Drinking beer used to be so simple. You stopped by the supermarket, grabbed a six-pack and popped open a can. You can still do it that way if you like.
But over the past several decades, with the rise of micro-breweries and craft brews produced on a relatively small scale, the American beer market and the public’s tastes have become much more diverse.
In the past decade or so, the Sonoma County brewpub scene has boomed, with local venues brewing and serving their own beers on site. And they’ve been joined by taprooms serving the best beers by local and regional craft breweries. Now even those distinctions are blurring, with some taprooms contracting with breweries for an exclusive line of beers.
Beer enthusiasts from throughout the United States and beyond line up around the block in downtown Santa Rosa for the Russian River Brewing Company’s limited, two-week release of Pliny the Younger triple India Pale Ale every February. But there is much more to the story than that.
Our recent Facebook query -- “What is your favorite new Sonoma County brewpub?” -- prompted so many responses that a simple list would run on for pages.
By the end of this story, we’ll be asking you for your favorites among the local brewpubs, but first, let’s start with two relatively new entries into the field that illustrate the variety that Sonoma County now offers serious beer fans.
Woodfour Brewing Company, which opened in August in Sebastopol’s Barlow shopping center, and Fogbelt Brewing Co., open since February in Santa Rosa’s Vintners’ Square, have one thing in common: their brewers all have some wine-making experience. Beyond that, the two places each take a totally different approach.
When beer buffs walk into Woodfour, a stylish restaurant with a wood bar and high-back chairs, they’ll immediately notice that the beer menu offers no India Pale Ale, a very popular style of beer that’s rich in hops flavor and fairly high in alcohol content. IPA has become the trademark of the West Coast brewing revolution.
“That’s intentional,” said Seth Wood, 29, who with partner Olav Vier, brews the beer at Woodfour. “We’re already surrounded by so many of the world’s best IPAs. We’re 15 minutes away from the Russian River Brewing Company. We’ve got Lagunitas in Petaluma and Bear Republic in Healdsburg.”
In contrast, Woodfour offers beers like Black Lager, a surprise since lager is one of the lighter styles of beer, and this beer looks dark.
“Our goal is to change people’s perceptions of what beer is,” Wood explained. “It’s not just fizzy, yellow stuff. There is more to beer than tailgate parties and football games.”
For that reason, Woodfour has no TV screens, a rare departure from the brewpub norm.
“We want to it be about the beer. We want to start a dialog with the customer,” he said. “Beer deserves a place at the table.”
In the tradition of winery tasting rooms, Woodfour suggests food and beer pairings: stout and oysters, black lager with house-made pickled vegetables.
At Fogbelt, one of the regular customers aptly summed up the house philosophy.
“They do a very solid representation of the styles of beer, and they make a good variety,” said Michael Squires, 27, whose family runs the Squires Cigars shop next-door.