Craft Beer in Wine Country

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Craft Beer in Wine Country - San Luis Obispo, California

Sampling and learning about beer in San Luis Obispo, California

(Disclosure: My visit to the breweries was hosted by San Luis Obispo County as part of a post-trip after the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) 2016 conference in Oxnard, California. Observations and opinions are my own.)

The city of San Luis Obispo is in the heart of California’s Central Coast, 200 miles north of Los Angeles and 220 miles south of San Francisco. This college town, also known as Happy Town USA, dates to 1772 when Spaniards were seeking mission sites and Father Junipero Serra established the fifth of his California missions.

The rolling hills have a Mediterranean marine climate, which keeps days sunny and warm and nights cool and breezy all year round, ideal for vineyards. Thirty wineries are within five minutes reach of the city. Thirty miles away, the area around Paso Robles is home to over 200 more wineries. Yet, in the midst of this wine region, there is a burgeoning craft beer scene. I learned about the modern trends of the ancient brewing art on a tour of three breweries.

Craft Beer in Wine Country -our guide
Our guide for the tour, from Hop On Beer Tours

Central Coast Brewing

Craft Beer in Wine Country: Central Coast Brewing

Central Coast Brewing opened in 1998. It produces a variety of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind signature ales and lagers. It won a Gold Medal in the American-Style Pale Ale category at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. The tasting room is best defined as quirky-industrial with brewery tanks at the back. Fifteen beers were available on tap the day I visited, in taster, half-pint and pint sizes.

Craft Beer in Wine Country - brewery tanks at Central Coast Brewing


Craft Beer in Wine Country: Brewer Brendan Gough
Brewer Brendan Gough

Master Brewer Brendan Gough gave us an overview of the beer making process from mashing through boiling, cooling, fermentation and carbonation. Brendan began home brewing in his garage. After winning a number of medals at local homebrew competitions he decided to make the leap into professional brewing.

Central Coast Brewing also offers an unusual service. Their Tactical Thirst Response Team, a beer truck full of Central Coast Brewing’s beers on tap, is available to rent for parties and events.



Craft beer in Wine Country: Central Coast Brewing patio
Central Coast Brewery patio is popular


Barrelhouse Brewing Company

Craft beer in Wine Country; Barrelhouse Brewing Company

Jason Carvalho and Kevin Nickell, co-owners of Barrelhouse Brewing Company, are lifelong friends and were business partners as building contractors. After garage brewing for four years, they purchased used commercial brewery equipment from a Canadian brewery. In 2013 their dream of a brewery became reality. The brewery, complete with beer gardens, is actually located on the edge of Paso Robles. I visited their speakeasy taproom in San Luis Obispo.

Craft Beer in Wine Country: Barbersho storefront for Barrelhouse Speakeasy Tasting Roomn
A working barbershop on the main floor provides the storefront for the speakeasy

I descended down a flight of stairs into what looked like a prohibition-era speakeasy with brick walls and hundred-year-old exposed rusted beams. The space was purchased before deciding on the speakeasy theme, but it seemed a natural fit for the space.

Craft Beer in Wine Country: BarrelHouse Speakeasy Tasting Room
Bartenders are in 1920s garb
Bookshelf door in Barrelhouse Speakeasy Taproom
How cool is this? A bookshelf door to a secret room.
Room is cellar-like storage for kegs.

Barrelhouse Brewing Co. Speakeasy is a fun, relaxed place to visit with a group of friends. There are enough varieties of beer on tap to satisfy every taste.


Libertine Brewing Company

Craft Beer in Wine Country: Libertine Brewing Company

Libertine Brewing Company makes small-batch hand-crafted wild ales. They were founded in 2012 and grew from a small brewpub in Morro Bay to a 9000 square foot production and tasting facility at the edge of downtown San Luis Obispo.

Craft Beer in Wine Country: Libertine Brewing

Wild ales are beers that are introduced to “wild” yeast or bacteria. Unlike modern brewing which is done in a sterile environment to guard against the intrusion of wild yeast, these beers are made intentionally allowing wild yeast or bacteria into the brew. Making beer with these cultures is less precise and less predictable and the brewing process can be longer. Libertine Wild Ales are brewed and then transferred into an open-top coolship overnight, which allows the local wild yeasts of the area time to fall in and start the fermentation process, giving the beers a Central Coast Terroir.

Craft Beer in Wine Country

The wild yeast and bacteria give the beer a funky taste. Some are quite sour. It is a taste which many love and others find distasteful. I was not particularly fond of the flavour, but I suspect it may be an acquired taste. I am partial to a hoppy British bitter-style beer and Libertine’s Wild IPA was my favourite. Libertine also makes cold-brewed coffee which is aged in bourbon and wine barrels and spiced with local ingredients foraged from surrounding hills.

Craft Beer in Wine Country: Libertine Brewing Company

The city of San Luis Obispo has both a lively and relaxed vibe. Its downtown is a pedestrian-friendly zone of shops, restaurants, galleries and turn-of-the century buildings. And a few craft breweries.

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PIN ITA craft beer tour in San Luis Obispo (SLO), California #California #craftbeer #SLO #SanLuisObispo

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  1. Donna, before anything else I’ve got to tell you I love the “Tactical Thirst Response Team”. What a clever name and idea.
    I find it amazing at the way Craft Beer has taken off and how many different types/brands are on the market. You picked some dandy breweries to feature although the Libertine one is kind of risky if you ask me. Rather like making bread with wild yeast, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
    But a totally fascinating post.

    1. Lenie, I think it is riskier and requires a special type of skill for the brewmaster. I’m not sure the approach of using wild yeast would work well with bread, but who knows – maybe someone will try that next.

  2. This trend is a nation wide phenomena, but I have never developed a taste for beer of any kind. Though I have many friends who wax on about method and flavor of craft beers:) Looks like a fun trip.

  3. Wow, this looks wonderful! Craft beer is my husbands love. These brewing companies look great. It’s so nice to see people loving what they do. =) Looks like a great trip.

    1. Sabrina, it is nice to hear about people who’ve been able to turn a hobby into a business.

  4. These seem like some pretty unique breweries. I am not a fan of IPAs or of hoppy beers in general so I would probably head fo Central Coast Brewing and their promise of some signature lagers.

    1. Ken, each of the breweries had a range of styles to appeal to different tastes. I enjoy a lager too, but unlike you like the hoppy beers.

  5. It’s been many years since I last visited San Luis Obispo so I’m sure it’s changed a lot. When it comes to beer I’m pretty much a snob. I opt for wine normally, but when I do drink beer I prefer dark beer and especially like to explore products from small breweries so I would have loved to make this tour. Thanks for sharing Donna!

    1. Marquita, there were dark beers available on this tour although I didn’t taste any of them. I think you would have enjoyed the tour.

  6. While I am not a beer drinker, I would certainly try one here if it were slightly fruity (I know, not really beer). This was the only way I could drink beer in Belgium….Kreik beer…loved it! I honestly can’t remember if I’ve been to San Luis Obispo but it would certainly be a place I’d check out.

    1. Jan, I don’t care much for fruity beers but I know there are more fruity options these days than there once was. Do you like cider?

  7. Craft beer is all the rage right now, and breweries continue to pop up all over the place in the Boise area. I’m more of a wine person, but do enjoy learning more about different varieties of beer as well.

  8. This is a man’s dream – well those who enjoy drinking beer! I have a shandy every once in a while and generally find beer rather sour/bitter.

    I am told that beer quenches the thirst on a hot day. A lot of socialising in the UK takes place in public houses.

    1. Doreen, I’ve never particularly thought about pairing beer with chocolate but now that you bring it up I can imagine several varieties pairing quite nicely.

  9. Craft beers are taking over the position of local wineries. Larger corporations are buying local wineries, and replacing the grapes with a sweater brand, this is because that is what sells the most.
    Craft beers now display a unique local flavor, that these wineries once had. I wonder how long, before large bear corporations begin to buy out these local craft beers?

    1. William, it’s sad when the success of a craft industry begins to destroy it. Hopefully craft breweries will remain.

  10. Hi Donna, as we all know I’m more of a wine gal than a beer gal. But the popularity of craft beer sweeping the county does make it intriguing. I’m glad you enjoyed SLO, what a beautiful town and great pace of life they have there. πŸ™‚

    1. Susan, I did enjoy SLO and would like to visit again. I was also impressed with other towns in the county – Morro Bay and Cambria. Lovely pace of life,

  11. “Tactical Thirst Response Team” ha,ha,ha I love that! I think my husband needs such a truck around the house. I was never a beer drinker, but I have to say the process of preparing hand crafted beers seems interesting. In fact the breweries became so successful lately that in many areas they are seriously competing with the wineries.

  12. I haven’t gotten to San Luis Obispo yet, but I imagine I should go since it is only 200 miles away. I do get Groupon and Living Social offers for that area all the time and I always think about it. It always seems like it would make for a relaxing trip.

    I’m not a beer drinker at all. But I know a ton of people who would get very excited with the option of beer tasting. I do enjoy wine tasting and have taken advantage of the Santa Ynez Vineyard area in Southern California.

    1. Erica, there is lots for the non-beer drinker in San Luis Obispo. This was my first visit there and I really liked the place. I was also impressed with the towns of Morro Bay and Cambria. I highly recommend a visit to the area.

  13. I wonder which human beings stumbled upon first—-wine or beer? Probably it doesn’t matter although for much of history, beer was a more salubrious drink than microbe infested water. Like some others above, I’m not much of a beer drinker, partly because it’s usually served in portions that are more than I want to consume. So, your tour would probably be a good way for me to educate my self and my beer palate.

    1. Suzanne, the taster portions are a good size to try something and see if you like it. There are so many options now in craft beer there is a possibility you’d find one you like – or you could just stick with cider! (I’ve never developed a taste for cider, but I did taste some tasty ciders from Bristol’s Cider House in Atascadero, which is about 17 miles from San Luis Obispo.)

  14. I haven’t been to many breweries but those look very nice. We have a few in Atlanta that I want to check out when I have some down time.

    1. Jason, I hope you get some down time soon – whether you take in a brewery or do something else to relax.

  15. I so wish I could still enjoy a glass of cold beer! Don’t know why, but alcohol of any kind now makes me physically ill. Oh my… πŸ™

      1. I’m so used to being a “teetotaler” now, Donna, that I don’t bother with the low-content stuff. It’s just the odd time I get a yen for a drink. Really, though, it’s all good.

  16. Unlike many of the other commenters, I don’t like wine at all but I do enjoy a good bottle of beer, so this seems right up my alley. I see a pint of stout in the first photo – that’s what I’d zero in on. This gives me the excuse to ask: Are there any traditional Canadian stouts? I did a Google search for “Canadian stout” and came across a “Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout” that is brewed in Michigan, go figure.