Something’s brewing in California.
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Across the state, nearly 100 breweries, brewpubs, homebrew shops and beer tasting rooms are serving craft beer. In El Dorado county, six breweries serve locally crafted beers. The latest brewpub, Mraz Brewing Co., opened in El Dorado Hills in May.
Michael Mraz’s interest in craft beer began when he was in college.
“I’ve always had the reputation of being a beer guy, bringing six-packs of Sierra Nevada to watch a game when others brought Budweiser,” he explained. In 2006, Mraz started making beer and was soon obsessed with how to influence flavors to make a beer his own. “Like a chef in a kitchen, the more you learn, the more you’re able to influence how your beer tastes, rather than it be a copy of something else.”
Mraz’s brews began getting noticed and won awards. He was named home brewer of the year in 2008, repeated in 2009 and won two prestigious Maltose Falcons from America’s oldest homebrew club for his European Pale Ale and English Bitter Ale. The awards just kept coming.
“It was never my intent for beer making to be my career, Mraz explained. “I didn’t go to a brewing school, like UC Davis, or have a formal education in it. It was my hobby.”
That changed when his work in automotive parts for high end dealerships came to a cross road. To get to the next level, Mraz — age 41 — knew he’d have to spend more time behind a desk or do more traveling. He was a hands-on guy who liked being part of a community and working near family and friends.
So, Mraz quit his job in the automobile field and turned his hobby into an El Dorado Hills business.
“I looked at industrial locations in Folsom and El Dorado Hills, but I don’t like to commute. I decided to put the business close to home, family, friends and make it part of the neighborhood. What isn’t realized by people who buy bottled water is just how good our tap water is. Our tap water is perfect for brewing.”
He located Mraz Brewing Co. in a retail building at the Lake Forest center at Green Valley Road and Francisco where a Cascada Mexican restaurant and Burger Hut had just opened. “I thought, why not move where the food is.”
Unlike other county breweries that are connected to a restaurant or winery, Mraz Brewing Co. prepares no food and it’s not a home brew store. It’s a brewery with tasting room that seats 40 including patio seating. Its sole business is making great beer.
The beer is so good, several fine restaurants now serve it, including Bistro 33 in El Dorado Hills, Samuel Horne’s Tavern in Folsom, Final Gravity in Roseville and Dad’s Kitchen in Sacramento. Though, when Mraz decided to open a commercial brewery, he worried whether he’d be able to make more volume than a home brewer would. For his India Pale Ales — the most popular craft beers sold — he realized that for some varieties “You just can’t get” specialty hops, particularly when you’re “the new guy at the end of the line.” So, Mraz decided to craft IPAs for spring, summer, fall and winter, depending on what hops are available. And, with hops now being grown in El Dorado Hills, he’s planning an EDH IPA.
“The barrels we use to age our beer come from the Montevina Winery in Plymouth. When they’re done with the barrels, because they’re no longer giving off the oak flavor they seek in their wine, the barrels are about perfect for us. Our beer gets a slight amount of oak and wine character that adds complexity.” Mraz explained.
Many of Mraz’s beers use Belgian yeasts, delivering soft, mellow flavors of wine, dried plum, malt and fig famous among Belgian ales. Window of Opportunity is one such delicious drink, a Belgian-styled mildly spicy ale that is part Blonde, part Tripel with a light orange hue, attributed by specialty malts.
Like wine appreciation has, public taste for beers of character is expanding and the experience of beer tasting is becoming a tourist activity. Recently, a San Francisco Chronicle travel feature described five exceptional craft breweries to be visited in Humboldt County, each near a different yet delightful hike nearby. The Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico has become a destination. The brewery’s tour, store and restaurant are popular, particularly when Sierra Nevada releases one of its highly crafted Ovila Abbey Ales.
The latest, Saison — released this summer — was made in collaboration with the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux located in Vina, north of Chico. Saison is a limited edition craft beer, bottled with a cork stopper like a champagne bottle, and carefully crafted with hints of Mandarin orange and peppercorns. Craft beers like Saison aren’t made to be swallowed, they’re meant to be savored. While their volume is small, the impact of craft beers on beer consumption across the United States has been large. Mass produced brews like Blue Moon and Samuel Adams resulted because people like Ken Grossman (founder of Sierra Nevada) and Mike Mraz love making new and distinctive brews.
In El Dorado County, locally brewed beer can be tasted at the Placerville Brewing Co., at Gold Hill Vineyard in Placerville and the Jack Russell Farm and Brewery in Camino, at South Lake Tahoe at the Brewery at Lake Tahoe and the Stateline Brewing Co. Of course, there’s also something brewing at Mraz Brewing Co. in El Dorado Hills.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.