Bear Republic: California, that great state of wilderness and civilization combined. Sonoma County is world-renowned for its wines, so it is no big leap of logic that it is also home to some very fine beer. In the quaint, historic town of Healdsburg, great things are happening in the world of craft beer, mainly from Bear Republic Brewing Company. This Norgrove-family-owned brewery began as a brasserie (brewpub) in Healdsburg in 1995. By the way, their menu looks simply amazing. In 2006, Bear Republic had grown enough to open a second brewery in Cloverdale, also in Sonoma County. Bear Republic is not a microbrewery; in fact it is a relatively large operation. But it is indeed a craft beer brewery, as its products (all unfiltered) are of very high-quality, and something special. Bear Republic emphasizes brews with heavy hops: it is their trademark. Let’s take a look at their product line.
Bear Republic’s line of house ales is high on the hops, and quite good. My personal favorite beer of all time, Racer 5 IPA, is a part of this line. It is a hophead’s fantasy, and not only with bitterness: it also has broad flavors of citrus and pine. Hop Rod Rye is also big on the hops, with a rye base that adds another layer of flavor. Red Rocket Ale is, as the name suggests, in the tradition of Irish red ales, but the New World is not left out, as the company also makes an excellent Peter Brown Tribute Ale, which is an American-style malted ale. Big Bear Black Stout is a nice, UK-style, sweetish black stout. The company also pays tribute to light Mexican beers in El Oso, to Belgium ales with Cher Ami, and to American pilsner with Grand Am. The house ales range in ABV from 4.7% to 8.1%.
I have always found seasonal menus in restaurants, and seasonal beers, to be something special. To me, it shows that the company really loves their work, and likes to use the freshest ingredients possible. Also, when a brewery makes seasonal beer, it offers a lovely, festive spirit for each part of the year. Well, Bear Republic does seasons right with their four seasonal brews. Apex IPA is a very strong, hops-forward, medium-dark India Pale Ale released in winter, with an ABV content of 8.95%. Black Racer is a black, roasted ale with a high hops content and an ABV of 8.1%. Cafe Racer 15 is a double IPA, meaning that is contains even more hops than a traditional IPA. It also has a whopping 9.75% ABV. Finally, Racer X is another high-hops IPA, based on an English-style ale. It has an ABV of 8.3%.
Bear Republic brews an impressive 24 beers that it calls its specialties. The range is vast and creative, spanning several beer styles. Some of the highlights include Tripels Alley, a Belgian-style ale with an ABV of 8.5%. Olde Scoutter’s Barleywine is an English-style barleywine with a high ABV of 10.4%. Monkey High Five is a traditional Belgian malt ale with a very yeasty flavor and texture, but combined with the hoppy elements of California taste, with an ABV of 7.6%. Maibock (Mai is German for the month of May) is a tribute to classic German-style lagers, with a hops edge that is native to California, with an ABV of 6.7%. Crazy Ivan is a delightful experiment, combining a classic American IPA with Belgian Trappist yeast! It turns out to be a delicious, spicy, hoppy blend, with an ABV of 7.3%. And while all of Bear Republic’s specialties are interesting and good, I had to mention their Wine Country Wheat, which is a traditional Bavarian wheat beer that is crisp and cool, with an easily-drinkable ABV of 4.5%.
One of the things that really makes Bear Republic stand out in my mind, is their selection of five barrel-aged beers. Aging beer in barrels is a relatively new concept in brewing, that produces extremely flavorful beers with alcohol-forward bouquets and flavors, but with a rich complexity normally reserved for whiskey or wine. Barrel 45 Wethop Wild Racer 5 is Bear Republic’s Racer 5 aged with more hops, and wild yeast, in a former whiskey barrel, with an ABV of 7.5%. This ingenious combination produces a beer that is both crisp and tart, and floral and fruity. Vermicious Knid (a name invented by the company) is aged in French barrels that formerly contained pickled prickly pears! The beer is odd, with — you guessed it — a tart, pickled flavor, and an ABV of 9%. Tartare is a tribute to Berlin whitebeer, which is a low-alcohol, traditional beer from Berlin, with a yellow color and champagne flavor, and an ABV of 4%. But, as it is aged in whiskey barrels, there is a depth of character not found in the Berliner version. Cuvee de Bubba is both bizarre, and ingenious. It is a blend of Bear Republic’s other beers, allowed to referment with wild yeast from the local countryside! I know of no better way to describe the flavor than from the company’s own website: “A bouquet of stone fruits with a complex flavor profile of malt, tobacco, and cherry pie sourness.” It has an ABV of 4%. Finally, Barrel 32, which I have not had the pleasure of tasting, is aged in French wine barrels. It is refermented with wild yeast and wild bacteria, with the flavor of French oak, and a high acidity, with an ABV of 6%.
To me, Bear Republic’s strengths are twofold. First, they make some truly exceptional IPAs. They use multiple varieties of hops, and all of their hoppy beers have a tart, pleasant bitterness, with multiple complex flavors underneath. Second, they are not afraid of experimenting with their recipes, in very creative, bold, ingenious ways, as their barrel-aged beers prove. As a beer aficionado, I hold great confidence in Bear Republic, and I hope that their methods, creativity, and love of good food and beer, will influence other craft breweries in the future.