As the annual Great American Beer Festival fades in the memories of most attendees and competition entrants, a few happy brewery crews, owners and patrons continue to bask in the glow of a 2014 win brought home from this increasingly competitive arena. For anybody in the BART train footprint of the central Bay Area, the closest places to see new medals on display are the Rare Barrel (a bus ride or a long walk from one of the BART stations in Berkeley), and two delightful bay ferry destinations from SF, Faction Brewing Co. in Alameda, or Marin Brewing Co. across the roadway from the ferry stop at Larkspur Landing.
2014 was the first time at GABF for the upstart sour beer makers at The Rare Barrel. The combination of a Gold medal in the American-style Sours category and an outpouring of social media buzz made a lot of people happy — and left some thirsty. While The Rare Barrel brought more beer to Denver than the festival suggested, they still ran out before the last session.
Rodger Davis took his first medal for a beer made at his year-old Faction Brewing, after previous honors when he brewed at Triple Rock in Berkeley. The quiet island of Alameda is now on the beer seeker’s map, and can be reached by bus from Oakland or by Ferry from the Embarcadero in San Francisco for a gorgeous, working-port industry-scape excursion under the Bay Bridge.
San Quentin Breakout? This fine example of a stout has been honed over time by Brewmaster Arne Johnson. Before the medal ceremony, people dropping by Marin’s booth tended to go for the Three Flowers IPA, but as soon as the word was out, Breakout began to flow, too. Like Faction, Marin is a terrific ferry destination from the SF Ferry Building, with views of Alcatraz and of the still-active and disturbingly decrepit San Quentin prison while underway.
A field trip no longer: Sierra Nevada beer is brewed in Chico, hours north in the valley. (Or in their new facility in NC, but they are still entering GABF as a California brewery.)
However, the Sierra Nevada taproom in Berkeley is a longish walk or a short bus ride from BART. No telling what will be on tap, but in general you can find things that are otherwise only poured in Chico. Their intense Russian Imperial Stout, Narwhal, brought members of their crew up to the stage for a moment of celebration and satisfaction.
After the four breweries just mentioned, the field trip from the central Bay Area BART communities gets a little more complicated.
You may see more winning beers or other fine products from this year’s champs poured at local beer bars, but there’s nothing like a visit to the source. Here are a few more places you could drive to on a day trip, or perhaps an overnight excursion.
Bear Republic Brewing Co., making beer in Healdsburg and Cloverdale, both up in Sonoma County, took home two honors. BRBC was honored with a bronze for their Bohemian Pilsner, Double-Aught, and took Gold for the best Pro-Am collaboration with a local homebrewer. We were lucky enough to be introduced to Kelly and his smooth 80 shilling scottish ale at a GABF preview party in Healdsburg a few weeks back, and to see him accept the medal on stage this last weekend.
Nearby in Santa Rosa, Russian River Brewing Company also took two. Like Bear Republic, RR medalled with a Pilsner, in this case getting a Silver for STS Pils, in the German Pilsner tradition. In addition, the classic Pliny the Elder picked up another award, racking up a Bronze medal in the huge Imperial IPA category. (If you are not up for the drive, the Toronado in SF is usually a good bet for having Pliny on.)
Further north on the coast, and not a day trip by any stretch of the imagination, is Redwood Curtain Brewing Co., on the outskirts of Eureka. The medal was a silver, received for a German-Style Altbier. Happily, if you go up the coast for a weekend, there is plenty to see, do and taste.
Closer to the BART footprint, but not easy to visit without driving, is Campbell Brewing Co., which took home a Silver for their Mastiff Barleywine. Headquartered in Campbell, California (South Bay, near San Jose), the brewery can be reached with a modest drive, or by Caltrain plus local light rail if you are on the peninsula.
Off the BART tracks in the other direction, but not hard to get to by car, is Schooner’s Grille & Brewery, in Antioch, out in the Sacramento Delta to the north of Mount Diablo. Brewmaster Craig Cauwels’ Marauder took Bronze in the Scotch ale category.
What about driving down the coast to the Santa Cruz area for a day or an overnight? A Bronze medal was handed out to the creator of Good Faith, a beer entered in the Old Ale/Strong Ale category by Discretion Brewing, a brewpub in the town of Soquel.
Want to go to the mountains? Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co., on the north side of the lake near Truckee, took a Silver in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer category. They seldom pour their sours at the lakeside brewpub, but there are other nice brews and killer lake views to enjoy nearby. Auburn Alehouse is your award-winning stop and delicious meal on the way up Hwy 80 to get to North Lake Tahoe. This year Auburn won Bronze with Gold Country Pilsner, one of their flagships. On your way back, stop at New Helvetia Brewing Co. in Sacramento and find out what their gold medal historical beer, Thurston, was all about.
If you were to go further south, down to the Central Coast of California, you could congratulate Firestone Walker for the Gold medal Pivo German-style pilsener, stopping in at their restaurant in Paso Robles. This beer, happily, is available regularly in the Bay Area, but there’s no point in ceding this brewery to Southern California. It’s worth claiming as in our regional orbit, or perhaps even sharing them with the southlands, and worth a weekend road trip to find out why.
What’s missing from this list for Northern California? Only a double medal winner with no fixed abode, not attending the festival to pick up the award. High Water Brewing took a Gold for the s’morsy Campfire Stout as a Specialty Beer, and a Bronze for Aphotic Imperial Porter in the “Other Strong Beer” category. These beers can be found now and then in specialty beer shops around the area. High Water is moving from gypsy brewing towards sharing facilities at EJ Phair under an alternating proprietorship, but has no tap room at this time.
Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.