The Best [Beer] Coast: A Coastal Beer Tour from San Francisco to Portland

This view of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken from Battery Spencer overlook on the Marin Headlands, echoes the original architectural photographs made by Irving Morrow, showcasing the Art Deco era styling of the bridge.

Article by Meagan Wilson
Photos by Benjamin Wilson

“There’s something about arriving in new cities, wandering empty streets with no destination. I will never lose the love for the arriving, but I’m born to leave.” 

― Charlotte Eriksson, Empty Roads & Broken Bottles; in search for The Great Perhaps

Breathtaking views, long stretches of winding road, and too many food, beer and wine destinations to count; the Pacific Coast Highway has it all. According to stats from a travel survey AAA recently conducted, roughly 53 percent of the U.S. families taking vacation this year will be heading out on some kind of road trip. One of the best roads to be found anywhere in this wide country lies along the Pacific Coast.

US-101 (in Oregon) and CA-1 (in much of California) makes its circuitous, nearly always scenic, mostly smooth, and sometimes hair-raising way along the Pacific Coast, from Dana Point, CA (south of that it becomes I-5), north to Forks, WA (yes, the one from that young adult book series). We’ll concern ourselves primarily with the portion between San Francisco, CA and Tillamook, OR.

Day 0: Friday
Since my traveling companion and I are based elsewhere, this trip began with airports and a rental car. The flight from Dallas Fort-Worth to San Francisco is short enough to be accomplished after work on a Friday, as long as you don’t mind arriving tired and a touch bedraggled. Picking up a rental car involved a bus ride from the terminal over to where the rental cars were. After that, it was an easy drive up US-101 N, its many wide lanes mostly clear of traffic (at 1 a.m. local time), city lights reflecting off the dark waters of the bay, to reach the city itself.

Our destination was a historic Downtown hotel that Marriott had seen fit to renovate and turn into a Courtyard. Nearly everything in San Francisco is historic, and much of it is colorful in the literal sense. Due to some of that historic charm, navigating the downtown streets by car proved a bit nerve-wracking, and we walked everywhere for the remainder of our stay.

Day 1: Saturday
Somewhat like Portland, San Francisco is eminently walkable, as long as you’re cool with constantly going up and down hills. It’s not at all hard to find food at just about any point in a ramble around the city.

Bandit, a quite small restaurant on Geary Street, well deserves its claim to make “the best breakfast sandwich in San Francisco.” At the very least, the Petty Cash is one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve tasted, from anywhere. 

Pier 39 is a tourist destination worth visiting. Even if you’re used to seeing Steller sea lions chilling on the pier, it’s fun to watch their dog-like antics while enjoying the fresh breeze blowing off the bay. You can also see Alcatraz Island from there.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is also not to be missed. However, the merchants are canny bargainers, and it’s rather difficult to “just browse.” 

The Mikkeller San Francisco street sign is shown in foreground against San Francisco buildings and architecture.

Mikkeller Bar was our first beer destination. Located in the Tenderloin district, it’s a stylishly appointed venue with a profusion of taps serving at a mélange of temperatures. This is made possible by a Flux Capacitor. Rather than operating at 1.21 gigawatts, this device (built by Gabe Gordon) allows the management to fine-tune draft temperatures and pressures for the beer style.

Of the Mikkeller beers on tap, I was fairly taken with SD Passion Pool, a 5% Gose that Devon Virgo, the General Manager at Mikkeller Bar, described as “summer in a glass.”

Paradise Pils was their brew for the Camp Fire relief fundraiser. It’s a “keller-style pilsner” with lemon peel, and it, too, seems a perfect summer choice.    

Mikkeller San Francisco’s Flux Capacitor is seen here along with several kegs below in storage.

Devon suggested we also visit Cellarmaker Brewing Co., a very popular brewery with a constantly-changing selection of experimental brews. Given that, it would have seemed impolite not to order a sampler. Hip, Hip Beret is a French country ale that clocks in at an easy-going 4.8%. The Brett is strong with this one. I found the Melon Simcoe to be rather tart, and, as one might expect, redolent of Simcoe hop character.

Hitachino Beer & Wagyu is the kind of izakaya where you can get delicious, eponymous beers on tap, discuss the daily specials with the head chef, and enjoy observing his skill as he prepares the food while you sit at the bar. We took a staff suggestion, and ordered the Japanese Squid (excellent, spicy), and Hitachi Wagyu Nigiri (mouth-wateringly good).

Speaking of the beers, Dai Dai is a 6.2% IPA with fukuremikan orange. It was perfectly clear, which in hindsight is noteworthy because several of the brewers we would visit discussed the Northeast/hazy IPA trend, and how well their hazy IPAs sold. The Yuzu Lager was fairly malt-forward, not terribly fruity, and, as previously mentioned, delicious. 

The writer orders from a menu while conversing with the head chef at Beer and Wagyu Hitachino, San Francisco, in this black-and-white film photograph.

Day 2: Sunday
It’s important to fuel up before a road trip, and not just the car. Before heading out of San Francisco, we enjoyed an early breakfast at Honey Honey Café & Crepery. There was already a line forming by the time the doors opened at 7:30, and it didn’t let up for at least half an hour — probably more. The crepe Suzette was nothing to sneeze at, and the bagel and lox hit the “I-drank-too-much-and-need-salt” spot quite nicely. 

No visit to San Francisco would be complete without crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. For truly great views of the bay, take a detour to follow Conzelman Road as it carves a serpentine route up to the Marin Headlands. Just watch out for cyclists; they’re everywhere. Battery Spencer is one of several spots where motorists (or cyclists) might stop for pictures, or to explore historic fortifications.

US-101 offers the most direct route to Santa Rosa, but if you’re not in a hurry, following CA-1 for a while before cutting back over to US-101 offers more coastal views, followed by agricultural Sonoma County driving.

The brewing facility for Cooperage Brewing’s north Santa Rosa location, with kegged beers.

Cooperage Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa turned four this June. Wearing a hat that literally said “Cooperage Brewing” and metaphorically said “marketing, sales, distribution, and other assorted roles,” Dan Hanes proved a friendly, laid-back and enthusiastic host. He related that they enjoy brewing pale ales and IPAs, but as I could see by looking at the tap wall, they also seem to have fun with smaller batches of Belgian-style and sour beers. I opted to start with Cotty By Nature, a 4.8% kettle soured berliner weisse.

Choosing to focus on the beer, Cooperage doesn’t have a kitchen, but food trucks keep patrons fed on the weekends. The taproom appeared to be dog-friendly (there were dogs), and a shelf full of assorted games issued a silent invitation to relax and stay a while.

Our route from Cooperage to downtown Santa Rosa included the Coffey Park neighborhood. About a year and a half after the fires that ravaged the area, many parts of Sonoma County are still rebuilding.  When asked via email about the Sonoma Pride fundraiser, Russian River co-founder Natalie Cilurzo replied, “There was no hesitation to help the people of our community during the fires. These are the people who have supported our business all these years, so it was very easy for us to quickly mobilize efforts with our Sonoma Pride brand to help raise much needed money and resources for fire victims.”

This was to be a recurring theme throughout the trip; the majority of breweries we visited, large and small, are deeply involved with their communities and, of course, pretty much all of them brewed a Resilience IPA or Campfire beer last year.

The original downtown Santa Rosa Russian River Brewing location showcases its unique typeface, reminiscent of the original Redwoods National and State Parks travel posters.

Russian River Brewpub is one of the original stops for craft beer, and after wanting to visit for quite a long time, we were not at all disappointed with the experience. In addition to excellent brews (you can get an enormous flight and try all 18), they make a mean pepperoni pizza. Of course, being able to get a pint of Pliny the Elder on tap was a major highlight.  

Day 3: Monday
When asked about local coffee recommendations, Dan had mentioned Flying Goat coffee in downtown Santa Rosa, so we stopped by before leaving town. They offer a stylishly tidy atmosphere, cold brew on nitro, an assortment of baked goods, and the usual coffee lover’s staples. Pour-over, doppio, Americano, and so on.

Once more opting for the coastal route, we made our way up CA-1 to Fort Bragg. The blue line on Google Maps does not quite illustrate the many stunning views and nerve-wracking hairpin turns — often up steep inclines — that comprise the route, nor the majesty of driving through forests of Sonoma Redwoods.

The tap handles for a number of the main beers at the North Coast brewery, in Fort Bragg, California.

Joe Seta, Visitor Service Marketing Manager, was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide through 30 years of North Coast Brewing’s history (like Russian River, it’s craft brewery class of ’88 alumni), and 15 sample glasses of beer. North Coast knows its craft, and how to hit exactly the targets it wants within a given style. Even with a certain amount of prior familiarity, I found our visit to North Coast quite impressive.

The food was also excellent, and, fun fact, Downbeat Magazine named its Sequoia Room “one of the Top 200 Great Jazz Venues” three years running, and an AllAboutJazz.com poll placed it number seven domestically and number 11 globally. A portion of proceeds from the sale of every bottle and keg of Brother Thelonious are donated to the Jazz education programs of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

After an afternoon walk at Glass Beach, we happened upon Overtime Brewing. Just down the street from the beach, it’s the craft beer startup in town. Kat Gabrielson, their head of marketing, gave us the rundown on the name. The brewpub is a second or third job for everyone who works there, including Daniel Justice, one of four co-owners. His other profession is Emergency Medical Services. Overtime celebrated its one-year anniversary on June first. 

Day 4: Tuesday
From Fort Bragg, CA-1 continues hugging the coast until just before Hardy, where it starts curving inland, until right around Leggett, where it joins US-101 to become the Redwood Highway. This stretch of road is intensely winding and majestically forested.

Dan at Cooperage suggested we check out The Booth, a Korean brewery operating in Eureka. Finding ourselves in town right before lunch time, we decided to stop by. The Booth started in Seoul, South Korea. It was contract brewed for a bit, and then the company bought its current production facility in 2015, and are working on putting in a tap room. 

Cans of beer from The Booth; Make This Happen Beer #6 (Spicy Witbier), left, and Make This Happen Beer #5 (Belma Hop Ale), right, photographed on the cement floor of The Booth’s historic Eureka, CA location.

In spite of dropping in unannounced (most of the brewery stops on this trip were scheduled), David Franklin, Operations Manager, and Aaron Weshnak, Head Brewer, made time to show us around, and talk about what makes The Booth so cool.

I enjoyed each of the beers that I tasted, but two are especially worth a mention. Their red ale, “an export-only beer named Great God of Fun” (luckily for us, they found an extra couple of bottles lying around), was outstanding. It’s been released once in the U.S., as “California Red Ale.” They also had a spicy wheat beer that I quite liked, brewed with gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) and ginger. The brewery’s motto, “Follow your fun” says quite a bit about their philosophy, and all their label art is fun, quirky, and mostly unreadable to me (because I can’t read Hangul).     

As The Booth didn’t have a tap room or restaurant (they started as a sort of back alley pizza pub in Seoul), we grabbed lunch at A & J Ichiban. The sushi there is legit. Having been land-locked for far too long, I’d forgotten how un-fishy truly fresh sashimi is. 4.5 stars on Google Maps didn’t steer us wrong, and they had a couple of local craft brews on tap. Eel River Brewing didn’t quite make it into the itinerary, but their IPA is quite good.   

A dry erase board in the working area of The Booth brewery in Eureka, CA, indicating that infinite fun has been achieved.

The day’s trip ended in Brookings, OR. The cozy, remote coastal town is home to award-winning Chetco Brewing and Misty Mountain Brewing. The Vista Pub is a classic craft beer bar with a good selection of rotating taps. We ended the day with an ocean view room at the Beachfront Inn. Is there anything better than falling asleep to the sound of the ocean just a few yards away? I don’t think so. 

The Pacific Ocean, visible through the back window of a second-floor room at the aptly-named Beachfront Inn.

Day 5: Wednesday
The wonderful thing about the Pacific Coast Highway is — well, almost everything. The stretch between Brookings and Yachats only deviates from hugging the coastline in a couple spots. Otherwise, it’s stunning views, wide, sweeping curves (far fewer hairpins than some stretches of CA-1), and charming coastal towns. While this narrative is primarily concerned with breweries, there are enough state parks with accessible beaches, lighthouses, shops, restaurants, historical sites, and so on to fill just about any trip, not just a beercation.

Tony (left) and crew, working to open Port O Call and Tony’s Crab Shack in the morning in Bandon, Oregon.

Tony’s Crab Shack in Bandon was the only planned restaurant stop on this trip. When last I visited, the now-enclosed dining room was a porch with plastic tables and chairs. Plastic curtaining like you might see in a walk-in freezer afforded diners modest protection from the elements. I was glad to see that the crab shack is flourishing — in the summer, Tony Roszkowski employs 15 people. The outdoor oyster bar is new as of last year. What hasn’t changed is that Tony’s serves up the best crab cakes I’ve ever tasted (including Maryland crab cakes), and thoughts of the crab sandwich are making my mouth water as I type this. Going crabbing or fishing? Port O’ Call, the tackle shop that is the original core of the business, can help you out, and Tony’s will even cook up your catch for you.

No West Coast beer tour is complete without a stop at a Rogue Pub. Brewer’s on the Bay in Newport is not quite the oldest of its locations, but it is Rogue World Headquarters. Jim Cline worked at Rogue from the early 90s, and now ducks out of retirement on occasion to hang out with nosy writers and other such characters of ill repute.

Like Russian River, North Coast, and 53 other craft breweries, Rogue started in 1988. You can hardly miss this fact, since it’s emblazoned across the outside of the brewery. Nor can you miss the huge red silo erected between two of the battleship gray warehouse buildings, and which serves as the visitors entrance.

In addition to a delightful conversation filled with Rogue history, stories, and, of course, beer, we had the pleasure of meeting Rogue Brewmaster John Maier (who recently announced his impending retirement this July). He was working on an experimental brew, with a “weird Scandinavian yeast” and he let us taste some. Naturally, it was very good. I hope they decide to produce it, or something like it.      

John Maier, Rogue Brewmaster (retired), pours an experimental beer made with a strain of HotHead yeast.

After the jaunt up to Newport, we finished up in the South View suite at Ocean Haven Hotel in Yachats. The blue-painted structure is perched on a cliff overlooking Cape Perpetua Marine Reserves. The room actually sleeps five, and the views are spectacular. There’s a crazy cliffside path down to the beach. The handrails are precarious at best, and at one point consists of a rope lying along the rock. Do not attempt in the dark. 

Editor’s note:
Yachats Brewing + Farm Store has become a destination for beer lovers, and serves up local, organic food and even a flight of four different krauts. The brews range in style from lager to sour, and often incorporate locally harvested fruit; the seasonal Salal Sour is a must-try. 

Day 6: Thursday
Yachats to Tillamook and back would be a bit of a long commute. For a chance to interview Trevor and Linsey Rogers about De Garde, the all-wild fermentation brewery and tasting room they own and operate in downtown Tillamook, it was well worth the drive. Also, it was all driving on 101, so there’s not much to complain about.

De Garde had just celebrated its six year anniversary the weekend before our visit. Unlike most other U.S. craft breweries that feature sour beers in their lineup, or even focus solely on sour styles, De Garde uses only spontaneous fermentation. Their brews are inoculated through contact with the open air, in a coolship. The rectangular stainless steel vessel resembles a large, shallow sink and is located upstairs among many barrels of varying sizes, and bags and bags of aging hops. 

De Garde beers are complex, to say the least. Spontaneously fermented beers are often not super approachable to the average craft beer drinker, but due in part to the acidity, they do tend to attract those who are more used to dry wines. While we chatted, Trevor shared a bottle of The Anniversary, their first 5-year blend, bottled last August. It had all the earmarks of a spontaneous beer, but due to the intensely local nature of the fermentation, the character was also unique and could not be replicated elsewhere. 

The Anniversary wild ale, from de Garde brewing in Tillamook, Oregon, glows a golden color against the bottle on a warm, sunny day on the northern Oregon Coast.

We had some time to kill before our visit to De Garde, so we had lunch in Garibaldi. It’s far from the most famous tourist destination on the Oregon coast, and therein lies much of its charm. Primarily a fishing town, it’s home to a Coast Guard station, publicly-accessible docks for crabbing, and some of the freshest seafood you could hope to taste. Fisherman’s Korner is hands-down my favorite spot for fish and chips, clam strips, and prawns.   

To use some more time, we took a short hike on the Bayocean Peninsula. It’s the site of the former resort town of Bayocean, which over the course of several particularly harsh winters was battered into the sea. There is nothing left of it now, and hiking trails criss-cross the area where it used to be. 

Day 7: Friday
Cutting inland shortly past Lincoln City to head northeast on OR-18E offers a slightly more direct route to Portland, but we opted to go up to Tillamook again. We preferred the scenic drive on OR-6E, through the Tillamook State Forest. Conveniently, this also put us in Hillsboro right around lunchtime, where we fetched up at one of the many McMenamins locations.  

McMenamins Cornelius Pass Roadhouse was once a 19th-century farmstead, and its collection of buildings and the surrounding garden setting made for a quite pleasant stop on a road trip. They also have a brewery and distillery there, and the house-made ginger beer was both refreshing and non-alcoholic.  Our penultimate stop on this rather full brewery tour was the Cascade Blending Facility, where the production manager, Kevin Martin, showed us row upon row of huge barrels aging various brews.

Kevin Martin, Director of Brewery Operations for Cascade Brewing, pours a sample of a spiced beer directly from the barrel.

Cascade Barrel House is one of my favorite stops when in Portland, and it was fascinating to visit the production facility. Cascade is the O.G. of Northwest sour ales, and like the folks at De Garde, Kevin (who has been with Cascade since 2012), blends a background in wine with a deep knowledge of beer and brewing.

The day of our visit happened to be release day for the Cascade/Mikkeller collaboration, Bean-to-Barrel Triple.

Be on the lookout for Coastal Gose, made with Oregon Coast sea salt. Being lighter in alcohol (7.3% ABV) and acidity than most Cascade releases, it should be approachable for drinkers who are perhaps less used to strongly sour styles. It’s set to release on Saturday, July 6th, in cooperation with the Surfrider Foundation, to support clean oceans and beaches. Cascade will also be releasing Ocean Views Hazy Pale Ale, which is especially noteworthy for being their first beer available in 16 oz. cans.

To round out the trip, we stopped at Gigantic Brewing Company. That just so happened to be the day of their Mikkeller collab release, too. Wade Fauth made sure we had a chance to try the “Fucking Classy” Brut IPA. It was fantastic, and I thoroughly enjoyed most of the beers we tried while there. A bit too thoroughly, perhaps. I have a note, scribbled while there, which reads, “Fujikomine attempt didn’t pan out at all.” No clue. I can recommend the Discombobulated, which is a Kveik, and the Liz Sherman installment in their Hellboy beer series.

The brewery schedule for this trip proved a bit ambitious, and probably wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t planned almost all of them ahead. That said, a good many of the venues are family-friendly. The drinking schedule could be pared down quite nicely, and interspersed with other destinations, to make a quite manageable casual trip or family vacation. 

Meagan Wilson
Meagan Wilson

I'm a beer and travel journalist, frequently exploring the crossroads where craft beverages, food and culture meet. For more of my scribbles, follow hoppyhalfpint.com, or find me on social media (@hoppyhalfpint).

Discussion