With more than 900 breweries state-wide according to the California Craft Brewers Association (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. And, because this is California, the state boasts more than its share of innovators.
According to Jeff Smith, writer/director of the film Craft: The California Beer Documentary , 'The ingredients list is ever-changing and never-ending, from chocolate to cinnamon, to habanero peppers, vanilla, one with curry… everything is possible.'
This phenomenon hasn’t happened overnight. Anchor Brewing (San Francisco), New Albion Brewing Co. (Sonoma) and Sierra Nevada (Chico) are credited with having kick-started the craft beer boom in the '70s and '80s. The '90s saw the number of Californian breweries grow from less than 70 to around 200, with present-day stalwarts such as Lagunitas (Lagunitas) and Ballast Point (San Diego) gaining footholds.
But it’s during the past 10 years that things have really taken off—success stories such as Escondido’s Stone Brewing, recently named as the 8th largest craft brewing company in the nation by the Brewers Association; San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing Company, famous for their limited edition and experimental batches; and Auburn’s Knee Deep Brewing Co., which specialises in ultra-hoppy selections, have helped fuel California’s ascent as it has become the country’s top beer-producing state.
Read on to see where you can get a taste of the state’s many craft beers by region.
The craft brewery explosion came pretty early to San Diego, and the San Diego Brewers Guild now has more than 130 breweries as members. The city was named the 'Top Beer Town' in America by Men’s Journal, and the New York Times has proclaimed that it 'is rapidly becoming the country’s best craft beer scene'.
First, taste the beers by one of the best-known producers: Karl Strauss Brewing Company, which opened in 1989 and is named after co-founder Chris Cramer’s cousin (who just happens to have been a master brewer from Germany). Don't miss Stone Brewing Company either, which has its massive headquarters, complete with a beer garden, in Escondido, as well as several shops, a farm and pubs at PetCo Park, Liberty Station and San Diego Airport.
Also not to be missed are craft breweries Lost Abbey (famed for its bottle-conditioned ales), AleSmith (which focuses on English-style ales), Ballast Point (brewers of seasonal beers such as Habanero Sculpin IPA and Curry Export Stout) and Green Flash , which all get rave reviews from locals and international beer experts alike.
Those better-known names barely scratch the surface. If you want to visit a brewery that isn’t immediately recognisable to your friends at home, there are too many to list here, but a few particularly notable ones include Belching Beaver Brewery, Societe Brewing Company, Pizza Port (don’t be thrown by the name—it’s a top-notch brewery that serves pizza at five locations), Alpine Beer Co., Wild Barrel Brewing, Coronado Brewing Company and Mother Earth Brew Co.
Beer tours, like the ones offered by Brewery Tours of San Diego, Scavengers Beer & Adventure Tours and the entertaining Brew Hop, are big here too. The tours are an excellent way to sample craft beers at various locations while someone else does the driving—and shares beer-centric insights and information along the way.
Northern California was the wellspring of the craft beer movement, which can be loosely traced from Anchor Brewingin San Francisco to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in the young-at-heart university town of Chico, and then to the world. Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way Americans drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but connoisseurs too.
'Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way Americans drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but for connoisseurs too.'
Get a taste for where the movement started with a visit to Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s expansive tasting room/restaurant/brewery complex. Take a self-guided tour, or join a guided one, with options including a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration (limited to 5 beer geeks at a time) 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 Co. has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area—and of course it helps that it’s a university town. Stop by Dunsmuir Brewery Works for a tall pint of some of their Good Boy Porter or Mount Shasta Brewing Co., in Weed, home of Weed Golden Ale and Mountain High IPA. Lassen Ale Works in Susanville is located in the Pioneer Saloon, a true landmark of the Old West, founded in 1862. Eight core beers are brewed on site, including Thompson Peak Pilsner and Almanor Amber, as well as seasonals. Outdoor imbibing rules at The Brewing Lair, a laid-back, dog-friendly brewery with cornhole (a bar game), slack lines and an outdoor stage that hosts frequent concerts.
With more than 30 members in its brewers guild, all brewing within the 46 square miles of the city’s borders, the City by the Bay is a beer lover’s mecca. At the top of the list is Anchor Brewing, which was founded in the late 1800s and rescued from near certain closure in 1965 by beer guru Fritz Maytag. Since 1979 they’ve been making their signature 'steam' beer and more than a dozen others in the sunny Portrero Hill area. Maytag inspired a new generation of master brewers who have spread out across the city (a great reason for you to explore San Francisco’s patchwork of distinct neighbourhoods too).
Head to Haight-Ashbury for cask-conditioned beers at local favourite Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery; in the hip and diverse Mission District, sample innovative beers using yerba mate, a South American herbal tea, at Woods Beer Co. Order a MateVeza IPA or a Morpho, a tart, botanical beer made with yerba mate, hibiscus and bay leaf. In South Beach, 21st Amendment Brewery (known for its Brew Free or Die IPA) gets especially lively after Giants baseball games at the nearby AT&T Park. Two of the city’s edgier up-and-coming areas have notable breweries: there are 16 beers on a rotating tap at Triple Voodoo Brewery in Dogpatch, and Speakeasy Ales & Lager is tucked between the scruffy-hip neighbourhoods of Bayview and Hunter’s Point.
If you’re venturing across the Bay Bridge to East Bay, you’ll find yourself in another hotbed of craft brewing, with the best including Drakes in San Leandro, Faction Brewing in Alameda, and Original Pattern Beer in Oakland, as well as Fieldwork Brewing, the under-the-moon beer garden at Jupiter, and the raucous scene at Triple Rock, all in Berkeley. Continuing east, you can taste your way along the emerging Concord Beer Trail, which is dotted with taprooms and breweries and just a short BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) ride away.
Compared to other parts of California, Los Angeles took a little longer to fully join the craft beer revolution. Now, it is on board big time, with hip taprooms throughout the region.
Start in East LA at Eagle Rock Brewery, which opened in 2009 and was arguably the city’s first major player. It has now a local outpost on Colorado Blvd, too, serving signature beer such as Stimulus Coffee Belgian Amber and Manifesto Witbier, along with some surprisingly sophisticated 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 (an area popular with celebs) to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere at The Pub at the Golden Road, which serves up Golden Road Brewery creations such as 329 Days of Sun Lager and Wolf Among Weeds IPA.
Though technically not a brewery, no beer lover’s visit to LA would be complete without downing a few of the selections at the sprawling Mikeller DTLA (Downtown Los Angeles), the largest of Danish brewer Mikkel Birg Bjergsø’s 20-plus watering holes scattered around the world. Concoctions from LA breweries such as Mumford, Three Weavers and Craftsman are among the 40 taps, as well as a dozen or so from Mikeller’s brewery in San Diego.
North of the city, in the Conejo Valley, follow locals to Ladyface Ale Companie. And south of LA, discover a trio of outstanding craft brewery 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. Hoppy Brewing Company draws a young crowd from nearby California State University at Sacramento. At Track Seven Brewing Company, try a Nukin’Futz Imperial Peanut Butter Chocolate Cream Porter, or, if that sounds a little too ambitious, a Bee Line Honey Blonde Ale. Track Seven is also known as a hub for food vans, which often park on the street out the front of the building. At New Helvetia Brewing Company, try the multiple-award-wining Homeland Stout. Finally, head north-east of Sacramento to the town of Folsom and Red Bus Brewing Company, a self-proclaimed 'open-book' brewery; it allows anyone access to the brewery’s recipes, which can come in handy after a visit to Red Bus Brewing’s next-door neighbour, The Brewmeister, a homebrew supplies shop under the same ownership.
Head to Nevada County, where craft beer is also on the rise. Try Three Forks Bakery and Brewing in Nevada City, where you can pair your Dynamite Double IPA with a thin-crust sourdough pizza or a slice of gluten-free Insouciance Cake. Also in Nevada City is Jernigan’s Taphouse and Grill, where you can choose a libation from 12 taps to sip on while watching a game on one of their big-screen TVs. Four miles down the road, in Grass Valley, Thirsty Barrel Taphouse and Grille offers more than two dozen of its own beers.
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 centres where you’ll find craft breweries and restaurants with local beers on tap.
In the Western-style town of Temecula, breweries serve up some unique—and uniquely named—craft beers: 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, Euryale Brewing Company serves up Cyclopes Coconut Porter and Perseus Pale Ale, among others, while Wicks Brewing Company, one of the largest brewpubs in the Inland Empire, has an impressive 25 taps plus a rotating 'guest tap' for local home brewers. Gastropub the Salted Pig exclusively features local craft beer alongside its menu of hearty burgers and pasta dishes.
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 (one of their 'core beers', Orange Wheat, pays tribute to another local industry) and Ritual Brewing, where you can feast on a Monk’s Lunch Belgian-style ale.
In the town of Upland, pick your favourite from at least eight house-brewed beers at Last Name Brewing (formerly Dale Bros. Brewery); drop by Rökhouse Brewing Company to imbibe a few of their self-described 'ruggedly handcrafted' beers; and in San Bernardino, stop by Brew Rebellion, where you should stock up on any favourites you discover: they brew their beers in small batches of between 110 and 190 litres at a time.
If there’s ever a time in California when you might feel especially ready for a beer, it’s after a day exploring the dramatic desert parklands around Palm Springs. The beer scene here isn’t quite as hot as the climate (yet), but fortunately, a handful of artisanal breweries will invite you in for a cold one.
In Rancho Mirage, the region’s oldest brewery Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse at the River offers a gold-medal-winning Blackfin Lager and a Belgian Vanilla Blonde Ale. Call in on a Monday and enjoy the weekly 50 per cent discount on most of the taps; with over 35 international awards under their belt, you really can’t make a bad choice.
In Thousand Palms, Coachella Valley Brewing Company will slake your thirst with the cleverly named Kölschella, and on Friday evenings and Saturdays you can enjoy a free tour of the brewery. The sustainably minded CVB (as it’s known to the locals) is also proud of its high-efficiency brewing system, which uses less water and creates less waste than conventional systems. Spent grain left over at the end of the brewing process is used as livestock feed by local agricultural businesses.
Just down the road in the community of Palm Desert, visit the friendly tap room at La Quinta Brewing Company to try a Bourbon Barrel Aged Koffi Porter. You can also sample their beers at their nearby Palm Springs Taproom and the Old Town Taproom in La Quinta. And in the High Desert town of Hesperia, order a Mojave Mud IPA or a Santa Ana Saison at the Desert Barn Brewery.
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 master brewers at Lagunitas Brewing Company (now owned by Heineken) have gained a huge following with their radical takes on traditional beer styles and the irreverent messaging on their packaging. Visit the company’s in-town taproom for a tasting; popular beers include their classic IPA, plus A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Hop Stoopid ales. Another Sonoma County notable is Russian River Brewing, with 20 of its beers, including the legendary Pliny the Elder double IPA, served in its Santa Rosa taproom. (Expect a crowd; this beer has gained a truly cult status.)
Some breweries want to make sure you don’t go hungry: Woodfour Brewing Company, in boho-chic Sebastopol, pairs fine foods such as heirloom beans and pork belly casserole with its own beers. Guerneville’s Stumptown Brewery (look for the big white fermentation tank at the front) pours three of its own beers as well as guest beers, ales and stouts from other parts of the state, and serves up casual barbecue fare. In swanky-but-friendly Healdsburg, where in-town wine-tasting rooms abound, hang out with wine-makers (yes, they drink beer) and other locals at Bear Republic Brewing Company. Raise a glass in nearby Napa Valley at Napa Smith Brewery, also known for its Grateful Dog barley wine, and Tannery Bend Beerworks, located in Napa’s historic Tannery Row.
'Welcome to altitude'. That’s the slogan of Mammoth Brewing Company in Mammoth Lakes, one of the relaxed 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 flavour its signature beers. Sample the results in the tasting room or at picnic tables outside.
Also in Mammoth Lakes you’ll find Black Doubt Brewing, a 111-square-metre self-described 'nano-brewery' specialising in Belgian-style ales, sour beers and other barrel-aged creations. In the mountain hamlet of June Lake, just north of Mammoth Lakes, June Lake Brewing offers a full range of beers in its high-elevation taproom. Try a creamy, slightly spicy Alpers Trout Pale Ale, or Hutte Double IPA, proclaimed 'a goliath of beers'.
The Lake Tahoe region has almost a six-pack-full of microbreweries pouring ales, stouts, pilsners and more. In Truckee, enjoy the beers and relax in the restaurant at FiftyFifty Brewing Company (don't miss the oak-bourbon-barrel-aged Eclipse Imperial Stout) and at Truckee Brewing Company, where on Mondays there’s a 50 per cent discount on all beers (excluding holidays). 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 place to relax après-ski.
If we believe (as we should) that San Luis Obispo (aka SLO) County has the correct ratio of breweries to population, then there should be at least 33,000 breweries across the United States (at last count, there were just over 6,000 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.
But let’s begin this tour of Central Coast breweries 30 miles to the north, in Paso Robles. There, the enormous—and perennial medal-winner—Firestone Walker Brewing Company invites you to take a tour of its brewery, before relaxing with seasonal bistro fare in The Taproom restaurant.
Heading south, to the aforementioned brewing hotbed of San Luis Obispo, don't miss the first brewery to enter the field, way back in 1988: SLO Brew. Naturally popular in this youthful and lively university town, SLO Brew is still going strong, and among the best brewers to have joined it since then are Central Coast Brewing, as well as Tap It, Barrelhouse, 7Sisters and Bang the Drum breweries.
Less than 15 miles away, on the coast itself, at the dramatic meeting of earth and sea that is Morro Bay, 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, which has five tap rooms stretching from Arroyo Grande down to Westlake Village, just north of Los Angeles. Also further south, in Goleta, Hollister Brewing Company has up to 15 different creations on tap at any given time. And of course Santa Barbara, with its proximity to Isla Vista, home of UC Santa Barbara and over 20,000 university students, has a few breweries of its own too: Pure Order Brewing Company, Third Window Brewing and Telegraph Brewing Co. should all be on any beer lover’s must-visit list.
California’s Central Valley stretches for hundreds of miles—and fortunately for beer lovers, so does the valley’s craft beer scene. Though a bit more secluded than their brewing brethren in other parts of the state, there’s nothing backwoods about the beer here—some of the local IPAs and barrel-aged stouts rival those from anywhere.
Starting in the north and working south, the first stop is the Lodi Beer Company; grab a doppelbock drawn from its gleaming copper Bavarian brewing system, located at the centre of the brewpub’s dining room, and the concept of the Central Valley as a craft beer destination will begin to make perfect sense. Then it’s on to Dust Bowl Brewing Company in Turlock, where you can take a tour (advanced booking required) before sampling their Hops of Wrath IPA. Fresno boasts Sequoia Brewing Company, Tioga-Sequoia and Full Circle. In nearby Clovis, the House of Pendragon Brewing Company has a 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, where there are two excellent breweries: Temblor Brewing Company and Lengthwise Brewing Company—Temblor offers free tours of their 1765-square-metre state-of-the-art brewery on Saturday afternoons; afterwards, try their El Cerrito Mexican-style lager and the Hay-Z IPA (the latter should help you forget a few of your 99 problems). At Lengthwise, you can sample any of the 20-plus beers from their brewery, pub or marketplace locations.
Being sandwiched between the craft beer cities of San Diego and Los Angeles could be intimidating, but if Orange County brewers feel that way, they certainly don’t let it show.
Anaheim is one of the fastest-growing beer destinations in the state, with 15 breweries and counting. Three of the city’s notable offerings are 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 two miles away from each other, Noble Ale Works (try their Naughty Sauce Stout and Aim for the Fences IPA) and the Old Orange Brewing Company, both of which have tasting rooms.
Elsewhere, the options are numerous and varied. San Clemente has been popular with beer lovers for years, with its Left Coast Brewing Company, the largest craft brewery in the county by volume, and relative newcomers Artifex Brewing Company and Lost Winds Brewing are excellent options as well.
In Placentia, try The Bruery’s award-winning ales and wheat beers. The brewery is run by the Rue family, hence the name; they also have a tasting room, Bruery Terreaux, in Anaheim. In the hills of Rancho Santa Margarita sits the Cismontane Brewing Company (the name means 'this side of the mountains').
Others to try: Tustin Brewing Company, one of the pioneers of the scene, brewing since 1996, in Tustin; Bootlegger’s Brewery—with their unique Black Phoenix Chipotle Coffee Stout—in Fullerton; and the city of Orange’s Valiant Brewing Company, with more than a dozen beers 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. Consider following this 'beer-cation' itinerary from the North Coast Tourism Council, or create your own from the list below.
Start at Ukiah Brewing Company, 'America’s first organic brewpub', and taste one of its dozen or so organic beers on tap. Just south in Booneville, Anderson Valley Brewing Company has been satisfying locals since 1987, especially with its Boont Amber and Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout. The company names its beers using a local, mostly forgotten dialect called Boontling. So take a chance on one of the oddly monikered taps and let out a hearty 'Bahl hornin’!' (Cheers!)
In McKinleyvillle, Humboldt Regeneration Brewery & Farm focuses on organic and sustainable practices, and has been confirmed by the California Craft Brewers Association as the first brewery in the state to be growing, malting, roasting and brewing with their own ingredients since Prohibition. The pet- and family-friendly tap room has more than 20 beers. The town is also home to Six Rivers Brewery, where the focus is on small-batch English-style ales and porters.
On the coast, Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewing Company, founded in 1988, is a must-see, especially for award-winning Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Humboldt County’s timber-industry past is immortalised in Eureka at Lost Coast Brewing and in Fortuna at Eel River Brewing: both are housed in the remnants of old sawmills. Not far from them, in sleepy Blue Lake, are the craft beer veterans (in business since 1989) at Mad River Brewing; their John Barleycorn Barleywine and Serious Madness Black Ale are local favourites.