Definitive guide to the craft beer scene at Lake Tahoe and Truckee

Tahoe Mountain Brewing

A flight of beers shaped like Lake Tahoe at Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co.’s pub in Tahoe City, Calif. Photo by Mike Higdon

Everything you need to know to drink great beer around Lake Tahoe this summer

Check out a list of must-have summer beers at each brewery at the bottom.

Lake Tahoe’s beer scene grew tremendously in the last two years, mirroring craft brew trends throughout the rest of the country. With more than 3,000 breweries operating in the U.S. — at least 540 of those in California, the largest craft beer state in the U.S. — Lake Tahoe feels somewhat behind the curve, but it’s making strides to catch up.

By August, seven Lake Tahoe-area breweries will quench the thirst of locals and visitors looking for the latest ales, lagers, sours and barrel-aged beers. And while the craft beer movement is not exactly new, it’s certainly entering a new phase in the region. For the first time in decades, North Shore, South Shore and Truckee all have at least one brewery.

‘Beer brings us together’

Cold Water Brewery

Debbie Brown explains the flight of eight Cold Water Brewery beers to Emily Stott and Michael Higdon. Photo by Mike Higdon.

South Lake Tahoe’s newest brewpub, Cold Water Brewery and Grill, serves visitors new American cuisine and beers inspired by the region’s bodies of water and recreational trails. Owner Debbie Brown thought of the name during a paddleboarding competition. After falling into Lake Tahoe, she realized how easily she could’ve died of hypothermia, and it inspired her to name the brewery after the freezing cold water.

“When I first dreamt of owning a restaurant, I didn’t think it would be a brewery,” she said.

Brown makes beer at home, like many other hobbyist homebrewers. To her, “beer equals community,” so bringing together homebrewers and local beer drinkers at Cold Water makes South Lake Tahoe a better place.

“We want to be the place where locals and visitors can come together to unwind, relax and refuel,” Brown said. “Beer brings us together; that’s why it’s a hot concept right now. Beer got big and has staying power because beer invites conversation.”

For that reason, Brown situated the dining room tables close together so strangers will bond and dissect their beer choices with each other. She also holds homebrew meetings and contests in the restaurant, giving beer geeks a chance to share their creations and learn from the professionals.

Before Cold Water Brewery, Brown and Brewmaster Ryan Parker worked together at Stateline Brewery. Stateline Brewery opened in 2002 at Heavenly Ski Village in South Lake Tahoe. Here, imbibers will find four rotating ale and lager taps made in equipment adjacent to the bar.

Brewery at Lake Tahoe

A flight of beers with fermenters in the background at The Brewery at Lake Tahoe. Photo by Mike Higdon

At Tahoe’s longest running brewery, Brewery at Lake Tahoe on the South Shore, bar flies can watch beer brew behind the bar. Opened in 1992, this brewery specializes in beer, pizza and truly representing the locals’ chill, friendly personality.

Behind the curve?

On North Shore, two breweries cover the East and West corners: Alibi Ale Works in Incline Village, and Tahoe Mountain Brewery in Tahoe City and Truckee.

Alibi Ale Works is the only brewery at Lake Tahoe without a kitchen. Instead, Alibi focuses on creating an inviting public house atmosphere with well-rounded ales.

Joey Rzeplinski, a local carpenter, helped source and build the interior fixtures out of reclaimed wood and metal. Rzeplinski helped build wall trim from the fermenters’ refinished shipping crates. The bar tables are made from trusses of a burned down house. The wood paneling is made from warehouse palettes. The bathroom floor is layered with laminated pennies.

Kevin Drake and co-owner Rich Romo also created a quiet “living room” area with 1960s-era lounge furniture. This room feels totally different from the public house vibe. Eventually, it will feature moody lighting and a big-screen TV — and on outdoor beer garden.

Alibi continues the trend of regional beers that resist the over-hopped West Coast IPA style established in California and Oregon. Instead, they focus on well-rounded flavors with a solid malt backbone, hop aroma and flavor.

Alibi makes one-off beers in smaller bung kegs. For example, they filled a keg with chopped ginger roots and pale ale to make a ginger-infused pale ale. They also fill used wine barrels to make sour beers.

Drake said he’s been watching the beer scene grow around Tahoe but noticed it stalled behind other regions in California and especially Portland, Ore., where he’s from.

“Tahoe is behind the curve,” Drake said.

Brown and Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co. Brewmaster Adam Thomas agree, saying there’s plenty of room for growth, especially in comparison to northern California and Reno.

The locals want a more robust beer scene, and the visitors expect it, Brown said, so now Brown, Drake, Thomas and the others can be part of creating that scene.

Drake said the transient tourism, recent unpredictable weather and Great Recession slowed the opening of businesses geared toward locals. Most Tahoe businesses focus on visitors. But locals sustain small breweries and visitors give them seasonal boosts. All agree that Tahoe could use more locally made craft beer, and now is only the beginning.

The Lake Tahoe Renassaince

In Truckee, construction started for Lake Tahoe Brewing’s location in Truckee. This spot will have a tap room and a smaller food menu. In addition to supporting beer production, this brewery will make cider and kombucha. Candelario plans for this location to open in June.

Similarly, the folks at Tahoe Mountain Brewery barrel-age many of their beers. Their small taphouse and cramped brewery don’t look like much, but the separate barrel room feels like stepping into another world — a world of beer imagination.

This warehouse room is packed with about 300 barrels of various origins and size, including enormous French foudres (FOOD-ers), Elijah Craig, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. These barrels give Thomas immense flexibility and freedom to create various sour ales, bourbon-barrel stouts, farmhouse saisons and fruit beers in addition to more traditionally crafted beers.

“We don’t really have flagship beers,” Thomas said. “I don’t like to put up boundaries. We do what we want here.”

While Tahoe Mountain Brewing ages 300 barrels of beer, FiftyFifty Brewing in Truckee positioned itself as a boutique barrel aging brewery. The most well-known bottles come from FiftyFifty’s Eclipse series — an imperial stout aged in various bourbon barrels (each bourbon is denoted by a colored wax seal on the bottle). Owner Alicia Barr, who’s also the vice-mayor of the town of Truckee this year, said they export Eclipse to 16 states and five countries — a pretty wide area for a limited release.

This summer, FiftyFifty will begin building a new production brewery to focus on their mainstay beers while the brewpub continues crafting specialty and seasonal releases. The larger production brewery will let FiftyFifty expand their presence outside the region. In a world full of craft beer choices, creating and meeting consumer demand means the difference between a prosperous brewery and one that closes forever.

FiftyFifty started eight years ago as one of California’s new wave of craft breweries and is considered part of the “old guard” in California. Still, FiftyFifty is young compared to the 22-year-old Brewery at Lake Tahoe, and even younger relative to the first craft brewery in America, New Albion Brewery, which opened in 1976.

Nonetheless, over the last eight years, the number of breweries in the region, state and country doubled. Beer doesn’t only appeal to Pabst-loving grandpa and snobby, mustachioed beer geeks, but any nose or tongue willing to experience something new.

Beer expanded its flavors from a plain golden lager with low earthy bitterness to a huge range of approachable flavors: soft traditional lagers, British porters, extreme bacterial sours, sweet milk stouts, spicy bitter hop bombs, heavy alcoholic barleywines, fruity pumpkin peach ales and any flavor in between. So whether you’re a local or a visitor, now is the time to take a brewery tour around Lake Tahoe to taste the renaissance.

Tahoe beer tour challenge

Do you think you can visit all seven breweries around Tahoe this summer and try each of their must-have beers? The head brewers at each brewery put together a list of what you need to try in order to have a happy, fulfilling life on Earth.

Alibi Ale Works

Address: 204 E. Enterprise St. Incline Village
Phone: 775-298-7001

White IPA: Our crushable summer IPA uses generous late-hopping to create distinct aromas of peach and pine, while the addition of wheat and rye give it a slightly dry and spicy finish.
Porter: Our flagship English-style porter delivers everything a porter should — bittersweet chocolate, toasted bread and a subtle nuttiness. This is our brewer’s go-to beer and is carefully crafted for year-round pint-ability and deliciousness.
Dark Saison: This taproom favorite is deep crimson in color with flavors of cocoa and burnt raisin balanced by a peppery finish from our house saison yeast blend. Funky versions of this beer will be emerging from red wine barrels by late spring.

Tahoe Mountain Brewery

Address: Brewpub, 475 North Lake Blvd. Tahoe City
Phone: 530-581-4677

Recolte Du Bois series is a brettanomyces (a souring bacteria) conditioned saison aged in wine barrels for nine months. “We have three different styles: Nine month (just the straight saison), Apricot and Peach. We age the beer and fruit together in the barrels to really blend all the flavors together. Another beer to look for is Hot Pants, a berlinerweisse. This beer is light and tart but very refreshing on a hot May day.” — Adam Thomas

Cold Water Brewery and Grill

Address: 2544 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe
Phone: 530-544-4677

Mr. Toads Wild Rye (named after the popular bike ‘ride” of almost the same name) is one of our most approachable beers we make to date. In formulating the recipe I decided to highlight the rye malt at 10 percent of the grain bill and just a touch of German noble hops to balance the crisp nuttiness of the rye malt. American ale yeast, light red to copper in color, this is very drinkable beer.
The “Tahoe blonde” Belgian Ale, a refreshing take on a Belgian classic, starts with Bohemian Pilsner malt, Munich and American two row barley, Northwestern cascade hops, and a traditional Belgian yeast.  We turn the flavor profile up by adding fresh great western juniper berries and sage picked locally at Lake Tahoe.
The Tahoe Cross is a classic West Coast IPA — big and bold and aggressive, and it leaves nothing behind, like skiing down the famous “cross” on Mt. Tallac. Carmel, victory, and two row give this beer a big backbone to hold numerous pitches of Columbus, Magnum and Simcoe hops. We add Amarillo hops in the dry hop for that extra kick.” — Debbie Brown

FiftyFifty Brewing Co.

Address: 11197 Brockway Rd. Truckee
Phone: 530-587-2337

Miso Hoppy: A golden beer in the English Summer Ale genre. Made with Soriachi Ace hops originally made for Sapporo Brewery in Japan. It is grown in Yakima Valley in Washington. Fresh lemon zest notes with herb undertones and a crisp finish make this beer light for easy drinking.
Spring Fever: Spring Fever is brewed with lemongrass, orange peel and honey. Super refreshing and smooth.
Eclipse Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout: One of the most epic beer tasting experiences you will ever have; this is what you get when you take our Totality Imperial Stout and age it in oak bourbon barrels. That extra step adds a plethora of flavors to the already rich Imperial Stout. At first taste there is a large presence of dark chocolate, espresso and warmth from the alcohol of the beer. Oak barrel character then comes into play with hints of vanilla and coconut, followed by mild bitterness from the hops, and then a nice long lingering finish with hints of tobacco, dark dried fruit and more chocolate. Eclipse is a wonderful companion with dessert.

Brewery at Lake Tahoe

Address: 3542 Lake Tahoe Blvd. South Lake Tahoe
Phone: 530-544-2739

White-out-wit: Belgian White — a refreshing wheat beer brewed with German barley, coriander and orange peel. “WOW!!!” That is the usual response from someone trying our Belgian Wit for the first time.
Bad Ass Ale: As our signature brew, the Bad Ass Ale is really a style of its own. Our brewers handcraft this ale to be the perfect balance between its malted barley and choice hops. Deep burgundy in color and high in alcohol, enjoying a pint of the Bad Ass is a real roller coaster ride. At first the pronounced hop flavor hits you smack in the mouth. Then, the crystal malts start to really work their magic on your palate, finishing with a smooth bitterness.
Washoe Wheat Ale: An unfiltered ale, it has a distinct wheat flavor and a slight hint of citrus.

Stateline Brewery

Address: 4118 Lake Tahoe Blvd. South Lake Tahoe
Phone: 530-542-9000

White-Out Wit: Light unfiltered wheat beer brewed with Belgian and German wheat malt, orange peel and coriander.
Acclimator IPA: West Coast IPA.  A big hoppy beer with a sweet caramel finish, deep orange red in color.
Avalanche Ale: American style pale ale, coppery in color with mellow hops and a toasted malt finish

Lake Tahoe Brewing Co.

Address: 10091 Donner Pass Rd. Truckee
Phone: 775 386-6655

Beers and kombucha TBA. Look for Lake Tahoe Brewing in July-August.

This story originally published in Tahoe Magazine Summer 2015 on May 21.

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Mike Higdon

Editor & Publisher at Drinkable Reno
Mike Higdon is a journalist passionate about beer and cocktails. He started the site because no one else covered Reno's growing craft scene at the level of detail required to stay in the know about all things drinkable in Reno.

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