The wine-to-beer ratio in the catalog spread that is Healdsburg, California, is decidedly askew.
After a post-Thanksgiving spate of tastings up and down the Russian River Valley — Rochioli, Bacigalupi, and Twomey Cellars, all of which had at least a few fun things to sample — my friends and I headed into town for one more round, at Cartograph, where the peppery 2014 Bucher Vineyard Pinot Noir was a lovely departure from the fruit-bombs that so often populate that varietal.
There’s something about a series of small sips that makes a body crave a gulp, so we ambled across the town plaza to Bear Republic‘s brewpub. The 21-year-old craft brewery — which is technically headquartered a bit farther north on Highway 101, in Cloverdale — is arguably best-known for Racer 5, an approachable, balanced IPA that can be found in any number of dives and which one can consequently drink all night without burning out on excessive hops.
As I’ve written many times before, getting a flight of something automatically enhances the experience, and Bear Republic does one better by dishing out more beer than the boards they come on were designed to hold. By nestling the glasses in between slots, the bartender can fit four extra 4-ounce pours, which might make things hard to keep track of when you’re sharing two of them among three people, but not without enjoying yourself on the way.
The low-alcohol Session IPA Pace Car Racer, while hardly an obscurity, is a great counterpoint to the bolder one-offs. It’s light and beautifully piney, while the even less-bitter XP Pale Ale is much better than its bland menu description would suggest. (Light, golden ales deserve love, too.)
Without even going into its archive, Bear Republic has dozens of draft specialties, barrel-aged beers, and other limited editions, any one of which makes a detour worthwhile. The Canyonero was an A-plus, an amber rye ale made with three strains of experimental hops. But the best of them all — unsurprisingly, maybe — was the Old Scoutter’s Barleywine, a beautifully balanced, super-malty treat in the style of a winter warmer, those heavily spiced, dessert-like British draughts meant to perk you up every which way. Unlike a winter warmer, though, it’s a stiff drink, with an ABV of 10.4. As the Bay Area settles into a bout of freakishly, hideously cold weather, drinking one of these might almost make you want to venture into the subarctic air of your own volition.
The menu isn’t much more than what you might find at your local man-cave — there’s not one but two versions of fried calamari on there, along with the usual burgers, fries, wings, and nachos, plus the occasional cubano sandwich and a build-your-own-bratwurst — but as taprooms go, better to keep it real than chase the latest insufferable trend. (It’s hard not to read the overt normal-ness as a response to all the frou-frou widely available elsewhere in town, either.)
For what it’s worth, the references combine highbrow with lowbrow. The Canyonero may be the parody SUV from The Simpsons that’s a “country-fried truck endorsed by a clown,” but Old Baba Yaga is a witch from Russian folklore as well as an Imperial Stout. In myths, she lived in a hut made held up by chicken legs and threatened to eat people who angered her. Just stick with the bratwursts; they pair better.
Bear Republic Brewing Company 345 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg 707-433-2337 or bearrepublic.com