Chico’s Finest Beers

Don’t Play Flip Cup with These Beers

By: Maura Loftus-Sweetland

While many believe that the Chico beer culture relies solely on red plastic cups and cheap, foamy kegs, there actually lies a much richer tradition of distinct and original beers brewed right here in our area.

The most famous of these breweries is Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., a beer that is not only a Chico favorite but also has a strong following throughout the country. However are other notable breweries in the area like Feather River Brewing Company and Western Pacific Brewing and Dining, both of which offer unique and satisfying beer that will make you forget that Keystone Light ever came into your life.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. began as a small craft brewery in 1978 when Founder Ken Grossman began designing and building his own equipment. At the time there were no suppliers for small brewing companies so Grossman turned old dairy equipment into beer-kettles and began to make the first batches of Sierra Nevada.

In the 70s there were only about 40 breweries in the United States, most of which were mass produced and had very little flavor. In 1981 the first batch of Pale Ale hit the market and it started to create a buzz in the world of craft breweries.

“Sierra Nevada put craft brewing on the map,” said Bill Manley, the communications coordinator for Sierra Nevada. “Now it’s the second largest craft brewery in the country.”

Soon the brewery out-grew its modest set-up so in 1988 Sierra Nevada began to design and build the brewery that we are all familiar with today, complete with a restaurant, gift-shop and “The Big Room,” which is used for live music and events.

“Other breweries don’t look like Sierra Nevada,” Manley said. “Ken wants people to come to the brewery and enjoy themselves. He has put in a lot of time and energy to make Sierra Nevada apart of the community.”

However, the love for Sierra Nevada goes far beyond the city limits of Chico. The brewery has managed to gather a strong, country-wide following without spending millions of dollars on advertising.

“Our advertising is 100% word-of-mouth,” Manley said. “Judd Apatow, the director of ’40 Year Old Virgin’ and ‘Knocked Up’ is a huge fan of Sierra Nevada so he puts the beer in his movies all the time. Adam Sandler is another fan who will drink it in his movies. It’s great because we don’t tell them to do it, they just enjoy the beer.”

But the citizens of Chico can rest assured that Sierra Nevada still leaves something special for them because Chico is the only place where you can find Sierra Nevada’s Crystal Wheat or get their Torpedo Ale on tap.

Sierra Nevada is also a leader in sustainability efforts in Chico. In 2009 they completed one of the largest privately owned solar arrays in the United States which provides them with 80% of their electrical needs. They have also set up a CO2 recovery system to reduce their atmospheric impact and installed fuel-cells that use the energy generated at the brewery to heat and light the establishment. But don’t expect there to be a lot of press on the subject.

“We don’t do it because we want to brag about it,” Manley said. “We do it because, from a business standpoint, it makes sense. Plus it’s just the right thing to do.”

Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is their number one selling beer but other favorites include their year-round Torpedo Ale or their seasonal Glissade, Summerfest or Celebration Ale.

“All of these beers have a big difference in style but they all have that distinct Sierra Nevada flavor,” Manley said.

The brewery attributes its hoppy, full-flavored beer to their use of whole-cone hops. Unlike other breweries that use pelletized hops and extracts, Sierra Nevada uses 100% whole-cone hops which create a strong and robust flavor. These flavors help to create ales and lagers that showcase the aromatics and spiciness of the hops. A Sierra Nevada beer is meant to be enjoyed slowly and savored.

“Sierra Nevada is a vehicle for flavor, not a vehicle for alcohol,” Manley said.

The brewery offers a great beer, great food and a gift shop. Tours are offered daily at 2:30 p.m. Sunday to Friday or continuously from 12-3 p.m. on Saturdays. It is located at 1075 East 20th St. in Chico. Try the sampler so you can taste all 16 beers the brewery has on tap!

Feather River Brewing Company

Created in 2000 by Roger Preecs, the Feather River Brewing Company is a small operation that produces big results. Preecs decided to create a beer that was completely tailored to his tastes and he quickly discovered that he was doing something right.

“In the 10 years since I’ve started, I’ve never met a single person who hasn’t liked the beer,” Preecs said. This statement can be supported by the numerous People’s Choice awards that the brewery has received.

Preecs runs Feather River out of his small brewery in Magalia, just 30 minutes outside of Chico. He built the brewery himself so he was able to figure out what worked best and fit the brewery to his exact specifications.

Before building his brewery, Preecs had been brewing beer as a hobby for 25 years. He learned the techniques from his friend’s uncle who had a small home-brewery.

“The minute I saw him make a batch something just clicked and I knew that that is what I was meant to do,” Preecs said.

Preecs went with his mentor to a home-brewing competition and watched him take home first and second a place. Following the trip, Preecs went straight home and began to put together his brewing system with supplies he found in scrap yards.

“I said ‘I will be back next year with beer,’” Preecs said. “I came back the next year and won first.”

Feather River beers are unfiltered, which saves vitamins and proteins that are lost during mass-production, with an even balance of hops and malt. This creates a smooth beer with no after taste. Preecs didn’t want to create the bitter beers that most people associated with small breweries.

“The general public doesn’t like a bitter beer but most micro-breweries go to a bitter side,” Preecs said. “This is why only 8 to 10 percent of the market drinks micro-brews. 100 percent of beer drinkers can drink my beer.”

It is easy to be that confident when Feather River taps its kegs half-way through most of their beer festivals, or when a recent Slow Foods event requested Feather River to be their only beer provider.

“There were over 300 people there who had never drank the beer before,” Preecs said. “But by the end they were all asking me where they could get more.”

Feather River can be purchased all throughout Northern California. They make their Honey Ale and Raging Rapids Ale all year and their seasonal Dark Canyon Ale, which has coffee and chocolate flavors and makes a great addition to a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, can be found during the winter.

Currently Feather River has reservation-only brewery tours at 14665 Forest Ridge Rd. in Magalia. However there are plans to create a brew-pub in the near the future.

Western Pacific Brewing and Dining

Western Pacific Brewing and Dining is the only micro-brewery in Oroville. It produced its first beer in February 2009 after converting a large, family restaurant into a brewery.

“We tried to sell the restaurant and we couldn’t,” said David Deakins, owner of Western Pacific Brewing and Dining. “So I had the bright idea to start a small brewery.”

The restaurant opened in 1977 when Oscar Deakins, David Deakins and Gary Quilici had a vision of converting a century old railroad depot into a restaurant. On Sept. 13, 1977 they opened The Depot Restaurant and Lounge in Oroville. After Oscar Deakins and Quilici left the company, David Deakins decided to team up with Jim Gowan, a brewery design expert and brewmaster, to bring a micro-brewery to the restaurant which he renamed the Western Pacific Brewing and Dining.

“Jim is my wife’s step-brother,” Deakins said. “I wasn’t a big micro-brewery fan but I knew he made good beer.”

Gowan, a former UPS driver, had brewed beer in his backyard for 20 years before he quit his job and went to school to learn how to be a brewmaster. He is the only person that makes Western Pacific’s beers and all of the recipes are his.

The brewery’s first beer was a delicious lightly hopped Golden Ale. The small batch became incredibly popular amongst local residents and soon the brewery began to expand their menu. Today the brewery produces a large selection of hand-crafted ales which they brew in small batches to assure that it is the freshest beer possible.

“We are all about quality, not quantity,” Deakins said. “I’ll have a couple of beers a day. I like to taste them to see if anything is wrong.”

Western Pacific also makes sure not to speed through the brewing process.

“A lot of breweries will rush the fermanting process,” Deakins said. “They will do it in 11 to 12 days. We have a 14 day minimum.”

Western Pacific recently hosted a Brewfest in their parking lot showcasing small, craft breweries throughout Northern California. They are also planning to hold an Oktoberfest event in the fall.

Western Pacific doesn’t bottle their beer but it can be found on tap at local casinoes or in bars around Lake Oroville.

“It’s kegs only right now, we are just taking baby steps,” Deakins said. “But everyone enjoys everything so far.”

The brewery had a large food menu as well as a full bar and dance floor. It can be found at 2191 High St. in Oroville.

Chico’s warm and friendly attitude can be seen between these locals breweries as well, where they none of them act like vicious rivals. Quite the contrary, these brewers are always there for each other when another needs a helping hand.

“We are like family,” Preecs said.

So next time you are trying to fight through a crowd of freshmen, all so that you can get half a cup of warm beer, remember that there are several fantastic breweries in your area, all with something unique to discover.

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