A Brief History of Beer in Chico
What a difference 100 years can make.
It would have been hard to envision Chico as a beer-booming area in the late 1800s, shortly after the town began establishing footholds in the region.
Chico’s founders, John and Annie Bidwell, were famed for their resistance to alcohol. Annie was a well-known supporter of the temperance movement, while John was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for US President in 1892, a full 18 years before Prohibition became US law.
The Rise of Sierra Nevada
And yet, even with a history deeply rooted in the rejection of alcohol, Chico has evolved into a premier locale for Northern California craft brewing.
Of course, all beer talk in the area starts with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. John Bidwell might have been the pioneer who literally put Chico on the map, but Ken Grossman’s contributions to the area’s renown across the world came in the form of the craft-brewing mecca in 1979. Sierra Nevada’s flagship brew, Pale Ale, famously received lukewarm response upon the brewery’s initial offering (as the brewers tell the story, they were unfazed—“The people who liked it really liked it,” you’ll commonly hear on the brewery’s tours).
But Grossman and his crew never wavered, spending every cent they had on ingredients and equipment, even bringing in some from overseas—shipping costs from Germany for a dismantled 100-barrel brewery might have been cost-prohibitive for some, but it was that leap of faith that helped propel the upstart brewery. Sierra Nevada is now the seventh-largest brewing company in the country.
From the beginning, Grossman’s vision and strategy revolved around sustainable practices, and to this day, Sierra Nevada sets the standard for green production, on a worldwide scale. A dazzling solar array is just the beginning—the Chico facility has stuck to “reduce, reuse, recycle” in every phase of its beer-making, from spent grain and water conservation, through electric vehicle charging and garden composting, all the way to its recycling practices. Sierra Nevada was rewarded for its commitment to sustainability in 2013 when it was certified as a Platinum TRUE Zero Waste facility, the first brewery to earn such an honor.
The Craft Beer Scene in Chico
The ripple effect of Grossman’s beer empire was not lost on Butte County residents. Sierra Nevada’s rise to the top of the craft brewing world sparked a renaissance across the country. It wasn’t until the last decade, though, that the local area started to develop a community of educated beer drinkers and brewers as well as a varied taste for smaller breweries. Most noticeably in Chico, especially over the past several years, has been the development of a distinctly non-Sierra Nevada craft brew explosion. Butte County loves an underdog, and while Sierra Nevada is an icon, it has grown to worldwide prominence, leaving plenty of room for new, smaller operations to flourish—and they have.
“Everyone seeks the more boutique craft breweries these days,” said Jesse Fischer, owner of Secret Trail Brewing Co. “You get to see the brewer, meet the owner, the staff has a personal touch. And it’s always going to be something a little different.”
Within Chico town limits, there are ample taprooms, tasting rooms, and breweries. The development and zoning of the Meyers District—gaining name traction as the “Craft District,” for obvious reasons—has seen the rise of The Commons, Secret Trail Brewing Co., Nor Cal Brewing Co., and Lassen Traditional Cider and Cellar Door Cider, a pair of cideries, all in an area of town with a markedly different vibe from a college town. Fischer and Secret Trail co-owner Charlie Barrett led the charge in changing the city ordinance to zone that area for brewing and distilling, opening a gateway for more of a beer tourism role.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll get high-fives from people coming in to the area,” Fischer said with a laugh. “We finally had this city council meeting after months of communicating and trying to make changes, and we just saw that there is a lot of enthusiasm for what we were trying to do. We’re trying to create a part of town where you can park your car, spend half a day, and try half a dozen new things—and there’s support for it.”
Even downtown, elevated beer-drinking is available at Burgers and Brew. Eckert Malting and Brewing, which crafts a gluten-free rice beer, operates from its facility on Ivy Street in addition to its tasting room in the Meyers District. And there’s now easy access to snag a pint on the north side, too, whether it’s the popular Lost Dutchman Taproom or Chico Taproom. With all the options, it might sound like a competitive arena, but the reality is a good-natured expansion of craft culture
The Future of Beer in Butte County
"The craft beer bars are working synergistically together,” said Claire Matthews, who owns the Taproom. "Chico’s grown so much in the last two years craft beer-wise. I think we’re on the verge of becoming a little Bend (Oregon). I can see Chico embracing it even more.”
Whatever the future holds, the reality is that the present is booming for beer-makers in Butte County, Fischer said.
“Ten years ago, starting a small brewery in this area wouldn’t have been a good idea,” he said. “The market changed. This is beer country.”