A trip to California to spend time with friends provided the opportunity to partake in some beers and hikes in Sonoma County. Justifiably, most people’s first thought when hearing “Sonoma” is wine country, but like everywhere these days there are more breweries than can possibly be explored during a short visit. Our friends have a place on the coast at Sea Ranch, a highly planned but unincorporated enclave about 100 mi (160 km) north of San Francisco and 120 mi (190 km) west of Sacramento. An unintended consequence of the Sea Ranch development was creation of a public, coastal trail and a network of connectors to access it. Together with private trails in the Redwood forest above the coastline, this location makes for some nice, weekend hiking.
In deciding which breweries to visit, it is clear that the major concentration is along a drive north from San Francisco to the Santa Rosa area. Lagunitas, located at Petaluma, is a former small brewery that succeeded to the extent that it expanded, has gained a national presence, and was acquired in 2015 by Heineken. Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa and Windsor is another nationally known brewery owing to its highly praised Pliny IPA’s. I tend to be more interested in the smaller guys, so I decided to visit the new Russian River facility in Windsor. When I checked out the websites of the dozen or so other small breweries in the Santa Rosa area, Moonlight Brewing Company jumped out at me as the most interesting beer range for my tastes. Finally, a brewpub called Stumptown Brewery would be along the way as we drove down the Russian River to the coast so appealed as a stop. As far as I could tell, there were no breweries out along the coast.
Beers and Brewery Visits in Sonoma County
Over the years, I have certainly seen Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger being hyped on social media and in print, but I never really tuned in much because IPA’s aren’t really my favorite beer style. Their proponents often seemed somewhat fanatical and the implication always seemed to be that these are rare, hard-to-find brews. I was intrigued to be passing by, and I had no idea that our visit would coincide with their biggest time of the year.
It turns out that in early February each year RRBC serves up its Pliny the Younger Triple IPA for just two weeks and pretty much only at its own Santa Rosa and Windsor tap rooms. We arrived a day after the advertised two week period ended and found that they were still serving the Younger until it ran out. During the advertised run, I was told that Pliny cultists travel here from all over the world and line up around the block to drink this rare beer. By dumb luck, arriving the day after meant that we did not need to stand in any line (although one was beginning to form by the time we left). A second very famous RRBC beer is their Pliny the Elder Double IPA which they brew and serve year-round.
Upon arrival, I ordered up one each of the Elder and the Younger so I could try them side-by-side. Customers are given a rationing bracelet so the servers can limit you to three Youngers and my server took a tab off of it. I have to say that I found both of the beers to be exceptional – flavorful, crisp, and impressively balanced. I had anticipated that they might seem strongly hopped (I quite often consider IPA’s to be over the top in their hoppiness) but was pleasantly surprised by their balanced character. There was a distinct difference between the two, but I found them both to be very nice in their own way. Would I travel and stand in line for the Younger? Not me, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone who wanted to do so. Would I visit RRBC again if I was in the area for an Elder? No doubt.
The Windsor facility is a beautiful one that was opened just last year. RRBC offers both a free, self-guided tour and an hourly $15 guided tour. Both tours use upstairs observation decks, but the guided tour gets into more areas and comes with beer and souvenir glass. The production system is a 75 barrel system and they can put through four batches per day. They were using whole hop umbels in their brewing the day I was there. Next to there big array of closed fermenters were a couple of rooms each containing two massive open fermenters. The side-by-side fermenters in one of the rooms were processing their STS Pilsener in one and their Intinction Wild American Ale in the other. There was a good bit of talk by the guide about all of the yeast that was likely in the air and about their brewers’ love of that condition. A part of the facility is dedicated to barrel aged beers and a “beer chapel” of sorts high up in the eaves houses an open air cooling ship used for their Lambic-inspired Beatification – a spontaneously fermented beer (meaning yeast is not added – it only gets whatever yeast happens to be in the air).
By contrast, Moonlight Brewing is a small operation with a taproom packed into several bays of an industrial park. They caught my eye because they were the only place in the area I recollect was brewing a range of interesting sounding lagers. Their Death & Taxes was a nice, smooth dark lager. Stumptown is an even smaller roadhouse operation with a huge deck out back along the river. It had more of the feel of being a bar rather than a brewery.
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Hikes in Sonoma County
The taste of hiking I was able to get in was mostly along the coast and in a Redwood forested area of Sea Ranch. I’m not showing the route in the forest because those trails are private for Sea Ranch residents and their guests. The coastal trail is open to everyone though, and there are several designated parking areas with connecting trails along Highway 1 as it passes through Sea Ranch. Click here for an interactive route map of the hike.
An interesting (to me) side trip in the area was a visit to Bodega and Bodega Bay just to the South. This is the locale where a favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie of mine was filmed – the 1962 thriller The Birds. We watched the movie the first night we were there and it was fun to contrast the scenery and places in the movie with the real-time landscape over the next couple of days.
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Beer Hikes Sonoma