Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Some beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers have the idea that you must be loyal to one beverage or style.

Well, let me introduce myself: My name is Erin Peters. I am a cross drinker—and I’m not the only one.

A visit to California’s Central Coast offers cross-drinkers like me the chance to compare some of the world’s best artisan beers and wines. I recently took a drive up to Paso Robles, and then further north to the Monterey area, to find out what craft beers are preferred by wine experts.

Midnight Cellars is a small-production, award-winning winery on the west end of Paso Robles. The boutique winery produces sustainably farmed Bordeaux grapes on 28 acres of hilly and limestone-rich soil. Midnight is known for making some of the best blends and big merlots. (Do not mention Sideways to the winemakers there!) Merlots are often viewed as gateway wines—kind of like pale ales are in the beer world. However, Midnight’s 2010 Estate Merlot transcends this stereotype: It’s big, bold and rich with dark fruit flavors.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Shelby at midnight told me how much she loves Sierra Nevada’s pale ale—still known as one of the biggest pale ales in the industry. There’s a nice balance in both this beer and this wine.

Just around the corner from Midnight is a gorgeous, upscale tasting room, serving old world varietal wines. Sextant Winery serves powerful zinfandel and petite sirah blends. The folks at Sextant claim it is the only winery in North America to cross-pollinate grenache and cabernet sauvignon, producing a big and bold caladoc. Bright Bing cherries and ripe blackberries are layered with dark fig, cinnamon and spicy cardamom notes. It’s delicious and poetically one-of-a-kind. Just don’t call it a blend.

Enthusiastic and knowledgeable server Kate Keller is a fan of local breweries like Central Coast Brewing, Libertine Brewing Company and BarrelHouse Brewing Company. BarrelHouse is a must-do when visiting the Central Coast—not just for the beer, but also for the beautiful views and inviting patio. The brewery typically has at least a couple fantastic sours on tap.

Monica Villicana not only runs a boutique winery, Villicana Winery, in Paso Robles; she and her husband, Alex, were the first in the area to distill spirits from the used grapes. Winemakers bleed a percentage of the free-run juice from red-wine grapes before fermentation to enhance the quality of the wines. Saignée is this French term meaning “to bleed,” and this juice is often discarded. By fermenting this bleed and then triple-distilling it, Re:Find Distillery has found a new use for saignée.

No surprise: Monica’s first choice of libations is wine. Then she’ll reach for liquors such as brandy, vodka or whiskey. While she’s not a big beer fan, she recently found one that she enjoys and can drink for a longer period of time: Central Coast Brewing’s Original Chai Ale. The spiced blonde ale from this veteran downtown San Luis Obispo brewery—it’s been open since 1998—comes in with a very manageable 4.9 percent alcohol by volume and has flavorful notes of vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.

Her husband, Alex, will grab Firestone Walker’s Double Barrel Ale when he’s not enjoying his own cabernet sauvignons, zinfandels, merlots or syrahs. This American take on a British style beer has sweet malt flavors overlaying a slightly woody aroma. Villicana’s vintner likely enjoys the earthiness notes that highlight roasted bread, caramel and oak.

Traveling north on Highway 46, I stopped in Cambria, a lovely seaside village that oozes quaint, artistic expression. Here, you’ll find several wineries and what used to be called Cambria Beer Company. After a trademark dispute, the local brewery is now thriving as 927 Beer Company. Head brewer and president Aaron Wharton doesn’t have a taste for wine, but in true collaborative craft-beer-industry fashion, his patrons and friends bring him bottles and growlers of their beers to exchange with his own brews. Some of his favorites include Modern Times, Noble AleWorks, Rare Barrel and Alpine Brewing. In January, Aaron will start offering barrel-aged beers on a monthly basis.

Down the street is tasting room for Moonstone Cellars. Server and “wineaux” Ron Panna tends to favor chardonnays and appreciates red varietals like petite syrah. Young petite syrah wines may have dark berry and plum fruit characteristics, as seen in the winery’s 2013 petite syrah, which is a club exclusive—and it’s fantastic. This wine is full of spice and dark fruit and demands a meal befitting its robust and full-flavored nature, such as rosemary leg of lamb.

When not sipping on wine, he seeks out beers like Lagunitas Sucks’ Brown Shugga. Brown Shugga is a whopping 10 percent ABV American strong ale that carries flavors of malt, dark fruit and brown sugar together beautifully. Many strong ales also have prominent notes of spice, just like syrahs.

Heading up Highway 1, in Big Sur Village, I came upon a cozy pub serving some of the best wings I’ve had in a long time. Maiden Publick House is a bit of a transcendental intersection, where locals, hippie campers and tourists enjoy brews among surrounding lush forests. The menu also lists nice beer pairings for the appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers and traditional favorites like shepherd’s pie or Monterey chicken. Choose beers from 12 taps or 70 bottles. Parish Pub in Santa Cruz owns Maiden Pub, giving them access to a nice beer selection.

Continuing north to Monterey, I stopped by Alvarado Street Brewery and Grill. The first thing I noticed were the delicious smells wafting from the main bar and kitchen. Thanks in part to access to pristine, local ingredients, the brewery has started a barrel-aging program utilizing zinfandel barrels from Joullian Vineyards in Carmel Valley. Now aging is the Kriek lambic with Brettanomyces—and 40 pounds of cherries. Alvarado’s approach to artisan craft beer nabbed them gold at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival: The Mai Tai PA was recognized in the international-style pale ale beer-style category. The beer lineup includes Saboteur saison, Super Rad! sour and Double Cone double IPA. The Super Rad! was, well, super rad—and their bacon and egg flatbread was positively scrumptious.

I later picked up a bottle of pinot noir from my dear friend Cathy. (I’ve known her since the fifth-grade!) She and her husband, Chris Weidemann, started Pelerin, a small artisan winery in Carmel Valley. Their wines are hand-harvested, gently tended and bottled without filtration. When not sipping on pinot noir or Rhone-style syrah, Chris and Cathy enjoy beers from the Monterey Coast Brewing Co. in Salinas. Chris enjoys mid-weight, moderately hoppy ales, and like most, enjoys craft beers from his local community. 

Here’s a quick guide that may help you match your beer preferences with your wine preferences:

  • Enjoy Chardonnay? Try wheat beers.
  • Like carménère? Try West Coast IPAs.
  • Drink syrahs or chianti? Try a porter.
  • If you enjoy merlot, pick up a pale ale.
  • Like riesling? You may also like Czech pilsners.
  • Shiraz or grenache-blend aficionado? Try a Belgium ale.
  • Is your go-to pinot noir? You should also try lambic or sour.

These are mere recommendations; after all, nothing beats your own palate.

Wine is known to be gorgeous, mysterious and sophisticated. Craft beer can portray a sense of worldly history, anarchy and fun. Enjoy both—and you can have it all.

Published in Beer

Here's to the corkscrew—a useful key to unlock the storehouse of wit, the treasury of laughter, the front door of fellowship, and the gate of pleasant folly. —W.E.P. French

Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company seems to have taken the words of W.E.P. French to heart, as evidenced by brewery’s fantastic barrel-aging program, called Barrelworks.

Firestone Walker Brewing is in the midst of rapid expansion. In late 2014, the brewery plans to open a taproom restaurant, pilot brewhouse and craft beer hub on Washington Boulevard in Venice. I first learned about these plans last year, when Firestone gave a group of Los Angeles beer bloggers (and me!) a sneak peek at their expansion plans, which also include the new, but already popular, barrel-aging program in Buellton.

The Firestone Walker folks—including co-founder David Walker—in May took beer journalists on a second trip to Paso Robles and the Central Coast; it’s about a five-hour drive from the Coachella Valley.

The trip’s first stop was at the place where Firestone began. At so-called Area 51, we were surrounded by 50 acres of land and grapes. I sipped beer on the back of a flat-bed farm truck, passing rows of vines glistening in the sunlight. I gave a nod of acknowledgement to the lamas and a scarecrow that were hanging out on the side of the dirt road.

This is the site of Firestone Walker’s original brewhouse. We were soon greeted by Andrew Murray, of Andrew Murray Vineyards, the current tenant. He happily handed out a crisp and fruity white wine called E11even; it was delicious in the hot afternoon sun.

Walker and Jeffers Richardson talked about Firestone Walker’s humble beginnings. “This is where it all began” said Jeffers, one of Firestone Walker’s original brewers and the director at Barrelworks. Walker joked that their beers weren’t always delicious.

We were led back to camp after the tour for a wonderful group meal. It’s here that we were introduced to Bretta Rosé, a deliciously puckering blend of fresh raspberries and Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks Bretta Weisse beer.

Firestone Walker’s master blender, Jim “Sour Jim” Crooks, explained the beer’s genesis.

“We’re down in Barrelworks in early 2013, and Jeffers and I were kinda like mad scientists: ‘What could we do to make this beer really interesting?’” Crooks said.

Crooks started cold calling fruit farmers and vendors. He got in touch someone at Driscoll’s up the road. The call went well: He said he ran out yelling, “Jeffers! You won’t believe this! We just landed 1,000 pounds of raspberries for free!”

The result is a gorgeous, complex and expertly balanced beer. Following this little lovely was an experimental wine-beer hybrid called Zin Skin.

“Essentially, what the Barrelworks does it connects us back to that weird, artisanal beginnings that we so enjoyed,” he said. “It’s a complete folly. There’s an interesting cross-section of wine culture and beer culture.”

Sour Jim continued to talk about their sour discoveries and the roots of the operation. In 2011, David Walker toured Rodenbach brewery in Belgium. He came back to Jim and said with a giant grin, “I figured it out. I know what you’re doing! We’ll make it like something no one’s ever done!”

In 2012, things fell into place. By the end of 2012, Barrelworks went from 28 barrels to about 450 barrels of beer.

“What we’re doing down here is so craft; it’s so artisanal,” said Sour Jim “It is like roots. It really comes back to the roots of making beers, a lot of the lineage of lambics and sour beers. These are historic beers, a lot of them.”

Jeffers added: “The brewers are learning a lot from the wine makers. Barrelworks takes you back to cellaring, pre-Industrial Revolution. Barrelworks is a creative endeavor that is following and learning practices that have been missing in brewing a long time—but not in the wine industry.”

The next day, we traveled to Paso Robles, home of Firestone Walker Brewery. After a delicious lunch, we experienced a tasting session led by lab analyst Norm Stokes.

Norm and the Firestone team prepared an array of off-flavor Firestone tasters, either from increased aging or off temperatures. We tasted beers that had been aged three, thirty and 300 days. This “sensory analysis” exposed flavors not normally craved—cabbage, latex paint, butter and vinegar.

Head brewer Dustin Kral then led the group through the Firestone brew house. David Walker explained that the brewery walks a fine line, staying artisanal but growing to the levels that the public is starting to demand.

Soon, we were on the road again, traveling down another amazingly picturesque country lane in Paso Robles to a wonderful boutique winery that has also found a way to craft high-quality vodka, gin and other liquors via their free-run juice, called saignée.

Villicana Winery owners Alex and Monica Villicana distill the “prize juice”—as Monica refers to it—that is cast from the first grape crush to create damn-near-luxurious liquors. The result is Paso Robles' first craft distillery, Re:Find.

“We bought 80 acres of dirt basically here in Paso in 1996,” Monica said, explaining the operation’s beginnings. “Between the two of us and our family and friends, we planted 13 acres of vines. … We make nine different wines in our 13-acre vineyard. Everything is pretty much estate here. We only produce about 2,000 cases annually.”

Here’s how that prize juice becomes delicious liquor: They collect the juice and bring it back to the winery. They ferment it into a high-alcohol rose. The high sugar fermentations produce glycerol, which has a heavy texture and sweetness. They then start a four distillation process.

“Distilling is about isolating the good alcohol and getting rid of the bad alcohol. … It’s in the second, third and fourth distillations that we really start to do the distillers’ craft to get the clean alcohol and introduce the vodkas and gins that we’re producing here,” Alex said.

If you haven’t visited Paso Robles, you’re missing out on a romantic California charm that envelopes you with magnificent rolling hills, artisan culinary cuisine, seasonal craft cocktails and, of-course, award winning craft beer. It’s great to see forward-thinking companies, like Firestone Walker and Re:Find, exude quality and collaboration in a stunning, old world setting.

Published in Beer