Ah, Solvang. I had a few options for day-3 of my Brewery tour, but I knew I wasn’t going to leave Central California without a trip to Solvang, so Solvang Brewing Company was a pretty easy choice. One might wonder how a 10bbl brewery could thrive in a town with only 5,300 population and a downtown of only 4 square blocks, but then if one wonders that, one has probably never been to Solvang. And if that’s the case, one has probably been living under a rock. Even this little ol’ Canadian boy has been here four times now, the first time I must have been about twelve – so here I am, 30 years later and finally, I’m here for the beer!
Solvang was founded only 100 years ago on a 3,600 hectare Mexican land grant by a group of Danes who wanted to establish a Danish colony in California. Famous for it’s windmills, traditional Danish architecture, and replicas of famous Denmark landmarks, statues and towers, Solvang has long been a tourist destination. In the 70’s, and 80’s it was always a great road trip stop so the kids could wander the pastry and candy and chocolate shops and fill up on delectable goodies.
Solvang also has an amazing 700 seat open-air festival theatre, and about 10 years ago we make a trip up from Santa Barbara for a nighttime performance of Guys and Dolls that was absolutely stellar – of course there was no brewery then, but the little town continued to thrive on the massive influx of tourist dollars.
Then in 2004, in the thick of the California wine craze, a little production company came to town with a minuscule $12 million budget, but big names like Paul Giammati, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, and Thomas Haden Church to film “Sideways” – the movie that in one fell swoop grossed $72M at the box office, launched California Pinot Noir sales into the stratosphere, and solidified Solvang as one of Central California’s premiere tourist destinations (sadly, still ranked behind Hearst Castle on that scale). So naturally, what the most iconic wine town in the thick of wine country REALLY needs … is a brewery! (and you thought I was never going to get back to the beer, ha!)
In 2010, Stephen Renfrow and his wife Cari took on the daunting task of renovating, retrofitting, and seismically upgrading one of the town’s four iconic windmills – turning a condemned building that hadn’t been rented in 2 years, into a bustling brewery and pub with 7 house beers and a list of seasonals and specialty brews as long as my arm (and hey, I’m 6’4″ … I have a pretty long arm).
The venue was originally a Danish Inn, built in the 60’s, and the “Viking Room” as they call it, hasn’t changed much in 50 years. The owners intentionally left the nostalgic (dare I say kitschy?) look intact, which, despite it’s dated appearance, definitely has a comfortable, welcoming, warm vibe.
The cool thing about the taster paddle here, is that there’s no taster paddle. Tasters are $1.75 a piece whether you want one, or ten. I started with Valhalla IPA, Odin’s Stout, Windmill Wheat, Julefest Ale, Oktoberfest, and the ‘just tapped that day’ Full Nelson IPA made with 100% Nelson Sauvin hops. The funny (and briefly awkward) thing was, that I went straight for the Nelson first, and got an overpowering whiff of Warrior Hops – the telltale garlic and onion aroma that I am all too familiar with after using Warrior in my Red Velvet ESB. A taste confirmed to me that it was undoubtedly Warrior hops, and a lot of it. I figured they had poured the wrong beer, and continued on with the rest.
The wheat and the stout both stood out for me, the favorite being the stout, although I did really enjoy the Valhalla IPA as well, but I still wasn’t sure whether they had mixed up the two IPA tasters, or simply poured the wrong Nelson … I mean, I know what Nelson Sauvin hops taste and smell like. That’s one of my top-5 hops to use, when I can get it. Subtle citrus aroma, overtones of passion fruit, a bit of gooseberry, and the signature Sauvignon Blanc white wine taste. I didn’t get that from any of these tasters, but I wanted to! So I ordered a full pint of the Nelson, and mentioned to the waiter that I thought I might have been poured the wrong taster. He brought me a pint, and sadly, it was also a Warrior bomb.
To my surprise though (and here’s where it was briefly awkward before getting really cool again) the owner, Stephen, came to my table and asked if someone here had a problem with the beer. I explained that I was nanobrew owner, and homebrew supply shop owner, and that I was tasting Warrior hops in the beer that was supposed to be 100% Nelson Sauvin, and I thought I might have been served the wrong beer. “I poured them both myself, that’s our Nelson.” In typical apologetic Canadian fashion, with humble candor I professed my confusion by explaining how and why I think I have a pretty good nose for hops and that, while insisting that I did enjoy both beers, I couldn’t understand how I could be so sure I tasted one distinct hop and yet could be so wrong. He said “Our Valhalla is 100% warrior, the the Nelson is 100% Nelson Sauvin” – Aha! “Could you have mixed up the kegs? I KNEW I was getting Warrior!”
After a bit of back and forth about “could you have mixed up the kegs?” – “we’re serving right from the tank”. “Could your brewer have put the warrior in by mistake?”, “No, our brewmaster David Lusk is an award winning brewer, that wouldn’t happen. Did you try our Lager? It’s our medal winner!” Thankfully I had a segue out of this!
“No, I don’t generally gravitate to lagers at craft beer venues, but I’d love to try it!”
Their Blue Eyed Blonde Lager won a Silver medal at the Del Mar International Beer Festival in the German Lager class, with over 400 breweries competing at the event.
It was a pretty decent lager. Good German character. As I was giving it a good sniff and visualizing the slight sulphur aroma I was getting, I said aloud “mmmm, noble hops, match heads, …” “MATCH HEADS?” he says, “Oh sorry, no, it’s not a fault, just a yeast characteristic that most people wouldn’t even pick up on, very subtle, it’s only coming out for me because I just drank something with an unfiltered ale yeast.” Phew… me and my big mouth…
We got talking about brewing, and he gave me a quick tour. For the 2nd time in my life, and the 2nd time in 3 days, they were actually brewing at the time so I couldn’t walk the floor – but hey, I was wearing sandals, I wouldn’t have let me walk the floor even if they weren’t brewing. Their 10bbl system is brewing 4 days a week just to keep up with demand, and they’ve just ordered a 30bbl system to help offset the load. Not too shabby for a brewery that didn’t even exist 4 years ago. And, it turns out they’re negotiating the purchase from a supplier in Abbotsford, a mere 16 minute from where I live – we had a good laugh about how small the world is.
As much as I wanted to stay and chat, my wife was desperate to get out in the sun, tour the quaint little town, take some pictures, and pick up an authentic danish (the pastry, not the dudes) . In fact, as I realized she had actually left some ten minutes earlier, I bid my farewell, but not before Stephen convinced me to checkout Valley Brewers, the homebrew supply shop connected to the back of their brewery. I would never have even known it was there!
Valley Brewers was a tidy, stylish homebrew boutique with an impressive selection of White Labs yeasts. Yes, there was lots of other stuff too, but I always tend to look at the yeasts first because that’s a measure of how busy a homebrew supply shop is. Yeast being fickle and highly temperature sensitive, has a relatively short shelf life – so a proprietor will minimize losses by only stocking as much as they can sell in a limited timeframe. As a comparison, at True North Brew Supply I try to keep 25-40 liquid yeast packs in stock at any given time, and as the only homebrew supply shop for two cities, I’ve got about a quarter of a million population as my potential client base. Valley Brewing must have had 60+ yeasts in stock. For a town of 5,300, and the next closest town, Buellton, with ~4,900 residents, that’s pretty impressive stock. I doubt if too many tourists aren’t buying hops and grains and yeast, so that means there must be a serious homebrewing culture here. I only wish I could have stayed longer to explore more of it!
In all seriousness, Stephen was a really cool guy, excited to talk to beer enthusiasts, passionate about his product, and eager to chat about the industry, expansion, and craft. For me it was kinda awkward meeting the owner because of a complaint about a beer, but as funny of a story it was, that moment only lasted 30 seconds and then we were getting along famously. Since Solvang is such a tourist destination, I suspect that many BC craft beer drinkers have already heard of it and have perhaps been there already – so just remember, if you’re ever planning a trip that way, you’ve got to check out the cool little brewery under the windmill, Solvang Brewing Company!
I still think there was Warrior in their Nelson though 😛 -lol
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