There are more craft breweries speckled around Lake Tahoe and in Truckee than ski resorts. In the last few years, more restaurateurs than ever have been collaborating with local artisanal brewers to produce beers; serious beers that carry more nuance and character than your name brand après-ski indulgence. And just like the breweries in places like Portland or Milwaukee, the brewers in Tahoe want to bring you behind the scenes. They want to talk about mashing or the wort. They want to let you touch the stainless steel. They want to show you the craft.
Their collective entrepreneurship is pushing Tahoe into the ranks of great beer destinations. But the one piece that hits the pause button on a Tahoe beer vacation is safely tasting your way around the lake.
“The bottom line is that Tahoe Brew Tours is filling an important niche. Beer-lovers can now easily and safely include the breweries into their already busy Tahoe adventure. -Kevin Drake
This notion struck 26-year-olds Ben Kimple and Gus Banuski, best buds living in North Lake who have made their beer money working service jobs. They’re definitely backyard beer connoisseurs.
“I was always telling people to check out this brewery or that one, depending on where they were staying,’” says Kimple, who spent the last few years sharing his vast Tahoe knowledge with visitors from atop a SUP board. But, as he will tell you, planning to work two or more breweries in to an itinerary was like attempting the logistical feat of sending timber to Virginia City to mine the Comstock Lode.
“It got to the point where we were like, ‘It’s time somebody connects all these great beers in Tahoe.’ ” So with no competition to speak of, they decided to buy a big van and start a Basin-wide, beer-specific designated driving service – Tahoe Brew Tours.
They looked at places like Sonoma and Napa where piling onto a party bus to sip at locations miles apart is just what you do.
“Maybe nobody has tried this business model here because of the amount of red tape-cutting it takes to get off the ground,” jokes Banuski, referring to earning commercial driver licenses and business permits in two states.
But where the two have excelled is networking with the breweries to provide something memorable for their shared clientele.
For cheaper than the cost of most lift tickets, brew tourists are picked up in either Incline Village or at Basecamp Hotel in South Lake. Their day includes three beer locations, each with their own flight and tour nuances.
First stop is South Lake’s Cold Water Brewery where owner Debbie Brown and brewmaster Ryan Parker visit with the VIP Brew Tour table to share their rise from home brewers to owning an award-winning brewery and grill.
This stop comes with an appetizer per person and the chance to dig your hands into samples of grains and hops (chewing on a hop will ruin your palate for the whole day).
“What a fun way to taste and play and see Tahoe,” says Brown. “I’m so glad to have these two opening up a business that moves our guests around the lake to enjoy the Tahoe brewery scene.”
The second South Lake stop is Sidellis Brewery, formerly the Bitter Creek Bar – a smoky joint frequented by Willie Nelson, according to owner Chris Sidell.
“Bitter Creek is also a nice name for a beer, isn’t it?” he says of the nomenclature for their pale ale.
Between Sidell’s slight Australian accent and wine-like tasting notes, this is where the tour is most similar to something out of the Sonoma Valley. He holds an enology degree from UC Davis, but he’ll tell you he’s only made wine one time before specializing in beer.
The last stop, Alibi Ale Works, is in Incline Village, requiring the longest drive of the tour. There are plenty of chips and water for the road trip, and passengers can request to pull into any of the vantage points along the East Shore. Newbies should lean in to listen to Kimple and Banuski pontificate about the geopolitical or tectonic histories of the Basin.
Alibi is the biggest operation on the tour, the kind that requires you to carry your pint with you while you stroll a maze of stainless steel and oak barrels. By now, you’ll have enough fermentation terminology (and liquid courage) to ask the tough questions of the brewers and their process.
“The bottom line is that Tahoe Brew Tours is filling an important niche,” says Alibi Ale Works owner Kevin Drake. “Beer-lovers can now easily and safely include the breweries into their already busy Tahoe adventure.”
“But we have a professional van,” adds Banuski. “If you’d rather skip the beer stops and just have a bachelorette party, we can do that, too.”
For more information, visit tahoebrewtours.com.