Drinking Beer in Wine Country – The Breweries of Santa Barbara

The beginning of football season is a clear sign that the colors and crisp days of autumn are soon to be upon us.  I spent the last official days of summer in a place where both football and the change in seasons are an afterthought—Santa Barbara, California.  I was there for a workshop on oxide materials, but as I am wont to do I thought I might tag a bit of beer tourism onto the end of the trip.  The workshop ended on Friday and I had booked a flight home leaving at 4:20 pm on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, which gave me a half day or so to visit a couple of local breweries (or so I thought).

Beer or Beach
One of several difficult choices that confront you in Santa Barbara.

My good friend Ram, who lives in Santa Barbara, kindly agreed to be my guide and chauffeur for the day.  Ram enjoys good wine but is only casually familiar with the world of craft beer.  When we parted ways on Friday evening he told me he would swing by the hotel lobby at 9 am to pick me up.  I’m not sure what kind of schedules wine drinkers keep, but it’s been decades since it seemed like a good idea to start drinking at 9 am.  That doesn’t mean I suggested an alternate plan, if Ram was willing to be the guide I figured I could adapt to his schedule. Plus I did have an afternoon flight to catch.

I rose around 7:30 am to get packed up and ready for the day ahead of me.  As I was packing I realized that three of the six beers I bought at Trader Joes on Tuesday were still chilling in the fridge.  Anticipating that I might buy a few bottles later in the day I decided that I only had room in my suitcase for two of the three beers.  I waffled a little bit on what to do with the third beer, a bottle of Stone’s Coffee Milk Stout.   The responsible thing to do would be to leave it behind, but I hate to waste good beer, and since the plan was to start drinking beer at 9 am I figured there wouldn’t be much harm in moving the start time up by 45 minutes.  After all who could ask for a more appropriate breakfast beer than a coffee milk stout.  So I dumped out my half full cup of mediocre hotel coffee, cracked open the milk stout, poured it into a plastic cup, and sat down to enjoy the roasted malts and unfermented lactose sugar.

About 15 minutes before I was ready to head down to the lobby and check out, I went online to confirm the departure time of my flight.  That’s when I discovered I had inadvertently booked a flight that left on SUNDAY rather than Saturday.  The new reality of my schedule made the plan of drinking my first beer at 8:15 am even harder to justify, but the wheels were now in motion so I just went along for the ride.  I grabbed my camera and tasting notebook and headed down to the lobby to meet Ram.

Café Quackenbush

When I got to the lobby I learned that we were going to be joined by Matt, a Aussie ex-pat who is now a professor in New York, and Stephanie, a UC Santa Barbara alumnus who is now a graduate student at Northwestern.  The plan was to drive 45 minutes north to a town called Buellton to visit Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks facility and Figueroa Mountain Brewing.  As we were driving up the coast I got on my smart phone to check the opening hours of these facilities and found that Figueroa Mountain and Firestone Walker didn’t open until 11 am and noon, respectively.  So we decided to get some breakfast while waiting for Figueroa Mountain to open.  Ram suggested we drive past Buellton to a small town called Los Alamos.  After driving down Los Alamos’ one street and consulting Yelp we converged on a quirky place called Café Quackenbush that was half café, half art gallery.

cafe-quackenbush

The walls were decorated with paintings that were heavily Jackson Pollock influenced.  I’m not clever enough to tell the difference between good drip paintings and bad ones, but I do know a good breakfast when I taste it, and the food at Café Quackenbush was out of this world good.  This is a blog about beer so I won’t go into the details of my breakfast, but the hash browns were perfect and the sausages were arguably the best I’ve ever had.  If any of the food bloggers who follow this blog (CMH Gourmand, Breakfast with Nick) are still reading you should immediately make plans to head to tiny Los Alamos, California and write a proper story.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing

With a good base of food in our bellies we did our best Cheryl Crow impersonation and hit Figueroa Mountain Brewing shortly after 11 am.  Like many California Breweries it’s set in a light industrial area in the town of Buellton, which itself is located near the faux-Danish town of Solvang (as a point of reference much of the wine movie Sideways takes place in Solvang).  There is a smallish tasting room, decorated in a style that I would describe as old west saloon meets 21st century microbrewery.  Weathered wood walls and tables juxtaposed with stainless steel fermenters, mash tuns, and boil kettles.  On entering the tasting room we were met with the pleasant smell of malted grains and a dozen or so beers on tap, spanning a range of styles.

My tasting flight at Figueroa Mountain (photo courtesy of Ram Seshadri)
A flight at Figueroa Mountain (photo courtesy of Ram Seshadri)

For $6 you can get a flight of four sample size beers, so with the exception of Ram we all ordered a flight.  My flight consisted of the Saison, Stagecoach Stout, Lizard’s Mouth Imperial IPA, and Magpie Baltic Porter.  The saison could have been a little drier and the stout a little creamier, but both were decent beers.  The Lizard’s Mouth was a well-executed Imperial IPA with a big fruity hop nose, resinous mouthfeel, and an appropriately bitter finish.  I’ve never kissed a lizard, but now that I know their breath smells of citrus and tropical fruits accented with a touch of pine I might look for an opportunity to become better acquainted with the next iguana I meet. I finished with the Magpie Baltic Porter which I thought was the best of the bunch.  It had a lot of chocolate goodness from the dark roasted malts, yet managed to keep a clean lager like taste profile. There was very little in the way of burnt/charred flavors from the roasted malts that you often find in porters and stouts.  It reminded me of a bigger version of New Belgium’s 1554 Black Lager.

By the time we finished up at Figueroa Mountain it was a little past noon and we had moved into a somewhat more respectable time of the day for weekend drinking.  Unfortunately we had to head back to Santa Barbara to get Stephanie to the airport for a 2 pm flight. This meant we had to take a pass on FW Barrelworks, which was a pity but there was really no other option.  Once we got Stephanie to the airport Ram told us he had to go into work, so Matt and I decided to do the only sensible thing and asked him to drop us off at another brewery.  I had dinner earlier in the week at the Santa Barbara Brewing Co. and while a couple of their beers were decent (the Rincon Red was probably the best), they weren’t good enough to merit a return trip.  So we headed for Telegraph Brewing which is located in a part of Santa Barbara called the Funk Zone.  This is an area of town that has recently become a popular place to locate art galleries, eateries, breweries and wine tasting rooms (Figueroa Mountain also has a tasting room here).  However, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t come across any James Brown murals or sour beer festivals when wandering the streets of the Funk Zone.

Stephanie and her flight at Figueroa Mountain (photo courtesy of Ram Sesadri)
Stephanie enjoying the beer at Figueroa Mountain (photo courtesy of Ram Sesadri)

The Brewhouse

As Ram drove away Matt and I soon realized that once again we were looking to drink beer at an hour deemed socially unacceptable (or at least not profitable) by the proprietors.  Telegraph doesn’t open until 2 pm and we were about an hour early.  It was too soon to eat another meal so we set off on foot for the Brewhouse, with the hopes that it would be open when we arrived.  Thirty minutes later (after a couple of missed turns) we found the Brewhouse and were happy to see that it was not only open, but doing a brisk business.  The Brewhouse is a brewpub located about two blocks southwest of the train station/bus depot and a similar distance northwest of the beach.  The crowd seemed to be a mixture of locals and tourists, many of whom looked like a trip to the beach was on the day’s agenda.  Compared to many places in Santa Barbara the Brewhouse was refreshingly rough around the edges.  I have to assume that when the beautiful people come to visit Santa Barbara they (a) don’t take the Greyhound, and (b) they don’t frequent the Brewhouse.

Brewhouse Glasses

Very soon after arriving we were met by Ben, a German graduate student who works with Matt back in New York.  Ben was also in town for the workshop and had decided to join us for an afternoon of drinking beer.  They were pouring 16 different beers and I was pleased to see that all of the beers were available in 4 ounce sample sizes, so each of us chose 4-5 house beers for further investigation.  The hoppy beers were quite good, arguably the best of any Santa Barbara brewery we visited.  The Rocket Science Red and Seal Pup IPA were particularly tasty.  On the other hand the Belgian-style ales could have used a little more attenuation, all of them had a little too much residual sugar for my liking.

I had one of the more memorable beers of the trip at the Brewhouse, their Habenero Wheat Hot Shot.  A wheat beer infused with Habenero peppers sounds like a terrible idea, but I found it surprisingly good.  The wheat base is a nice canvas for the habanero flavors (who knew that a Habenero had flavors), and while the finish has plenty of hot pepper burn, there is not so much that it was unpleasant (although admittedly I do like spicy food).  I don’t know if I would want to drink a whole pint, but as I’m writing this post I’m craving another taste of this beer.  On a tangential note I was told by three separate people that Santa Barbara Brewing Company makes a curry ale that should be avoided at all costs.

The beer menu at the Brewhouse on the day we visited.
The beer menu at the Brewhouse on the day we visited.

Telegraph Brewing

It was now approaching 3 pm so we retraced our steps and headed back to Telegraph Brewing, which is the only brewery I visited in Santa Barbara that concentrates largely on a specific genre of beer, namely Belgian-style pale ales, saisons, and sours.  Perhaps it is this focus or maybe it is something else, but they get my vote for the best brewery in the Santa Barbara area.  They are housed in a shiny aluminum double Quonset hut style building, with a food truck parked outside.  The walls are decorated with artistic before and after photos of rusty bicycle parts that have been renovated to a shiny chrome plated finish.  The atmosphere here was pretty laid back, with twenty or so patrons hanging out and drinking some good beer on a hot Saturday afternoon.  The sun was filtering in through the open garage door at the front of the tasting room, and even though I was still quite full from breakfast the papadums and curry from the food truck were tempting.

Telegraph_outside

Like the Brewhouse, Telegraph allows you to order any beer you want in a sample size tasting glass.  The prices are $1.50-$1.75 per beer, except for the sours and high abv beers which are $3.00.  We didn’t have a bad beer at Telegraph, and several were exceptionally good.  The California Ale is a 6.2% abv Belgian style ale that has a nice spicy hop profile, fruity highlights from what I’m guessing is a saison yeast strain, and a crisp dry finish.  It’s taken home both gold (2011) and bronze (2013) medals from the Great American Beer Festival.  Another decorated beer (silver medals from both the GABF and the World Beer Cup) is the Rhinoceros Ryewine, which drinks like a big brother of the California Ale.  Spicy notes from the rye, hops, and yeast converge in a beer that is ridiculously easy drinking and dry for 10% abv.  It’s best to stick with the small pours of that one.  Perhaps my favorite was the Pacific Wild Time, an American Wild ale made by aging their Belgian Pale Ale (Pacific Standard Time) in wine barrels with lactobaccillus.  It was nicely tart and crisp, but not over the top sour, with oak notes from the barrel aging, a refreshing beer for a hot day.  For those a little less adventurous the 1927 Orange Pale Ale is a good choice.  According to the bartender it is made with 50 pounds of oranges per batch.  While that might sound like it would lead to a wine cooler like fruit beer, the result is actually an easy drinking ale with a nicely restrained orange flavor.

My tasting flight at Telegraph Brewing.
My tasting flight at Telegraph Brewing.

While enjoying our beer we noticed a couple of patrons playing a bar game that I later learned comes from the Caribbean and is called Bimini.  The point is to swing a metal ring suspended on 4-5 foot long string in such a way that it catches on a hook mounted to the wall.  The couple must have tried 20 to 30 tosses each before they got the ring to catch on the hook.  Matt and I were watching them and discussing strategies for a more successful approach to the game, so after they sat down we decided to give it a try.  I walked up, pulled the string back and let it fly, and much to my surprise the ring caught the hook on my first toss.  This got a pretty big reaction from the people who were sitting in that area of the tasting room, particularly the couple who had been laboring away at the game for the last 15 minutes.  Basking in the glow of my triumph I returned to my seat.  I thought it best to walk away while my reputation as king of the Santa Barbara Bimini scene was still intact.

The beer menu at Telegraph.
The beer menu at Telegraph.

Hollister Brewing

Both Matt and Ben had to catch an eastbound redeye flight, so with some reticence we left Telegraph and caught a taxi back to our hotel in Goleta.  Despite the early start to drinking I was in surprisingly decent shape.  I cleaned up and relaxed for a couple of hours in my room, but there was one local brewery that I had yet to explore, Hollister Brewing in Goleta.  Ram had put in enough work to feel productive so around 7:30 pm he came back to the hotel and we headed to Hollister for dinner and more local beer.

Hollister is set in a shopping mall in Goleta/Isla Vista area, not far from UCSB.  We were able to get a table on the patio on arriving but before too long the place was completely full and people had to wait to get a seat.  There were 16 beers on tap, and while they covered a variety of styles, roughly half of the tap list was some form of hop-forward beer.  By this point I had stopped taking notes so I’m short on details of the beers, but on the whole they were good.  They seemed a notch below Telegraph, but overall their beers were comparable to if not a little better than Figueroa Mountain or the Brewhouse.  I did see a couple of awards from the Great American Beer Festival on the walls, plus they get my vote for the best beer name of the trip, a German Alt Beer named Ctrl-Alt-Delete.  If you are staying in Goleta or doing business at the University they are well worth a visit.

Hollister Menu

Summary

I learned two things on this trip.  Firstly, never underestimate the value of a good breakfast before a day of visiting breweries.  Secondly, while Santa Barbara doesn’t get the acclaim of California locales like San Diego or Northern California, they simply don’t have enough breweries to compete, the beer scene here is a pleasant surprise.  In this mecca for wines there are more than enough tasty malted beverages to give the accidental beer tourist worthy things to seek out.  Telegraph was a revelation for me and I didn’t even make it to the spot most praised by hard core beer geeks, Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks.  Finally there is something to be said for beautiful blue skies, cool ocean breezes, and easy access to the beach.  I would happily trade my tickets to all of the nonconference Buckeye football games for two more weeks in Santa Barbara.

UCSB Tower
The bell tower at UCSB.

8 thoughts on “Drinking Beer in Wine Country – The Breweries of Santa Barbara

Add yours

  1. Melissa thanks for checking back in. The Anchor tour sounds great, even more so when you consider that they were one of the forerunners of the craft brew movement. It doesn’t hurt that they make some very good beers.

    I had not heard of Half Moon Brewing, but if I’m lucky enough to be in that area I will look for the amber and brown ales.

    1. The only northern California brewery I’ve been fortunate enough to visit is Russian river in Santa rosa, which I highly recommend. Lagunitas is not far from RR and would be another good choice. I’ve heard good things about anchor as well. Bear republic is another option.

      I’m headed ther myself in november. If you go earlier I’d love to hear back with your recommendations.

      1. Thanks again for the recommendations! We ended up doing the tour/tasting at Anchor Brewing Co, which was fantastic! You do have to buy tickets ahead of time, but it’s only $15, and includes a tour of the brewery and generous samples of the 9 or so beers they have on tap. The brewery has a good bit of history, so the tour is interesting. All the beers were great, and very different.

        We were in the Half Moon Bay Area one day, and stopped at the Half Moon Brewing Co. We ordered a flight of all 10 of their beers, most of them were good, and a few were really good, including their amber ale and brown ale. Their menu says that they do tours as well, but we chose to have lunch instead. The clams and mussels with pesto were amazing!

        Half Moon is a fun place if you’re in the area anyway, but I highly recommend Anchor. They don’t have a tasting room, so to try the beers you have to do the tour. It’s well worth it. Definitely a highlight of the trip!

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