The question of place is beer’s problem, and its salvation. While wine has it easy—only this soil makes those grapes—and spirits like Scotch and bourbon must be legally local, beer can come from anywhere.
Beer Fests, those alcoholic heterotopias, make this dizzyingly clear. American Craft Beer Week starts next week, and there’s a decent chance your city has a beer fest on the docket. Try this: push through the drunken swarms of fanboys (and they’re usually all boys) in a faceless convention center, and try to guess where the beer you sip is from. Not which booth, but which place.
Citrus-y hop bombs might say “West Coast,” but that’s not necessarily the case anymore — take Brooklyn Brewery’s lemonade-y Sorachi Ace. Local ingredients help, but not everyone is lucky enough to use them, and fresh-hopped beers are six months away. Plus, some beers transport a drinker farther than the brewery itself: San Francisco’s Magnolia makes a bitter with heirloom British malt that’ll fly you to Covent Garden in a single swig, even though it’s made on Haight.
My favorite beers lately have been the easiest to map, and some of the best come from Anderson Valley. Their beer festival, the Booneville Beer Fest, starts on May 14th.
Anderson Valley beers are deeply local. The valley itself, tucked under redwoods, oaks, and grapevines in Mendocino County, is about as isolated as it gets—good cover over the years for hippies, biker gangs, pot growers, and recluses. A hundred years ago, the locals invented their own language, Boontling. Come to visit, and you might get called a bright-lighter, and happily given the translation, too. Belly up at the Booneville saloon and you might be chided for sipping (“Need a nipple for that? Welcome to Booneville.”). The sheriff might tail you, but he’ll also recommend the best food in town (that’d be Libby’s, also seemingly the only food in town). Which is to say, folks here are special, but not unwelcoming. Same with the beer.
Boont Amber (that’s Boontling for Booneville, in the middle of the valley) and Poleeko Pale (Philo, just to the north) are two of the best session beers around, no nipple needed. Boont is rich and earthy; Poleeko is crisp and clean. Netted Madge, their black IPA, is fantastic—the bracing edge of an IPA softened to the finish of a smooth, dark lager.
The beers are profoundly simple, and they’re anything but boring, comfortable not to be self-consciously weird, memorable for their perfection, not their punch. That, to me, tastes like this place: a brewery of polished German copper, sending plumes of subtly beer-perfumed steam out over the vineyards and redwoods. There’s a Frisbee golf course out back, but it’s not for show, or shtick—they built it for something fun to do in the middle of nowhere, the same reason the brewmaster raises goats or the operations manager dives for abalone. While I was there I saw a guy in a local fire department t-shirt, playing alone, sink a 50-yard putt like no one was watching. Proof, it seemed, that our best work is done for our own benefit, and the best beer is brewed with nothing to prove but where it’s from. Welcome to Booneville.