“With all the diverse flavors than beer has, it can even be a better companion to food than wine,” says Harold Sleeman, division manager of World Class Beverages’ parent company, Crescent Crown. World Class is a specialty beer distributor focusing on microbrews, a large market considering that growth of the craft brewing industry in 2011 increased 13% by volume and 15% by dollars compared to 2010.
Sonoma, in fact, has long enjoyed big business in beer. The area was well known for its hops production from the 1870s into the 1950s, and several significant hops facilities still stand today.
But enough about statistics. To see what all the buzz is about, it’s easy enough to pick up a chilled mug and sample at Sonoma pubs. The artisan industry is fermenting quite nicely across the County, with longstanding breweries, newly opened breweries, and plenty of places to simply get an excellent beer.
Barley and Hops Tavern, Occidental
The focus is on great beers like local favorites Pliny, and Death and Taxes, plus an array of boutique drafts. Owned by beer-lover Noah Bolmer, the restaurant serves gentrified pub grub to go with those suds, such as slow-cooked beef Bourguignon, savory German blaukraut and sausage, and ahi over creamy grits. There’s more: later this year, Bolmer plans to open Warped Brewing Company, a fully functioning brewery inside the Barlow of Sebastopol, so he can craft his own signature beers.
Details: 3688 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental, 707-874-9037, barleynhops.com.
Dempsey’s Restaurant & Brewery
For more than two decades, the locals have celebrated the bold flavors and robust beers of this friendly pub. It’s Sonoma’s oldest brewery, and the fans come for signatures like Golden Ale, Mountain Wheat, Irish Ale, and a Red Rooster Ale imbued with notes of caramel and flowers. Food is beer-friendly as well, in staples like messy burgers, pizzas, and pulled pork sandwiches.
Details: 50 E. Washington Street, Petaluma, 707-765-9694, dempseys.com.
Hopmonk Tavern, Sebastopol and Sonoma
The original Sebastopol spot is housed within a rustic 105-year-old stone and timber tavern complete with a beer garden and live music stage. The Sonoma location features an acoustic band shell for music, too. The concept is gloriously uncomplicated: owner and brew guru Dean Biersch (formerly of the Gordon Biersch empire) sends out artisan beers and eclectic menu of beer-recipe foods. Eats are a step up from the ordinary, ranging from curry samosas, to a drop dead succulent Reuben, to fresh-made fish-n-chips. Did we mention beers? Try at least half-a-dozen choices on tap, or select from a Beer Bible boasting more than 75 bottled options.
Details: 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-7300; or 691 Broadway, Sonoma, 707-935-9100, hopmonk.com.
Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa
Pliny the Elder, Blind Pig and Damnation. It may sound like the father from the famous Christmas Story movie is swearing at his furnace again, but actually, these are the creative names of just a few of this pub’s private label beers. You can see the actual brew tanks in the cellar next to the bar, and the full, Italian-inspired, beer-paired menu makes lingering even more delicious. Stay for the live music, and sample as many beers as you like from the chalkboard list of dozens of frequently changing, seasonally inspired small-batch suds – it’s easy since two-ounce samples of any beer can be tasted for 50 to 75 cents.
Details: 725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-545-2337, russianriverbrewing.com.
Tip: Put extra cheer in your beer tour by hiring a private limo or Town Car!