By Mary Ann Norbom
Like the frothy foam that forms on the top of a perfectly poured glass from the tap, the craft beer scene in the U.S. is exploding in popularity, with Santa Barbara vying to become the suds capital of the West Coast. From microbreweries with improvised tasting bars tucked into industrial areas to eateries offering a wide array of proprietary beers and a burger joint specializing in the finest beers from throughout the state, there is something to savor for every palate and every kind of tasting experience.
Craft beer, by definition, is produced by breweries that are small, independent and use traditional methods. “Small” means less than six million barrels a year (each barrel holds 31 gallons). To give you an idea of how boutique our local brewers are, not a single Santa Barbara County brewery tops 10,000 barrels. They produce beer that ranges from almost clear to red to the blackest black, with the alcohol content going from 4 to 10% (average is around 6%).
Flights, offered by all of our local brew pubs and brewery tasting rooms, are an ideal way to taste and compare several beers. Beer is best consumed fresh, since microbreweries stay away from preservatives. Seasonal offerings are always available in flights—look for “winter beers” at this time of year—so don’t be afraid to experiment and find your favorite styles of beer.
Take-home options vary, but most breweries offer half-gallon refillable jugs called growlers. A few sell 22-oz. bottles, and 750-ml. bottles with corks are starting to pop up as well.
Wine has its snobs, and beer definitely has its geeks. No one is “geekier” in Santa Barbara than Pete Johnson, one of the three partners who own The Brewhouse, famous for excellent food and an old-time Santa Barbara feel in an off-the-beaten-track location. A former NASA scientist, Johnson looks like one of the relaxed locals who are the mainstay of his business, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things barley and wheat, yeast and hops, and stouts and ales, which he’s happy to share with his customers. If you’re interested enough, he might even show you the hops growing in the parking lot out back! The Brewhouse makes about 1,000 barrels a year of what Pete calls “happy beer” and has about 14 different offerings on tap at any given time. ”In winter, we do our Bonnie Jean Scotch Ale, which is something you’d sip after dinner,” he says.
A knowledgeable serving staff is something Hollister Brewing Company takes so seriously that every one of its employees has three hours of “beer school,” says Marshall Rose, who owns the Goleta brew pub with his son Eric Rose. “School” means going through the glass doors into the brew area and being immersed in the basics of beer, especially as it relates to food. It’s vital education because Chef Michael Coan has about a half-dozen items on the menu made with beer, “and it’s important that the staff be able to help patrons match up their menu and beer selections,” Marshall says.
A hole-in-the-wall on an industrial street, Telegraph Brewing turns out world-class beer with production expected to hit 4,000 barrels in 2013, after quadrupling its space in January. Owner Brian Thompson was a Wall Street analyst and home brewer who gave up the market to pursue his passion for beer. “Our customers are real beer aficionados, both locals and tourists, who seek us out,” Thompson says. Telegraph offers only five beers at a time—and none of the enormously popular IPAs. “Everybody else in doing IPAs” is Brian’s simple explanation, adding, “Our pilsners rival the best in Europe.” Telegraph loves experimenting, and its Winter Ale is a spiced dark beer inspired by Mexican-style chocolate, with cinnamon, spices and ancho chile peppers.
Started in 2010 in Buellton, Figueroa Mountain Brewing is going like gangbusters. It has already doubled from its initial production and will double again in 2013 with a second location near the beach in Santa Barbara and the expansion of its valley spot to include an old-fashioned beer garden with horseshoe pit and bocce ball court. Father Jim and son Jaime Dietenhofer are co-owners, with Jim’s wife, Judie, handling the design and look of their locations. Brewmaster A.J. Stoll started, as did many in his field, as a home brewer. “We make beer that is people friendly and that has character, but isn’t in your face” is how he describes his style. Do your tasting at the bar facing the brewing operation and you’re likely to see Stoll at work turning out beer with valley-centric names like Stagecoach Stout and Paradise Road Pilsner.
No local beer tasting experience says “another day in paradise” quite like Island Brewing in Carpinteria. Overlooking the beach, taste inside or on the dog-friendly patio. “We serve a lot of locals who come in all year-round—we’re a real meeting place in town,” says owner and brewer Paul Wright, who allows guests to bring in food. “Beer goes better than wine with food.” Everything he produces is available to take home, including his Starry Night Stout, an almost black winter beer with a roasty aroma.
Corks n’ Crowns, Nick Morello’s unique wine and beer tasting room with a comfortable living room feel, offers two different flights of four craft beers, changing monthly. “The typical customer,” he says, “comes in with the desire to explore and learn.”
This thirst for knowledge is exactly what is growing the craft beer movement: consumers whose palates have become more sophisticated and educated, and who demand the best in their beer. Cheers to that!
Where to Go
BREW PUBS are restaurants that offer full —typically casual—menus, along with their own beer, produced on-site. Most often, the brewing operation is visible to the patrons, and the brewmaster may even be available for an informative chat.
229 W. Montecito St., Santa Barbara
Hollister Brewing Company
6980 Marketplace Dr., Goleta
Santa Barbara Brewing Company
501 State St., Santa Barbara
Solvang Brewing Company
1547 Mission Dr., Solvang
BREWERY TASTING ROOMS are similar to most of Santa Barbara’s winery tasting rooms. They’re the choice of some smaller brewers who want to be able to introduce patrons to their craft beers on-site at their brewery operation.
Figueroa Mountain Brewing
45 Industrial Way, Buellton
Island Brewing Company
5049 Sixth St., Carpinteria
Telegraph Brewing Company
416 N. Salsipuedes St., Santa Barbara
Union Ale Brewing Co.
214 State St., Santa Barbara
OTHER TASTING OPTIONS
Corks n’ Crowns
32 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara
601 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara
The Firestone-Walker Taproom
620 McMurray Rd., Buellton
The Good Life
1672 Mission Dr., Solvang
Wandering Dog Wine Bar
1539C Mission Dr., Solvang
Check out our Cheers to Beer! video here.