If it seems like a new brewery pops up every six months to a year here in the Sierra, you’re not far off. The Reno-Tahoe beer scene is teeming with craft brew pioneers and upstarts. While home brewers are taking a leap of faith to pursue the passion, art and science of the craft, the boom of new residents and steady stream of area visitors is helping to support the area’s growing choices. We also can’t ignore the fact that in Tahoe’s active outdoor world, a frosty beer is the ultimate reward after a long bike ride, trail run or a day on the slopes. And with Lake Tahoe’s famously pure water, local breweries have a huge head start when it comes to delivering a well-crafted libation. Whatever is driving the trend, there’s no denying that there’s a region-wide thirst for locally made beer.
In response to the area’s growing craft beer scene, Truckee Tavern co-owner Ryan Dierks said, “A couple more breweries, and Truckee becomes a destination for it.”
His statement rings true with newcomers like Donner Creek Brewery, which former pharmacist Greg Speicher and his wife Wendy Lautner opened in summer 2020. They chose its off-the-beaten-trail location on the eastern side of Truckee near Donner Lake to be conveniently near bike and ski trails such as Coldstream Canyon. The brewpub’s pico status—smaller than a nano-brewery—also sets it apart and means interested imbibers must seek them out to collect their goods.
“You can only get our beer here, where it’s made onsite in small quantities,” said Speicher, of winter beers like easy-drinking English cask ale (an old-school draught ale with live yeast). “We put a premium on freshness so nothing’s sitting around for long.”
Foraging for wild hops that grow like weeds in Truckee and collaborating with nearby Dark Horse Coffee Roasters for a whiskey-barrel-aged seasonal stout, Donner Creek belongs to a subset of hyper-local area brewers.
Matt and Heidi Petyo also fit that mold. Founders of the year-old Good Wolf Brewing Company in Truckee, they take the art and science of the craft to extremes with beers inspired by foraging trips in the Tahoe National Forest. Tips from two types of pine trees wind up in their Needle & Resin black lager, and a local mycologist gathers wild mushrooms for their Dirt Candy ale.
“My wife and I were hiking when yarrow was in full bloom. As a breeze blew its aroma, we thought how
can we use these ingredients all around us to capture this moment and place in a beer?” said Matt, of their Eureka moment that resulted in Diving Bell honey lager with yarrow. “We’ve always loved farmhouse beer, but it doesn’t make sense to brew it because we’re not on farm. We are in the middle of a forest though.”
The couple is forever challenging themselves. After resurrecting the lost, 19th-century recipe for California’s first lager—christened Boca Ghost as an homage to original maker Boca Brewing Company—they’re releasing an apéritif-style beer for the holidays. Cleverly named Saturnalia for the winter pagan festival, the boozy beer’s ABV of 20 percent is ideal for cozy nights by the fire.
“It’s an insanely strong beer like a fortified barley wine ale or barley port ale,” said Matt.
It’s just one of the many limited-edition releases to collect competitively around the holidays.
Truckee’s FiftyFifty Brewing’s Eclipse, a series of barrel-aged variations on its Totality imperial stout, sells out according to cofounder Alicia Barr. New flavor layers are mezcal and peanut butter coconut. “Peanut butter coconut is super limited, but we always hold some for the pub so people can come in and taste,” she said.
South Lake Tahoe’s Cold Water Brewery & Grill also celebrates the season with homey scents like its Tahoe Dirty Blonde’s juniper berry and mountain sage and El Niño Mexican chocolate stout’s whiskey, cocoa nibs, nutmeg and orange peel.
“I started with five core flavors six years ago and am now up to 14 of my own handles on tap,” said owner Debbie Brown, who doubled production by installing outdoor tanks, a pricey anomaly around Tahoe. “We outgrew our facility, so I literally had to think outside the box
Quick to pivot with COVID, Brown created a magical outdoor dining area warmed for winter by fire pits and comfort food like new short rib and curry dishes. She encourages diners to dress accordingly in Uggs and beanies and to bring blankets. If they show up empty-handed, there are throws for sale.
Alibi Ale Works is going all-in with elaborate beer gardens for its Public Houses in Truckee and Incline Village. The latter, which opened last year, has already become known for its natural amphitheater, a tiered, boulder-filled backyard. Truckee’s location installed a beer garden for covid and launched a GoFundMe campaign to reinforce the temporary structure for winter according to general manager Rylan Cordova. It’s a must beyond drinking and dining.
“We’ve been coined the Truckee convention center because we’re so event-driven,” he said, minding safety protocols with scaled-down, socially distanced live music performances and trivia nights.
Each venue including Alibi’s Brewery and Barrel House in Incline Village has its own identity. Helmed by executive chef Aaron Zendner, Incline’s Public House offers a more expansive menu that pushes the envelope with non-traditional fare. He recommends the elk burger, but you can also find tuna crudo and a beet salad. The Brewery and Barrel House’s original barrel room was remodeled and transformed into a private event space; its 2020 grand opening and bookings have been postponed for safer times.
Alibi’s beer variety is impressive for an operation that turns six in December. Along with flagships, beloved seasonal brews from porters to a cranberry and tangerine sour affectionately dubbed Mr. Tartacular’s Awkward Family Dinner return. But beer geeks will probably want to
try Contradiction, a golden mocha “stout.” Its color mimics a pale ale, while it tastes like a stout or iced coffee (hence, the quote marks). “It’s definitely unique,” said Cordova.