Craft Beer North of the Bay

Brewery Sonoma County

Lagunitas Brewing Company is an essential Sonoma County beer stop.

Just north of the beautiful and foggy Golden Gate Bridge, in Sonoma County, you’ll find three very prominent California breweries.  And yet, until this year, I had never visited any of them, so last month, I traveled from Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma and north to Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa before taking another short “hop” north to Bear Republic Brewing in Healdsburg.

I visited all three breweries at the end of November, so crowds and mileage may vary, but in general I rated each stop on the beers and the hospitality, balanced against expectations. Here are my impressions.

First on the list was the famed Russian River, brewer of Pliny and many other hoppy creations as well as some sours and Belgians that are also well loved.  Arriving at opening time at 11am is the only way to go. Otherwise, you WILL wait for a seat and elbow room to enjoy their splendid beers.  And the beers were indeed excellent. Aud Blonde and Noble Experiment, two hoppy blondes, the latter with a Belgian kick, were my favorites.  By noon, the wait for a taster tray was 20 minutes. By the time I left just after noon, the wait was already at 45 minutes for a table.  While the beers deserve all the kudos that are given, the hectic atmosphere and wait times were drags. Returning the next day at 4pm before the dinner rush and after lunch garnered another full house and a wait of 1 and 1/2 hours for a table.

I would suggest going to nearby Guerneville and the Korbel Winery (they were the former owners and still have 4 taps on in their cafe).

Stop 2 was Lagunitas and again the scene was super busy. Dogs and children everywhere. Long lines and a schwag shop with a killer bottle selection of Lagunitas offerings, including big fat bottles of their famed Lagunitas Sucks winter IPA. Here, the sampler tray of special releases didn’t win me over. In fact, I think one of my samples was not what I ordered. I could see the ambiance peeking through the people and on a sunny day this would be a lovely place to spend an afternoon. You wouldn’t know how close to the 101 freeway you were. They offer a decent food menu as well.

Finally, up in Wine Country was Bear Republic. Parking was ample and you could sit inside or out.  The menu board was split between regular and seasonal offerings. Too many good choices and a homey food menu with great pairing opportunities. Of the three, this spot was firing on all cylinders. The beer was great. Especially the cherry wood-smoked California Common. The food was also great. Attentive servers and appreciative crowd and enough room to savor it all. Plus you can also satisfy all your wine friends here.

In my purely subjective rankings based on a single visit, Bear Republic comes out on top with Russian River in second, based on how good each beer was followed by Lagunitas in third, whose beers I normally love but seemed a bit lost on this occasion. I can’t wait to go back and try again because I saw that Petaluma is getting more breweries. Oh, and Sierra Nevada opened a new tap room.  Oh, and San Francisco Beer Week is coming. You get the picture.  Plenty of beer reasons to head north.

Your Beer of the Week is from Anchor Brewing, Our Special Ale. I mentioned the beer two weeks ago in my guide to 10 Great California Holiday Ales, but it bears repeating.  It is not Christmas in the house without this Bay Area classic. From the yearly changing label to the rustic spruce notes in this dark beer, it practically screams Merry Christmas!

Your Homework this week is to begin compiling your list of the best beers that you had this year so that you can compare and contrast with, or rant and rave against, the list that I am preparing as I type this. Which beers surprised you the most? Which ones were your go-tos throughout the year? What special releases did you covet? Then check back on this very website in 2014 to see what did the same for me.

Find more of Sean Inman’s writing on his blog, Beer Search Party.


Sean Inman

Find more of Sean Inman's writing on his blog, Beer Search Party.

Leave a Comment