The Calistoga Inn, Restaurant & Brewery
Spend the night in the charming town of Calistoga, Calif., and taste something that most wine country tourists don’t even have on their radar: beer. The Calistoga Inn and Brewery, also known as the Napa Valley Brewing Company, has been brewing up some of the Napa Valley’s best libations for years.
The proprietor, Michael Dunsford, who happens to be running for mayor this year, has created a small-town brewery that has a large community presence. There’s live music every night, and Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays feature DJs. The typically live scene sees locals meeting tourists. Regulars sit at the bar sipping the brewmaster Brad Smisloff’s favorite creations, and people walk in from long days of wine tasting for a refreshing meal and some beer.
“I am fascinated by the history and style of beer,” says Smisloff, who came to Calistoga via the Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg and the Cambridge Brewing Co. prior to that. “I try to take that into account when I am creating something seasonal, or unique. I believe in quality over quantity and am happy with what we have been able to do here.”
Owned by Dunsford, who studied at the University of California, Davis, and his mother, Rosie, who once owned the popular Rosie’s Café in Lake Tahoe, “the Inn” has become the local favorite. It is the meeting place for most people in town, and on any given day you can dine across the table from a winemaker, sip on a cold draft next to a City Council member, or talk beer with Smisloff, who spends his free time here as well.
Though Smisloff’s main concern is his customer’s experience, winning competitions is a welcome feat too, as he is his own worst critic. Past medals include bronze and gold medals at the Great American Beer Fest in Colorado and at the California State Fair.
The Calistoga Inn has been operating as a hotel for more than a hundred years, under many different names. In 1987, the Dunsfords took over the property and formed the Calistoga Inn and the brewery, the first in Napa Valley since Prohibition. Producing only about 450 barrels a year, it turns out four main beers: the Calistoga Wheat Ale, the Pilsner, the Red Ale and the Porter, as well as some seasonal brews.
“Over the years the Inn survived the economic effects of the Depression, periods of neglect and five major wars,” says Dunsford. “Then, in 1987, the Inn gave birth to Calistoga Beer and the Napa Valley Brewing Company. It was on Saturday, December 26th of that year for the first time in more than half a century beer was brewed commercially in Napa County. By 1989, the brewery at the Inn was regularly producing its four principal beers.”
When visiting you can purchase 22 ounce, hand-filled bottles that come from a seven-barrel, gas-fired brewhouse (the original design of Dr. Michael Lewis of U.C. Davis), but the true charm of the experience is to sit back, relax a bit on the patio and watch the town go by. “People come here from cities, fast paced life,” says Dunsford, “and when they are here they can decompress and relax. They can feel what it is like to live here and that is something truly great.”
Upstairs, you can find 18 provincial rooms, (they call it a “European style” hotel) with shared bathrooms, but the rooms are typically less expensive than many of the other choices in the area. The Inn has a lovely patio – one only a few outdoor dining options in town – and the restaurant is often bustling with a mixture of visitors and regulars. “We are a restaurant first,” says Dunsford, “and a brewery second. People come here for the atmosphere, the food, the patio. The beer is a great complement to that.” Most brewpubs, in Dunsford’s opinion, focus mainly on the beer and the food suffers. They recognized this at the Inn early on and saw an opportunity to do something different, to create a full, rich dining experience with selections like jerk chicken, steaks, seafood and pasta. In doing so, they have even incorporated their brews into the cuisine, in some of the seasonal dishes.
“The fun thing about this business is that it is very social and rewarding,” notes Dunsford, who is often seen clearing tables or talking with guests. “You have the opportunity to create a space for people to come together and have good times. The formula for our success is in the friendly, easy-going nature of the place that makes people appreciate the things that are truly meaningful, like sharing a meal or conversation with friends and family. We do that here. We create the space and serve great food and great beer to enrich that experience.”
The Inn gives back to the community regularly, and plays host to the community’s thriving parade crowds (five parades are held each year in a town with barely more than 2,500 residents), serving up cider, hot coco, cookies and hot dogs, depending on the season. Dunsford, who has spent six years on the Town Council, has the skill set to make a substantial difference in the community and was largely responsible for the development of the Community Pool, among other projects.
“I feel an obligation to give back in the best way that I can. When you come here you can say to your friends, ‘I just had my table bused by the future Mayor of Calistoga,’ and that is unique,” Dunsford muses, with a warm smile as he sips on a Pilsner, one of his favorite brews.
Calistoga Inn brewery tours are available Monday through Friday by appointment.
-- by Liza Gershman