Hop aboard: Beer tasting from Santa Barbara to Ventura
ZOZI writer and SoCal suds seeker Jeff McElroy knows a thing or two about brewery hopping from Santa Barbara to Ventura. The best part? It's all accessible by train. Join Jeff and photographer Hans Wittenberg on an awesome day trip filled with brews, brewers and beautiful Gold Coast scenery.
'Tis one of life’s great dilemmas: To go beer tasting in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, or downtown Ventura? Only 30 miles apart, both cities bask like sunbathers along Central California’s “Gold Coast,” that idyllic stretch of real estate draped between the oak-speckled foothills of the Los Padres Mountains and the wave-blessed emerald waters of the Pacific Ocean. Santa Barbara is unashamedly ritzier (Oprah lives there), and Ventura is proud of its blue-collar roots (Harley Davidsons galore, oil rigs). But one thing they have in common beyond scenic beauty and good waves? Good craft beer. No, great craft beer.
And guess what? The Amtrak Surfliner train has depots in both cities that drop you within crawling distance of some of California’s finest craft breweries. Your troubles are over, Dude.
Purchase a $30.00 round-trip train ticket at Amtrak.com and check out these breweries:
Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone
Figueroa Mountain Brewery
From the Amtrak station, walk east on Yanonali Street for three minutes until you see Figueroa Mountain Brewery on the right.
Figueroa Mountain is a classic craft brewery; rustic wood beams give it a Valhalla beer hall feel, yet the clean stainless steel touches add just enough of the modern. Cowboys, fixie hipsters and your mom will feel equally at home here. Old sepia photographs on the walls celebrate FMB’s Santa Barbara mountain roots (the first brewery opened in Buellton).
Order a Mosaic Pale Ale. It’s the perfect beer to start the tasting tour with thorough hops, but still light, floral and tropical enough to give you the knowing smile of a hophead at the beginning of a lovely journey.
There’s live music every weekend (and along with it, frothing crowds of UCSB students), plus plenty of seating inside and out to accommodate the masses. Unless your idea of cuisine is a grizzly-sized pretzel, plan to dine off-site at any of the Funk Zone’s eateries ranging from fine dining to grab-and-go taco stands. Oh yeah, make sure to buy a 32oz can of your favorite FMB beer (for the train ride home, hint hint).
So you’re ready to explore the labyrinthine streets and alleys of the Funk Zone proper (FYI, Funk Zone is bordered by State St., Stearns Wharf and East Beach and covers about 10 walkable blocks). Walk out of FMB, turn right, then right on Anacapa Street. Ahead on your left, look for Channel Islands Surfboards (you’ve most likely never seen so many new surfboards in one location). Tucked behind the surf shop and down a long alley of splendid graffiti art, you’ll find Brass Bear Brewing & Bistro, and you’ll be glad you did.
Owner Seth Anderson started messing around with a homebrew kit in his garage. His wife kept extensive notes and records of the recipes. Fast forward a few years, and you have this intimate, off-the-beaten path nook. One room contains a bar, a few tables, and a small, open kitchen.
Order the flight. The first three beers are Brass Bear originals, and they’ll pleasantly surprise you. The Hopping Grizzly IIPA somehow manages to hide an 8.5% ABV in a refreshingly crisp beer that's reminiscent of a pale ale.
Next up is the Cave Age Lager. This is your dad’s beer, perfected. The craft beer explosion has, until recently, neglected the lager, focusing heavily on IPAs as a way of distancing and differentiating itself from the mass-produced Budweisers, Coors and Millers. But Brass Bear got the memo that discerning beer drinkers are demanding another look at the German-style lagers—the low-alcohol (5%), malty, smooth, and delicious lagers that can be sipped from noon 'til night.
The kitchen delivers sumptuous small bites, all locally sourced, that pair well with the beers. Try the Watkins Ranch (Ojai) Tri-tip beef skewers with a Hopping Grizzly IIPA, or a charcuterie board with the Tropical Fruit Gose.
Brass Bear hosts food and drink pairings once a month with only 30 seats available, so make your reservations early. Imbibers tend to be in the 20-40 age range. Off the main drag, this is the perfect spot to avoid the masses.
Third Window Brewing Company
Ok, this place is a little walk outside the Funk Zone but, hey, you’re feeling good and the sunshine’s on your shoulders. Head east on Yanonali Street, turn left on Garden Street, go under the freeway and turn right on Haley Street, then a quick right on Laguna Street.
Third Window had NO IPAs on tap. Not one. This would normally be cause for concern, but Third Window takes you back to a time before IPAs, a time when Christian monks bent their tonsured heads over vats of hoppy heaven.
Situated in a huge open barn made of dark, weathered wood, the bar faces the majestic peaks of the Los Padres Mountains. It feels more like a winery than a brewery. You’re likely to see a well-dressed professor, tie over his shoulder, pairing something from the brasserie with a tart Belgian wit beer called Peche Affaire.
Memoirs of a Gose, a refreshing, tart Gose with Himalayan pink salt, is a masterpiece. Sour, yes, but curiously sour in a way that keeps you guessing…and drinking. Beer was sour back in the Middle Ages—it’s a fermented beverage, after all. Third Window describes its libations and process as, “A love letter to the great Trappist breweries. Inspired goldens, dubbels, trippels, and quads.”
The crowd here is mellow—folks in their late 20s to 50s. You don’t go to Third Window to party or watch Monday Night Football. You go to drink beer. Ridiculously inspiring beer. Third Window says it best: “Beer First.”
You’ve Got a Train to Catch
You got so caught up talking to the Third Window brewmaster about why he named the session pale ale Sleepless Clowns ("Fresh Prince of Bel Air" fans, rejoice), you may or may not have missed your train. No, not you, because you read a ZOZI article beforehand which told you to set an alarm on your phone for 45 minutes before the train arrives. Kudos, you.
The train never felt so smooth. The sun is setting over the Pacific, RV families are waving up at you from the PCH, the traffic on the 101 is barely moving, and your friend cries tears of happiness when you produce the 32oz FMB can from your fanny pack (because fanny packs are awesome). You feel like riding this train forever but, alas, it stops in Ventura and you’ve got one more brewery to hit.
Topa Topa Brewing Company
“We believe in thinking big, and staying small.”
Co-founder, Jack Dyer, left behind a successful finance career because he wanted to create something based around a community. Head Brewer, Casey Harris, left behind an elite special ops team at San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company to make his magic at Topa Topa. Named after the mountain range looming over Ventura’s sweet point breaks, this brewery is all about creating amazing beer in small batches for locals and travelers alike. Here are a few of my favorites...
The Tux: This reviewer doesn’t normally opt for the dark porter-style beers except as a nightcap. This reviewer also has never found a beer worth ranking alongside Guinness…until now. The Nitro Milk Stout blends notes of vanilla, cake batter, chocolate and macadamia nuts. The glorious head would make any Irish (wo)man cry for joy. And get this: this is a session-worthy beer. Don’t let all that talk of chocolate and stout make you believe this beer will weigh you down. A 5.5% ABV allows you to enjoy multiple pints in a way normally reserved for pilsners or lagers.
Chief Peak IPA: This reviewer also rarely ranks a beer alongside his all-time favorite, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But Topa Topa has done it again by creating an IPA you’ll savor as much for the piney nose as for the tropical finish. A respectable 7% ABV and 75 IBU doesn’t overpower the palate and pairs well with any of the delectable food truck cuisine (check Topa Topa’s website for food truck schedules).
Expect to bump elbows with folks of all ages—surfers, Patagonia employees (Patagonia headquarters is a few blocks away), yoga dudes and dudettes, spandex-clad cyclists, and discerning beer aficionados. Dogs, salty hair, and good vibes welcome.
You’ve walked or Uber’d to the Crown Plaza hotel or the haunted Bella Maggiore Inn. Over lots of water (you’ve been drinking water throughout the day, right?), you contemplate a day already joining the mists of nostalgia. Falling into a beery slumber, a tapestry of faces and places, tastes and smells, plays in your mind to a steady railroad beat: Sepia, sun-kissed visions of the brewers and beer baristas, the local hops and barley, the slow-cooked tri-tip, and the ever-present Pacific yawning and sparkling to the Channel Islands and the horizon beyond.
Note: This journey can be enjoyed from south to north as well, as Santa Barbara offers plenty of awesome hotels and hostels.