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Don’t Forget Northern California’s Fabulous Beer

There are few places as beautiful as Northern California. The rolling green hills are lush with grape vines, grass, and herds of cows. As home to Napa and Sonoma, this area is well-known for its wine, but if you drive a little off the tourist trails there’s a treasure many visitors may miss: beer, glorious beer!

In Sonoma County, about half an hour east of the Pacific coast is the town of Petaluma. In the middle of an office and industrial area lies one of America’s premier craft breweries: Lagunitas Brewing. If you’ll remember all the way back to last year, my inaugural First Draughts column was about the Lagunitas IPA. It’s an easy to find, easy to drink IPA, and the beer people most associate with this brewery, but there is more, much more to find at Lagunitas than just IPA.

When I visited Lagunitas recently it was after a long day of adventuring along the Pacific coast. I was wet, tired, and full from a chili dog and a bacon milkshake from a great little place around the corner from the brewery. We pulled into the parking lot, where I promptly changed out of my wet clothes and into a sweater, jeans, and my trusty Converse. I was geared up and ready to taste some beer.

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Compared to the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco and some of my favorite local breweries here in Austin, Lagunitas is freakin’ huge. They have a “Schwag Shop” where you can buy shirts, glasses, coasters, and even dog toys. There’s a Tap Room where you can taste a whole lineup of Lagunitas offerings, including some they just serve onsite. These buildings border a giant outdoor patio with seating for plenty of people and a stage for small concerts. Across the patio was my target: the brewery. A large industrial building full of tanks, pipes, and piles of grains and hops is where the magic happens.

‘Beer Speaks, People Mumble’

Our tour led upstairs to a wood-paneled room with a long bar along one wall. Opposite the bar are windows that look down to the brewery, and above me were rows and rows of beer cans from all over the world. Beers you know, beers you don’t—it was quite the sight.

We saddled up to the bar, and I mean that literally because my wife actually sat on a saddle. (A picture exists, but I’ve been warned never to share it.) I sat at a normal bar stool, and the two nice women who served as our tour guides set up a flight of beers to taste, including the IPA, the Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, the Pils, and a couple more. It was a great way to start off the tour.

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Lagunitas culture is very relaxed, super chill, like incredibly mellow, dude. They’re known for throwing parties at 4:20 in the afternoon. Willie Nelson would be proud. Their embrace of the counterculture is evident at every turn. The names of the beers, the style of the art, the people putting their heart and soul into every barrel they sell, this is a brewery run by people who love to drink beer and enjoy life. As their motto goes, “Beer speaks, people mumble.”

After tasting a row of beers, and my wife’s too (she was the designated driver, so someone had to drink her samples), we headed out into the brewery. On the main floor of the central brewing building, pipes carrying grains, water, and beer flowed every which way. Tanks of beer in various stages of brewing were all around us. Outside it was cold and wet, an evening that reminded you it was winter in Northern California, but inside it was warm and dry, a world away, a world of beer.

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Take Some Home With You

Next we moved to the bottling line. This is a large room with bottles on large tracks weaving their way through the room. At one stage they get filled. At another they get labeled. At another still they get capped. It’s an amazing site, almost entrancing as you watch the bottles whizz through the room. As we followed the glass vessels of beer we had to walk up and down stairs, around big pieces of equipment, and past Lagunitas staff hurriedly working to get the beer ready for shipping. It’s a dizzying process, but incredibly fun to watch.

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After seeing some more fermentation tanks outside, and learning about Lagunitas’s efforts to give back to their community, we headed back to the start of tour with a treat: freshly bottled beers to take home. Now, “home” for me was our hotel about 45 minutes away, but when we got back to our room I cracked one open and sat down to binge watch “Stranger Things.”

The good news for Lagunitas fans is that Petaluma isn’t the only place you can get your fix of their beers. They have a brewery in Chicago, a tap room in Charleston, and places yet to come in Azusa and Seattle. So if you live on the West Coast, East Coast, or in America’s heartland, you don’t have to travel too far to get a taste of Lagunitas in person. Just remember to bring a designated driver (whose samples you can steal), a relaxed attitude, and a thirst for great beer. Oh, and be sure to ask them the story of the heroic dog that serves as their mascot. Cheers!

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