Craft-beer hideaway

Chester brewery opens cozy Chico tap room

Waganupa Brewing’s east-side oasis.

Waganupa Brewing’s east-side oasis.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Waganupa Brewing
1346 Longfellow Ave.
Open Weds.-Sat., 4-9 p.m.

I saw the sign, a generic neon “Open” glowing in the window of what turned out to be the new tasting room for Waganupa Brewing. But despite being a mere 20 feet from the front door as I coasted through the parking lot on my bike, it just looked as if Lou’s Shoe Repair store next door had maybe forgotten to turn a light off.

Even after I’d circled back around and noticed “Waganupa” stenciled on the window, I remained skeptical about what I’d find inside the space in this fairly drab and dated strip mall at the fork in the avenues of Longfellow and East First. Turns out, what’s inside is a lively craft-beer hideaway, and Waganupa’s unconventional, far-from-any-action locale is a big part of the new tap room’s speakeasy-like charm.

The Chester-based brewery opened the intimate space in Chico last December and, judging by the warm, wall-to-wall crowd fogging up the window on that first Friday night visit, it appears the secret is out on Waganupa. Technically, the spot is a “tasting room,” a distinction that allows California breweries to open up bare-bones storefronts for selling tastes of beers as well as merch. In fact, Waganupa already had another tasting room before opening in Chico—at Bailey Creek Golf Course at Lake Almanor (which is closed for the winter season).

Waganupa owner/head brewer Alex Willhoit opened the brewery in Chester last June with his wife, Stephanie, an interior designer who’s given the tasting rooms a rustic but cleanly stylish look. Behind the strip-mall facade, the Chico location is elegantly simple, warmed up with bare wood framing and beams, a long painted cedar bar, and the brewery logo in metal overlooking it.

The Willhoits themselves are often behind the bar—along with son/brewer Dane Packard—and their engaging attitude contribute greatly to the casual vibe.

Oh, and the beer? It’s really good! The menu is small, with six regulars on tap: NorCal Common, Blueberry Saison, Ginger Saison, 10# Brown Stout, Rusty Squabbit coffee stout, and the 1325 session IPA. Willhoit has also started tapping his experimental brews as a regular Wednesday night feature, including recently the Chocolate Orange Stick, a stout infused with orange peel and cocoa.

I haven’t made it there on a Wednesday, but over the course of two visits I’ve tried most of the regular rotation (all but the Rusty Squabbit, which wasn’t available either night). I’m a huge fan of farmhouse/saison styles, so Waganupa’s two selections are predictably my favorites on the menu. Both are smooth with a mild and wonderful earthy/funky backbone. The blueberry is the star of the two, with the fruit adding a nice sour note, while the ginger was good but with only a subtle hint of the root’s aroma that I was craving.

I also really enjoyed the 1325 session IPA, both for its bright and balanced hop-forward taste and the reasonable alcohol content (just 4.5 ABV). The 10# Brown Stout was also nice, with plenty of toasty, coffee flavor, but still very smooth. The sample I tried of NorCal Common didn’t have much body and didn’t grab me right away. I’ll have to try it again when the weather warms up and I’m looking for something lighter.

Since food sales aren’t allowed under its license, Waganupa encourages patrons to bring in their own, a scenario that has created a mutually beneficial relationship between the bar and the popular El Tapatio taco wagon across the street. And frankly, it’s another charming aspect that, in this fun-seeker’s opinion, adds to the funky appeal of the little tasting room.