Finding a good winter ale is one of the best ways to get through Humboldt's cold, dark and sometimes mercilessly wet winters.
Locals know where to go to get the county's richest and heartiest ales; dark mysterious brews that help insulate against the cold and don't require near-freezing temperatures to be palatable.
Everyone has a favorite, whether it's malty, smoky, sweet, spiced or coffee-infused. If you're wondering where Humboldt's best winter ales can be found, you're in the right place.
It's the year of the porter. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, three out of four Humboldt County breweries that released a winter ale this year went with varieties of strong porters. It makes sense for the season. Flavorful and warming, porters are like mini-meals without being overwhelmingly thick or bold like other varieties.
Climb the hill to Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville (1300 Central Ave.) on a winter afternoon and you'll find a bustling group of beer drinkers eager to chat, if that's what you're looking for. Otherwise, grab a window seat and watch the sunset (show up early, it's winter) with a glass of Jacob Marley Spiced Porter ($5, 10-ounce pour). Six Rivers produces Jacob Marley every year, explains co-owner Meredith Maier, but the style changes depending on brewer Carlos Sanchez's whimsy. It's always "something robust for winter," Maier says.
Jacob Marley is sweet and strong, brewed with vanilla, brown sugar and mulling spices and packs a punch — at 10 percent ABV, it's the strongest of Humboldt's seasonals. The spices are noticeable but not overwhelming, with a bit of a smoky finish.
If you pick up the Insider early, and are really, really lucky, Six Rivers might still have some of its Jacob Marley porter aged in bourbon barrels. The bite of the spirits relaxes the beer's spice profile and gives a naughty finish, "like sneaking nips of alcohol under the Christmas tree," says Maier.
On the north end of McKinleyville, tucked away in the backside of a little industrial park, is Humboldt County's newest brewery. Once you find Humboldt Regeneration (2320 Central Ave., Unit F), the small alehouse is inviting and funky. Owner Jacob Pressey grows all his beer's main ingredients at a nearby farm, and brews in the alehouse. If you come at the right time, there might be an array of malts sprouting on a specialized "malt floor," or Pressey might be throwing together a beer to go on tap later.
On a rainy December evening, Pressey's serving Blasphemy Pumpkin Porter ($4, 12-ounce pour) — an earthy and bitter porter that's nearly black with a rich white head. Pressey makes small batches and tries to have a new beer on tap for his growler subscribers every week. If the porter's dried up, there's a good chance you'll find another of Pressey's creations — whether a hearty wintery ale or something a little more experimental — to your liking (there may be some specialties left over from a special holiday release planned for the end of December).
Lost Coast Brewery is Humboldt County's biggest beer maker, and with a glistening new brewery on the south end of Eureka, it's easy to forget their small roots. Remind yourself by ordering a Winterbraun ($4, 12-ounce pour), a winter ale, at the Lost Coast Brewery's downtown Eureka pub (617 Fourth Street).
The Winterbraun is a double recipe of the brewery's flagship Downtown Brown with spices added. Its sweet, almost Belgian flavor is rich and malty, and while the spice profile is distinct, it's subtler than other winter ales. It complements the brewery's hearty fare well, and the brown hue looks great against the substantial wooden bar. While it's best on tap, Winterbraun can also be picked up in the bottle at grocery stores and savored in front of the fireplace at home.
Mad River Brewery is celebrating its 25th anniversary by releasing a line of artisanal ales, beginning with Kick Starter Imperial Porter, a big, big beer with luscious coffee flavor.
Blue Lake seems sunnier even in the winter, and while Mad River's tasting room (101 Taylor Way) is on the small side, there's a great big outdoor seating area with an awning and heaters, so you can enjoy Humboldt's famous rain with delicious brews.
Kick Starter ($4-$5), is brewed with five different malts, which gives it a creamy, full-bodied flavor, with so rich a coffee flavor and aroma it could be sipped with eggs and toast at breakfast. Enjoy it at the brewery or pick up a 22-ounce bottle to swig instead of your second cup of brunch coffee.