Tahoe, Truckee embracing craft beer movement
Special to the Sun
Check ‘em out
Tahoe Mountain Brewery
Address: 475 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe City
FiftyFifty Brewing Co.
Address: 11197 Brockway Road., Truckee
Alibi Ale Works
Address: 204 E. Enterprise Street, Incline Village
Cold Water Brewery and Grill
Address: 2544 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe
Brewery at Lake Tahoe
Address: 3542 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe
Address: 4118 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe’s beer scene has grown tremendously in the last two years, paralleling craft brew growth trends in the rest of the country with more than 3,000 breweries operating in the U.S. — at least 540 of which are in California, the largest craft beer state in the U.S.
For the first time in decades, North Shore, South Shore and Truckee all have at least one brewery, so take advantage of this explosive time and visit all of them this summer.
By August, six Lake Tahoe-area breweries will quench the thirst of locals and visitors looking for the latest ales, lagers, sours and barrel-aged beers.
And while the craft beer movement is not exactly new, it’s certainly entering a new phase in the region.
‘BEER BRINGS US TOGETHER’
South Lake Tahoe’s newest brewpub, Cold Water Brewery and Grill, serves visitors new American cuisine and beers inspired by the region’s bodies of water and recreational trails.
Owner Debbie Brown thought of the name during a paddleboarding competition. After falling into Lake Tahoe, she realized how easily she could’ve died of hypothermia, and it inspired her to name the brewery after the freezing cold water.
“When I first dreamt of owning a restaurant, I didn’t think it would be a brewery,” she said.
Brown makes beer at home, like many other hobbyist homebrewers. To her, “beer equals community,” so bringing together homebrewers and local beer drinkers at Cold Water makes Lake Tahoe a better place.
“We want to be the place where locals and visitors can come together to unwind, relax and refuel,” Brown said. “Beer brings us together; that’s why it’s a hot concept right now. Beer got big and has staying power because beer invites conversation.”
For that reason, Brown situated the dining room tables close together so strangers can bond and dissect their beer choices with each other.
She also holds homebrew meetings and contests in the restaurant, giving beer geeks a chance to share their creations and learn from the professionals.
Before Cold Water Brewery, Brown and Brewmaster Ryan Parker worked together at Stateline Brewery, which opened in 2002 at Heavenly Ski Village in South Lake Tahoe.
Here, imbibers will find four rotating ale and lager taps made in equipment adjacent to the bar.
At Tahoe’s longest running brewery, Brewery at Lake Tahoe at the South Shore, bar flies can watch beer brew behind the bar.
Opened in 1992, this brewery specializes in beer, pizza and truly representing the locals’ chill, friendly personality.
BEHIND THE CURVE?
At the North Shore, two breweries cover the east and west corners: Alibi Ale Works in Incline Village and Tahoe Mountain Brewery in Tahoe City and Truckee.
Alibi is the only brewery at Lake Tahoe without a kitchen. Instead, Alibi focuses on creating an inviting public house atmosphere with well-rounded ales.
Joey Rzeplinski, a local carpenter, helped source and build the interior fixtures out of reclaimed wood and metal. He helped build wall trim from the fermenters’ refinished shipping crates.
The bar tables are made from trusses of a burned down house. The wood paneling is made from warehouse palettes. The bathroom floor is layered with laminated pennies.
Kevin Drake and co-owner Rich Romo also created a quiet “living room” area with 1960s-era lounge furniture. This room feels totally different from the public house vibe.
Eventually, Alibi will feature moody lighting and a big-screen TV — and on outdoor beer garden.
The business continues the trend of regional beers that resist the over-hopped West Coast IPA style established in California and Oregon. Instead, they focus on well-rounded flavors with a solid malt backbone, hop aroma and flavor.
Alibi makes one-off beers in smaller bung kegs. For example, they filled a keg with chopped ginger roots and pale ale to make a ginger-infused pale ale. They also fill used wine barrels to make sour beers.
Drake said he’s been watching the beer scene grow around Tahoe, but noticed it stalled behind other regions in California and especially Portland, Ore., where he’s from.
“Tahoe is behind the curve,” Drake said.
Brown and Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co. Brewmaster Adam Thomas agree, saying there’s plenty of room for growth, especially in comparison to Northern California and Reno.
The locals want a more robust beer scene, and the visitors expect it, Brown said, so now Brown, Drake, Thomas and the others can be part of creating that scene.
Drake said the transient tourism, recent unpredictable weather and Great Recession slowed the opening of businesses geared toward locals.
Most Tahoe businesses focus on visitors. But locals sustain small breweries, and visitors give them seasonal boosts. All agree that Tahoe could use more locally made craft beer, and now is only the beginning.
THE LAKE TAHOE RENAISSANCE
In Truckee, the folks at Tahoe Mountain Brewery barrel-age many of their beers. Their small taphouse and cramped brewery don’t look like much. But the separate barrel room feels like stepping into another world — a world of beer imagination.
This warehouse room is packed with about 300 barrels of various origins and size, including enormous French foudres (FOOD-ers), Elijah Craig, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels.
These barrels give Thomas immense flexibility and freedom to create various sour ales, bourbon-barrel stouts, farmhouse saisons and fruit beers, in addition to more traditionally crafted beers.
“We don’t really have flagship beers,” Thomas said. “I don’t like to put up boundaries. We do what we want here.”
While Tahoe Mountain Brewing ages 300 barrels of beer, FiftyFifty Brewing in Truckee positioned itself as a boutique barrel-aging brewery.
The most well-known bottles come from FiftyFifty’s Eclipse series — an imperial stout aged in various bourbon barrels (each bourbon is denoted by a colored wax seal on the bottle).
Owner Alicia Barr, who’s also the vice-mayor of the town of Truckee this year, said they export Eclipse to 16 states and five countries — a pretty wide area for a limited release.
This summer FiftyFifty will begin building a new production brewery to focus on their mainstay beers while the brewpub continues crafting specialty and seasonal releases.
The larger production brewery will let FiftyFifty expand their presence outside the region. In a world full of craft beer choices, creating and meeting consumer demand means the difference between a prosperous brewery and one that closes forever.
FiftyFifty started eight years ago as one of California’s new wave of craft breweries and is considered part of the “old guard” in California.
Still, it is young compared to the 22-year-old Brewery at Lake Tahoe on the South Shore, an even younger relative to the first craft brewery in America, New Albion Brewery, which opened in 1976.
Nonetheless, over the last eight years, the number of breweries in the region, state and country doubled. Beer doesn’t only appeal to Pabst-loving grandpa and snobby, moustached beer geeks, but any nose or tongue willing to experience something new.
Beer expanded its flavors from a plain golden lager with low earthy bitterness to a huge range of approachable flavors: soft traditional lagers, British porters, extreme bacterial sours, sweet milk stouts, spicy bitter hop bombs, heavy alcoholic barleywines, fruity pumpkin peach ales and any flavor in between.
So whether you’re a local or a visitor, now is the time to take a brewery tour around Lake Tahoe to taste the renaissance.
This story also published on DrinkableReno.com.