Thursday, August 6, 2009

It Was a Night for Family . . .

and not for photos.

So we’ll forego the usual bite-by-bite description of our recent dinner at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company restaurant in Chico (CA).

Chuck and I were joined by (from left to right) his cousin Neal Miller, his aunt Martha,

Neal’s youngest daughter Christie, Neal’s wife Lisa, and (not pictured) his cousin Steve Miller.

Chuck and I began the night by sharing the beer sampler – two ounce samples of each of the sixteen beers currently being brewed by Sierra Nevada. I can better describe what I don’t like – extreme "hoppiness" and bitterness – than I can describe what I do like. But there were some that I would order at my local taproom.

The top selections included: the Draught Style Pale Ale (top row/far left) which is a lighter version of Sierra Nevada’s popular pale ale; the Kellerweis (bottom row/second from right) an unfiltered wheat beer with banana and clove flavors which managed to be simultaneously light but rich with flavor; and the Porter (top row/second from right) a dark, rich, and creamy ale. The stout (top row/far right) would be good on a cold winter evening while sitting in front of a roaring fire, but was too heavy for ninety-degree Chico (CA) weather. The brown ale (bottom row/second from left) was no match for Newcastle’s excellent nut brown ale. And the Brown Saison (bottom row/third from the left) had a wonderful spicy aroma, but was made with orange peel. Since I am allergic to oranges, I passed on this.

The beer that surprised me was the Bigfoot (middle row/far left), a high octane (9.6% ABV) that is both extremely malty and hoppy. When I first tasted this beer it was still freshly poured cold, and I intensely disliked it. I returned to it after our meal and after the beer had warmed. This was an entirely different beer, and the warming seemed to mellow out the harsh edges. Maybe the Brits know something when they drink their beers warm.

The Sierra Nevada Brewing Company started in 1980 in Chico, CA, when Ken Grossman and co-founder Paul Camusi, two local college students, cobbled a brewery together from dairy tanks, a soft-drink bottler, and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries and brewed the first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

It has become the sixth largest brewery in the US, and its corporate philosophy is very impressive. Beginning with growing all of its grains as organic, such as the brewery's 9-acre hop field adjacent to the restaurant's parking lot.

Their combination of solar and fuel cell energy production fills 80-90 percent of the brewery's energy needs. They re-use spent grain and yeast as cattle feed, treated water as irrigation, food scraps as compost, and a carbon dioxide recovery and re-use system. And a medical center for employees. And more . . . .

What do two grown adults do? We were walking around downtown Chico, and there appeared before us – the Old Town Rootbeer Company with over forty-five varieties of root beer and a soda fountain. What did we do, we went in of course.

In addition to the forty-five root beers, this store also stocks close to one hundred obscure and not so obscure sodas all of which can provide the base for a “float.” With checkers on the tables and a real juke box along one of the brick walls, this was the perfect place to take a stool at the counter and cool off with a frosty mug.

Chuck ordered the Root Beer Freeze, root beer and ice cream blended in a shake machine to a creamy but still carbonated goodness.

I was the purist that day and went with the traditional root beer float. We sat for about forty-five minutes sipping on our mid-afternoon snacks and talking with the owner’s son-in-law about our travels. And, of course, a six pack of assorted sodas left the shop with us.

Before leaving Chico, cousin Steve drove me past the restored Senator Theater. The Senator opened in 1927 as a vaudeville and movie house. In 1978, United Artists sectioned off the balcony to make the theater a twin. Today, the theater is the venue for live performances; the marquee announces upcoming concerts.

One of the figures near the marquee keeps a watchful eye on passers by.

The Senator Tower had been an icon of downtown Chico for generations, but was temporarily removed in the late 1990s because it was leaning to the side over 5th Street.

For the sake of safety, it was taken down and put away until restoration could occur. After a few years (by the time most Chicoans had given up on ever seeing it ever again), a new, more stable tower was built with the same signature diamond on top.

The Senator was restored in 2001 and later reopened as a performing arts center. The restoration removed the artificial wall that was added in the twinning process and the theater now seats almost 1000.

We had a wonderful time in Chico and now its on to Lodi.

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