Craft beer boom helping to revitalize Sierra Foothills

IN 1848, FRENCHMAN, CLAUDE CHANA, who discovered gold in Auburn Ravine, planted the first grape vines in the region. Besides miners, the Gold Rush brought European winemakers who established larger vineyards. In the 1860s, Placer County had more vineyards and wineries than Sonoma and Napa combined.

Along with wine, the Gold Rush ushered in craft beer brewing. The region became a beer capital, thanks to the brewing skills of German immigrants, easy access to mountain spring water, rich hops and barley from the Sacramento Valley and later, refrigerated rail cars. Starting in the late 1800s, the Buffalo Brewery — the West’s largest — stood at the site now occupied by the Sacramento Bee.

Local wineries and breweries are helping to revitalize the region’s economy and make it a desirable getaway.

For wine enthusiasts, the Placer County Wine Trail and Sierra Vintners in Nevada County are drawing visitors from Northern California and Northern Nevada to taste award-winning wines.

Now an “Ale Trail” is emerging as craft breweries pop up in the region, along the I-80 corridor, from Loomis to Auburn to Truckee; near Hwy. 65 in Lincoln; and along Hwy. 49, from Auburn to Nevada City. “You can visit our local breweries in day trip or a weekend journey,” says Jim Harte, brewer and co-owner of ol’ Republic Brewery in Nevada City.

As with the region’s wineries, the craft breweries let you taste beer in a relaxed setting and often visit with the brewers. The edibles, including artisan pizzas, homemade pot pies and street tacos, often come from the best local food trucks.

Gastropubs, a portmanteau of “gastronomy” and “pub,” are booming. In addition, more local acreage is being planted with hops, at GoatHouse Brewing in Lincoln, for example. GoatHouse calls it a “farm-to-glass” beer drinking experience.

Beer and wine tasting experi- ences increasingly are morphing. This summer, Nevada City’s Uncorked wine walk featured wine tasting but also two beer tastings— ol’ Republic Brewery’s craft beer and pulled pork tartine at Matteo’s Public, and Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co.’s beer paired with its artisan wood-fired pizza.

The worlds of wine and beer have long been intertwined. Montoliva Winery owner-winemaker Mark Henry crafted beers before he jumped into winemaking. Henry now produces award-winning Tuscany-style wines at his winery and vineyard in Chicago Park, just east of Grass Valley. Winemakers often joke, “It takes a lot of beer to make great wine,” referring to the beverage of choice during the hot days of harvest.

Craft breweries are expanding rapidly in the foothills. Examples include Knee Deep Brewing Co. in Auburn, which recently opened a new brewery and taproom; Sutter Buttes Brewing Co. in Yuba City, which expanded its brewery and added a wood-fired pizza oven to improve the restaurant menu; and Three Forks Bakery & Brewing in Nevada City, which opened an artisan bakery, restaurant and brewery.

At Three Forks, co-owner and brewer Dave Cowie has been crafting beer since 1991. “Why wouldn’t I want to turn a perfectly good hobby into my job?” he says.

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