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.
And yet, even with a history deeply rooted in the rejection of alcohol, Chico has transformed into a thriving hub for craft brewing in Northern California.
The Rise of Sierra Nevada
Of course, all beer talk in the area starts with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. While John Bidwell is credited with putting Chico on the map, it was Ken Grossman who truly elevated the area's reputation worldwide when he established the craft-brewing mecca in 1979. Although Sierra Nevada's flagship brew, Pale Ale, initially received mixed reviews, Grossman and his team remained undeterred. They firmly believed in their product, asserting that "those who liked it, really liked it"—a sentiment often echoed during brewery tours.
Without wavering, Grossman and his dedicated crew invested their resources entirely into the venture. They spared no expense on ingredients and equipment, going as far as importing some from overseas. Despite the potential cost barriers, they took a leap of faith by shipping a dismantled 100-barrel brewery from Germany. This bold move proved instrumental in propelling the fledgling brewery forward. Today, Sierra Nevada stands as the seventh-largest brewing company in the United States.
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 impact of Grossman's beer empire had a profound effect on the residents of Butte County. Sierra Nevada’s rise to the top of the craft brewing world sparked a nationwide renaissance across the country. However, it wasn't until the 2010s that the local area truly embraced a community of knowledgeable beer enthusiasts and brewers, fostering a diverse palate for smaller breweries. In Chico, this trend has been particularly noticeable, especially in recent years, with the emergence of a distinct craft brew explosion that extends beyond the realm of Sierra Nevada.
While Butte County holds Sierra Nevada in high regard as an iconic brewery that has achieved global recognition, there remains ample space for new and smaller operations to thrive, with a growing preference for boutique craft breweries in today’s beer landscape. These craft brewers provide a unique experience where patrons can personally connect with the brewer, meet the owner, and enjoy the personalized touch of the staff.
Within Chico city limits, there are ample taprooms, tasting rooms, and breweries for beer enthusiasts to explore. In Downtown Chico, elevated beer-drinking is available at Nor Cal Brewing Company, The Allies Pub (with their signature British Bulldog beers), and Burgers and Brew.
Thanks to a change in city ordinance to rezone the area along Meyers Street to allows for brewing and distilling, South Chico—an area of town with a markedly different vibe from a college town—has seen the rise of Secret Trail Brewing Co., The Commons, and Lassen Traditional Cider. And Eckert Malting and Brewing, which crafts a gluten-free rice beer, operates from its facility on nearby Ivy Street.
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
While starting a small brewery in Chico as late as even the early 2000s would have been a gamble, today, Chico is undeniably beer country, with plenty of opportunities for brewers.
Some current brewers see the city becoming a little Bend, Oregon, an acclaimed craft beer destination, while others envision more modest growth, with Chico being an under-the-radar beer spot for true beer aficionados.
Whatever the future holds, the present is booming for beer-makers in Butte County.