Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co.

One might assume that a brewery nestled alongside world-class powder skiing and the gleaming waters of Lake Tahoe would cater to the average tourist or sunburnt waterskier with a few safe options on tap, selling expensive but boring vacation beers. Luckily, Aaron Bigelow founded Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co. to defy assumption.

In 2011, Bigelow and Dan Keenan founded Tahoe Mountain in Tahoe City, Calif., to cater to the tastes of hardcore beer fans. Since then, this secluded brewery has expanded to include a brewpub in Truckee and continues to brew under their opening-day philosophy.

When Bigelow chats about his beer, a few words seem to come up again and again: experimental, indie, specialty and barrel-aged. That’s probably because most of the beers in the brewery’s portfolio contain surprising ingredients, are brewed using non-traditional techniques or spend significant time in a wine barrel. It’s this brewing ethos that makes him shy away from the sort of explosive expansion other breweries crave.

“We don’t have any plans to grow in volume or in brewery size,” Bigelow said. “We have invested in better equipment for efficiency—that sort of thing—but no plans to get bigger. It concerns us that if we grow much more we could lose this thing that makes us a beer geek, cult-followed brewery, and push us into the mainstream with core brands and a huge volume of pedestrian-style beers. Right now that’s just not what we desire.”

While expansion and brand dilution scare the Tahoe Mountain crew, there’s one thing that certainly doesn’t frighten the brew team, headed by lead brewer Andrea Keil—unruly yeast.

Tahoe Mountain Brewing tank

Party Boy

One of the brewery’s year-round offerings is Party Boy, an IPA fermented with 100 percent Brettanomyces yeast, a notoriously sly strain that has a penchant for making it into brews it shouldn’t when equipment or ingredients are handled improperly.

Typically, when breweries use yeast strains like this, they keep the brew isolated in quarantine, for fear of accidental infection of other batches. Keil and her team, however, brew Party Boy in equipment six inches from other beers. “It’s all about best practices,” Bigelow says. “You just have to know what you’re doing.”

Besides Party Boy, the brewery’s offerings run the gamut from tart, to fruity, to smoky, to malty to hoppy. They include a variety of crisp saisons, Belgian-inspired blended beers, a smoked Maibock, a Berliner-Weiss, barrel-aged beauties and even a traditional west coast IPA.

Bigelow cites famed brewery Russian River Brewing Co. as an inspiration to him as a homebrewer, leading him to strive for the sort of across-the-board quality that only a small coterie of breweries manage to achieve. Passion is great—and necessary—but it’s an attention to detail, he says, that separates one-trick ponies from the best of the best.

Recolte Du Bois

Perhaps Bigelow’s biggest passion project, though, is the brewery’s Recolte Du Bois series, which he calls a “saison study.” His brewers utilize the same base beer—a farmhouse ale brewed with Brettanomyces—then age it with fruits or herbs, inside Cabernet barrels and specialty varietal wine barrels. After a few months, each style is blended and served in bottles and on draft. The Apricot Saison from this series took home the 2014 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) silver medal in the “Wood & Barrel Aged Sour” category.

Apricot Saison’s GABF medal was quickly joined by a 2015 GABF bronze medal for their Viejo Rojo, a lambic-style beer aged in Cabernet barrels on blueberries and cherries. Bigelow hopes their newest release, called Evolution of the Barrel, will be garner similar acclaim. It’s an American Gueuze blended in-house from three-year, two-year and one-year barrel-aged selections.

Additionally, the brewery’s Dark Ages series includes an old ale aged over a year in bourbon barrels, a Brettanomyces stout and a bourbon and cognac barrel-aged imperial stout.

Don’t let the experimentation scare you, though. Even for a newbie looking to imbibe at Tahoe Mountain’s two locations, it can be a good thing. While Bigelow admits his brewery’s offerings aren’t meant to cater to everyone’s tastes or current trends, their varied portfolio means many visitors end up trying beer styles they simply can’t find anywhere else—and loving them.

Tahoe Mountain Brewing draft

Currently, you can find Tahoe Mountain beer in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Idaho. They even have a handy beer finder on their website. They brew at both the Truckee and Tahoe City locations, producing about 2,500 barrels of beer in 2015.

When it comes to marketing, Bigelow says it’s not really in line with the brewery’s philosophy. He prefers, instead, to spend that money on what’s going into the bottle.
At the end of the day, he says, “My philosophy was to make great beer that people talked about and told their friends to try.”

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