Push aside, for now, the hoppy and hazy India pale ales and refreshingly crisp pilsner lagers and imbibe seasonally. In November through January, local beers are spiced, flavored and aged in barrels to chase away the chill when consumed. They’re winter warmers that comfort like a fleece jacket and have aromas and flavors that suit the holidays and spread good cheer throughout the body, given their typical high alcoholic strength.
We’re talking dark, low-carbonation porters and stouts with chocolate, vanilla and coffee aromas and flavors, and beers aged in bourbon barrels and infused with wintery enhancers such as spruce tips and pumpkin pie spices. Don’t forget barleywines, complex ales with robust caramel and malt characteristics and the alcoholic potency of wine (12 – 13%), thus the category name.
Most of Sonoma’s seasonal suds are made in limited quantities, so enjoy them now. Some of the recommended brews here are poured only in the taprooms. Others are sold, in cans and bottles, in the tasting rooms and at select retail stores. Your best bet for November and December holiday celebrations is to buy crowlers — 32-ounce cans filled with fresh beer at the taprooms and machine-sealed to remove oxygen and preserve freshness.
For those steadfastly loyal to IPAs, Belgian sours or traditional lagers, you’ll still find them at the following Sonoma breweries. To the more adventurous, and those in need of a warm liquid blankie and aroma therapy, these local taprooms are for you.
*abv = alcohol by volume.
Barrel Brothers Brewing Co.
Brothers-in-law Wesley Deal and Daniel Weber and their father-in-law, Tom Sather, founded their Windsor brewery in 2015 and had great success with their sour beers. Over time, they’ve expanded into hard seltzers, nonalcoholic brews, ready-to-drink cocktails and T.R.E.N.D.S, alcoholic smoothies and slushies loaded with fruit (the first T.R.E.N.D.S. slushy, Pineapple Guava, returned in late October).
Frivolity aside, the brothers are serious about their more traditional beers, among them Dark Sarcasm, a porter they describe as the “dark beer for people who don’t like dark beers.” Madagascar vanilla and fudge flavors join malted barley in this 7% abv ale. For chilly days, the Leatherbound Books is a brown sour that has been aged in used pinot noir wine barrels, which lends cherry and berry notes to the brew. It packs a wallop at 9.5% abv. Bet you can drink just one.
399 Business Park Court, No. 506, Windsor, 707-696-9487, barrelbrothersbrewing.com
Bear Republic Brewing Co.
Healdsburgers still mourn the closure of the Norgrove family’s downtown brewpub, which followed their relocation of brewing to a larger production and bottling/canning facility in Cloverdale. Yet the flagship, year-round Racer 5 IPA and seasonal beers can be enjoyed in the Rohnert Park pub, indoors and out, and with pub grub and views of Roberts Lake and its resident waterfowl.
IPAs of various strengths and summertime wheat ales are founding brewmaster Rich “Ricardo” Norgrove’s most recognized beers, which he began producing in 1995. Selections, just like consumer tastes, have evolved over time, and while hoppy, hazy IPAs remain a strong suit, the Bear has stayed true to porter.
The Brewmaster Series Porter (6.3% abv) is chestnut brown in color, mildly bitter from Centennial and Cascade hops and rich in caramel and chocolate malt and brown sugar notes. Baba Yaga Chocolate Imperial Stout (a potent 12% abv) is sure to warm the belly, so sip slowly to fully appreciate its dark chocolate, black molasses, caramel and anise spice layers. (Baba Yaga is a nasty witch from Russian folklore and a likely nod to Russian Imperial Stout.)
5000 Roberts Lake Road, Rohnert Park, 707-585-2722, bearrepublic.com
Crooked Goat Brewing Co.
Visit this popular taproom in The Barlow marketplace in Sebastopol for a glass of Silver Lining, an American dark-brown stout with a nuanced aroma and flavor of vanilla. Silver Lining (6% abv) combines dark roasted malts and scrapings from vanilla beans for a smooth, creamy brew.
Or put on Sweater Weather Pumpkin Brown Ale (6.7% abv), brewed with fresh pumpkin that’s roasted and sprinkled with holiday spices. Pumpkin beers have been brewed long before Starbucks and Trader Joe’s turned the squash into a marketing scheme. Crooked Goat’s version is seriously made; a tasty brown ale rich in malt and spice personality. The sugars derived from the pumpkin flesh, when fermented, boost the alcohol content for a warming palate pleaser.
The Barlow, 120 Morris St., Suite 120, Sebastopol, 707-827-3893, crookedgoatbrewing.com
HenHouse Brewing Co.
This decade-old brewer, which began on a small scale in Petaluma and expanded to a larger facility in downtown Santa Rosa, is mostly known for its hoppy IPAs and very original Oyster Stout (4.5% abv), a brown ale brewed with whole oysters from Marin’s Hog Island Oyster Co., with the bivalves providing calcium that lifts the espresso and chocolate notes from the roasted barley.
HenHouse’s seasonal menu also includes the Great Life Peanut Butter Cup Porter, the can festooned with a jack o’ lantern and chicken in mummy wrapping. It’s not just for Halloween, though a treat nonetheless. At just 4.7% abv, it’s an easy-drinking English brown porter style, brewed with peanut butter powder, salt and lactose for a creamy, chocolate-y texture and medium maltiness. Not potent enough? Try Witchcraft and the Occult III: Devil’s Night 2021, a dark, black saison aged in wine barrels with cherries, brettanomyces yeast and lactobacillus. At 7.3% abv, it’s serious stuff, spicy and malty, with a fruity finish.
HenHouse recently announced it has purchased the Iron Springs Pub & Brewery in Fairfax, in Marin County. According to co-founder and CEO Collin McDonell, HenHouse will begin converting Iron Springs into HenHouse in mid-November yet retain Iron Springs’ live music program and commercial kitchen.
Tasting rooms: 322 Bellevue Ave., Santa Rosa and 1333 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma, 707-978-4577, henhousebrewing.com
Lagunitas Brewing Co.
Tony Magee built such a huge business at his Petaluma brewery — global distribution, a branch brewery in Chicago and plans for more, and a rousing local pub scene (and the annual Beer Circus) — that he sold the brand to Heineken International in 2017. Corporate ownership hasn’t altered the Petaluma fun (often enveloped in a cannabis haze) and like most Sonoma breweries, the truly special stuff stays at the Lagunitas TapRoom & Beer Sanctuary.
Lagunitas has never met a hops variety it didn’t like, and the IPA lineup is dizzying and ever-changing. Alas, the dark-roasted coffee-like Cappucino Stout isn’t currently in production, but brewmaster Jeremy Marshall offers a handful of limited-release beers to fill that void.
The Unrefined Shugga’ Strong Ale is part of the brewery’s One Hitter Series. Brewed with raw cane sugar, the fermentation gobbles up most of the sweetness, leaving behind molasses, smoke, vanilla and spice notes. Released on Nov. 1, it’s a big boy (9% abv) in amber clothing.
For those who mark their calendars for the February release of Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Younger, circle Jan. 10 to get your mitts on Lagunitas’ Willettized Coffee Stout, aged in toasted rye whiskey barrels from Kentucky. Think pleasantly bitter chocolate and coffee character, but beware: it has 12.9% alcohol by volume. Designated drivers can refuel with a nonalcoholic Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher or the seasonal IPNA, a malt beverage with lots of hops but no alcohol.
1280 N. McDowell Ave., Petaluma, 707-778-8776, lagunitas.com
Russian River Brewing Co.
Beer buffs know all about Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo’s Belgian-style brews and their crazily sought-after Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA released every February (Feb. 4 in 2022). Younger definitely creates warm, happy thoughts in the heads of those fortunate enough to acquire it. Its sibling (or uncle), Pliny the Elder, a double IPA made year-round, also generates hand-rubbing excitement. It’s the Belgian-inspired ales, however, that really sing in fall and winter.
There’s Consecration (10% abv), a sour dark ale aged in cabernet sauvignon barrels with blackcurrants and boasting chocolate, pipe tobacco and red-wine notes. It’s a sipper, not a slammer. Shadow of a Doubt (9.9% abv), named for the Arthur Hitchcock movie filmed in Santa Rosa in 1943, is an Imperial Porter that is malty and chocolate-y, and with a supple mouthfeel. Less alcoholic yet not shy is Russian River Porter (5.7% abv), which smells and tastes of fall: roasty, malty and with a distinct clove character.
On visits to RRBC’s taproom/restaurants in Santa Rosa and Windsor, look for Black is Beautiful, a 10% abv Imperial Stout. Sales proceeds go to local nonprofits “who support police reform and provide legal defense funds and assistance to those in need,” the website explains. It’s an effort by the Cilurzos and other U.S. brewers to “promote equality and inclusivity within the craft beer community and beyond.”
725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-545-2337; 700 Mitchell Lane, Windsor, 707-545-2337, russianriverbrewing.com
Seismic Brewing Co.
Christopher Jackson, scion of Jackson Family Wines proprietor/chairwoman Barbara Banke and her late husband, Jess Jackson, branched out from grapevines to hop vines, founding Seismic to produce excellent beers in the most sustainable, earth-friendly ways. It should come as no shock to Sonoma beer fans that Seismic’s focus is on IPAs and lagers, among the region’s staples. However, a visit to the taproom in Sebastopol’s The Barlow just might lead you to two seasonal brews that put bourbon into play — perfect for winter.
The Starkiller Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Irish Export Stout (10% abv) features dark malts but, unusually, no roasted barley. Aging for one year in bourbon barrels adds a subtle boozy note to the espresso and bittersweet chocolate foundation. Served on tap only, its nitrogenation creates a yin-yang balance of carbonation and creamy texture. The Bourbon Barrel-Aged Oatmeal Stout takes wood aging another step, to two years. At 5.6% abv, this stout has half the potency of the Irish Export Stout, yet with a similar whiskey note, plus vanilla and English toffee flavors.
The Barlow, 6700 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707-544-5996, seismicbrewingco.com
Shady Oak Barrel House
As the name suggests, Steve Douty’s beers are typically aged in wood barrels. He started his one-man business near downtown Santa Rosa with a focus on what are known as sour beers, which are tart and refreshing. Their complexity comes from the use of wild yeasts and (non-harmful) bacteria that add spice, fruitiness, crisp acidity and a hint of funk.
Brewers can’t help but experiment, create new beer styles and expand their offerings to meet the seasons and consumer palates, and Douty did just that with his Velvet Couch Oatmeal Stout (5.1 abv.). Very easy-drinking and with a creamy foam head that will leave a mustache on your upper lip, it reminds of an Irish stout, with oatmeal and toasted grains lending the roasty aromas and adult-coffee flavors. Check the website for visiting days and hours of the Shady Oak beer garden.
420 First St., Santa Rosa, 707-575-7687, shadyoakbarrelhouse.com