Sonoma County’s reputation as a premier wine country destination is well established. But the proliferation of great breweries has put the region on the map as beervana as well. As the saying goes, “it takes a lot of great beer to make great wine.” Maybe that’s why there are so many excellent breweries in Sonoma County. Or maybe locals just like good beer.
One of the county’s brewing powerhouses actually began in 1993 down the road in the rural West Marin County town of Lagunitas (pop. 1,813). But the popularity of the Lagunitas Brewing Co. spurred the company to open a larger brewery in Petaluma and it just got bigger from there. Led by its flagship IPA, Lagunitas became the the third best selling craft beer in the U.S. in 2017 And even though Heineken bought the company that same year and it can’t be called “craft” anymore, Lagunitas is still a hometown favorite, as is their taproom and live music amphitheater.
“It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine.”
You could argue it was Brian Hunt’s Moonlight Brewing Co. that got the beer wagon rolling. He opened his Santa Rosa brewery in 1992 in a 1,000 square foot tractor barn. His genre-defining Death & Taxes black lager and creative brewing ingredients (redwood needles, yarrow, tea) have made Hunt a brewer’s brewer. He has long refused to bottle or can his beer but relented and now puts Death & Taxes in a 16-ounce can. And as of more recently, the whole lineup is available by the case–shipped right to your front door. Some of the beers are only available on tap and seasonally, though. Get it where you can, when you can.
While Lagunitas is Sonoma County’s claim to fame, Russian River Brewing Co. is the area’s–and wider world’s–favorite. The Santa Rosa (and now Windsor) brewery’s Pliny the Younger is a limited release of triple IPA that attracts beer fans from around the world. It’s only available on-site for two weeks starting on the first Friday in February and patrons stand in blocks-long lines for a maximum of two pints of the precious liquid. The beer is a boon and not just for the brewery. The Sonoma County Economic Development Board estimates the more the 12,000 visitors who came to sample the beer in 2018 added $3.4 million to the local economy. But the rest of their line-up is just as good and doesn’t require standing in quite as long lines. Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo is a master of the brewing’s dark arts; funky, sour, Belgian and barrel-aged beers.
"Get it where you can, when you can."
Lagunitas, Moonlight and Russian River are the parents of Sonoma County’s beer scene and they gave birth to a brood of punky upstarts. Sebastopol’s Crooked Goat Brewing is only five years old but it quickly expanded to meet demand. The brewery specializes in experimental beers made with fruit, vegetables (i.e. chile peppers), honey and even peanut butter and jelly. But it’s their boozy IPAs that seem to be the biggest draw. Get a hold of a grapefruit Ibex to see what the buzz is about and enjoy their always crowded, dog-friendly, and recently expanded patio.
Santa Rosa’s HenHouse Brewing Company is one of our favorites of the new generation. Not only do their cans have the coolest label art, they make the superb Oyster Stout, a creamy brew made with actual Hog Island oyster shells and a bit of sea salt. The calcium from the oysters teases out the chocolate and coffee notes from the roasted barley and malt. They’ve got a great portfolio of hop-specific IPAs, too, like the chewy Phantom Time. At their Santa Rosa brewery, Henhouse makes their beer in a quonset hut next door to fellow fermenters Wildbrine. Beer and kraut are a great combo.
Old Caz Beer gets its name from Old Cazadero Road, a lungbuster of a road revered and feared by West Coast cyclists looking to test the hill climbing skills. You can bet a cold one tastes good after tackling that road. But Old Caz isn’t made way out west in Cazadero, but rather in the wilds of Rohnert Park. Their taproom and beer garden host a changing line up of food vendors to pair with their eclectic line-up of brews, delicious IPAs of course, but also a Mexican-style lager (Chimosa), Bukovany Pivo (Czech lager) and Cazzberry (a raspberry sour).
"You can bet a cold one tastes good after tackling that road."
Housed behind roll-top doors in a sprawling beige industrial park in Santa Rosa that’s also home to wineries, a janitorial company, a food distributor and a dance studio, Cooperage Brewing Company is a beermaker’s brewery. Brewmaster Tyler Smith’s bleeding-edge, Belgian-inspired beers made with different yeasts, hops, bacteria and barrels to create one-of-a-kind brews like Metal Peacock, a hazy IPA made with Citra, Mosaic and New Zealand Rakau hops or Black is Beautiful, a deeply flavorful imperial stout brewed to raise awareness about racial justice issues. What makes the beers special—and what gives the brewery its name—is the beers are barrel-aged for a year or more in casks that that formerly held wine, port and whiskey.
Santa Rosa’s Fogbelt Brewing Co. is another favorite, too, especially their series of fresh, “wet-hopped” beers. The brewery is helping support a mini revival of locally grown hops, taking local beer to the next level. And then there’s Three Disciples, Iron Ox, Seismic, and Old Possum.. And that’s not even all of them. So much great beer, so little time to drink it all.