We've all been on tours that go south. Sometimes the docent is an up-talker with stale jokes who can't handle a follow-up question, and you learn only after you've already paid that the good part is closed for renovations, and you're just bored out of your skull. Or you fell in the chocolate river only to have moralizing Oompa-Loompahs chronicle your misdeed in song.
Short of the Sistine Chapel or Angkor Wat, the Sierra Nevada Brewery tour is one of the best -- and it's free! (The 90-minute Brewhouse Tour, that is. A separate, "Beer Geek" tour runs for three hours and costs $25.) If you've got a hankering to get out of the city for a day or a weekend, Chico, Calif. is stunning in its autumnal splendor, and this particular fall happens to be a great season at America's second-largest craft brewery.
That's because two seasonal beers whose availability doesn't necessarily overlap are both on draught. You can try a Northern Hemisphere Harvest, made from special hops from Yakima, Wash., and also a special one-off, the DevESTATEtion, so named because Sierra Nevada lost its entire barley crop last winter and wasn't able to produce its usual Estate Ale.
But there's more to the tour than just getting a little buzz at 1 p.m. on a Monday. Brewer Ken Grossman has been bottling beer since the late 1970s, and Sierra Nevada has become quite an ecologically-minded company in the meantime, selling power back to the grid from its solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. The tour takes visitors through the steps involved in beer production (steampunk aficionados, prepare thyselves) to an observation platform over the assembly line and ends up pouring seven samples of Sierra Nevada's various beers, in ascending order of bitterness, from Kellerweis to the Narwhal Imperial Stout.
Here is but a smattering of fun factoids gleaned from a highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide:
* Sierra Nevada has never bought paid advertising, relying entirely on word-of-mouth.
* Grossman began with a home-brewing shop in Downtown Chico in 1976, three years before home brewing became legal in the U.S.
* Sierra Nevada is the world's largest consumer of hops.
* The device Grossman built to run beer through hops (and not the other way around) remains unpatented, for the benefit of anyone looking to produce beer.
Chico is only three hours from the Bay Bridge, and besides a gift shop where you can pick up Sierra Nevada mustards or a two-liter growler, the brewhouse's Taproom has a full menu. Outdoor seating is a no-go in San Francisco approximately 11 months out of the year, but even in mid-November, Chico is balmy during daylight hours. Also, vintage photos lining the brewery's corridors feature many a shirtless hunk circa-1980, which is a bonus. So check it out.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., 1075 East 20th St., Chico, Calif., (530) 893-3520.