Santa Barbara — DARK, chocolaty porter made the nearly forgotten 19th century way, by blending new and aged beers. Summery pale ale with a note of buckwheat honey. Belgian-style wheat beer spiked with lemongrass.
Thanks to a small but dedicated group of craft brewers, serious beer is making news in Santa Barbara County.
Two new brewpubs opened here on the same day last month, making a total of seven places, most of them recent arrivals, where you can taste fresh local beer in Santa Barbara County.
That's quite a few breweries for a place this size. Are we talking serious beer in wine country?
We sure are. Here's a dirty little secret: Beer is the everyday drink of winemakers. There's even a saying, "It takes a lot of beer to make wine."
The whole country is enjoying a craft beer renaissance, no question, but it's not equally distributed. Local breweries are commonplace in Northern California, and there are a fair number in San Diego County, which has a dozen breweries on top of a score of brewpubs. Los Angeles County lags behind, especially given its larger population.
Most Santa Barbara breweries are brewpub-size operations that make small seven-barrel (about 108-gallon) to 15-barrel (about 230-gallon) batches. As a result, most do not bottle their beer, though they will sell you a "growler" -- a half-gallon jug -- to go. Some places give a discount on your next half-gallon if you bring in an empty growler.
The only moderately big operation is the well-known Firestone Walker Brewing, which distributes bottled beer throughout Central and Southern California. (Bowing to local custom, it also sells growlers at its Buellton taproom.) Nevertheless, a couple of the smaller fry -- Telegraph Brewing and Island Brewing -- bottle their beer for sale in local liquor stores, and their brews show up on Central Coast restaurant beer lists.
Aged in wooden barrels
THE wine country milieu seems to color Santa Barbara beer. Three of the breweries -- Telegraph, Hollister and Walker Firestone -- age or even ferment some of their beer in wooden barrels. Most of the brewers say their beer is designed, like wine, to go with food. Typically, Santa Barbara's brewers (by contrast with certain outfits in San Diego, notably Stone Brewing) do not like a lot of hop bitterness in their beer, even when they're going for a strong hop aroma.
The food relationship goes beyond that, even beyond cultivating local farmers for the honey or strawberries to throw into an exotic brew. A couple of breweries donate the spent grain from the brewing process -- it makes desirable animal feed -- to a farmer who repays them with a yearly pig. Bet you don't find that sort of thing going on in Milwaukee. Another thing you might not find going on there is some of the wild experimental brews being made in Santa Barbara.
Hollister Brewing Co., one of the most ambitious of the Santa Barbara breweries, is located in a huge shopping center in Goleta, half a mile from the UCSB campus. Obviously, college students drink a lot of beer, but Goleta is also home to a number of high-tech firms, and this provides a sophisticated clientele that doesn't hesitate to order unfamiliar brews such as Kolsch (a cross between ale and lager) or Weizenbock (a dark, malty wheat beer).
The pub is a big, airy place with stylish slate-gray walls. A low wrought-iron fence worked in a pattern of barley and hop plants separates the outdoor dining area from the sidewalk. Beyond the dining room is the brewery, displayed behind a big plate glass window in a room lined with gleaming white tile. Beside brewing here, brew master Eric Rose is also planning to age some beers in used barrels -- dark beers in the Bourbon barrels, he speculates, maybe a Belgian ale spiked with dates in the Pinot barrels.
The beers he makes at the moment include a couple of pale ales, an organic amber ale and a jokey "smoked hemp ale" ("The J"), made with smoky German yeasts and sacks of sterile organic hempseed, which gives a subtle nutty flavor.
Rose has far wilder plans, including some beers fermented with 100% Brettanomyces yeast. This is wine country heresy -- most winemakers are desperate to stamp out the dreaded Brettanomyces, which gives a flavor variously compared to meat, mushrooms, leather and elastic bandages. But Rose likes its effect on beer. His eyes shine as he exclaims, "It gives a sour lemonade finish!"
In addition to 16 taps for Hollister beers, there's one here for the brewery's homemade root beer. The pub menu includes a root beer float -- or, if you prefer, a stout float.
Telegraph Brewing is a young operation -- it started selling early last year and opened a tasting room only this April (it's tiny, just four stools and a counter in a corner halfway walled off from the rest of the brewery). Brew master Brian Thompson looks young too, though he's already had a prior career, like most other craft brewers. He was a Wall Street analyst when beer took over his life.