Battle of The Brews

Since moving to Santa Rosa last year I have been constantly amazed by this city’s love affair with craft beer.

IMG_1174Like a lot of people who didn’t grow up here in Sonoma County I always just assumed that the drink of choice would be wine. How wrong I was. From the 12 hour lines to sip Pliney the Younger once a year to the explosive growth of Lagunitas, it is safe to say that Sonoma County is in the midst of a beer revolution, and Santa Rosa is in the center of it all.

IMG_1293Case in point, Santa Rosa’s 19th Annual Battle of the Brews took place on March 28th to an absolutely packed house at Sonoma County Fairgrounds Grace Pavillion. Over 70 professional brewers, homebrewers, cideries and dozens of restaurants showed up to donate their time and wares to do some fundraising for the Active 2030 Club of Santa Rosa #50.

IMG_1078According to Brian Sosnochi, Battle of the brews Director, “I was overwhelmingly impressed with this year’s turnout, and I am convinced that Saturday’s event will be the most successful Battle of the Brews in our 19 year history. Five years ago, we had a vision to completely overhaul the event. Today, we have breweries and guests that come from Santa Rosa, the Bay Area, San Diego, and out of state.”

IMG_1218Craft Cup Commercial Beer Competition Winners:

  • Best European/American Light – Ninkasi Brewing, Lux
  • Best American Ale – Fall River Brewing Company, Pacific Crest Ale
  • Best European/British Ale – Fall River Brewing Company, Kilty Pleasure
  • Best Stout – 101 North Brewing Company , Naughtyaud
  • Best American IPA – 101 North Brewing Company, Heroine
  • Best Imperial IPA – Fall River Brewing Company, Widowmaker
  • Best Standard Cider – Angry Orchard , Crisp Apple
  • Best Specialty Cider – FoxCraft Hard Cider , Pear Cider
  • Best Specialty Ale – Ironfire Brewing Company , Collateral Damage
  • Best of Show, Ciders – FoxCraft Hard Cider, Pear Cider
  • Best of Show, Craft Beer – 101 North Brewing Co, Naughtyaud

IMG_1074‘Wich Hunt Gourmet Sandwich Competition Winners:

  • Best Hot Sandwich – La Rosa Tequileria & Grille
  • Best Cold Sandwich – Fogbelt Brewing Company
  • Most Creative – Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co.
  • Most MeatTastic – Fig & Vine Catering
  • Best of Show, Runner Up – Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co.
  • Best of Show – La Rosa Tequileria & Grille

IMG_1063People’s Choice Winners:

  • Craft Cup, People’s Choice, Food – Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co.
  • Craft Cup, People’s Choice, Beer – Dempsey’s Restaurant and Brewery
  • Main Event, People’s Choice, Food – La Rosa Tequileria & Grille
  • Main Event, People’s Choice, Beer – Crooked Goat Brewing

And in the category of best t-shirt puns:IMG_1108IMG_1313 IMG_1310


Dive in at The Golden Triangle

As this fair city’s intrepid beer and spirits ambassador I feel a deep sense of responsibility to give you a well-rounded perspective on the state of inebriation in Santa Rosa.

And while it’s fun to catch a buzz at wineries, and you certainly can’t deny the thrill of imbibing at Russian River Brewing Company’s altar of artisan brewing, there are times when all you’re really looking for is a place to settle down for a Thursday afternoon of drinking, sans the pomp and circumstance.

That sentiment led me to a locale I like to call the “Golden Triangle”. This cozy little corner of Santa Rosa is well known to locals, but could easily be overlooked by a thirsty traveler looking for a place to party where they can park the car and put away the keys for the night.

Within the Golden Triangle you can hit three establishments within a one-block radius, then catch a cab ride home when the pillow calls.

The first golden vertice is the 440 Club at 434 College Ave. Around the corner there’s the Round Robin at 616 Mendocino, and then Gary’s at the Belvedere at 727 Mendocino Ave.

These are establishments perhaps best defined by what you won’t find. You will not get hipster cocktails served by mixologists. No suspenders, handle bar mustaches or heaping helpings of irony. Just fair prices and stiff pours. If there’s a game on, you can chat Giants or 49ers with one of the locals. Grab a Bud to chase your shot of Jameson, then stroll to the next bar in between innings. You won’t miss a pitch.

As you stroll from bar to bar you’ll meet a rotating cast of local characters that guarantee to keep things at least interesting. If you linger until later in the evening you’ll find the place packed with people, mostly younger than me, there to make some memories and maybe a bad decision or two.

The Golden Triangle is a little slice of Santa Rosa that most tippling visitors miss in their thirsty pursuits of the perfect Pinot or fresh hopped ale. But I can assure you that those who stumble upon this city block of dive heaven won’t leave feeling disappointed, overcharged or underserved.


Distill My Heart

There’s an energy in and around Santa Rosa, where creative people with a can do attitude are making amazing things from scratch. Few places embody that ethos like Sonoma County Distilling Company.

From the outside, you could be forgiven for confusing it with an auto body repair shop or a cabinetmaker. But the concrete building and roll up doors tell a very different story to what you experience once you walk through the doorway. World-class spirits are being made here, and its owner is showing the spirits world what can be done with a little bit of working space and a lot of sheer determination.

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Disillusioned and downsized during the financial crash of 2008, Adam Spiegel decided to forge his own future and work in a position that allowed him to get his hands dirty. And so, instead of making investments, trades and money for other people, he started making whiskey. At first in a garage with a fifteen-gallon still and a former business partner at his side. The results were promising. Even early batches were better than most whiskies they could buy off the shelf.

So he went all in.

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The beginnings were humble: a 784 square foot warehouse and an alembic still. But the passion was palpable. What would come to be called Sonoma County Distilling Company was officially founded in 2010.

Now, passion is a word Adam never uttered on that day I visited him. The truly passionate people I’ve met rarely say it. It’s just understood. Because you can’t start something against all odds, knowing you’ll be doing it the hard way, driven by a belief that you can make something better than the big guys without it.

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All of the hallmarks of great whiskey making are behind the concrete walls at Sonoma County Distilling Company. Fermentation on grains to extract as much flavor as possible. Open tank fermenters to add depth to the blend by allowing in the naturally occurring yeast. Small batches, monitored constantly to ensure top quality at every step. A small barrel step-up program to deepen the color and flavors a little faster. The water is sourced directly from Cobb Mountain. Even the gorgeous packaging symbolizes that every detail from start to finish has been given extra consideration.

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If you come to visit Sonoma County Distilling Company you won’t find the allure of wine country with its rolling hills and palatial estates. What you get is a different kind of romance. More about working your ass off to make something that makes you proud. But the results are certainly no less refreshing and inspiring.


Tap Room?
In A Grocery Store?

Or, why I believe David Lannon may be the smartest man in America.

wholefoods001Now that we’ve settled into our new home in Santa Rosa, I’ve been floor malting grains from Mendocino and Sonoma counties in my garage. I know. Don’t ask. But, actually it gets worse. Lately I became obsessed with finding out how my malts compare to what the big guys sell. This being the Bay Area, I figured there must be an app for that. So I used Yelp. But when Whole Foods turned up as an option for homebrew supply stores, I figured it must be a paid ad or some kind of mistake. After a little digging, however, I was shocked to find out that, yes, Whole Foods in Santa Rosa sells homebrew ingredients and equipment. Who knew?

wholefoods016Once I arrived to pick up said malts I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Like James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill, I was discovering something almost as valuable as gold (to me, anyway). A Tap Room in a Grocery Store! It’s as if I had been trekking through the desert for years with no water and then suddenly there was water. Except it wasn’t a desert, it was a grocery store, and there was beer.

wholefoods012And yet, somehow this all makes nothing but absolute sense! Being a husband and a father of three year old triplets I don’t have time to go to bars much anymore. But this? This is not a bar. This is a Tap Room. IN A GROCERY STORE! No longer does running errands have to be a chore. I am backing out of the driveway before my wife can even get the words Milk and Eggs out of her mouth. We’re out of salsa? I better go to Whole Foods. Only two yogurts left. I’ll be right back.

wholefoods007Turns out, the Santa Rosa Whole Foods was the first store in the company to install a tap room. The Peter Freuchen type of character that hatched this amazing idea was David Lannon. As a resident of nearby Sebastopol he knew that beer would go over well with the local’s taste for craft beer. So he put in a tap room four years ago and it has proven so successful that they had to double its size this year. It also has become a model for other whole foods across the country – and it all started here with the support of the Santa Rosa beer drinking community.

wholefoods003The beer selection is superb and three members of the staff, headed up by Tyler Smith, have completed the cicerone certification program. They have also started to offer beer pairing dinners with the staff cooking up the menu. Oh yeah, and if you want to learn how to make beer at home, Tyler also offers homebrew classes.

I personally like to stop in and get some “shopping” any chance I get. So let me take this opportunity to say THANK YOU, David Lannon. Santa Rosa is a better community because of your pioneering vision.