While one of the recent trends in craft beer has been toward bigger, bolder and more potent renditions (imperial pale lager, anyone?), the summer months pair most appropriately with a refreshing, lower alcohol pint. Sipping from a goblet of 12 percent imperial stout with the mid-July sun beating down might feel badass, but one's head will generally present a pretty convincing counterargument the next morning. (We've conducted extensive studies.)
Somewhere, in some godforsaken backwater region of the country untouched by craft beer, warm weather implies a shift from 30-packs of industrial lager to 30-packs of "lite" industrial lager. Not much of a migration. But this is the North Bay, arguably the most vibrant brewing region in northern California, itself the birthplace of the modern craft-beer movement. If we have anything, it's reasonably priced, artfully crafted and locally produced summer-beer choices.
So step away from the Corona. And cellar those imperial stouts until it starts raining again. We've got beers far, far better.
To focus this roundup of summer-appropriate beers in North Bay, we've limited ourselves to those brews weighing in under 5 percent ABV.
The vast majority of craft beers land above the 5 percent line, and those often tend to be the brews that draw the most attention. But under 5 percent is an entirely different ballgame, where one finds the focus shifted to things like Pilsners, English-style bitters, Kölsch-style hybrids, a plethora of wheat beers, blonde ales and (good) pale lagers. It's also where one can better distinguish the artists from the amateurs. As increased alcohol levels tend to parallel both increased hop bitterness and malt sweetness (generally speaking), brewing flaws have nowhere to hide here.
We rounded up three North Bay breweries offering a particularly broad selection of sub–5 percent beers, as well as a couple other local favorites that fluidly argue bigger isn't necessarily better.
First stop was Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, best known for its citrusy Racer 5 IPA (7 percent). While their bottled lineup of standard releases starts at 5.4 percent and rapidly heads up in alcohol from there, Bear's draft-only offerings at the pub itself are impressively geared toward summer imbibing. Just a few paces from the Plaza in central Healdsburg, surrounded by wine bars and boutique hotels, their quiet back patio keeps tucked away from the traffic.
Bear Republic's Double Aught (4.2 percent) pilsner was the lightest of the group, modestly hopped for a pils and lightly effervescent, while El Oso (4.5 percent) amber lager showed fruitiness, Vienna-like malt character and a lasting toastiness on the finish. Speed Bump (4.6 percent) "American red ale" was darker and fruitier than El Oso, but similarly toasty and balanced. All were well-rendered and worth a sample, but Wine Country wheat (4.5 percent) seemed the most successful on the board. A German-style hefeweizen, the hazy pint offered up notes of caramelized bananas, soft cloves and white pepper, almost entirely courtesy of an assertive yeast strain. It finishes slightly dry and crisp. (Bear Republic's Nor Cal (4.5 percent) "California bitter" is likely on tap by now, too.)
Heading toward St. Helena and Napa is the Calistoga Inn, home to Napa Valley Brewing Company. Brewmaster Brad Smisloff gets to showcase his brews in one of the North Bay's most scenic brewpubs, which—in addition to an indoor bar and restaurant, plus outdoor white-tablecloth seating—features a shaded beer garden past the back bar. A horseshoe court, Adirondack chairs, strung lights, and woodchip-covered ground suggest a sophisticated adult playground. And half their tap list, which included two seasonals, consisted of sub–5 percent beers.
Both their American wheat ale (4.4 percent) and Czech–style pilsner (4.8 percent) are year-round house beers. The former was especially fruity, with light huskiness from the wheat and a peach-like core, while the pilsner poured brilliantly clear and golden, with floral hop character and light notes of butterscotch rounding out the mouthfeel. But Napa Valley's seasonal Kölsch (4.4 percent) stood out as the favorite: a hint of sweetness with spicy, noble-hop notes and a toasty end.
The Kölsch style originally hails from Köln, Germany, and, perhaps even more so than many of these lighter styles, is particularly challenging to brew well. A hybrid offering, it essentially strikes a delicate balance between ale and lager brewing, requiring careful yeast management, and many American renditions tend to be overly fruity and coarsely sweet. Since we're here, Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax makes a fantastic rendition, Kent Lake Kölsch-style ale (4.5 percent). Available on tap and in bottles, it exhibits restrained fruitiness and pilsner-malt sweetness, with a soft edging of mineral-tinged hops—an archetype of summer beer.
Our last major destination for summertime sipping is far better known for its heftiest brews: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, Damnation, Consecration . . . But to really understand the dedication that goes into that chalkboard of beers at Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa is to make acquaintance with the lightest offerings near its very top.
On the Belgian-style side of the board, Redemption (4.8 percent) blonde ale offers up a bready and peppery yeast character coupled with additional notes of vanilla and honey. Available in bottles and on draft, an interesting comparison is to sample the two versions side by side; the latter's tasty, but the Redemption takes on extra layers due to undergoing an additional fermentation from being bottled with active yeast. The new, limited-release Noble Experiment saison blonde (4.6 percent) is similar, though shifted toward pepper and citrusy notes.
For year-round offerings like O.V.L. stout (4.15 percent) and Aud Blonde (4.5 percent), the final results of these beers were achieved over multiple iterations: brewing batches at a somewhat higher ABV than they are now and then slowly adjusting the grain bills and recipes to dial things in. O.V.L. stout offers layers of milk chocolate and the suggestion of smoked meat, while Aud Blonde is phenomenal in its current rendering: crackery malts, spicy hops, brilliantly crisp. If you can find a seat on the patio, a pitcher of the blonde pairs perfectly with warm weather.
While space restraints necessitate trimming out some perfectly deserving sub–5 percent beers from other breweries, it's hard to imagine a summer-beer article that doesn't include Brian Hunt's Moonlight Brewing Co. The lord of local lagers, the brewer who brought you both Death and Taxes, his Reality Czeck-Style pils (4.8 percent) is simply a world-class pilsner: toasty, packed with mineral hop bitterness, and wholly refreshing. Summer wouldn't be the same without it.
Ken Weaver is a writer and editor based in Santa Rosa, whose book 'The Northern California Craft Beer Guide' with photographer Anneliese Schmidt is out this summer from Cameron + Company.