The Search Is Easier Than Expected
My husband gulps some Cabernet Franc and declares it “tasty.” We are in the Tri-Cities wine country in Washington state and other guests are sipping their wine and describing its characteristics in elegant prose.
It was at this point that I wondered if it’s possible to drink beer in wine country. Sounds like an oxymoron, but don’t beer drinkers get a chance to enjoy their preferred beverages, after their oenophile partners have dragged them around tasting rooms all day?
The answer is yes. Each of the big wine countries in North America also offers up a good helping of breweries―and the good news is that you don’t have to search very hard to find them.
And forget yourselves for a moment―think of the wine makers. Despite what Hollywood and romanticized books and articles will have us believe, for many of them, there’s only one thing that hits the spot at the end of the day and that’s a nice cold beer.
In fact, as many brewers pointed out, the saying is that it takes a lot of great beer to make good wine.
The logical place to start with any discussion of wine in this continent is the most illustrious wine country, Napa Valley.
Both Napa and Sonoma counties are peppered with breweries, and one of the best known is Downtown Joe’s American Grill and Brewhouse in the town of Napa. “People come to the valley and want to taste wine but their whole life is not wine,” said Colin Kaminksi, the pub’s brewer. So, they typically come at both ends of the wine-tasting day, he said―for breakfast and for a change of pace after a day in the vines.
Situated in a historic building on the banks of the Napa River, Downtown Joe’s offers seven regular draft beers, the most popular being Tail Waggin’ American Amber and Lazy Summer American Wheat, and an eighth beer that rotates. The specials tend to depend on Kaminski’s whim―“if I want to explore a different hop, malt or style,” he said. “And that way, I can decide if that element becomes part of one of our regular ales.”
The pub is more British style than American, a very social place where everyone interacts. There’s regular live music and outdoor patios.
Thirty miles to the north, in Calistoga, is the Napa Valley Brewing Co., the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery.
Here there are four beers on tap: an American wheat, a pilsner, a red ale, and a porter. The wheat and the pilsner are the best sellers in the summer, while the red ale is a heartier winter drink. The porter, according to head brewer Brad Simisloff, is consistent throughout the year and ages very well. Simisloff also rotates in three to five other beers regularly, so there are always seven to nine tap offerings.
“I’m fascinated by the history of beer styles and how they came about so I’m as authentic as I can,” he said. As an example, he uses Belgian malt for his Belgian-style beers and abbey-style yeast.
He also has fun playing around with his tripels, adding flavors like orange peel and grains of paradise, a seed that is spicy with a little fruit. “I make all the spices subdued, however, so they’re just an aftertaste,” he pointed out.
And that delicate flavor probably works well for all the wine enthusiasts who stop by.
“I get lots comments from people who’ve been wine tasting all day and say they really needed a beer,” he said. “Or there’s a person in a group who really likes beer.”
Napa Valley Brewing has a little of everything: the brewpub; an outdoor bar complete with a horseshoe pit, where, depending on your level of sobriety, you can pitch horseshoes; a fine dining restaurant; and a European-style inn upstairs with around 20 rooms with shared bathrooms.
To the west, in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, is Russian River Brewing Co., which takes full advantage of its location in wine country, using wine barrels to make its beer.
It also triumphantly uses Brettanomyces wild yeast, which according to owner-brewer Vinnie Cilurzo, many wine makers―and brewers―are afraid of. “It’s the anti-Christ to many because it’s tough to control, but we are very careful with it,” he said.
He likes to use this yeast for the slight acidity it gives to his beers as well as an earthy, leathery flavor. Cilurzo also likes to add two good bacteria―Lactobactillus, which is commonly found in yogurt and Pediococcus―to bring additional acidity and sourness to the beers.
He uses the Brettanomyces yeast and the bacteria with any beers he ages in wine barrels “to add unique flavors and make the beers more funky,” he said. That’s not the only overlap with the wine world: Cilurzo, who has been brewing beer since 1988, began his career in his parents’ wine business.
Pliny the Elder is Russian River’s best selling beer. It’s a double IPA, with twice the hops found in a typical IPA, and higher alcohol. The other two favorites are Damnation, a Belgian-style strong ale, and Blind Pig IPA. “We’re known for very hoppy IPAs,” Cilurzo added.
The Willamette Valley is the main wine-growing region in Oregon, and the third largest wine-producing state in the United States. The area is just 12 miles from Portland, which boasts the lofty distinction of being the city with the most breweries in the world. In fact, there are 38 of them, all within fairly easy distance of each other.
Perhaps the best known is Deschutes Brewery, which is based in Bend, OR, but opened a public house in Portland in April 2008.
Many wine lovers spend time in the valley and when they come back to Portland, they lust for an adventure in beer, explained Vince Brown, one of Deschutes’ managers.
A cavernous pub which somehow manages to still feel cozy, Deschutes offers around 18 beers on tap, 12 of them made here by brewer Cam O’Connor and the remainder sent from Bend.
Black Butte Porter was the beer responsible for Deschutes’ rapid rise to fame when the brewery started 21 years ago, and it remains a favorite and the flagship beer. However, Mirror Pond has overtaken it―this is a beer that showcases local hops with citrus and floral flavors―a stark contrast to the smooth and chocolate taste of Black Butte.
Deschutes also has some very high alcohol beers in its Reserve series, including Mirror Mirror, a barley wine-style beer with 11 percent alcohol; and the favorite, The Abyss, a pitch-black barrel-aged imperial stout. Because of the strength of these beers, they’re served in 10-ounce snifter glasses, which are great for presentation. Drink them while you can, because they’re brewed in very limited quantities.
A surprisingly popular Deschutes beer is the Green Lakes Organic Ale, which has a very complex hop and malt profile. It’s the only organic ale from the brewery, launched 18 months ago.
Laurelwood Public House and Brewery has two organic beers―the Free Range Red, the flagship and most popular beer, an American ESB, and Tree Hugger Porter.
“We started making organic beers in 2002, when not many people were doing it, even in Portland. We do, however, want people to know that the beer comes first and the organics second,” said head brewer, Chad Kennedy.
And beer often comes first for the winemakers, he pointed out. “The number of kegs we sell to wineries goes up pretty dramatically once harvest starts.” The wine-tasters like it too, and often come for a beer once they’ve returned to Portland after a day of sampling in the nearby Willamette Valley, he added.
“A little crisp, clean beer with some CO2 in it helps restart the palate at the end of the day,” said Kennedy.
Organic beer is about 50 percent of all production at Laurelwood; there are also 50 to 60 seasonal brews. Some are standard like the coffee porter and the organic Green Elephant IPA, but there’s also a Green Mammoth―an imperial version of the Elephant.
Eight or nine regular beers are on tap at Laurelwood, as well as rotating specials. Kennedy tries to have as many styles of beer as possible. “Craft beers are all about pleasing as many people as possible with many different flavors. The commercial beer makers try to have one macro flavor,” he said.
The specials, he said, are “one offs that are totally shooting from the hip.” He also makes some single-hop beers with a different varietal each time to see how they work. “It’s been a good education for us and the people drinking the beer, to see what different hops do.”
These aren’t the only breweries making organic beers, but the trend is even bigger than that. Wander out into the heart of the Willamette Valley and you’ll find wineries such as Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Evesham Wood Winery and Sokol Blosser growing organic grapes.
There’s certainly a growing demand for wines made with organic grapes, according to Barbara Gross, marketing director for Cooper Mountain Vineyards, who claimed that now, one-fifth of wine producers in the valley are farming organically.
For the ultimate in Portland’s organic beer scene, visit Hopworks, operates out of a sustainable building that features everything from composting to rain barrels. The brewery uses onlylocal ingredients―which is the usual practice for vintners (hence, the relevance of terroir), but rare these days in the beer world.
There are six standard beers and four seasonals. The standards include Hopworks IPA (spicy, dry hops and malty with some citrus and pine flavors), Survival Stout (containing barley, wheat, oats, amaranth, quinoa, spelt, kamut and espresso) and Crosstown Pale Ale (with caramel flavors).
For the seasonals, brewer Christian Ettinger likes to make more unusual foreign beers like German-style brown, English cream ale and Belgian abbeys, always featuring a good mix.
Hopworks particularly appeals to cyclists. The bicycle bar (no caps) is made from 42 scrap bike frames, formed into a canopy over the bar. There’s also a bicycle repair stand at the door, inner tubes and energy bars for sale and even a bicycle seat headrest over the urinals. And outside, there’s parking for up to 92 bicycles.
The second largest wine-producing region in the U.S. is Washington and the industry is focused on the eastern part of the state, mostly stretching from Walla Walla to the Yakima Valley.
But beer’s popular here, as it should be since the valley is one of the largest hop producers in the world. There’s even a two-room American Hop Museum in Toppenish, a 20-minute drive from Yakima, that’s worth a visit.
Snipes Mountain Brewing in Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley is a huge log cabin-type building, cozy and family-friendly with a huge local following.
Brewer Chris Miller is starting to age his beers in wine barrels to give them some sourness, he said. The first he’s trying is his Coyote Moon, an English mild―a nut-brown, kind of English mild-gone-wild―with very few hops. He uses wild yeast and souring agents and matures the beers for a year, sometimes adding fruit. These beers should be available next spring, Miller said.
“It takes time for the wild yeast to chew through some of the sugars so you have to forget about it,” he said. “It mirrors [the aging] in the wine industry, so it feels like a natural step.”
Miller also mirrors the wine industry by taking cast-off barrels from Willow Crest and Kana wineries. For his Coyote Moon, he uses red wine barrels. “If I’m doing a brownish-red beer, red barrels lend themselves best. It’s mostly woody flavors that concentrate the beer,” he said.
Miller enjoys watching Budweiser drinkers being turned on to his beers, which include an American-style hefeweizen, with more subdued flavors; Harvest Ale, which is packed with flavor from the green hops used; and Roza Reserve, a complex, high alcohol (9.2 percent) beer with great malt and hop depth.
Seasonals include The Pumpkin Death, which Miller describes as the anti-pumpkin beer. “So many pumpkin beers are over-spiced but I just burned the pumpkins for some caramel flavor.”
In Yakima, itself, is Yakima Craft Brewing.
The best-selling beer, said brewmaster Jeff Winn, is the IPA, which is stronger and more bitter than most. “But our IPA is well-balanced, which is key,” he said. “We set out to brew an IPA that’s very hoppy yet doesn’t destroy your taste buds on the first sip. And we’re in hop country, so it would be foolish for us not to focus on hops.”
Their other beers are hoppy, too, he added, such as the amber ale, which is drier than most ambers with a hop focus. The pale ale, he said, “has an entirely different hop profile than [these beers] usually have. It’s very clean like a lager but isn’t a lager.” It’s just 5% alcohol, he added, which makes it great for hot weather drinking and for introducing people to craft beers.
And many of those people are wine drinkers.
“I think that, frankly, people can get worn out on wine,” said Winn. “There are also those who do not care for wine, but who go along on tasting trip to please someone else―usually a spouse. We’re happy to host those who are looking for an oasis. Also, you’d be surprised at the number of vintners we get in to taste.”
The brewery is typically open from 10 until 5 for tastings but it’s best to call ahead since it’s a two-man show. The two, Jeff and head brewer Chris Swedin, brew everything by hand “like you might have seen in the 1500s,” he explained. “It’s not a push-button brewery and is very different to modern places.”
In Winn’s eyes, although the Yakima Valley is now known for wine, it was beer country first. “To the best of my knowledge, hops were planted here before vineyards … you could say we’re trying to take it back.”
But the wine makers and the beer brewers all happily co-exist together, he explained. “We are really in the same overall market, so we all get along very well. And, we’ve been known to frequent their tasting rooms ourselves!”
And both groups do many tastings together, as well as shows and charity events. “They are a great group of people, and we are part of the same family. We don’t get the opportunity to collaborate as much as we’d like to, but we work together where there is cross-over in the different processes; say, liquor (water) processing, heating and cooling and facilities issues,” explained Winn.
And the collaboration also helps business. “We are particularly fortunate to have our beer featured at the tasting rooms of some local wineries―often exclusively. The reason for this is if you’re trying to attract wine tourists, you need to understand that not everyone is going to be into that, and if you can provide a beer alternative, that’s generally a good thing. We have yet to run into who thinks that combining the two could be anything other than positive.”
In Walla Walla there’s Mill Creek Brew Pub, serving just four brews but doing them all well.
The IPA is a typical Northwestern brew with lots of hops and bitterness, according to brewer Troy Robinson, but beware: it’s high in alcohol!
The Walla Walla Wheat has some great orange zest and fresh coriander flavors―a delicious, easy-drinking summertime beverage that refreshes with its citrus flavors.
For contrast there’s the Penitentiary Porter, with roasted malts and a light hop tone from English Golding hops; and the 22, a classic, European-style lager.
The brewpub’s owner, Gary Johnson, feels the wine industry that has blossomed in Walla Walla in the past 10 years has done great things. “It’s changed our town―for the better. It brings people here who want to try new things, new flavors―but you can only drink so much wine.”
British Columbia’s wine country is centered around the stunning Okanagan Valley, which stretches for 155 miles between the Cascade Mountains and the Monashee Mountains.
In Kelowna is Tree Brewing, next door to Peller Estates winery, with six regular brews on tap and rotating specialties like the Midwinter Spiced Ale or the summertime Hefeweizen. There are also occasional one-time beers such as the Double India Pale Ale, or the Weizenbock that’s a good spring beer, according to brewmaster Stefan Buhl, stronger than a hefeweizen, with mild banana and clove flavors.
Tree Brewing runs tours every Friday at 3pm year-round, with tastings from 11am to 5pm. The 30- to 40-minute tours take visitors through the beer-making process, from the malt intake through the packaging line.
Tree Brewing gets particularly busy in the afternoons, said Buhl. “In the summer we get a lot of groups who do wine tours and come by at the end of the day for something a little different. Within a day they can easily visit 10 or 12 wineries very close by.”
At the northern end of wine country is Crannóg Ales, which owner and brewer Brian MacIssac describes as a miniscule brewery, as opposed to a microbrewery, producing around 1,850 gallons of beer per year.
Located just 20 minutes from a bunch of wineries, on a 10-acre farm with its own hops, Crannóg is Canada’s only certified organic microbrewery. It reflects MacIssac’s Irish traditions of brewing full-flavored, complex ales that are also great session beers.
The four regular brews include the Red Branch Irish Ale, which contains chocolate malts and caramel, and the favorite, Back Hand of God Stout, and easy drinker that’s smooth and lightly hopped, with a distinct coffee and chocolate taste. “I tried to make this less one-dimensional and I hope it appeals to light beer drinkers too,” said MacIssac.
There are also a number of seasonal beers, often flavored with fruit from the farm, such as the Pooka Cherry Ale made with sour cherries; and in the late summer/fall there’s Bansidhe Ale, triple fermented with crab apples, plums and red or white blackcurrants, making for a crisp brew with 4.5% alcohol.
Tastings here are by appointment in a little pub―The Bloody Stump―on the farm. . “It’s often husbands dragging their wives here at the end of the day,” said MacIssac, “but then the wives get turned on to our beers, which they’re not used to after the overly carbonated commercial beers.”
Spread throughout the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York is the bulk of this state’s wine region, the fourth largest in the United States.
Wagner Valley Brewing Co. has stood on the eastern edge of Keuka Lake since 1995, when Bill Wagner, a third-generation grape grower, realized that what he needed after a day in the vineyards was a cold beer.
There’s also a winery on the same property, the first vines planted by hand by Wagner in the 1960s.
Because of its location, Wagner is often the perfect stopping point for the end of the day, said brewer Dean Jones. Many visitors come for a late lunch and stay on the deck for the rest of the day, eventually watching the sun set over the lake.
There’s not one favorite beer here, but it’s a three-way tie: the IPA, Sled Dog Doppelbock and Dockside Amber Lager, although the IPA wins in the summer months.
In the fall and winter, heavier beers are added, such as Strong Scotch Ale and Coffee Porter. And last summer Jones decided to take advantage of his position in wine country, and made a Champagne Wit―Riesling champagne mixed with Belgian white beer (which provides some sourness). “It was a light beer that was less than 20 percent champagne, and wine drinkers love it,” he said.
On the west side of Keuka Lake is Keuka Brewing Co., in the middle of a stretch of six wineries, which brings in a lot of business, said owner Richard Musso. “We’re a great diversion for the wine drinkers and a bit of a respite for those who don’t drink wine.”
The wheat beers are the most popular here, especially White Cap Wheat, a blend of wheat and barley that’s lightly hopped with Tettnanger, and further seasoned with orange peel and coriander.
But there are seven beers on tap, and the Full Sail Stout, a blend of five malts with smoke, coffee and chocolate flavors, also does very well. Next up will be some seasonal beers.
“Our beers have a fuller flavor than commercial beers,” said Musso. “We tried to keep that home-brewed taste.”
Keuka Brewing is open for tastings noon to 5 p.m. for weekends and extended weekends.
Whether you are a beer drinker or a wine drinker, you can’t go wrong in wine country. Those who have been drawn to the region for the wineries typically have the refined palate that can also appreciate a fine beer, crafted with great ingredients.
Beer is also a great way to relax after a day of tasting wine, which can be high-maintenance work of swilling, comparing and analyzing. Sitting at a bar with a simple brew, served by a laid-back bartender, and often with a great view just through a window, can be quite the antidote to a hard day’s wine drinking.