Nestled between the California mountains and the Pacific Ocean with pleasant weather year-round, Santa Barbara is as appealing a destination as you can find. While droves of tourists flock to this region for its wineries and vineyards, a quiet revolution is taking hold in wine country. Popping up throughout the Santa Barbara region some formidable microbreweries have been building a loyal falling of beer aficionados throughout the state.
Stretching between Bethel to the south and Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley to the north, Santa Barbara is making itself known for a lot more than just wine - The areas breweries have much to boast about. With nearly a dozen microbreweries within striking distance beer lovers should be circling this region as a must-visit on their map.
Of interest, the first thing you'll notice when visiting any brewery in the region is just how much Californians love their hoppy India Pale Ales (IPAs). A majority of the locally brewed beverages would be classified as IPAs with most definitely leaning to the bitter side of the scale. Some have even adapted the IPA brewing process with local ingredients and dubbed the California Pale Ale. However, each brewery takes its own slight interpretation on this theme and their are plenty of other selections to choose from if IPAs are not your thing.
With the Pacific Coast Highway tracing the shoreline before curling up into the Santa Ynez hills, the picturesque route linking all of the breweries is one you'll love travelling nearly as much as the beer you'll be sampling.
Ranging in formality from warehouse drop-ins to full service sit-down restaurants, the variety of microbrewers is quite a mix to behold. All are available for having a taste on site or taking home beer by the bottle or growler, and some can be found sold in bars throughout Santa Barbara and California. There is something unique though about visiting a brewer and hearing their tales and meeting their patrons. I've always got a special place in my beer fridge for the various microbreweries I've visited both at home and abroad. It's a bit like belonging to a secret society with delicious benefits. Below you'll find my run-down on the microbreweries and their beers—I highly encourage you to follow in my footsteps!
Located in an industrial warehouse with train tracks that run just beyond the front door, the IBC would seem to be the last place people would head to hang out. However, just a stone's-throw from the beach, this microbrewery with its modest bar is THE place to head to break up a long day in the surf and sun. A super-relaxed hangout that perfectly personifies the West coast. It's always packed with people from the beach enjoying a cold beer and the locals are really welcoming and happy to bend your ear over a brew.
Their Pick: Starry Night Stout—chocolatey; Winner of the 2012 World Beer Cup Stout Gold Medal
My Pick: Jubilee Ale—an old style malt ale with caramel overtones
The Scene: Super-chill, always busy. Bar with a few tables & a patio. No food other than pretzels.
Located in a strip mall on the outskirt of Santa Barbara this restaurant/brewery is definitely the most commercial of the bunch offering a full menu, waited tables etc. Hollister pulls in as many people for their food as their beer. Also serving local McConnell ice cream with seasonal flavours.
Their Pick: 5th Anniversary—A unique ale brewed with edible wild flowers and fresh local honey.
My Pick: Hollister Hefeweizen—A 5.0% light Bavarian ale with hints of banana and clove.
The Scene: Full service restaurant in a strip mall. Delicious food.
Firestone's Taproom has a full service bar and tables with a modest menu of bar food. It's a cozy setting and they are as serious about their IPA's as they are about their famous wine and tires. A number of beers available exclusively to the Taproom.
Their Pick: Pale 31—a California Pale Ale that's made them famous. Named for the 31st state. Dry-hopped.
My Pick: Humboldt Hemp—A beautifully dark mellow brown ale that adds hemp seed in to the brewing process. The darker malts balance perfectly with the American hops.
The Scene: Bar tables and chairs with a cozy feel. Great stop for a pint and a quick bite.
On a back industrial road located in a warehouse—they've done a nice job of making it a mixed-use space. You are sitting at a bar in a warehouse—but it doesn't feel like it. Authentic bar with brewing tanks as a backdrop. Food such as wood-fired pizza is available but delivered from other locations. Otherwise pretzels are available.
Their Pick: Hoppy Poppy—delivers a full in-your-face experience. High alcohol at 6.5%. 3 types of hops are blended to make this beer.
My Pick: Stagecoach Stout—A dark oatmeal stout with hints of chocolate and espresso. Full-bodied and very smooth.
The Scene: Great mix of rustic bar and modern microbrewery.
Until you've been to Solvang it's hard to describe its charm. This Danish tourist town has street upon street of tourist shops with an extra helping of kitsch. The Solvang Brewing Company is located in the heart of the main strip and has a European bar and restaurant with a full menu. Their dining area is aptly called the Viking Room. If you love hoppy beer—it's up and down their beer menu.
Their Pick: Dansk Amber—Danish style amber ale. Slightly floral with caramel malt aromas.
My Pick: Raspberry Lager—light and crisp with a dry finish. Lightly sweet, still with a hoppy finish.
The Scene: Danish inspired beers. Great patio with a scene of the main tourist drag.
This saloon style microbrewery doesn't pretty itself up for the tourists. Full of locals and old-timers cozied up to the bar you know you've found a gem as soon as you walk in. It has the biggest menu I've ever seen in a bar. Everything from seafood to Mexican to American diner food.
Their Pick: Black Death Porter—black ale with habaneros and ghost chilies.
My Pick: Baseball Saison—strong orange colour with citrus and yeast flavours. A Belgian style ale, saisons had to be strong enough to last through all seasons but still quench thirst on the farm.
The Scene: If you're looking for pretty, you're in the wrong place. If you're looking for the place where locals go for great food and beer—you've found it!
While they claim to be staking out a new home, for now this microwbrewery is really in the middle of nowhere. Located deep in the warehouse district they are open for tastings and purchasing only. No food. If you can corner one of the brewers they have an incredible passion for their art and will capture your heart from the first pint.
Their Pick: White Ale—brewed with locally grown chamomille.
My Pick: California Ale—their flagship made with mellow California hops.
The Scene: Not much of a scene, but the beer is damn good.
This packed restaurant sits on State Street, in the heart of Santa Barbara. Just a short walk from the beach and the pier, it takes up a whole block with a pool hall, bar/restaurant and brewing facilities. The tanks are built right into the old fashioned bar. Tons of TVs if you want to catch a game and packed with locals and tourists alike.
Their Pick: Santa Barbara Blonde—Their flagship, a dry pilsner.
My Pick: Gold Coast Wheat—Balanced American style wheat beer with a slightly hoppy accent.
The Scene: Touristy but not obnoxiously so. Great location. Good multi-use facility.
So, next time your friends are itching for a trip out West to go wine tasting, see if you can't steal away for a day or two and check out this hotbed of beer enthusiasts. Shhhh... it's still our little secret!