I’ve been traveling a bit in the last few weeks. First, I visited North Coast Brewing in beautiful, almost isolated Fort Bragg, CA. Next, I went with my son (and designated driver) Zach to Santa Cruz and stopped in at Seabright.
Both visits proved once again that the brewpub concept is here to stay, but it takes work. Also note: an ordinary place, serving ordinary food and ordinary beer is in trouble.
Who wants to go somewhere and eat an $8.95 hamburger – with meat patties and buns from the local supermarket, piped in music and beer with a deadly sameness?
Neither North Coast nor Seabright are ordinary.
More about Seabright next time. Let’s talk about North Coast now.
North Coast Brewing Co. winner of dozens of Great American Beer Festival medals – was founded by three partners, led by marine biologist turned brewer Mark Ruedrich, in 1988. Fort Bragg is a small town on the Pacific 10 miles north of touristy Mendocino, 150 miles north of San Francisco.
It’s literally on the edge of nowhere. Go north on Highway 1 from Fort Bragg and there’s nothing but pounding surf, isolated beaches, redwood stumps and a few wanderers.
That’s cool and why Ruedrich and his partners, thought of a brewpub – a block from the ocean – as a way to stay on the edge of all that lonely splendor.
But Fort Bragg, a former lumber town (lots of stumps), is tiny by urban standards – 5,000 people. So, the partners scraped the cash together and built a new brewery across the street. North Coast beer in bottles and kegs can be found throughout the West and in many states in the interior. (The interior: Hah! I’ve always wanted to use that term. Left Coast, my arse. Eat your hearts out East Coasters.)
The pub, meanwhile, has become a town gathering place; I don’t know if there’s another brewpub in America that hosts a Rotary Club each week. North Coast keeps pouring out pints – and serves some of the best food I’ve ever found in a brewpub.
On a visit last month, I had North Coast Cioppino, a medley of snapper, shrimp, scallops and clams in a tomato basil broth, $17.95: not a rubber band scallop in the lot. Everything was fresh, perfectly prepared.
My wife ordered Cuban Hanger Stake, $16.95 – beef steeped in a citrus and Caribbean spice marinade. Just excellent; the meat was perfectly cooked; the spices gave it a special note.
Over a long day, I sampled seven North Coast beers – all available on draft in the tap room and the adjacent restaurant:
Blue Star Wheat****, a 5 percent, crisp, unfiltered wheat with a thick, creamy head. Notes of lemon and clove. Taste was clean and dry with a tart finish and a fading hint of malt sweetness. What a beer for a summer day.
Scrimshaw Pilsner Style **, made with Hallertau and Tettnang hops and pale and Munich malt had a pleasant dry finish. A clean, well-made pils.
PranQster *** is much more interesting. It’s a Belgian-style golden ale – 7.6 percent alcohol by volume . Mark says it’s made “with a mixed culture of antique yeasts.” Powerful nose: ripe fruit, maybe currants. Take a sip and there’s a spicy hint, then sweet malt with a teasing sour note. Interesting, different beer.
Red Seal Ale ****. Let’s face it: I love this beer, always have, always will. This is a beer with perfect balance between malts and hops. It accounts for well over 50 percent of North Coast’s national sales.
If you’re a homebrewer, have you ever stood in your kitchen with a glass of the best beer you ever made in your hand. Mark Ruedrich, like so many homebrewers, did that. And somehow, he managed to bring that very excellent glass of beer with him into the commercial market. It’s Red Seal Ale.
The day I visited North Coast had cask Red Seal on a handpump: Brilliant copper; lovely hoppy nose, a bit of citrus. The taste is almost silky, just enough malt, just enough hops and a dry, thirst-quenching finish. It’s 5.5 percent ABV, about 45 IBU. By comparison, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has 37 IBU. But Sierra Nevada’s signature Cascade hops stand out; they’re there in Red Seal too but in nearly perfect balance with the malt.
Red Seal is not extreme beer. It’s beer with perfect balance between malts and hops a kind of brewer’s nirvana.
Acme IPA*** had an agreeable, hoppy tang, with a hop follow through. Acme Brown Ale *** is meant to be a session beer, American style, brown malt, Tettnang hops, clean, malty nose, delicious malty taste, but lots of hops in the follow.
North Coast bought the Acme label a few years ago. Acme once was one of California’s most famous brewers, but it was eclipsed and buried by the national beer movement in the 1950s.
After dinner, I tried three North Coast champions:
Old No. 38 Stout***, named for a steam engine that ran for years on an old lumber route, Fort Bragg to Willits in the northern Sacramento Valley, is a 5.6 percent dark beauty, made in the dry stout style: roast malt nose, lots of hops and roast malt in the mouth and in the follow. Perfect beer for a rainy night on the north coast.
Old Stock Ale ****. This sample was fresh from the brewery, so it only earns four stars. Come back in three years and you’ve got a world classic in your hand. This is a beer meant to lay down and age. Fresh there’s a ripe fruit nose, figs perhaps, a hint of the tremendous hit of alcohol within 11.4 percent ABV. It’s smooth and malty, a candy sugar note just like a Belgian strong ale. Great tonight. Greater things ahead.
Old Rasputin****. This is a killer stout or rather a Russian Imperial Stout the style of strong stout perfected by London brewers meant to be shipped to the Russian nobility. It’s named for Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, a legendary 19th Century Russian Orthodox monk thought to be a mystic with incredible powers.
Well, Old Rasputin, the imperial stout, certainly has power: At 8.9 percent and 75 IBU (Guinness has about 60 IBU, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, tops 80.) Old Rasputin has a creamy head, black and roast malt nose. Can a stout have flavor complexity levels of intensity? Yes. This is an intricate, intoxicating champion of a beer. If you like dark and roast malts and a hoppy wham, Old Rasputin’s the beer. Salud for tonight. William Brand.