Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, or SARA, is a small brewery in Capitola, CA, that makes some of the most sought after beers in the United States, with the beer trading community ravenously watching every bottle release. The reason for this is simple: they make some of the best beers in the country, or any other country for that matter. This isn’t just an opinion–according to BeerAdvocate users, their average beer rates 4.19 out of 5, behind only a handful of breweries like Cantillon and Hill Farmstead. While some could argue ratings are skewed, inflated, or otherwise flawed, it’s hard to argue with the notion that what’s brewed at SARA is nothing short of exceptional.
I sojourned north to the Bay Area for a long weekend in which I would be pouring wine for an open house event at my friend’s winery in Sonoma on Saturday and Sunday. This left my Friday wide open to take the trip to Santa Cruz I’d always wanted. In the morning at Bluxome Street Winery (where my brother is the Cellar Master and I worked last Fall during harvest), I collected an empty growler, Ty (the associate winemaker), and my aforementioned brother, Kyle, and hit the road. The roads were clear and with an hour to kill before Sante Adairius opened, we stopped at a restaurant in Santa Cruz called “burger.” for, you guessed it, burgers and beers to whet our appetite. The burgers were nearly as awesome as their beer list, and I tried a double IPA from a local brewery called Hop Dogma. That beer (We All Grin for Lupulin) was an unfiltered hop bomb with no shyness about showcasing the citrus fruit flavors and aromas we’ve come to expect from West Coast IPA’s and Double IPA’s. As an added bonus, they give you a celebrity mugshot instead of a number when you order. It’s fun. After lunch, and a short drive down the scenic West Cliff in Santa Cruz, we were finally heading to Capitola.
Arriving just after the brewery opened, we had plenty of time to soak in the environment without other people there. It’s kind of surreal to know that in that moment, we could have been the only three people in the world drinking Sante Adairius beers. With such limited bottle releases, it being noon on a weekday, and their virtual lack of keg distribution, this definitely wasn’t unthinkable and made me feel rather privileged, to be honest. I had a two ounce pour of their most well-known beer, West Ashley, a sour saison with apricots, a few months ago at the Shelton Brothers Festival and was really impressed. It goes without saying that the experience set the bar rather high for my expectations, but the first whiff of their four grain saison, Little Quibble, assuaged any hesitation that I might be let down. It smelled of banana chips and toasted oats, and even though Kyle and Ty didn’t agree with me, I smelled lanolin as well. The flavor was malty, spicy, and yeasty, typical of a saison, with a hint of the banana found in the aroma. Light in color and body, this saison was incredibly complex for its drinkability. In addition to the tasting notes I have here, there were plenty of other aromas and flavors I couldn’t pin down, and I think that’s a good thing.
Complexity gives beer character, and while I can appreciate beers that do a single thing really well, it’s far more interesting to me to drink something that’s not easy to unpack and figure out right away. It’s the reason a brewery like Jester King eschewed only using hermetically-sealed yeasts made in a lab for the ones floating around their farmhouse in Austin. To do things completely by the books is often safe, but it’s rarely interesting. Native yeasts impart nuance and originality to beers, making them unlike other beers of the same style or even offering variation from batch to batch. Subtlety is often lost in an era dominated by Double IPA’s and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, but is something to be appreciated. Flavor doesn’t always have to punch you in the tongue to be awesome. In wine, the same thing often happens when people refuse to drink reds that aren’t big, bold tannin assaults or won’t drink white wine because they “might as well drink water.” I use direct quotes because someone told me this once–someone who will never appreciate the beauty of a delicate Chablis or light-bodied red wine from a thin-skinned varietal. To me, this is nearly as sad as it is frustrating; if these people dug a little deeper, they’d probably like what they found. But back to beer, and the people who acknowledge a finely-crafted one.
After the saison, I switched gears to the 831 West Coast IPA. It poured a golden, hazy, almost orange color with white grape and tropical fruit notes begging to get out, with light but noticeable honey undertones. The flavor of this IPA complemented the aroma, with juicy citrus and hop dankness on the palate. It finished cleanly with a lingering bitterness that left me wanting another sip. I was really pleased to see how well Sante Adairius handled such radically different styles, and that pleasantness extended the my next beer, Brandy Palimpsest, a Flanders Red Ale aged in brandy barrels. Flanders Red Ales were the first sour beers I encountered and remain one of my favorite styles. This beer further entrenched me in that philosophy. The aroma was mainly honey and molasses, with a bit of tart funkiness, but not much. I was amazed at how much sweetness the brandy barrels imparted, with the flavor seeming full of honey, but with detectable sarsaparilla and pluot. I was happy to arrive at pluot after a few moments of thinking out loud; oftentimes it can feel silly or like guesswork describing a beer (or wine), but the “A-ha!” moments like this make it worth it. Being a sour beer, the Brandy Palimpsest had delicious tartness and a mouth-watering juiciness to it as well, with no discernible alcohol. In case you are curious (like I was), a palimpsest is a scroll or piece of parchment that has been washed of ink so it may be reused, much like the wine barrels Sante Adairius repurposes to hold beer.
After this, I didn’t order more beer because we planned on wine tasting at two or threes wineries after visiting the brewery. I did, however, enjoy multiple sips from Kyle and Ty’s beers, the Human Kindness milk stout and Vanilla Joe porter with local coffee and vanilla. We all agreed that Vanilla Joe was a truly exceptional porter full of depth, with a flavor that we described as undulating because it moved from roasted barley, to sweet vanilla, to roasted coffee, with a hearty finish and a vanilla aftertaste. I enjoyed the tasting room’s atmosphere more as I knew our time there was fleeting. The natural wood tables and bar help to emphasize the “Rustic” aspect of the name, and the empty bottles of other amazing beers that line the bar and the shelves let you know that they are serious about quality beer. There was a dog named Rooster who was running around the tasting room and the parking lot outside, occasionally letting us pet him. I was actually left with the same feeling that I get when I finish a really good book, which can best be described as “that was perfect and now I’m happy to be alive.” Not a lot of places can offer that experience, but if you want to know what it feels like and don’t feel like reading East of Eden, just take a trip to Capitola.