If you like underdogs, you would root for one of the few Latino-owned breweries in the United States. But if you really, really like underdogs, you would root for a brewery owned by Mexican immigrants and opened in the heart of Northern California wine country. For those extreme fans of the underdog, we present Carneros Brewing Company, located in Sonoma Valley just west of the Napa county line. This particular operation is challenging the conventions of not one, but two world-famous wine regions.
Carneros Brewing Company is located off of Highway 12 in Sonoma County; Napa Valley visitors coming from San Francisco pass Carneros Brewing, often without even noticing. Living in Napa, we pass by the brewery every single time we drive to San Francisco or Marin County. A couple of days ago, we decided to stop in and check our their selection of beers rather than visit another one of our local wineries. We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the beers and the cool atmosphere of the tasting room.
We went to Carneros Brewing on a Sunday and the mood in the tasting room was quite lively. There was a combination of first-time visitors like us, as well as a number of tables of “regulars” that were definitely not on their first visit. Several of the tables were occupied by frequent visitors who knew the various brewery offerings and were happy to talk about their favorites. Because it was our first time at the brewery, we opted to order a 5-beer tasting sampler. Choosing just five beers, though, proved to be more difficult than we expected as there were nearly a dozen beers that caught our eye.
In the past couple of years, we have tended to order almost exclusively ales, and in most cases IPA. As a result, we decided not to include a traditional IPA (the Carneros IPA) in our 5-sampler, instead opting for the Pilsner, the Jefeweizen, the Morena ale, the Negra IPA, and the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter.
We are more familiar with the order of wine tastings, which usually start with the lighter (white) wines and transition to the red wines: first the “lighter” reds such as Pinot Noir, finishing with the stronger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon. At Carneros Brewing Company, the tasting order resembled the wine tasting order, with the first beer being a pilsner, which, compared to the beers later in the selection, is much lighter and can be analogized to white wine. Even though we favor ales, we really enjoyed the Cerveza Pilsner, which had a crisp taste and an unexpected fruity ester profile that is generally found in ale but not lager. Although only 5% alcohol, the Cerveza Pilsner had a strong, balanced flavor that we do not expect from the more commercial brand of lagers on the market. Much to our surprise, the Cerveza Pilsner turned out to be one of our favorite beers we tried at Carneros Brewing.
After quaffing the generous 5-oz pilsner sample, we moved on to beer #2, Carneros Brewing’s take on the traditional southern German beer where a significant portion of the malted barley is replaced with malted wheat. When done properly, Hefeweizen will display notes of banana and cloves both in terms of aroma as well as taste. The Jefeweizen that we tried was most definitely done properly – the beer had a nice balance of fruity banana as well as spice and cloves on the finish. After two beers, we were impressed with the Carneros Brewing Company beers and congratulating ourselves for branching out and not just ordering the IPA as we tend to do.
Our third beer was the Morena ale, an amber ale with strong notes of caramel and an almost creamy finish. We liked this beer and would order it again, but it was not as distinctive for us as the other four. Nevertheless, it was good enough for us to consumer the entire 5-oz tasting before proceeding to beer #4, the Negra IPA.
As mentioned above, we are not strangers when it comes to IPA; moreover, we have consumed many dark beers in our day as well. However, as to the combination of IPA and dark malt, we have to admit we are complete virgins and the Carneros Brewing offering was our very first. We were not sure what to expect from the combination of the IPA’s bitterness and the toastiness of the dark malt – we were imagining the love child of a Guinness and an India Pale Ale. In fact, that is more or less what we experienced: the Negra IPA maintained a strong bitter undertone (70 IBU’s) of a typical IPA but the chocolate and coffee notes found in dark malt ales. Although it was our first dark malt IPA, it will not be our last, and we will be seeking out similar beers from other craft makers to compare flavors.
Our final beer – the heavyweight in terms of structure and depth – was the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter. At more than 8% alcohol, this was the strongest beer that we tried in our flight.
We have an Irish brother-in-law. His father worked at the Guinness plant in Ireland for over 40 years. Enough said? We drink a fair amount of stout when we get together and have acquired a real taste for well-made stout. The Carneros Imperial Stout was a strong offering, with medium carbonation, notes of coffee and toffee, and a smooth, creamy finish. Next time we will have to do a side-by-side tasting with a Guinness Stout (or extra-stout) to see how they compare. But to finish up our 5-taster, the Carneros 2K Imperial Stout held its ground just fine. We were glad we finally stopped at the brewery after driving by at 50-60 mph multiple times on our way to San Francisco.
Next door to the brewery tasting room is the winery tasting room for Carneros Brewing Company’s sister company, Ceja Vineyards, another success story for an extended family of Mexican immigrants who literally worked their way from the bottom to the top. In our next blog we will share our experiences with the matriarch of Ceja Vineyards, Amelia Ceja.
John & Irene Ingersoll
September 23, 2016