If you’re a lover of all things hops, Northern California certainly ranks one of the country’s hottest craft beer scenes. Several years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interactive map that featured more than 300 breweries scattered across the northern swath of the state (note: map updates ceased during the pandemic back in 2021). That’s nearly as many wineries as you’ll find in Sonoma (or Napa) alone. If you read about how indecisive we were with picking out which wineries to visit, that feeling pretty much carried over into microbreweries.
Akin to our wine tastings, we made it to about a dozen breweries during our stay in Sonoma – a mere drop in the bucket (or pint glass, if you will). Consequently, this is nowhere near a comprehensive review of all the great beer northern California has to offer. That said, we still wanted to share what we considered to be our best of the best with you.
As for our tastes? Stephan and I both heavily favor IPAs and NEIPAs. We enjoy that classic piney, resin flavor characteristic of a good West Coast IPA, but also love the big dose of citrus and haze that smacks you in the face with a fragrant New England-style IPA. To us, bittering hops alone feel kind of one-note, so we’re usually looking for ales with a solid dose of aromatic hops, dry hops, Cryo, or lupulin.
With all that in mind, we present our favorite breweries and brews we sampled here in NorCal. If you’re looking for some bold hop flavors and a little bit of haze, we think these are some great places to check out.
OUR TOP THREE
These three breweries were the clear winners during our stay in California and the ones we found ourselves regularly going back to. If you’re into hoppy brews, we think these are all a must-visit:
Humble Sea Brewing Co. (multiple locations)
Humble Sea was founded in 2015 as a collaboration by three childhood friends with a passion for homebrewing. After only eight years in business, it’s looking like Humble Sea is kind of taking NorCal by storm. The masters of ‘fog’ now boast four locations – their flagship taproom in Santa Cruz, pubs in Pacifica and Felton, and the most recent addition in Alameda (opening soon). From their humble beginnings, their rapid rise to success is evidence of some truly awesome beers and loyal fanbase.
We actually tried our first can of Humble Sea while visiting Stephan’s dad in Tucson. The eye-catching can art was what first grabbed my attention, and a quick search on Beer Advocate revealed a ‘world-class’ rating. We both rated it an easy A (yes, we are so nerdy that we have been grading our tastings since 2007) and, after trying a couple more of their IPAs, decided we had to visit the brewery in person. In fact, it was that first Humble Sea can that inspired us to choose NorCal for our three-month stint.
We ended up visiting the Pacifica location three times while we were in the area, including a stop for their 6th anniversary Carnival of Kooks celebration. With a great dog-friendly, outdoor beer garden, a menu that includes a couple vegetarian and vegan options, build-your-own flights, and coolers brimming with fresh 4-packs, Humble Sea is a great place to enjoy a craft beer on a sunny afternoon.
If you love hop-forward brews, Humble Sea’s specialty is a continually-rotating lineup of ‘foggy IPAs’ – hazy, citrusy, and bursting with aromatic hops. Their beer names and illustrations features adorable coastal critters and amusing puns, such as their ‘Tide and Seek,’ or ‘Sea Urchin Petting Zoo.’ We’ve sampled a total of 27 of their hopped-up brews, and some our favorites included the Hangin’ Tentacles, Jellyfish Juggling, and Super Juice Bag foggies. For West Coast IPAs, we gave the Crystal Ocean top marks. If you’re an IPA lover, you absolutely can’t miss a visit to Humble Sea.
Pro tip: If you visit Humble Sea’s Pacifica location, there are a ton of great hiking and beach options nearby, many of which are dog-friendly. Consider checking out Pedro Point Headlands, Mori Point, San Pedro Valley Park (Peak Mountain, Montara Mountain or San Pedro Mountain), or Pacifica State Beach (dogs allowed on leash). Gray Whale Cove State Beach is another scenic option, though pets are not allowed there.
Crooked Goat Brewing (Petaluma, Sebastopol)
Crooked Goat is another relative newcomer to the craft beer scene that also began in a garage and turned into a seemingly overnight sensation. They opened their original location in 2016 in Sebastopol’s hip food hall, The Barlow, and more recently launched a second taproom in downtown Petaluma.
With Petaluma just a twenty-minute drive from our place in Sonoma, this is the pub we visited. The taproom is absolutely gorgeous. There are huge, floor-to-ceiling windows, a long bar, airy ceilings, and well-spaced tables (for those of us who may remain forever paranoid from the psychological effects of the COVID pandemic). The spotless space has a trendy industrial feel and is also dog-friendly.
We were totally impressed with our flight here, with our favorites being the Grain & Blood blood orange IPA, Ibex IPA, and Grapefruit Ibex. Our only wish was that the brewery offered single cans – or even 4-packs – for takeaway. Currently, Crooked Goat only sells 32-ounce crowlers to-go. We would have loved to have shipped a few cans to my hop-head dad in NH.
Fieldwork Brewing Co. (multiple locations)
Founded in Berkeley in 2014, Fieldwork Brewing now boasts eight locations across Northern California: in Berkeley, Corte Madera, Monterey, Napa, Sacramento, San Leandro, San Mateo, and San Ramon. No matter where you are in the northern part of the state, Fieldwork’s brews should never be too far away.
Like Humble Sea, Fieldwork specializes in West Coast and New England-style hazy IPAs and has an ever-changing list of fresh, hoppy offerings on tap. You can order either a pint or flight and enjoy your cold pour in their shaded outdoor beer garden. Beer is also available to-go in 4-packs or 32-ounce crowlers.
Our favorites? The Super Saint Thomas DIPA and Blue Roofs West Coast IPA. Both were really tasty. And while I’m not usually a fan of Waimea and Nelson hops (I know they’ve got a pretty big fan base), I actually really enjoyed their Southlands New Zealand IPA. I’m always impressed when someone can take a hop I don’t really love and make it taste good.
Pro tip: Fieldwork’s Napa location is at the Oxbow Public Market, a favorite local food hall akin to Sebastopol’s The Barlow. Stop by the brewery in the early afternoon and pair a tasting with a late lunch to avoid the crowds. Some awesome vendors include Hog Island Oyster (an oyster flight to accompany your beer flight?), Loveski Deli, Gott’s Roadside (a James Beard ‘America’s Classic’), and Modern Bakery. All are located just steps away from the brewery.
BEST OF THE REST
While these breweries didn’t quite crack our top few spots, they’re certainly worth a visit if you find yourself wandering around wine country:
Lagunitas Brewing Company (Petaluma)
Lagunitas is easily the largest and most widely-distributed brewery on this list. A craft brewery turned large-scale commercial success, Lagunitas began as a homebrew operation in the mid-90s before expanding rapidly and eventually partnering with Heineken twenty years later. Their beers can now be found across the country and the globe.
As one of the first breweries we kind of latched onto when we began our foray into craft beer, we couldn’t miss a visit to one of the breweries that started it all for us. Despite the fact that they’re no longer a ‘microbrewery,’ we still enjoyed our stop at their Petaluma taproom. We sampled a few new brews – including their Island Beats Tropical IPA and Hazy Wonder – and had fun celebrating one label that started our beer journey fifteen years ago. Plus, who doesn’t love that adorable dog logo? That beseeching little pupper gets me every time.
Russian River Brewing Company (Santa Rosa, Windsor)
Russian River may very well be Northern California’s most famous craft brewery. With a reputation for innovation, Russian River’s brewmaster, Vinnie Cilurzo, has been credited with conceiving the Double IPA. Additionally, their beers have won numerous awards at the Great American Beer Festivals and World Beer Cups. Their Pliny the Elder DIPA is known by beer lovers near and far, and is one of the top rated beers on sites like Beer Advocate and UnTapped.
Russian River has two locations within Sonoma Valley – their flagship pub in Santa Rosa and a second location a bit further north in Windsor. The Santa Rosa location is kind of your typical downtown taproom, while the location in Windsor has a gorgeous outdoor beer garden that is both spacious and dog-friendly. Our only gripe at Windsor was that if you order food, you must be seated inside. I’m sure this makes it easier on the service staff and prevents outdoor accidents and cleanups, but it’s kind of a bummer if you’d like to pair your beers with lunch on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.
Pliny the Younger
While Russian River might be most famous for their Pliny the Elder, their most coveted beer is undoubtedly their Pliny the Younger. This triple IPA is considered one of the world’s rarest beers because of how difficult it is to get your hands on. It’s brewed with the same base recipe each year, however the hop bill changes with each new edition – making each year’s creation a bit different from the previous. Pliny the Younger is released each spring for two weeks only at the Santa Rosa and Windsor taprooms, and can only be purchased on site. No kegs or bottles are shipped for distribution.
If you plan to visit Russian River for their Younger release, be prepared for a long wait. On weekends, wait times can top out at six to eight hours. During the least busy times, the wait is still typically one to two hours.
With some truly fortuitous timing, RRBC’s Younger release happened to fall while we were in Sonoma. With even more luck, the event – completely unbeknownst to me – happened to pop up on one of the Google-recommended articles I typically ignore. When I mentioned it to Stephan, he thought the idea of driving 40 minutes to Santa Rosa to stand in line for an indeterminate number of hours sounded crazy. But really, how could we miss this as a couple of craft beer snobs? One of us was going.
My strategy was to show up at 10 a.m. (one hour before opening) on a rainy Tuesday morning. It sounded ideally unideal – the perfect recipe of shit weather and weekday work hours. I arrived at the tail-end of a blinding downpour to find a line of anxious tasters clad in rain gear lining 4th Street. Clearly even in rainstorms, the masses will come. I hopped in line in front of a local who suggested the wait would be about two hours. Clearly a Younger professional, he told me he comes every year as frequently as he can. That Tuesday was Release Day 6 and it was his fourth day standing in line. I thought I was a dedicated beer wench going into this. However, I bow to this dude’s steadfast level of commitment and enthusiasm.
You wouldn’t think standing in line for beer for two hours could be fun, but surprisingly it was. I met a chatty group from Kenosha, WI ahead of me in line who flew out specifically for the release. They weren’t the only ones who made a long voyage for the chance to sample a rare beer. There were visitors who made the pilgrimage from around the country (places like Oklahoma, Florida, and New England) as well as around the world (from Sweden, China, Argentina, Honduras and Panama). It was kind of incredible.
Although a substantial wait is all but guaranteed, the release is a well-oiled machine at this point. Each guest is given a uniquely colored and dated wristband before entering the pub. Each band has four pull-tabs which can be redeemed for three (non-transferrable) draft pours and two bottles. Tabs can only be removed by a bartender, and each guest/party is limited to a 2.5-hour visit. Staff monitor the line and stamp hands to make sure there’s no cutting or holding spots, and they work really hard to make sure the whole process is smooth, fair, and enjoyable.
As for the million dollar question: Was the beer worth the wait? I would say absolutely! Going into it, I was seriously skeptical of all the hype… and I’m not usually a fan of beers that high in alcohol to begin with. However, it was easily one of the best beers I’ve had. In fact, it got As across the board from me, Stephan and my dad. Moreover, it was also one of those experiences that you’ll always remember, in part because of the sheer absurdity of it all. While we thought the rest of Russian River’s standard brews were only okay, this one is for sure exceptional.
Pro tip: If you’re looking to get your hands on RRBC’s Pliny the Younger, consider visiting on a weekday (Monday – Thursday) to limit your wait. Waits also tend to be shorter in the evenings, though there’s no real guarantee. Even during non-prime days and hours, you should expect to wait at least one to two hours. Also, if you show up as a solo guest, you’re more likely to get squeezed in sooner for a seat at the bar, whereas larger parties will likely face a longer wait for a table. 2024 will mark RRBC’s 20th Pliny the Younger release, so it’s sure to be even more wild. Release dates for 2024 will be March 22nd through April 4th, and everything you need to know can be found on their website.
Fogbelt Brewing Co. (Santa Rosa, Healdsburg)
Started in 2013, Fogbelt is named for the foggy stretch of coast from NorCal to Oregon that’s home to the majestic redwood forests. Interestingly, Fogbelt’s two friends and founders both grew up in local winemaking families, however both took an interest in instead making beer.
Coming from agricultural roots, the brewers also took an interest in growing their own hops. They have a small plot in Healdsburg where they grow their own hops, and are also working to increase the number of small, local hop farms within Sonoma County – a noble goal indeed.
In addition to their fondness for beer and for farming, the two are also passionate about conserving the precious coastal redwoods native to their home state. Many of their beer names are tributes to the towering behemoths, and they also support local conservation groups whose goals are to protect the forests.
HenHouse Brewing (Petaluma, Santa Rosa)
HenHouse is the brainchild of a musician and a fermenter. Although they come from different backgrounds, each has a deep appreciation for the creative process and the creation of something interesting and meaningful that people can enjoy. After a year and half of running a very small nanobrewery out of a house, the two proved themselves and, with the help of investors, substantially scaled up their production in 2019. Their missions include crafting great beers and fostering a sense of community, two values we can certainly get on board with.
While they brew a variety of beers, they offer quite a large lineup of IPAs. In particular, we enjoyed the Reptilian Shadow Government DIPA and Language Creates Reality IPA. HenHouse also releases a DIPA called the Big Chicken annually, with the hop bill changing with each new vintage. This one seems to be their most sought-after brew. While we would have loved to try it, we missed this one by just a few days. Goals for the future, I suppose.