Mendocino County has a long love affair with beer, so the prevalence of craft brewing should come as no surprise. Perhaps nothing speaks to this history as much as the existence of a town called Hopland – and while hops may no longer be grown in the area, as you might expect, they were once a major crop. The town changed its name in 1891 to honor the industry, and by the turn of the century Emil Clemens Horst – the world’s largest producer of hops – had hundreds of acres planted. The cultivation of hops boomed, until prohibition, a downy mildew blight, and a decrease in demand in the 1950s resulted in the last farms being plowed under to plant food crops or wine grapes.
The microbrew situation in Mendocino County – and the United States in general – remained bleak until the 1980s, when changing legislation and a renewed interest in artisanal brews led to a resurgence in the popularity of small-batch, localized brewers. Leading the charge in California, and the nation, was the Mendocino Brewing Company now, unfortunately, defunct.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Within a few short years of the Mendocino Brewing Company opening their doors, a handful of other breweries sprang up around the state – the vanguard of what would soon be a microbrew revolution. One of the first was the Anderson Valley Brewing Company.
Located downstairs in the historic Buckhorn Saloon, the AVBC was born – like many microbreweries of the era – out of a driving need to create a specific type of beer. In the case of Ken Allen, the original owner and brewmaster, that was a smoother ale than anything available at the time. Within a year the first beers went to market, and they were an immediate success.
Best known for their Boont Amber Ale, the AVBC now produces the Hop Ottin’ IPA, the Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, Brother David’s Abbey Style Ale, and a range of specialty and seasonal brews.
By the mid-1990s the AVBC had grown too big for the saloon basement that was its birthplace, and work began on a larger space. Within a few years even that larger space proved too small, and a Bavarian-style Brewhouse was built. The Brewhouse is now the centerpiece of the AVBC’s beautiful property near the corner of Highway 128 and Highway 253, which features picnic areas, pasture land, and a disc golf course. Leaders in the green-brewing movement, the AVBC property also has a photovoltaic array providing up to 125KW – the largest array north of San Francisco, and the largest in any brewery in the United States.
A visit to the Anderson Valley wouldn’t be complete without dipping at least a bit into the local folk language, Boontling, and there are few places to better try harpin’ Boontling than at the brewery tasting room. Employees will gladly teach you a few phrases, and even try a back and forth with you – as well as helping you translate the sometimes cryptic snatches of Boontling that can be found on your bottlecaps. While you’re at it, you might take a closer look at the official mascot of the brewery, a bear with horns, affectionately nicknamed Barkley. What is he? He’s a rare hybrid of bear and deer – a beer, of course.
The AVBC offers guided daily tours at 1:30pm. Their tap room is open seven days a day week (also excepting winter) from 11am to 6pm, and is open until 7pm on Fridays.
North Coast Brewing Company
Only a year after the AVBC opened its doors, the county was graced with another magnificent brewery, this time in the city of Fort Bragg. The North Coast Brewing Company started out small – with its flagship Red Seal Ale – and has since grown into one of the most award-winning microbreweries in the country, producing 13 year-round beers, and a selection of barrel-aged and reserve beers as well.
Although NCBC is small by some standards, it has a lot to be proud of. The Beverage Tasting Institute named it one of the ten best breweries in the world, it took two gold medals in the 2010 World Beer Championships, and its Old Rasputin Imperial Stout is constantly one of the highest-rated beers – ranging from a 97 at the Beverage Tasting Institute, to a 100 at RateBeer.
The brewery has long outgrown its original space, and a larger, modern facility can be found across the street. The original brewing area has been converted to a gift shop, attached to the brewpub – one of the oldest continually-operating brewpubs in the United States. There, patrons can enjoy the beer-battered fish and chips that were on the menu when the restaurant opened in 1988, custom pizzas, burgers, barbecue, and a sampler of the NCBC’s many beers.
Beer historians may be surprised to see the NCBC producing beer under the old Acme label. Founded in San Francisco in 1907, as an offshoot of Olympia, Acme was one of the nation’s best-known beers. Acme survived Prohibition by switching to the manufacture of ‘near beer’, or low-alcohol beers that met the strict requirements of the law. When Prohibition ended, Acme had weathered the storm well, and was the first brewery in the nation to begin advertising true beer again.
Throughout their existence, Acme remained at the forefront of the marketing game – from beautiful early labels, to positioning themselves as a healthful beverage in the lead-up to Prohibition, to pioneering the marketing of ‘dietetically non-fattening’ beer to women in the 1930s, to pushing larger ‘Victory size’ bottles during WWII as a way of conserving bottle caps. Sadly, even their innovative marketing was not enough to fight off the growing consolidation of national breweries, and by 1954 their San Francisco plant had stopped producing Acme.
The brand bounced around for years, until resurfacing as a contract beer in 1975, and being sold from brewery to brewery, finally sinking along with the Xcelsior Brewery in Santa Rosa in 1987. It remained unproduced, until in 1996 the North Coast Brewing Company acquired the rights to the brand, and brought it truly back to life.
The modern Acme label retains the same flair for advertising that it showcased more than a century ago, and the beer is a crisp, clean pale ale, brewed with Yakima hops, and a blend of American and British malt.
The Acme story can be explored more at the brewery, which features a gift shop and museum. Brewery tours are also available by appointment.
Ukiah Brewing Company
The youngest of Mendocino County’s microbreweries, the Ukiah Brewing Company is nonetheless a star in its own right. Founded in 1999 by Els and Allen Cooperrider, it was turning heads from day one.
Responsible living is the cornerstone of the UBC – and it shows in every facet of the brewery, and the associated restaurant. The building is a beautiful 19th century space on the corner of State Street in Ukiah, and was lovingly crafted by the owners and their sons. From the sustainably-harvested wood floor – put in by Allen – to the recycled antique bar – salvaged from the historic Palace Hotel.
Perhaps most impressive is the commitment to organic, sustainable food and beer production. In 2001 the brewpub was granted CCOF certification – making it the first certified-organic brewpub and the second certified-organic eatery in the entire country. Although the original restaurant is now closed, the beers can be found in the same location at Ritual restaurant, which adheres to a similar philosophy as the original brewpub.
With much smaller production than any of the other breweries in Mendocino County – around 400 barrels – if you haven’t sought them out, it’s entirely possible you’ve never even tasted a Ukiah brew. That’s unfortunate, because they are some of the most remarkable sustainable beers available in the nation.