Over the past decade, craft beer has turned familiar cities unfamiliar, transforming them from day-trip afterthoughts into new-found beer tourist destinations.
Take nearby Berkeley, for example. Five years ago, the university city’s biggest beer-related claim to fame was the Trumer Pils factory. But now it boasts world-class craft breweries in The Rare Barrel and Fieldwork, and a vibrant Berkeley beer scene has emerged in their wake.
Since Sacramento has its own Fieldwork taproom, there really is no reason to visit the original location (unless you want to experience the strangely enticing Grape Nuts-like aroma of fermenting grains from the on-site brewery, or take advantage of the significantly larger seating capacity). Instead, we started our recent Berkeley beer excursion early-bird-special style at the Westbrae Biergarten, (1280 Gilman St.) arriving just as the hop-covered gates rolled open at 11 a.m.
I have enjoyed many a beer and pretzel at Sacramento’s own Midtown Biergarten, but Westbrae significantly ups the ante, boasting fire pits, Adirondack chairs, a play area for kids, lush landscaping and an adorable, green-eyed garden cat named Barley. Westbrae Biergarten only offers eight beers, but the list is smartly curated and regionally focused, with brews by Barebottle, Drake’s and Berryessa on tap when we visited.
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After spending some time at this relative newcomer to the Berkeley beer scene, we headed to Triple Rock Brewing (1920 Shattuck Ave.), one of the stalwarts. Originally known as Roaring Rock (the name change came after a legal battle with Rolling Rock), Triple Rock was founded in 1985 by brothers John and Reid Martin, and helped create the standard for American brewpubs. Old-school craft breweries tend to get shortchanged on beer-rating sites like Untappd (just check out the appallingly low ratings for Auburn Alehouse and Sudwerk), and Triple Rock’s lousy scores don’t reflect the quality and consistency of its beers. We enjoyed all five of the brews we sampled, from a sweet Baltic porter to a funky Saison.
Our next stop was the 3-year-old brewery Hoi Polloi (1763 Alcatraz Ave.), a funky, lo-fi sliver of a place that was quite a contrast to the English pub atmosphere at Triple Rock. Still, you get the feeling that this vinyl-themed, politically charged brewery/dive bar wouldn’t have it any other way. Hoi Polloi’s Take a Knee Tripel raises a glass for Colin Kaepernick, while the Beers, Beats, Rhymes and Life IPA was brewed in protest of A Tribe Called Quest’s Grammy snub. Of course, the message wouldn’t register if the beer didn’t deliver, and the roasted richness of its Alchemy Collective Coffee Porter made was one of my favorites of the day.
Located slightly north of Hoi Polloi, Novel Brewing (6510 San Pablo Ave.) sits just south of a snaggle-toothed city limit line in Oakland, but the cozy atmosphere feels closer to Portland. Novel is notable for its extreme commitment to theme, celebrating the printed word in decor (drafting tables and printing presses serve as furniture) and design (the book-shaped logo) almost to an excessive degree. As with Hoi Polloi, though, solid brews, sincerity and a warm vibe won us over, and we especially enjoyed Dust Jacket, a delicious, fruit-forward hazy IPA.
We ended the day at The Rare Barrel (940 Parker St.) sipping a small pour of its Fourth Anniversary Sour before hitting the highway. Rather than featuring the mid-range alcohol by volume of most Rare Barrel sours, Fourth Anniversary tips the scales at 9.7 percent, a result of the many months this blend of red and dark sour beers spent resting in port, bourbon and maple syrup barrels. Fourth Anniversary is a testament to the patience and craft of The Rare Barrel, but also a sign of how far the city’s beer scene has come in four years, and how far it could go in another four.
Capitol Beer and Taproom (2222 Fair Oaks Blvd.) on Dec. 16 will host Sacramento’s first-ever “Eclipse” party, a single-day celebration of the legendary barrel-aged imperial stout from Truckee brewery FiftyFifty. This highly regarded, high-alcohol bruiser gets aged in a variety of barrels, and CapTap will pour three of the Eclipse variants (apple brandy, maple barrel and Willet bourbon) while also selling 10 different Eclipse bottles.
Beer of the week
For all the excellent Berkeley breweries we visited, one of our favorite beers of the day trip came from San Francisco-based Barebottle. Served at Westbrae Biergarten, Barebottle’s Cascade Sunshine (6.8 percent ABV) builds a juicy, Northeast-style IPA around one of the prototypical West Coast hops. This sunlight-colored beauty elevates the Cascade hop from an ensemble cast member to a leading role, resulting in a grapefruit- and orange-heavy citrus bitterness reigned in by the softer mouth-feel of the hazy IPA.
Daniel Barnes is a freelance writer, film critic, beer enthusiast and one half of the blog “His & Her Beer Notes.” He can be reached at email@example.com.