Like so many great adventures before, Jay Brooks’ own twist of fate began in a smoky, East Village jazz club. That’s where the Pennsylvania-bred Army band member first sipped an imported Bass pale ale—a beer so different from the Genesee cream ale of his youth that he couldn’t help but dive into the still relatively dormant world of craft beer with gusto, guided by the books of famed beer writer Michael Jackson.
“We found a pub in Manhattan that served 50 to a hundred different beers and just started sampling them,” Brooks tells me over a Hop 2 It pale ale at Russian River Brewing Company. “It was rare to find a bar that served anything more than the standard beers, so that seemed like an amazing selection.”
Two decades later, Brooks, who lives in Cotati with his wife and two children, has been the general manager of Celebrator Beer News, a syndicated newspaper columnist for the Bay Area News Group for which he writes the “Brooks on Beer” column, and a prolific freelancer, writing for nearly every known beer publication. He studied brewing at UC Davis and has judged at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.
The culmination of Brooks’ beer obsession is a new guidebook, California Breweries North. A painstakingly researched guide to the ever-growing brewery and brewpub scene in Northern California, the project reflects 18 months of research and writing—twice as long as Brooks originally anticipated, he says, because of the scope and explosive growth of breweries. In Sonoma County alone, there are over 20 functioning breweries (a number that seems to grow each week), more than most states have total. Like a game of whack-a-mole, as soon as Brooks traveled to one brewery, another would open.
“You want it to be as complete and comprehensive as possible,” he says. “So there was a lot of legwork involved.” Covering San Francisco, the North Bay, the South Bay, the East Bay, the North Coast, the Northern Cascade and Shasta Mountains and the Central Valley North, the book carries the air of an insider’s guide. Brooks has been on the beer scene for more than 20 years, so he’s able to get into the backroom workings of breweries in a way that novices simply can’t. Just look at the foreword, written by Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo of the Russian River Brewing Company, who describe Brooks as a “guy who really knows his beer.”
Hanging with Brooks for an hour is like spending time with a beer encyclopedia, one not afraid to challenge conventional opinions, namely, that beer has always been and should remain a cheap commodity.
“Industrial, mass-production breweries have created an artificial price point,” Brooks explains. More to the point, the low cost of Budweiser tends to make people balk at paying $20 for a 750ml bottle of a bourbon-barrel-aged artisan product from a microbrewery. “My view on this is pretty unpopular, but I actually think beer should be more expensive than it is now,” he adds.
When I ask Brooks about hyperlocal beer efforts, like that of Hill Farmstead, the small Vermont brewery recently profiled in the New York Times, he says, “Everything old becomes new again.” A fountain of obscure beer facts (did you know that Jane Austen home-brewed?), Brooks says that in the pre-industrial United States, there were over 4,000 breweries. Beer had to be local because it didn’t travel well. Once refrigeration and rail travel became streamlined, the number dropped below 2,000. He lauds the efforts to localize beer again, but doesn’t have a problem with the expansion efforts of breweries like Lagunitas, either. In the end, what matters most to Brooks is taste.
For this true beer geek (in the best sense of the word), Brooks’ list of favorite Bay Area breweries is considerable. In the North, he’s got his eye on Henhouse, Baeltane (he notes that brewer Alan Atha has been able to carry the experimental edge of home-brewing into his commercial efforts) and, surprisingly, Anderson Valley, which he says lost its edge about 10 years ago but has regained ground with the return of original brewmaster Fal Allen.
In the East Bay, he admires Faction and Rare Barrel, a renegade that sticks to sours only. In the South Bay, there’s Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, and in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch in Fairfield, there’s Heretic. Brooks is not one to discount the older, more established breweries in favor of new upstarts. He mentions North Coast for consistent quality, and the same goes for Mad River up in Blue Lake, which sold its first beer way back in 1990. And of course he can’t forget Moonlight Brewery, the iconoclastic, artisan operation owned by Santa Rosa’s Brian Hunt.
Brooks is already onto his next project, a compendium of beer quotes, including this great one from Abraham Lincoln: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended on to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
An opinion that Jay Brooks would most definitely agree with.
‘California Breweries North’ is
in stores now. For more, see