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Weekend Escape: Napa Valley : Two beer fanciers take one down, pass it around and blaze a trail through microbreweries

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Glionna writes for The Times' San Fernando Valley Edition</i>

Every once in awhile discerning beer-drinkers are overcome by a thirst that simply cannot be slaked by those bottled brands of brew found in supermarkets and liquor stores. That’s when we get the urge to head to the source--to sip our favorite brewskis served on tap right in their own back yards, as it were: It’s time to hit the road for a microbrewery tour.

As everyone knows, the Napa Valley is synonymous with good wine. But my brother Frank and I--beer hounds both--had been hearing for some time about a handful of micros there that were establishing reputations for mixing locally grown hops and grains to make unusual handcrafted beers.

Labels such as High Rollers Wheat Beer, a light, crisp, lemony brew from the Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville; light-bodied Peregrine Pale Ale from the nearby Mendocino Brewing Company in Hopland, and the rich, hoppy Red Ale on tap at the Napa Valley Brewing Co. in Calistoga.

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Each is made, start to finish, on the premises--within the smallish operations that have become known as micro breweries. We wanted not only to visit micros that offered public tours of their facilities (all of the ones in Napa do), but also ones with attached tasting bars, or brew pubs.

And so on one recent weekend, we hopped a Friday night flight out of LAX into San Francisco International, where we rented a white 1995 Buick LeSabre convertible from Avis--reserved in advance--and made a beeline for the John Muir Inn in the town of Napa.

Located just off California 29 on the north side of town, the John Muir was the perfect place for a couple of blue-collar Joes like us: At $95 for two (two double beds; a single king-size bed costs $100 nightly), the accommodations were clean and roomy and included a free continental breakfast of fruit, sweet rolls and cereal. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, there’s a Marie Callender’s right across the parking lot.

Beer is a different animal than wine, which is made to be savored years after bottling; most beer goes bad relatively quickly. Once on a trip to Dublin, I was told by a local publican that Guinness drinkers could distinguish between a pint poured a block from the brewery and one poured, say, a mile away: The best pint in town, they insisted, was poured at the brewery itself.

With that in mind, Frank and I pulled into Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant the next morning, starting our day with a couple of chef’s special omelets and home fries.

I liked this remodeled Art Deco-style place, this room with a brew. Located in a building dating back to the late 1800s, Joe’s had two levels separated by huge stainless steel beer tanks with copper piping. In addition to the downstairs bar, there’s an upstairs restaurant with a view of the river.

Unfortunately, Joe’s food didn’t match the atmosphere. The omelets were lukewarm, the home fries as hard as lava rocks. In fact, most of the food we sampled during four microbrewery stops was pedestrian at best. So, do yourself a favor and make a reservation at one of the area’s many fine restaurants such as Mustards Grill, a mile north of Yountville on California 29, where locals advise making reservations a week or so in advance.

*

As with most other micros, Joe’s offers a deal on six three-ounce sampler glasses featuring each of the beers on tap--all for $3.25, about the price of a full pint. It’s not only the best bargain, but also a good way to move quickly beyond a brew that bruises the palate. But Joe’s hits more than it misses with such beers as Ace High Cream Ale, Tail Waggin’ Ale and Past Due Dark--a charcoal-black brew with little of the typical bitter dark-beer aftertaste.

My favorite was Golden Thistle, a crisp, heady brew that immediately suggested a second serving. But our bar visit was short, and amounted to one big beer diss: We had waited a full half-hour before anyone acknowledged us, let alone offered to pour us a brew. So we tasted the requisite beers and kissed Joe’s goodby.

We put the top down on the convertible and headed north along scenic California 29 and California 128, blowing past streets with such names as Zinfandel Lane and Soda Canyon Road.

The Napa Valley Brewing Co. is part of the Calistoga Inn in Calistoga, a Swiss chalet-style building that houses a former boarding house, now bed-and-breakfast inn. In the brew pub, the early afternoon sun filtered through the large windows, illuminating the beer being served in simple pint glasses, and making the cozy aqua-colored room a near perfect place to quaff brews. It was low-key and chock-full of characters, like some wayward British pub. We sampled the brewery’s three year-round standards: Red Ale and rich Porter and the Wheat Ale, which last year won a gold medal at the Great American Brewfest in Denver, the faceoff venue for boutique beers.

We headed north again, past sweeping valleys along the redwood-studded Russian River. Fifty miles north of Calistoga we hit Boonville and the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, the place with the huge grain silo outside.

Founded in 1987 by a local chiropractor and his wife on the site of the old Buckhorn Saloon (circa 1873), the brew pub has converted tractor seats at the bar, from which you can look out the picture window at majestic Octopus Mountain. During the summer, there’s horseshoe-pitching in the outside beer garden. We drooled over a selection that included the tart High Rollers Wheat Beer made with a 50-50 mix of wheat and barley. There’s Poleeko Gold, a smooth pale ale, and the full-bodied Boont Amber. Again, the food disappointed.

At nightfall we found ourselves in Hopland--a tiny Old West-looking burg along U.S. 101--at the Mendocino Brewing Company, which claims to have the oldest brew pub built in the state since Prohibition. We sampled all five beers on tap--all named after local birds--including the Red Tail Ale, which has garnered a national reputation. Thanks to the nationwide marketing campaign for Red Tail, I knew I could rush to my local supermarket any night for a six-pack. But nothing quite matches the pleasure of drinking a good beer at its source. So, here’s one for the Dubliners.

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Budget for Two

Round trips L.A.-S.F., Delta: $164.00

John Muir Inn, two nights: 212.80

Car rental, two days: 108.23

Brunch, Downtown Joe’s: 41.50

Napa Valley Brewing Co.: 17.00

Dinner, drinks, Anderson Valley: 52.50

Mendocino Brewing Co.: 21.00

Lunch, Downtown Joe’s: 26.00

Gas: 20.00

FINAL TAB: $663.03

* John Muir Inn, 1998 Trower Ave., Napa, CA 94558, tel. (707) 257-7220 .


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