Manufacturing buzz

Mapping out Chico’s new beverage, fermentation, booze district

CN&R’s annual beer issue.

CN&R’s annual beer issue.

The “Fermentation District”? That sounds delicious. Beer, sauerkraut, yogurt, whiskey, kimchi and all the other edibles created by cellular critters processing sugar for our culinary benefit are wonderful!

But that’s not what’s happening in the commercial/manufacturing zone at the south end of Park Avenue in Chico. The “fermentation” brand is what some of the various alcohol-centric businesses that have recently moved into the Meyers/Ivy street area would prefer their fun, new district be called. However, there are other options floating around the local vernacular: the (too broad) “Beverage District” and the (perhaps too Chico) “Booze District.” Ultimately, Chicoans are going to decide for themselves how the area is known, and in the city with The Bear, The Goose and Chico Natty, we think we know how this is going to play out.

The good thing is that, despite any potential fears of rowdiness associated with the word “booze,” the district that’s been created by two breweries, two cideries, a tap house and a distillery moving into warehouses and refurbished eyesores off Park Avenue over the last couple of years is pretty darn chill.

First of all, it’s far removed from Chico’s downtown party core. Second, Jagerbombs and Coors Light are not on tap. Secret Trail and Nor Cal brew their own beer, Lassen and Cellar Door make their own cider, Hooker Oak distills its own rum, and The Commons features some of the finest craft beer, cider and wine around. No drink specials down here. Third, given the preceding, the crowd is much more diverse. Sure, the townies, beer geeks and hipsters are migrating from downtown, but Chicoans of all ages and social circles also are heading south to take advantage of less-crowded streets for date night.

The initial appeal of locating a business that brews alcohol in a light manufacturing area is, of course, the pre-existence of large warehouses and appropriate zoning; plus, as city of Chico senior planner Mike Sawley says, there’s also the draw of cheaper leases. Sawley also suggested that the industrial aesthetic is part of the appeal.

“People have shown a tolerance over the years to the look of manufacturing buildings,” he said, adding that the raw and gritty elements are in line with what’s in style.

And it is a fun and hip scene, a semi-hidden little community of high-quality adult beverages and—in perfect symbiosis— high-quality food served by a rotating menu of street vendors that set up shop in parking lots.

With all this in mind, a rag-tag crew of CN&R staff, contributors and party friends made a few recent forays into the new happy-fun-time-awesome district (that better?) to map out the following booze crawl in time for Chico Beer Week. (Note: We did not include Eckert Malting & Brewing, maker of gluten-free rice beers, or HoneyRun Winery, Chico’s long-running honey-wine makers, because they don’t have tasting hours—though you can and should call 345-6405 and arrange to stop by HoneyRun, at 2309 Park Ave., for samples during business hours.)

This map follows a logical path, but it requires you to ride your bike (or get dropped off by taxi or Uber) deep into the district and bike or walk your way out. Also, in order to include the cideries, you have to start your crawl on a Saturday afternoon since both tasting rooms are open only on Saturdays. We highly recommend planning for lunch or dinner at one of the food trucks along the route.

The door’s wide open at Nor Cal Brewing.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Nor Cal Brewing Co.

180 Erma Court, Ste. 100, 592-3845

Hours: Wed.-Thurs., 3-9 p.m.; Thurs., 3-10 p.m.; Sat., noon-10 p.m.; 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

To get to Nor Cal Brewing Co., turn right into the first driveway after Aircraft Extrusion. You know, it’s right there, across the way from Foothill Fire Protection … behind The Door Co.! You follow?

It’s no wonder there are no fewer than three signs with red arrows along the roads leading to Chico’s newest brewery [see “15 Minutes,” page 15]. The location is not only far removed from the city’s usual food/beverage zones, it’s tucked away in a deep pocket of the warehouse-packed area at the south end of Park Avenue into which most Chicoans have likely never ventured.

But as you round the corner into the parking lot, the big red star of the Nor Cal logo comes into view, and with the roll-up door all the way open, the airy indoor/outdoor taproom appears as a most-inviting oasis among the warehouses.

Owner/brewer Jim Hardesty opened Nor Cal’s tasting room in July, a year after starting his brewing operation, and it joins Secret Trail as the second brewery/taproom in the neighborhood. Like its counterpart, it gives off that casual, roughly finished industrial vibe. The warehouse isn’t terribly big, but space is well-planned, with an open layout in its front seating area that benefits greatly from the natural light and outdoor air thanks to the open warehouse door. In addition to the bar stools and high tables, there’s a long stand-up counter along one wall that extends all the way to the back of the space, where the compact brewing setup is perched on a raised platform and where another roll-up door opens to a back patio that doubles as a parking spot for a rotating cast of food trucks that roll up at mealtime.

The small-batch brewery currently has nine taps (including one dedicated nitro handle), and on a recent visit by a bike-ridin’ posse of CN&R brew explorers, seven were flowing, so we tried them all.

The range of styles for such a small operation was impressive. There were three varieties from the hoppy pale ale/IPA spectrum: a high-alcohol, simply named IPA (8.4 percent ABV), the X Pale session blonde ale, and the star of the trio, Callahan’s Reserve, wonderfully balanced with a blend of three malts and tried-and-true Pacific Northwest hops that makes for a clean yet subtly complex pale ale.

The rest of the menu included the Teacher’s Pet Porter, the easy-drinking Wheatwizer wheat beer, and the chocolaty Jim’s Brown brown ale, which came in both standard CO2 and nitro, the latter of which made it especially smooth and creamy.

Cellar Door Cider owner/cidermaker Bryan Shaw enjoys his product in the warehouse.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Nor Cal might seem out of the way, but it’s really not hard to find. When you get there, you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled upon one of Chico’s hidden gems.

—Jason Cassidy

Cellar Door Cider

11 Commerce Court, Ste. 2, 200-6857

Tasting room hours: Saturdays, 2-6 p.m. (call to confirm)

Winter is coming. And in the realm of cidermakers, its arrival is not some nebulous point in the indeterminate future. Fall is nearly upon us, and with it comes a small window of time when the Northern California apple harvest hits and cideries must brew nonstop until the fruit runs out and the winds of winter blow in to end the season.

Cellar Door Cider owner/brewer Bryan Shaw opened his business in July, but the apple-processing and cider-making that went into his maiden brew, The White Raven (a nod to an episode of Game of Thrones), happened last fall. Like his neighbor around the block, Lassen Traditional Cidery, Shaw uses exclusively Northern California apples, so brewing happens only when the local apples are available. For The White Raven, he used Mutsus, Winesaps and Newtown Pippens, and the blend was aged in French oak barrels.

During a recent tasting with a small posse of eager CN&R writers in the stark Cellar Door tasting room, Shaw shared the dry, mildly earthy brew that brought to mind an open-fermented farmhouse-style beer. Very crisp and refreshing, yet deep in flavor.

Given the cycle of brewing, Cellar Door has only the one variety available now (find bottles at your favorite specialty grocery store), but Shaw has more on the way. In addition to the new brews that are about to be created, he has a couple waiting in barrels to be kegged—a hop-infused variety and one that’s been sitting with sweet orange peels. Both will be available at your local beer bar soon. Watch the skies—or visit his Facebook page—for a sign.

—Jason Cassidy

Lassen Traditional Cidery owner/cidermaker Ben Nielsen pours a sample in the tasting room.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Lassen Traditional Cidery

26 Bellarmine Court

Tasting room hours: Saturdays, 2-7 p.m.

“The Lord is good to me/and so I thank the Lord/ for giving me the things I need/the sun and rain and an appleseed/Yes, He’s been good to me!” —Johnny Appleseed

Those are words from the title character’s song in 1948 Disney animated short The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, sung as he skipped about early 19th century America in a tin pot cap, planting apple trees and praisin’ the Lord for life’s simple pleasures. As abysmal as Disney’s record of historical accuracy tends to be (see Pocahontas), the true story of John Chapman—aka Johnny Appleseed—is arguably stranger than Mickey Mouse’s wildest opium dreams (see Fantasia).

Chapman was a vegetarian Christian mystic who lived a monastic existence, traveling around the Western frontier (the modern Midwest) planting apple orchards. He even wore the pot on his head, which might’ve been the 1800s equivalent of a lamp shade, because the dude liked to party! And the seeds he planted grew into sour-tasting apples not meant for eating. The varieties Chapman cultivated were meant to be harvested for alcoholic cider—which we can thus postulate is far more American than pie.

Ben Nielsen, owner of Chico’s Lassen Traditional Cidery, knows what Appleseed was really up to. He’s a well of cider knowledge, and he and fellow brewer Eric Pietrangelo were happy to share their passion for the fruit with the CN&R’s away team.

The cidery offers about a half-dozen different brews at a time, with the lineup changing as different varieties become available and as Nielsen experiments with new recipes. We sampled six: two single-variety ciders, Winesap and Newtown Pippin; blends named Chico, Farmouse Dry and Green Johnny; and a pear-based concoction called Woodleaf Perry.

Each recipe was decidedly different, and detecting the nuances of each came easily even for someone like me—I’m far from a cider aficionado, but dig it on occasion. Of the ciders, the most distinct difference was between the one-apple and blended brews, which I can best compare to the difference between a single note and a chord. Everything is delicious, but the singular Newtown Pippin and Winesap were my personal favorite ciders—with the former having the driest finish of all, and the latter’s heirloom variety of apple bringing a tangy wine-like flavor to the cider. What really resonated with my taste buds, though, was the Woodleaf Perry. I’ve had “pear cider” before, but all true ciders are apple-based while a perry is the pear equivalent—and this one was dry and fruity with a slight yeasty earthiness. Nielsen said he also plans to brew a jerkum in the near future, which is to stone fruit what cider is to apples.

Nielsen came about his ciderpaedic knowledge the natural way. He began home-brewing in Oregon in 2005, where he hosted annual cider parties. He refined his recipes and decided to focus on cider full-time in 2015.

You can pick up bottles of Lassen’s cider at specialty grocery stores and bottle shops all over town and at the tasting room during open hours.

Also, this Sunday, Sept. 16, the cidery will be hosting an anniversary party—with tastings, food trucks and live music—to celebrate two years in business. Don’t forget your tin pot hat.

—Ken Smith

Cody Luksic and Becca Parziale enjoy a sampler flight on the patio at Secret Trail Brewing Co.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Secret Trail Brewing Co.

132 Meyers St., Ste. 120, 487-8151

Hours: Mon., Wed., Thurs., 3-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

For too long, Chico was a one-horse beer town. Yes, it’s a very large horse with international prestige, but it was a lonely pasture for a town considered a beer destination. Riding into town, one expects a thriving craft beer scene bursting at the seams like similar cities. Bend, Ore., has 19 breweries, there are two dozen in Eugene and Sacramento has nearly 30. Yet, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. rode solo.

Part of the problem was a prohibitive city zoning code that did not allow taprooms to serve alcohol without also serving food. Secret Trail Brewing Co. to the rescue! After finding a suitable location for their business, co-owners Charlie and Michelle Barrett and Jesse Fischer helped get that code amended in the fall of 2017, which opened the door for new breweries to serve their beers while leaving the food preparation to Chico’s burgeoning food-truck scene.

Housed in an industrial warehouse off Park Avenue, Secret Trail opened last November with a focus on community, quality and living and drinking “off the beaten path.” Pulling into the parking lot, there’s not much to look at, but Secret Trail has carved out a comfortable patio area with an inviting taproom. The brewery has a 15-barrel production capacity and has over a dozen beers on tap, with weekly limited releases from their experimental Explorer Series. The taproom also hosts live acts and has a steady rotation of food trucks serving up grub in the parking lot.

In the regular stable, Secret Trail offers a robust variety of beer appealing to a full spectrum of discerning palates. For IPA fans, the brewery makes three hopped-up, juicy beers: Hazy Trail, a Northeast IPA; the double-version Bout It! Bout It!; and Electric Oats, an American IPA with a nice malt counter to the typical West Coast bitterness. You’ll also find a robust imperial stout, a sour wheat, an English brown and two refreshing beers for hot summer days, the Delta Breeze kolsch and the Summer Gleam, a light session ale. After multiple visits, the Lights Out Baltic Porter remains a stand-out with a dark, complex flavor, although the barrel-aged vanilla version pushed too much sweetness.

The brewery is not yet bottling, but you can purchase growlers on-site to get your Secret Trail to go. The taproom also serves flights and is generous with sample tastes. Servers and owners are all incredibly helpful and full of information to handle all of your beer-related questions. Tally-ho, Secret Trail.

—Nate Daly

The Commons

2412 Park Ave., 774-2999

Hours: Tues.-Thurs., 2-10 p.m.; Fri., 2 p.m.-12 a.m.; Sat., noon-12 a.m.; Sun., noon-8 p.m.

At The Commons “Social Empourium,” you can bring your dinner—like this grub from the Drunken Dumpling food truck—­­­­inside.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

If it weren’t for all you Barneys, we wouldn’t need no Moe the Bartenders. The rest of us ain’t gonna walk around the bar and wrap our lips around the tap and drink until our hearts stop like we’re in some episode of The Simpsons.

The good news is that technology has caught up to our desire to help ourselves. At The Commons taproom, thanks to a wristband with a built in sensor, you get to be the bartender. Hold it up to activate the tap of whatever style you’re interested in, pour as much as you want, and the price per ounce and amount dispensed shows on the screen, along with a description of what you’re drinking.

It’s a great setup, but not because you can party like Barney (you can’t—to keep your imbibing in check, you’re approved for only 32 ounces at a time when you pay up front). The beauty part is that you get to choose the amount of beer and taste as many varieties as you want before you settle on a fave. Or you can just keep sampling small amounts. You’re charged only for what you actually pour.

There are 24 rotating taps of beers and ciders. During a recent visit, the choices were broken down into nine “danky” beers (heavily hopped brews), six ciders/sour beers, and another nine beers of various styles (stout, kolsch, Belgian tripel, wheat, etc.). Plus, there are a few wine spouts as well. All of it accessible via your wristband.

It’s pretty cool. And the selections, especially the beers, are amazing. The nonpareil Berryessa Brewing Co. is regularly featured, as are local faves Sierra Nevada and Secret Trail.

However, as novel and engaging as it is being your personal bartender, once you take a step back from the taps and take a look around, you realize there’s a lot more to the place. The Commons opened in June, and the “Social Empourium” vision of owners Garth Archibald, Jesse Grigg and Byron Hetherton is something like the huge den of the coolest house on the block. There are two spacious rooms with sports on widescreen TVs mounted on the walls, out on the beautiful patio are picnic tables and a couple of cornhole games, and at night there’s a food truck in the parking lot and often a live band in the back room.

Moe’s Tavern this ain’t.

—Jason Cassidy

Hooker Oak Distillery

2420 Park Ave., 809-0720

Tasting room hours: Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m.

Naturally, when most people think of rum, they think of Captain Morgan. Or maybe Capt. Jack Sparrow. Either way, it’s a pirate’s drink. And, fittingly, it plays by its own rules.

Dylan Rowe talks rum with visitors Katelyn Schneider, Brent Lougee and Hayden Woodard in the Hooker Oak Distillery tasting room.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

“A lot of people assume that because it’s rum it’s going to be sweet,” Dylan Rowe told the four of us lined up along the bar in the tasting room at Hooker Oak Distillery on a recent afternoon. The first taste was light rum, aged in French oak wine barrels, he told us, and its character is more like a whiskey than what most might think of when they think of rum. Indeed, it was a full-flavored, hair-on-the-chest-type drink.

Rum, it turns out, has one basic rule it must adhere to, according to federal government standards: It must begin with sugar cane. So while makers of rye whiskey are busy ensuring that their mash contains at least 51 percent rye and that, once fermented, it’s aged in charred new oak containers, the pirates of the drinking world have room to get creative.

For the folks behind Hooker Oak, J.T. Martin and Billy Ahumada, that meant concocting flavor combinations. That’s what we tried next—Rowe poured us the apple pie rum first and, it was a contrast to the earlier, burlier taste. Most people drink this one straight, Rowe told us, chilled or even warmed. It’s also great in a hot toddy or warm apple cider.

The third and final taster was pine-apple-flavored rum. Extremely sweet on its own—the extra sweetness comes entirely from the pineapple, Rowe said—this one is better for mixing. Not one to just take a person’s word for it, I ordered the pineapple rum cocktail offered on the menu board, $5—or free if you buy a bottle. Delicious! I’ve tried others, too, at other events, and they have all been very tasty.

While Hooker Oak is less of a hangout spot than some of the others in the growing fermentation/beverage/booze district, it was among the first on the scene. The building it’s in was in shambles when Martin and Ahumada purchased it. Contractors by trade, they fixed it up and built their still inside. This past summer, The Commons opened up next door and, in fact, when I was finished at Hooker Oak, I walked over there for a sip and some food from the Drunken Dumpling food truck in the parking lot. Distillery tours are available on Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment.

Yo ho!

—Meredith J. Cooper