Jonathan Ingram's picture

Sonoma County Craft Beer Tour

Sonoma Calling

There’s always been the temptation to drink and write. For years, I’ve resisted. As much as I’ve enjoyed the drug-infused work of New Journalism junkie Hunter S. Thompson or visiting the literate, moonshined swales of Faulkner’s unpronounceable county in Mississippi, there was the acknowledgement that my own oeuvre was rarely advanced through anything other than coffee, sometimes cigarettes when I was younger and the occasional beer if I’m reviewing a story that I’ve already written. To say I write for beer is true in many respects, but generally the ’twain doesn’t meet in the actual act of writing.

But this story is different. It’s about recalling an experience that can only be described as transporting. To return to that day, I intend to crack a bottle of Sonoma Pride and will proceed to drink this rare elixir throughout this rendition in order to re-introduce an extraordinary California experience, to seek out that maelstrom in reverse, if you will, that transported me upward as if in a land-borne waterspout.

Just how I came across this rare bottle is a story ne’er to be told, or at least held in confidence until this gray beard reaches the bellybutton. There was a redhead, with piercing and knowing Sphinx-like eyes of blue involved – until she called me “Sir” and then, well, anyhow.

I’m being honest as a mockingbird calling like a blue jay when I say that this story will unfold at the crack of the bottle top. It is a tale of terroir and loving, where fear and loathing have been replaced by meticulous crafting.

We should have known this would be an extraordinary trip when the Magic Bus pulled up to a place in Santa Rosa completely enshrouded in a heavenly, cool fog. This might be a slight miscalculation and projection, however, because the Magic Bus had stopped at six breweries the day before and then flew off to Denmark for a nightcap in the city by the bay (i.e. Mikkeller’s place) before collecting us once again for a morning ride to a lovely, fog-shrouded brewery. Cool, really cool, if you know what I mean about the fog and everything, due to its light, loving touch of moisture. Or maybe it was all in our heads, which were so in need of at least a mild analgesic.


Fogbelt is one of the lesser known brewing treasures of Santa Rosa.

We went inside this little brewery and pub reminiscent of a chocolate shop hosted by Juliette Binoche and I almost expected to see a bohemian named Johnny Depp twirling his mustache inside.  As we entered, we were bathed in wet hops, were allowed to ride up and down on the hop harvester in all its green glory, and generally ran amok as those who travel by Magic Bus are miraculously allowed to do. Exhausted before noon, but gamely ready for another round once the clock ticked past drinking time, we gathered at the table. It was near one of the landings of the Eiffel Tower somehow imported from the rainy mists of Paris and installed as an iron arbor for the bar below it. Although, although…it did look to be locally sourced -- like the food, hops and beer.

We already had on tap a sumptuous selection of locally cured meats, cheese and pickled sweet things with a rainbow of beers slaked across the top in a mythical archer’s bow converted to a bridge of samples. Like the miracle of fog, this bridge to the river of liquid inspiration, held in ponds of deliciousness, forecast an excellent adventure.

It being lunchtime, I ordered the peanut butter and jelly special, foregoing the wisdom of a BLT, which was made with the same locally cured meat that had just done an extraordinary number on our tongues and brains as the aroma brought home the sumptuous message of the land. So too the beers brought forth locally grown wet hops, Chinook and Cascade, in addition to regular entries of the dried variety. And, well, it was good, this marriage of the land, the sun, the fog and the spirit of the not-too-distant stately angelic redwoods watching over it.

When the sandwich arrived in quarters, several of the party-goers tried to grab it via laser optics and other such tricks while I fended them off with my HST memorial cigarette holder, brandishing it like a stiletto. Back, back ye swabs who don’t know how to order the daily special! The first quarter consisted of fresh locally made bread, Pineapple Cilantro Jam paired with Almond Butter and a side of Lost Monarch Wit, both of which disappeared quickly. I think it was the second quarter, a Sweet and Spicy Pepper Jelly with Chunky Peanut Butter that had the secret ingredients, activated by the perfectly tuned Fresco Del Norte. Hot, hot, nut-meaty, creamy, sharp and sweet! Then the IPA to soothe the savage tongue and inspire the moisture gathered at the top of my head before it rose gently to greet the fog.

Yes, the rest is just a gentle blur, although I remember Carmelized Banana Jam with Creamy Peanut Butter and then a Sweet Hazelnut Stout Jam, and a cream-headed Armstrong Stout. I honestly think it was the peppers that were spiked. Soon the front of my face opened on a hinge near my ear to allay a mild, simmering heat and there was a vast likeableness presiding over the land. Or perhaps this was a T-shirt I saw memorializing our host, the Fogbelt Brewery, only I was time-traveling ahead to walking the streets of Sacramento, where I saw one of my colleagues wearing it.

This was a previously unknown experience. It demonstrated what can happen when the terroir meets the kettle and glass, the nouriture embraces the id, the ego and the superego, feeding them all in a singular charge. It was a gift from those who know the spirit of this land to those who would like to. And, well, thank you.

As we retreated to the Magic Bus I could barely contain my anticipation of the closing ceremony that lay ahead, whose secrets I had learned after the Sweet and Spicy Pepper Jelly was activated by the Fresco Del Norte.  There were two stops for more of the mead that we now know as beer, evocative creations of one-off flavor and romance from Plow, where the one-of-a-kind beers and equipment and bar are literally hand made, and then a walk to Cooperage. Here a ceiling-mounted propeller, whose props measure 35 feet apiece, swept us to the hop fields, where we hovered and drank a pale ale strangely named Ol’ Curty Bastard, since he seemed like an awful nice guy to us. While engulfed in God’s hay, from this height, we could see the wort boiled at Plow making its way toward the Cooperage in a classic cooperation of one small brewer with another via a small trailer.

As the Magic Bus next climbed the day’s last hill (but the night was still young!) the sea came rolling toward our feet as we disembarked, awed by the fog rolling over the low-lying coastal mountains, poised to crash like a thunderous sunset wave before slipping through the trees. Cool, very cool. And moist.


Pliny the Elder draws a crowd, but the locals seem to prefer Blind Pig.

The Magic Bus never rests (thank the heavens!) and despite my addled state of spiritual lift I was aboard as we headed for an evening meeting with Pliny. Only to discover it was all good. Especially the Blind Pig and the bottle of Sonoma Pride, a distant relative of Pliny, whose golden, bretty contents mysteriously appeared in our glasses.

Maybe it was a bit too much, because I missed the bus and imagined myself stranded, and then decided to head for the nearest bar and have a beer. Only I was surfing on alabaster foam between giant redwoods leaping out of the gentle fog before they gently bowed and swept their branches aside to let me pass.

And do forgive me. This all happened so fast I never opened that bottle of Sonoma Pride after merely placing it briefly against my forehead for a contact high and now must put it back in the cellar until the urge for another trip to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County arises.