By Tom Bender

It is Oktoberfest time, and there are plenty of opportunities for us to celebrate with customary suds.

And while the 200-year-old German festival originally had nothing to do with brews, we have embraced its current form in many communities as a traditional fall exercise.

But thanks to the rise in a number of breweries and growth of beer taprooms, we can join in the revelry with a multitude of brew choices this fall.

It really hit home for me the past several weeks as I met with several brewers and proprietors of taprooms and restaurants that feature upwards of 10 or 20 draught brew pulls. It culminated last weekend with a tasting at our store with Stone Brewing of San Diego and their recently released collaboration series. The tasting featured expensive brews that combined multiple brewery partnerships and experimentation that included the likes of beer aged in granite barrels or one infused with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

There are now over 850 breweries in California with over 100 in San Diego County alone!

Snowshoe Brewery in Arnold has been a lone local producer in our two counties for years, but I am happy to report that is about to change, albeit on a very small scale, with the first beer release from Jamestown’s Bear Tent Brewing Company later this month.

On a historic property in Jamestown, founders John McGettigan and Ben Deutsch have been home brewers for over eight years, but the planted seed and work on eventually starting a commercial brewery goes back 10 years. John got a dose of brewing expertise while working at Dust Bowl Brewery in Turlock. They have been friends since high school in Tuolumne County. Their operation is extremely small. Often referred to as a nanobrewery, their space limits them to a three-barrel production at this point. Their first batch to be released this month is a Cream Ale and will be only available in kegs for local taps. A novel approach to their process is they grow their own cascade hops behind the brewery property. Using a building on John’s grandfather’s historic property, the name comes from a nearby 1853 original roadhouse called Old Bear Tent. “Grizzly Adams had a mining claim across the street.” according to John. The two worked evenings and weekends gradually assembling their operation. You can follow their progress on Instagram: beartentbrewingco.

But there is no shortage of serious suds in the foothills. Jason Wright, owner of Alchemy Café and Market in Murphys, was one of the first operators in the foothills to offer hard-to-find craft draught beers, both domestic and European.

“The area was a beer desert when we took over the operation in 2007. Our first three micro-beers on tap were California’s Green Flask Double IPA and North Coast Brewery Scrimshaw Pilsner along with Alagash Brewery White, a wheat beer from Maine, which we have always had on tap.”

With 12 taps and most on rotation, Jason has made a point of seeking out legendary beers and always has 30 different kegs in waiting. He also features 175 beers by the bottle on a reserve list in his café.

Up the street at Murphy’s Pour House, Owner Nick Andona and his wife returned to the foothills and opened two years ago and have rotating 16 handles on the wall. His best sellers are, IPAs but he is seeing a growing interest in other styles and that cream ales are a hot new item. Having started as a home brewer, Nick left corporate business after 10 years to do his first commercial venture but said his background has helped with the operations success.

Not only does he do a large number of taps, but he serves a number of specialty beers by the bottle and has developed a terrific sandwich menu. The food menu also includes a kid’s sandwich selection.

“We want to make sure we are known as a family place and we are OK for kids. We recently started a Wednesday night trivia contest that is a big hit.”

Like the rest of downtown Murphys, tourism is his bread and butter, but he has gotten phenomenal support from the locals.

Another recent tap spot opening earlier this past summer is the Sonora Tap Room in downtown Sonora. Owner Nayland Chappell got her degree in interior design before deciding to do the tap room. She enjoyed traveling with her boyfriend sampling regional beers and this dream operation grew out of that experience. They feature 20 taps with 10 IPAs on at all times. While they have their regular “go to” craft beers, they make a point of bringing beers that are limited to one keg purchases and might be gone with a matter of days.

“Unique Pilsners, Sours and Belgians gaining popularity and we blow through some within a day or two.” said Nayland. Their general manager, Sarah Cavanaugh, noted that the occasional Bud or Coors customer stopping by gets turned on to a pilsner or wheat beer. She mentioned that black lagers are also gaining in popularity.

“Summer showcased fruitier beers, and we’ll move into more stouts this winter.” Being in downtown Sonora, they have seen a lot of tourists this past summer too. “The Brits and Swiss know a lot about American beers and want to try everything on tap!”

They feature a Happy Hour from 3 to 6 p.m. daily and all day Fridays. A big upcoming event on their calendar includes a “Tap Takeover Night” with Amador Brewing on Saturday, Oct. 28.

Another Sonora project that we are all watching and is gradually taking shape is the Green Dog Beer Company in downtown Sonora. Plans call for a beer garden and music venue.

But the growing number of brew taps is also happening in a number of casual to fine dining restaurants too. After a summer of consuming mostly heat-quenching beers, the fall speaks to seasonal brews and foods to match.

As a chef, it only makes sense that Jason Wright at Alchemy Café thinks a good share of his food menu should be beer friendly. This month (October) he is featuring a sausage selection with Oktoberfest brews on tap. And in January every Tuesday he does a special four-course beer and food matching menu. His favorite brew and food match is seafood with farmhouse Belgian ales.

Another foothill chef who put an early stamp on beer and food pairing is Eric Davis and his Standard Pour Restaurant in East Sonora. With 18 taps on rotation and a casual beer-friendly menu to match, Davis has also developed a number of special beer and food pairing themes over the years.

Nearby Jamestown is also making brew and news.

“Beer pairing is a big part of determining our menu and what foods we do,” is the approach taken by Brett and Kathleen Boone, owners of Service Station, a new restaurant that opened late this summer in Jamestown. Their six taps focus on specialty brews, and some are even built into dishes they do.

“We recently did Brisket Nachos that incorporated Altamont Brewers Hella Hoppy IPA into the dish.” Bootlegger Brewing El Chango Lager finds its way into the batter for their fish tacos and fish and chips.

Some industry leaders seem to think the craft brewery expansion has peaked. Consolidation grows as large American and International beer companies continue to purchase some recognized craft breweries with hopes of tapping into the growing segment as their big production beers fall off in sales. Producers are also closely watching the growth of beer in cans, and several operators think that might be the wave of the future.

“The in-between size brewery might not be working anymore. With so many choices there is very little loyalty out there. It seems that it is getting more and more difficult for breweries to expand, especially if you have a restaurant as part of the operation,” said Jason Wright, owner of Alchemy Market.

There is a movement around the country that sees small breweries opening in small rural towns and bringing back a sense of community. And in many cases it coincides with return the of young people to their hometown and being supporters of the small personalized approach to brewing.

“We see the addition of our restaurant and a local brewery helping to revitalize Jamestown. There is a sense of community excitement about projects like this,” said Brett Boone. “We are a tourist town, and a number of visitors come in and immediately ask what local beers we carry.” Brett is really looking forward to the available Bear Tent brews and working with them. ”They are a great team. And we are all forward thinkers.”

And that type of enthusiasm could paint a bright picture for our small foothill towns. Let’s hope the spirit is contagious.