Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

California Beer

Irish Pub in Squaw Valley
(inside an Irish pub in Squaw Valley)

In 1994, I was working on a made-for-TV movie in San Jose. On a day off, I drove up to Mountain View with one of the sound guys. We attended the Small Brewers’ Festival of California where I tried many beers including Pete’s Wicked Ale, which quickly became my favorite.

When I returned to Austin, I preached the gospel of Pete’s but it would be another year and a half before it made its way here. By the time I found it, in a 7-11 on MLK, it tasted different. I still liked it, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. Perhaps beer tastes better in memory?

A few years ago, I mentioned it to a friend’s father who is an alcohol distributor. He claimed that all California and all European beers were skunky by the time they reach Texas and that they taste totally different (meaning fresh) closer to the source.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but when we were in California, I found that my favorite beer of all time, my comfort beer if you will – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – was not the same in the Sierra Nevada mountains as it is in the hills of central Texas.

I love Sierra Nevada for its crisp hopiness, almost IPA-like in character. It’s the cascade hops that I love, I suppose, which is why when I make beer I try to load it up with similar-tasting hops. Still, there’s nothing like a cold pint of Sierra Nevada Pale. The idea of drinking a pint of Sierra in the Sierras was too much to pass up, but imagine my surprise when I tasted it. It was like a great beer made perfect. It had greater complexity of flavor than it does here. There’s an almost floral presence in the taste, but it’s not sweet or soapy, it’s just… better.

Perhaps my friend’s dad was right. Perhaps Sierra is a bit off here in Texas, but I still like it. The test will be if I can locate a local purveyor of any of these fine beers that we tried on our trip and see if they taste as I remember them:

  • Tahoe Red Ale from the Lake Tahoe Brewing Company (whose site I can’t find) somewhere on the Nevada side. I liked this one. Reds aren’t my favorite, but it was smooth and pleasant.
  • Steelhead Extra Pale Ale from the Mad River Brewing Company in Blue Lake, CA. Truly a light pale in color. Nicely hopped, and I say the hoppier the better. This was my favorite of the beers we discovered.
  • Eye of the Hawk Select Ale by the Mendocino Brewing Company in Ukiah, CA. You can tell it’s a very alcoholic beer (8.0%) without reading the label. It’s thick, full, and strong. Reminds me of some Scottish ales. One is enough.
  • Great White Hefe-Weissen by the Lost Coast Brewing Company in Eureka, CA. I like a hefe after a hot day. It wasn’t really hot the day we tried it, but it still went down clean and smooth. Very refreshing with a wedge of lemon. Beautiful rich golden color.

We also drank Sierra Nevada Pale. Of course.

In his book River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon at one point describes reaching the west coast as coming to the end of the “Great American Beer Desert.” It’s not too deserty here in central Texas, but I do love going to California if for nothing else than to try new beers.


  1. did you look for the brewery location on the label? It is possible the brew you are recieving in Texas is not brewed in the same place? I know that some of our local brewers were making private label brews for others.

  2. As ELO once wisely sang (and has anyone wrote that ever before?), “It’s a living thing, it’s a terrible thing to lose.” Of course they weren’t singing about beer, but they should have been. Freshness matters. The best beer I’ve ever had is Anchor Liberty at the end of the Anchor Brewery Tour, when the keg had to travel about 100 feet to get tapped. Talk about existential hoppiness.

    As an aside, Nigel came from the Tahoe region–see any of his greyhound relatives up there?

  3. George, It seems everyone takes their dogs everywhere there. We even saw one pup sitting in the cab of a bulldozer helping his person do some construction work. We did not, however, see one greyhound so I guess it’s not a perfect place…

    As to the beer, we never tried the Anchor while we were out there, but wondered if it too would taste different. It’s my wife’s favorite brew and when we go to San Francisco one day, a stop at the brewery will definitely be in order. There’s nothing like minutes old beer!

    Mallory, I haven’t checked the label, but perhaps I should.

  4. George, My wife just reminded me that we did meet a pair of Italian greyhounds who had just gone white water rafting. We met them outside the pub in which the picture was taken so perhaps that’s why I forgot…

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