Northern CA – Beer is Everywhere

As early participants in the Nelson Brewing Capital trade group for the local beer industry, we were sad to miss the launch party on 31 August. From what we read, it was a great event, with strong community support, and beers being served from many the local producers. As we have said before, we strongly support the idea of collaboration between producers and the idea of creating a beer community.

We have a fairly clear vision of what that means, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that Sonoma County California, where Maria’s father lives, has achieved exactly that since we have been in New Zealand. Here’s a little description of the beer saturation we are seeing in the area, to give you a sense of what we hope to see over time in Nelson.

We are very aware that when we make comparisons to the US, we have to consider factors like scale and population, so comparisons between the top of the South and Sonoma County are a bit of a stretch, but not that far off. It’s a very agricultural wine and produce region with a population around 483,000, about 4 times that from Marlborough to Tasman. Sonoma County producers also have the distinct advantage of having a huge urban population, the San Francisco Bay Area, about an hour away.

That said, it’s by no means the biggest community in the US, nor the beeriest. And yet, it encompasses Lagunitas, Bear Republic and Russian River Brewing – three large, highly regarded West Coast producers, plus scores of smaller breweries.

And good beer is everywhere. A short walk from Maria’s dad’s house, at the local supermarket you find an enticing selection of local and national craft brews. Next door is a small liquor store with several dozen more specialty choices. Virtually every restaurant we went into had multiple choices of local craft beer on the menu. We were even directed to one rather posh wine bar in Downtown Santa Rosa that served as the local outlet for Moonlight Brewing, a one-man operation in a neighboring small town. The tiny bar area had five taps of Moonlight products, and the well versed bartender was more than happy to provide us samples and guide our choices.

Love of craft beer also extends into homebrewing. We had the good fortune of meeting up with many of the local homebrewers at their club’s annual picnic, and learned that they are well supported by homebrew supply shops. The newest and most exciting of these is situated inside a Whole Foods Supermarket in Santa Rosa. (Whole Foods is a nationwide healthfood supermarket chain with over 300 stores.) We visited this shop and its associated taproom and learned it was one of only three in a pilot program. As proof of the local beer culture, the manager, Tyler Smith, told us with some pride that his was the most successful of the three, comparing to New York and Chicago.

While we were chatting with Tyler and exploring his 20 taps of rather challenging beers from across the country, we noticed that for awhile women outnumbered men in the bar. This another way beer culture shows itself – many of the bars and breweries we visited, as well as the homebrew picnic, were filled with couples and women unselfconsciously enjoying craft beer. ( As we write this in a bar in San Francisco, one nearby table has six women with one man…)

Back in New Zealand, we are encouraged by the continuing additions of craft beer taps and beer lists in local restaurants. All reports indicate that Nelsonians and visitors support fresh local beer. It is just a matter of time and we can have craft beers wherever we are. The next time you go out for a bite, ask about their craft beer offerings, you might be surprised.

Originally published in the Nelson Mail.

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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