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Steller IPA, a Stellar Choice

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By Dan Clarke

North Coast Brewing has been around for more than 30 years. In the craft beer world that’s almost forever.

You don’t survive that long without pleasing a lot of people.

steller sea lion 1 Marine Mammal Ctr Sausalito icmonkeySteller sea lion     Photo: Marine Mammal Ctr Sausalito

For years, Taste has enjoyed the Red Seal Ale and Scrimshaw Pilsner produced from this Northern California brewery. The labels of these beers reflect the marine history of their point of origin. Fort Bragg is situated where the Noyo River joins the Pacific. Seals? Obviously, the ocean has a lot of them. And scrimshaw? Perhaps a reference less familiar than seals, scrimshaw is an artform developed in the bygone era when whaling was a major industry off the west coast of North America. It involves etching on pieces of whalebone or walrus tusks. Another North Coast product, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, presumably is a nod to the late 1700s and early 1800s when Russians settled in the area while exploiting the native fauna for their fur trade.

Recently, we heard about another beer from this company. It, too, had a mammal native to the northern Pacific on the label, a sea lion. Was it an extension of the Red Seal Ale? A derivative, perhaps?

Seals and sea lions may be cousins (apologies to those who’d prefer a more professional definition) and we think it has something to do with the ears of the latter. We soon learned that there was such a creature as the Steller sea lion and that it, too, inhabits Pacific waters from as far away as Japan and down through Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and as far south as Central California. The population of this creature has dwindled and North Coast Brewing is contributing to efforts to discover why.

We wouldn’t be interested in drinking something that didn’t taste good, no matter how noble the cause.  Fortunately, we decided we really like this IPA and decided to learn more about the Steller sea lion and North Coast Brewing’s attempt to help save it.

Doug Moody helped us to understand more about Steller IPA and the animal who inspired it. Doug, now North Coast’s National Director of Sales, joined the brewery in 1996. At the time, the company operated a tap room in Fort Bragg and was making about 6,500 barrels a year. Currently the brewery is producing about 70,000 barrels annually and is distributed in 48 of the states, as well as in D.C. “We've grown,” he acknowledges, but says that the company’s growth has slowed recently as so many other breweries have crowded the craft beer marketplace.

Doug Moody North Coast Brewing PiconkeyDoug Moody of North Coast Brewing

Sometimes referred to as northern sea lions, Stellers are much larger and lighter in color than California sea lions. Males can grow to 2,500 pounds, females about 1,000. In recent years the population of these creatures has shrunk by about 80 percent. Could it be changing water temperatures? Acidification of the sea? Diminishing food supply? Being shot by commercial fishermen bent on eliminating the competition? Why the Steller’s numbers are diminishing is the topic of ongoing studies and North Coast Brewing is supporting that research. The brewery is donating a portion of all sales of Steller IPA kegs and bottles to the North Coast Brewing Company Marine Mammal Research Fund, a project of The Ocean Foundation. Proceeds are directed to three organizations; the University of British Columbia Marine Mammal Center, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California and the close-to-home Noyo Center for Marine Mammal Research in Fort Bragg.

If we thought Steller IPA was an inferior product we wouldn’t have gotten this far, but we like it. In a world loaded with over-the-top IPAs, this one impresses us with its balance. We’re told that it’s often served at dinners pairing dishes with beers and sometimes at dinners when the menu is designed to showcase both beers and wines. Doug Moody suggests it if you’re likely to have a beer before dinner. “It’s a great beer to start with,” he says. “The hoppiness gets your taste buds primed (for whatever flavors are to come).” Though not recommending pairings with “super spicy foods,” he says that Steller does pair well with “big flavors” and enjoys it with “red meat right off the grill.”

In addition to its national distribution in the U.S., North Coast beers also reach international beer drinkers in 18 countries.  Not long ago a group of South Koreans who were visiting San Francisco found that Old Rasputin, apparently a favorite tipple in their crowd, was brewed just three or four hours north of them. They opted to charter a bus to visit the brewery and down a couple of pints at the source. As Doug Moody says, “Politics aside, no matter where people live, they should have the opportunity to drink great beer.”


Editor’s Note: If you’re planning to visit Fort Bragg, you may first want to check out the Mendocino County section of Taste California Travel’s Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of many Lodging and Dining options, as well as links to Wineries and other Craft Beer purveyors.

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