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Brewing In California's Central Valley
By Don Erickson

Mention California brewing, and most people think of the breweries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some might think of those in San Diego or even in Greater Los Angeles. But what about those in Central California, especially the San Joaquin Valley?

Funny thing is, that valley is home to some of the state’s oldest breweries. Take the Sequoia Brewing Company in Fresno, for example. Long known as Butterfield Brewing Company, this brewpub has always been famous for stellar brews. In fact, its Tower Dark, like Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and North Coast’s Red Seal Ale, defined a style. Unfortunately, a few years ago, Butterfield expanded too much too soon. The business first fell back onto the original brewpub, and then new ownership took over. Now there’s a new name, a new look, a new menu and even new beers. But don’t worry, not much has really changed.

Changing the name from Butterfield to Sequoia was the easiest way for the brewpub to clarify its rights to its own beer. At the same time, the name change gave the brewery a chance to tweak its image. Thus, the superb Tower Dark is nowhere to be seen. Instead, there’s something equally good called Black Oak Porter. The other beers include Blossom Trail Honey Wheat, Sequoia Gold, Sequoia Pale Ale, General Grant ESB, Thunderhead Amber and Mineral King IPA. There’s a “Mexican-style light ale” called Del Oro and, of course, plenty of seasonals: Bohemian Pilsner, Hop Fest Pale Ale, Oatmeal Stout and Jacob Marley barley wine, to name but a few.

However, the real attention-getter is a brew called Moto Brew Pale Ale. The beer is readily available in six-packs throughout California, Nevada and Arizona, as well as at the winner’s circle at major motorcycle races. That’s right, winning riders spray beer, not champagne. Through its Moto Brew brand, Sequoia Brewing sponsors three top-drawer motorcycle racing teams, one each in Super Cross, Super Moto and Arena Cross. The riders’ autographed photos, leathers and helmets are in a special room behind Sequoia’s bar. Aficionados of the sport will love it.

To check out Sequoia’s new look for yourself, take the 180 crosstown freeway from either the 99 or 41 freeway. Take the Fulton Street exit and turn north onto Van Ness, then turn left at Olive. The brewpub will be on the right.

While in town, be sure to visit Fresno’s other brewery. Full Circle Brewing is a pure throwback. If you want see how it was done in microbrewing’s earliest days, Full Circle is a must-visit. For instance, the brewery is housed in what used to be a garage for post office trucks. There’s no heating and no air conditioning. It’s just a great big empty space where Full Circle’s owners, Don Anderson and Bill McCrory, could build a brewery, a meadery and a winery!

The two, both veteran homebrewers, actually opened their business in 2001, selling meads under the Los Californios label. There’s a basic Mead, subtitled “Honey Wine,” plus an Orange Blossom Special made from both honey and orange juice, and even a Pomegranate Mead. That last one is justly famous, having won some major awards.
Next came agave wine, again under the Los Californios name. There are two varieties offered: Pulque Fino, described as a “delicate white wine,” and Pulque, a stronger version meant for margaritas.

Only in the last year have Don and Bill started selling beer. As you might expect, they offer a wide variety: 1850 London Porter, Russian Stout, Old English Brown Ale, Cluster Fuggle Cream Ale (a right hoppy beer with 20% adjunct — yes, it can be done!), American Wheat, a barley wine, a märzen, a Vienna lager, even a pilsner. Best of all, the lineup is ever changing.

As you might have guessed, Full Circle is not an ordinary brewing establishment. As a matter of fact, calling it “eclectic” is an understatement. Don and Bill’s brewery is a mish-mash of refurbished vintage brewing vessels, some custom-built vats and lots of recycled bits and pieces. Scores of ancient fermenters surround a custom-built mash tun that’s mounted on a spindle for easy cleaning.

Around the brewing area are two separate tasting areas, one for the meads and wines, the other for the beers. There’s also a stage for live music — the seating includes chairs from defunct theaters as well as barber chairs! The overall atmosphere? It’s like hanging out in your best buddy’s oversized garage.

To visit Full Circle, exit the 99 freeway at Ventura Street and turn east towards downtown. Then take a quick left onto F Street and look to the right.

Visalia is about 45 miles south of Fresno. There, in the middle of a well-done revitalized downtown, you’ll find a brewpub called Brewbakers. As I’ve mentioned in prior articles, I mightily enjoy the place. It’s a good example of brewpub as local watering hole.

Brewbakers is a long, narrow place with the brewery on one side, tables on the other and the bar itself in the middle. On weekends, you can sit at one end of the bar and easily listen to the musicians playing at the other end. Or you can enjoy a meal, a pint and camaraderie with your neighbors.

The beers can be an especially interesting playground. Brewbakers’s owners, like many brewpub owners, were homebrewers first. However, these guys got their start making their own sodas, not beer. As you might expect, they make a great root beer. But be sure to try their other flavors too. On my last visit, I was taken with the Strawberry Kiwi soda. However, a real standout is a sometimes-offered concoction called Bubble Gum. It was a nifty light blue in color and tasted as sweet as its name.

The beers are equally “colorful.” Recent offerings included both an Apple Ale and a Raspberry Apple Ale. But traditionalists shouldn’t fret; there was also an Imperial Stout and an IPA.

To find Brewbakers, go onto Highway 198 from the 99 freeway. Take the downtown Visalia exit; turn left at Court Street, then right onto Main Street. For those on beer safari, note that a Comfort Suites hotel is literally right outside the brewpub’s back door.
West of Visalia, in Hanford, is a new brewpub called the Old Firehouse Brewpub & Hofbrau, with veteran brewer Mike Hall at the kettle. It has nonstandard hours — closed on Sundays during football season!?! — so I haven’t explored the place yet. To find it yourself, exit the 198 freeway at Hanford, then go north of the freeway along Fourth Street. Turn onto Douty and look to the right.

Obviously, the breweries of the San Joaquin Valley deserve further study.

Sequoia Brewing Co.
777 E. Olive
Fresno, CA 93728
(559) 264-5521

Full Circle Brewing Co.
620 F St.
Fresno, CA 93706
(559) 264-6323

219 E. Main St.
Visalia, CA 93291
(559) 627-2739

Old Firehouse Brewpub & Hofbrau
215 N. Douty St.
Hanford, CA 93230
(559) 585-8104

Don Erickson is an associate editor of the Celebrator Beer News and a longtime “grognard” covering the Southern California beer scene. He lives in Long Beach, Calif.


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