers.
Red Seal Ale, a hoppy-for-its-time amber ale, was the first North Coast brew to get beer-lovers’ attention. Scrimshaw pilsner and Old 38 stout followed, along with the Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout, now considered an iconic example of the style.
Today, North Coast makes 17 year-round and seasonal brews, plus an array of barrel-aged beers and reserves. Many of those brews are available on draft—in samplers and pints—at the brewery’s Mendocino Coast taproom, along with stone hearth pizzas and other tasty pub fare.
Barely a year into its existence, Auburn’s Moonraker Brewing Co. has emerged as one of Gold Country’s hottest brewers.
Husband-and-wife homebrewers Karen and Dan Powell opened the brewery in early 2016 and quickly attracted a following with their Northeast-style IPAs. Less bitter than West Coast IPAs, these brews are distinguished by their hazy appearance and fruity character.
Moonraker is best known for its Yojo, a “get-it-while-you-can” IPA that sells out quickly after release. It’s no wonder: The brewery won three high-profile awards earlier this year from RateBeer, including “Best New Beer” for Yojo, “Best New Brewery” in California, and ninth-best new brewery worldwide.
Moonraker’s tasting room and brewery at the Auburn Air Park features indoor and outdoor seating, food trucks, and a welcoming, dog- and kid-friendly atmosphere that draws big crowds. It offers more than a dozen beers on draft, including flights, so there’s plenty to keep a beer-lover busy. As a bonus, Moonraker is a short walk from another great brewery, Knee Deep, known for its West Coast-style IPAs.
Co-founder and head brewer Chris Miller got his start at Pacific Rim Brewing in Seattle, where he quickly worked his way up from washing kegs to brewing. After making his mark as head brewer for Snipes Mountain Brewing Company in Washington’s Yakima Valley, he moved to California with his wife, Lori, to open Berryessa Brewing.
The brewery opened in 2011, and since then, Miller’s beers have earned a place among California’s best. While some brewers like to emphasize bitterness and hops in their IPAs, Miller strives for balance and nuance in all his brews, from the Mini Separation Anxiety IPA to the award-winning Whippersnapper English mild.
Surrounded by orchards and mountains, Berryessa’s family-friendly taproom offers tastes, flights, and pints in a lovely rural setting. On weekends, beer lovers from all over fill the shaded patio to enjoy fresh beer, live music, and beer-friendly food-truck fare.
Beer lovers the world over revere Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder double IPA, and thousands queue up around the block each February for a chance to taste the limited-edition Pliny the Younger triple IPA. Before there was Pliny, however, there was Blind Pig.
Vinnie Cilurzo brewed America’s first double IPA, appropriately named Inaugural Ale, at Temecula’s Blind Pig Brewing in 1994. A few years later he closed Blind Pig, moved to Northern California with his wife, Natalie, and began brewing at Russian River Brewing Co., which was owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars at the time. When Korbel decided to get out of the beer business in 2002, the Cilurzos bought Russian River and in 2004 opened their Santa Rosa brewpub.
Pliny the Elder still accounts for most of the brewery’s sales, but other Russian River beers of distinction such as Temptation, a wine-barrel-aged sour, and the Brett (a type of yeast with particularly vivid characteristics)-fermented Sanctification have loyal followers of their own.
Russian River’s city centre brewpub seats fewer than 200 people, so grabbing a table or a seat at the bar can be challenging. But the place more than compensates for the lack of elbow room with friendly patrons, delicious beer and a casual dining menu. There’s also a happy hour on weekdays from 4 pm to 6.30 pm and all day on Sundays. In 2018, the Cilurzos opened a larger brewery and brewpub in nearby Windsor. It features the same great beer along with a new menu, outdoor seating, tours and a large gift shop.
Anchor Brewing’s extended history dates back to 1871, when German brewer Gottlieb Brekle purchased an old saloon near Russian Hill and transformed it into the Golden City Brewery. In 1896, he sold it to another German brewer, Ernst F. Baruth, who renamed it Anchor Brewing and introduced the San Francisco brewery’s iconic “steam beer.”
Anchor enjoyed years of success, but also, significant setbacks. Fires following the 1906 earthquake engulfed the brewery. Later that year, both of its owners died unexpectedly. Prohibition shut Anchor’s doors in 1920, and when it finally reopened in 1933, it was again consumed by fire.
In 1965, when Anchor was on the verge of bankruptcy, Fritz Maytag rescued the struggling brewery and sparked America’s modern craft brewing revolution.
Despite the proliferation of head-turning new beer styles and breweries, Anchor continues to hold its own in the world of craft. Its original steam beer is widely considered one of California’s great brews, and newer beers such as the Go West! IPA and Anchor Saison are attracting a new fan base.
The Anchor brewery in Potrero Hill offers daily guided tours of its three-level brick facility, ending with a tasting session in the taproom. There, visitors sample several Anchor beers on draft, from the historic to the experimental.
Those who’d rather get straight to imbibing can visit the Anchor Beer Garden near AT&T Park.
After a day exploring the rancher-meets-winemaker town of Paso Robles, or maybe explore Morro Bay, about 30 miles/48 kilometers west on the coast, head to this impressive brewery and restaurant. Firestone’s celebrated beers are made using a fascinating oak-barrel system currently used by only one other brewery in the world. Learn about its unique qualities and the kinds of beers it produces on a brewery tour—kids ages 12 and older are welcome to come along.
The large onsite restaurant offers pleasant outdoor seating—perfect for families. Kid-friendly items on the menu include house-made pretzels, a trio of fries (regular, sweet potato, and seasoned), fish-and-chips, and pizza. Once they’ve tucked into their fare, you can lean back and sample from house-favorite pours, taproom-only kegs, reserve series beers, plus Velvet Merlin Nitro and other seasonal and specialty brews.
Don’t be fooled by the name: Beer never plays second fiddle at Beachwood BBQ & Brewing.
Beachwood burst onto L.A.’s brewing scene in 2011 and the accolades have been piling up ever since. In 2014, Beachwood was named “Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year” at the Great American Beer Festival, and in 2016, it earned the title of “Champion Brewer” among large brewpubs at the World Beer Cup.
The brewery produces a diverse range of mouthwatering beers, from Amalgamator, a West Coast-style IPA to Foam Top blonde ale to the Mocha Machine imperial chocolate coffee porter.
Due to demand for its growing roster of beers, Beachwood expanded from its original Long Beach location to include Beachwood Blendery in Long Beach, dedicated to funky Belgian Lambics; a brewery and taproom in Huntington Beach; and a Seal Beach restaurant and bar.
The Long Beach brewpub has 22 rotating taps, along with one cask-conditioned option. Offerings change on a daily basis, so there’s always an exciting new brew to sample. (It also means that the beer you loved yesterday may not be there tomorrow.)
Both the Long Beach and Seal Beach brewpubs serve food—namely, succulent slow-cooked meats that match beautifully with Beachwood’s full-flavoured brews.
Just steps from the Oceanside Pier, Breakwater Brewing Co. produces inventive, top-notch beers in a laid-back, beachside location. The brewery was founded in 2008 by Lars Gilman and Shannon Sager, who met through a mutual friend. Together they carried out their vision of bringing a food-friendly brewery to downtown Oceanside.
Outfitted with used equipment salvaged from a New Orleans brewery after Hurricane Katrina, Breakwater takes a “something-for-everyone” approach to brewing. The brewpub offers 12 to 18 beers on draft every day, many of them made with unexpected and hyper-local ingredients.
The Pink Something Something is a sour beer made with Rasbiscus Mead and beet root, and aged in Chardonnay barrels. Local honey goes into the Beach Honey cream ale. Breakwater’s Kali Kush, an American pale ale, is infused with wild-crafted coastal sagebrush. While some of these combinations may sound outrageous, the resulting beers are truly delicious. (For those who like more traditional brews, Breakwater’s Rye Dawn rye ale won a gold medal in the prestigious 2016 World Beer Cup.)
The brewpub atmosphere is friendly and laid-back, with pinball machines and video games to keep the kids—and adults—happy. There’s also a full menu of pub fare, pizzas, and paninis.
The Escondido headquarters of this expanding beer empire stands out as an inviting kick-back-and-relax destination north of San Diego. In addition to the brewery—which you can tour if you’re over age 21—there’s an enormous, 1-acre/0.4-hectare beer garden that’s a magnet for anyone who wants to de-stress and chill out. Two outdoor bars with signature brews on tap keep things happy, while kids can dabble their fingers in sparkling fountains and join you for a game of bocce on a pair of courts. After dark, an outdoor movie screen adds free entertainment for all, while fire pits warm the scene.
Hungry? The bistro has plenty of kid-friendly options. Notice all the fresh produce? Much of it comes from Stone Brewing’s nearby 19-acre farm, open for family-friendly tours.
Insider’s tip: Stone has a second bistro at Liberty Station, near the shores of San Diego Bay.