My sister offered to host the family this year for Thanksgiving so I found myself heading up north for the holidays. Her apartment is located in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, a historic section of town that is accredited to founding the local and organic food movement. As you walk by the legendary Chez Panisse and countless other culinary delights found in this slice of foodie heaven, there is one brewpub that any beerdoe should visit while in Berkeley, Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse.
A historic brew
Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse was founded by two brothers, John and Reid Martin. They brewed Triple Rock’s first batch on Christmas Day of 1985 and the second batch on New Years Day of 1986. The building was still under construction and those were the only two days the construction workers were not hard at work on the building. It was opened to the public in March of 1986 and today is the United States’ oldest brewpub still in operation and owned by the original owners. In those days it was known as Roaring Rock Brewery and Alehouse.
Latrobe Brewing Co, makers of the well known Rolling Rock, heard about this new brewery and were unhappy with the similarities between the words, roaring and rolling. This thought had never occurred to the Martin brothers (who would confuse the generic lager with the Martin Brothers’ hoppy, bold ales?). A legal battle ensued and the fledgling brewpub lost against the large conglomerate. With a small amount of time to change the name, they decided on Triple Rock, a reference to their three flagship brews at the time: Pinnacle Pale Ale, Red Rock Ale, and Black Rock Porter. The name stuck and the legendary Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse was born.
In the almost thirty years of operation, John and Reid have seen considerable success and have built a small empire of beercentric establishments. The most notable of which are John’s two ventures, Drake’s Brewing Co, whose bottles are available around Santa Barbara, and Jupiter, a Berkeley-based restaurant. Jupiter is a five minute walk from Triple Rock and well worth the visit. The red brick building is an antique livery stable dating back to the 1890’s. This massive, lively restaurant serves wood-fired pizzas and craft beer in two stories of Gothic-inspired décor. There is a large outside dining area that has a more modern feel and features year-round music with an emphasis on alternative jazz.
A large neon sign reading Triple Rock Brewery 1920 lights the building from the outside and makes it easily recognizable from the streets. 1920 is not a date but rather the brewery’s Shattuck Ave address. You walk through the doors and are welcomed by a room full of warm wood and soft colors. The wooden floors resonate people’s footsteps and provide a gentle rhythm to the melodic buzz of conversation filling the room. The walls are decorated with vintage beer memorabilia and antique beer crates. The words, Top of the Rock Beer Garden and an arrow are painted on the back wall. Follow the arrow up a small flight of stairs to discover a beer garden decorated with string lights and covered awnings.
In the restaurant, a glass window with olive green trim gives diners a glimpse into the small, historic brewhouse. Their original brew system is still used today and was the first brewery to be professionally fabricated in the US (many of the original craft brewers would meld their brew houses together from used dairy equipment). In 1999 they expanded the brewery by adding several serving tanks in the back and this allowed them to grow from three flagship beers and a seasonal offering to the eleven house specialties that are offered today.
The three original brews are still offered today and Black Rock Porter is a personal favorite when I’m visiting Triple Rock. This classic American porter has a chocolatey flavor and a subtle smokiness reminiscent of charred wood, perfect for an overcast, Berkeley day. Besides their three mainstays, the brewery is well known for their hearty Dragon’s Milk, a dry-hopped brown ale, and IPAX, an aggressively fragrant IPA. Their Titanium Pale Ale is another favorite. At 6.8% ABV, this beer is light and strong, just like its namesake metal, and features flavors of honeysuckle and sweet orange peel with a light malt character. Their Bug Juice Ale is a sunset orange brew featuring a traditional Pacific Northwest hop character of juicy oranges followed by a soft touch of pine. A honey and toasted biscuit taste brings the fruity flavors into full ripeness. They also brew Tree Frog Ale, a lighter Scotch ale featuring a caramel flavor and a subdued fruitiness. Despite being rich and chewy, the beer is surprisingly crisp in the finish. Every one of these brews are regularly on their lineup except the Dragon’s Milk and Tree Frog Ale, which are rotating offerings.
Triple Rock will typically also have several special and seasonal beers up on the board. The Saison de la Mort (French for Season of the Dead) is brewed in honor of Dia de Los Muertos. This mahogany-colored saison has wisps of black cherry and cocoa aromas drifting above the glass. The beer’s fruity, brown sugar sweetness is well balanced by an alcohol note and a distinct tartness. The acidity is traditional for a saison and gives the flavors a red wine-like theme. A brisk carbonation adds a refreshing finish and a light mouthfeel. They also had the Single Hop Experience (SHE) Stella. This crystal clear, sunlight yellow brew showcases the new Australian hop variety, Stella. The beer has a soft malt flavor that allows the resiny, lemon oil and anise hop character to come through in the brew. A decent bitterness gives a robust finish to an otherwise light beer.
If you ever find yourself in Berkeley seek out Triple Rock. Their house style of bold flavors balanced by an overall light nature makes their beers refreshing and easy to drink. It is easy to see how this pioneering brewpub has remained open for so long and will remain so for years to come.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, December 3, 2013