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The Road To Sacramento

January, 2000

By Bobby Bush

Arriving at San Francisco, as I’ve done each of the last 16 years for an early January conference, I chose to guide my trusty rental car westward on this particular visit. The valleys of Napa, the compact peninsula of San Fran and ritzy shores of Marin were considered, but five years had elapsed since my previous traipse to Sacramento, where several “new to me” brewpubs awaited.

Lost in the midst of sprawling Stockton, 40 miles from the eventual chase, it took two stops for directions and one befuddledly folded map to uncover Valley Brewing Company. I’d visited this locale, then known as El Dorado Brewing, shortly after it opened in 1994. What I understood to be simply a change of name to avoid confusion and litigation, has evolved into a series of four different owners. The place had changed little. Even the bulky motorcycle bar centerpiece was in the same position within the long horseshoe-shaped bar. Sports memorabilia and televisions aplenty, it was obvious that Valley still brews, so, weary from the flight and drive, I settled in for a few.

Valley Brew Pale Wheat, served with lemon slice, was a 50/50 American-style wheat- thin but refreshing. Rodeo Rye, boasting 7.3% abv, was well balanced in its elaborate grain bill. Light in color and taste, Gold Medal Ale was the original El Dorado brew and a winner at 1998’s California State Fair Commercial Craft Beer Competition. Indian Red Ale, a Sierra Nevada-like Cascade-fueled IPA, and the tangy hoppiness of India Pale Ale also took medals in that ‘98 contest. London Tavern Ale was prickly on the tongue and hoppier than the Gold. Black Cat Stout, billed as Irish but displaying the characteristics of a stronger, harsher Imperial Stout, was pleasant nonetheless. The Apricot Ale tap was out.

Unexpectedly joining me midway through the taste, in time for fried calamari, was a brewer from out of town. Tony Saballa, an assistant at Davis, California’s Privatbrauerei Sudwerk Hubsch (a.k.a. Sudwerk), explained that he is a friend of Valley brewer Steve Altimari and had just dropped by for a beer and chat with Steve, who was AWOL that afternoon. Thanks anyway Steve, good beer in a cattle town is hard, but nice to find.

Inching closer to Sacramento, I paused in the southern suburban town of Elk Grove at the brewpub recognized at last October’s Great American Beer Festival as the Small Brewpub of the Year. In 1994 Elk Grove Brewery Restaurant opened in the old town district in what once served as a General Store, circa 1885. Old stock certificates, financial documents and post cards are visible through the bar’s glass top. The building is listed on the State and National Historic Registries of Historic Buildings.

But that’s about all that’s old at Elk Grove. From the brewery in the back corner, Bill Wood has won many awards. Though he refuses to call himself a brewmaster -he’s had no formal brewing education though the GABF singled him out as the Small Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year- Wood has won numerous awards at the California State Fair, California Brewers Festival, Santa Rosa Brew Fest and Sierra Brew Fest. I’m sure it’s his GABF medals that he covets most. His American-style Diamondback Wheat Ale struck gold in ‘99, while Otis Alt Ale, a roasty and malty brew, scored gold back to back, ‘98 and ‘99. Full bodied with coffee tones and a rich but short finish, Grain Barrel Stout brought home silver in ‘97 and bronze one year later.

That’s not to say that Wood’s other beers are bad. They’re not (and you can only enter five beers each year). Big, But Blonde Ale, though light in mouthfeel, had a touch of pale-like bitterness. Hops fought the fruit flavors (apricot and mango) of Tropic Ale to a draw. Wrangler Red Ale was toasty with the pervasive light bitterness of Mt. Hood hops. Caramel maltiness powered Otis Marzen Lager departing with a bitter twist. Tumbling from a malty sweet start, Sloughhouse Pale Ale landed with a strong bitter finish. Winter Warmer Porter was very similar in flavor profile to the Stout, though it presented a quirky bitter aftertaste unusual for the style.

A modest brewer, fantastic beers, friendly staff and enough beer-curious customers to make this a great local hangout, Elk Grove has every thing a great brewpub should and the medals to prove it.

(This California jaunt continues: Hoppy Hoppy).

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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