Thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage each year to Northern California, visiting artisan companies that produce some of their favorite libations. The route from one stop to the next takes the faithful on some of the region's most scenic roadways as they sip, savor and snack.
Are they flocking to the world-renowned Wine Country? Nope. They're in Craft Beer Country.
Northern California is home to some of the nation's best craft breweries, including such local favorites as Santa Cruz Ale Works and Drake's in San Leandro, and the state's craft beer king, Sierra Nevada in Chico. But we're sticking closer to the North Coast, where IPA apostles, spirited homebrewers and other associated "hopheads" go in search of the region's best beers. Open a map app and enlist a designated driver; we're headed up the NorCal Ale Trail.
Journey's start: Marin Brewing
Beer: It's not just for breakfast anymore. But if you're expecting breakfast on your Ale Trail trek to be hoppy, Brendan Moylan's Marin Brewing makes a fine first stop. The Marin County-themed Mt. Tam Pale Ale and the San Quentin Breakout Stout have won a lot of awards, but a light brew with a fruit-forward pedigree might be better for breakfast. Try the Bluebeery Ale, Raspberry Trail Ale or the Marin Weiss Wheat as an appetizer to the heavier brews you'll be tasting later.
Insider's tip: San Francisco Giants fans can soothe the pain of a disappointing 2013 with the Orange & Black Congrats Ale, which celebrates the team's recent World Series titles.
Gone to the dogs: Lagunitas Brewing
Head up Highway 101 to Lagunitas, which from the outside appears to be a ho-hum factory in an industrial park. Once inside, you'll find what's arguably the most uproarious brewery experience along the Ale Trail. The free tasting tour at 3 p.m. every weekday is packed with behind-the-scenes stories, salty language and, you guessed it, beer. Unlike other tours, Lagunitas lets you do the tasting before you listen to scientific specifics and brewing minutiae. If you don't want to learn anything, Lagunitas lets you off the hook.
Insider's tip: The Lagunitas Beer Circus in May brings sideshow, burlesque and vaudeville acts to the brewery and saturates the event in tasty ales. Last year's circus sold out, so check for details early in April.
Hallowed ground: Russian River Brewing
Co-owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo is a legend among beer aficionados, and for good reason. His triple India pale ale, Pliny the Younger, is one of the most hyped beers in America and causes traffic jams in Santa Rosa during its two weeks of availability every February. Want to visit during the other 50 weeks of the year? You won't be disappointed. Order "the board," 2-ounce tasters of all the beers on the California and Belgian sampler menus. Want to grab a bite before getting back on the road? This isn't a bad place to order a pizza.
Insider's tip: If a line is snaking out of Russian River or the wait is soul-crushing, check out the nearby Third Street Aleworks, an excellent place for brews and sausages from Bud's Custom Meats of Penngrove.
Big-time little guy: Stumptown Brewery
This small brewery with a big attitude is an ideal place to end a day. It's open late, the Russian River winds by past the deck, the ribs are renowned, and the atmosphere is accepting of a crew that has been imbibing in hoppy goodness all day.
Insider's tip: The Russian River Beer Revival and BBQ Cookoff at Stumptown in August featured 30 breweries and 30 barbecue teams. The 2014 version is expected to be equally jam-packed.
Rev up the engines: Bear Republic Brewing
Head to Healdsburg and race to Bear Republic, the home of Racer 5 India Pale Ale. At 10 a.m. Saturdays, bar manager and "beer whisperer" Ryan Lindecker leads by-appointment, behind-the-scene tours of the intimate facility. After the tour, order the IPA sampler and mix and match artisan cheeses and cured meats on a custom charcuterie plate or opt for one of the massive salads.
Insider's tip: Be sure to try Greg's Amber Ale if it's offered alongside the Bear Republic classics. Every year, Bear Republic selects a homebrewer's beer to enter into the Great American Beer Festival's pro-am competition. This year, it's from Greg Rasmussen.
The elder statesman: Mendocino Brewing
With more than 300 craft breweries in California alone, it's easy to forget how few were around three decades ago. Mendocino Brewing was one of the originals, and the fine folks in Ukiah recently celebrated their milestone with the 30th Anniversary Single Hop Cascade Pale Ale. Try that or one of the specialty oak cask-aged selections served only at the home of Red Tail Ale.
Insider's tip: Plans have been hatched for two more anniversary ales in the coming year, so something new will be waiting for you at the Ale House whenever you visit.
Tasting, notes: North Coast Brewing
The brewing brainiacs at North Coast have been described as beer artists, but the artists they admire play jazz. Visit the taproom in Fort Bragg along Highway 1 on a Friday or Saturday night and you'll hear jazz when you're tasting a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale. Proceeds from the beer, which is a tribute to pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, go to support the jazz legend's music education institute.
Insider's tip: The taproom is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and during lunch hours. If you need another spot to fit your schedule, head to Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville, home of the Boontling folk language and Boont Amber Ale.
Slither up the coast: Eel River Brewing
For your third and final day on the Ale Trail, you're heading north to Humboldt County. First stop: Eel River, whose slogan is "Be natural, drink naked." You won't see nudity during your stop -- well, probably -- but what you will see is the nation's first certified organic brewery. (Get it? Organic beer is "naked" beer.)
Insider's tip: Try the Certified Organic Climax California Classic lager. It won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1998.
Eureka! You found it: Lost Coast Brewery
It's not hard to find Humboldt County's biggest brewery, and it's not hard to find Lost Coast's flagship beer, Great White, in many Bay Area grocery stores. But if you visit this Eureka brewpub, which was founded by two women in 1990, opt for lesser-known brews, like the Indica IPA or Winterbraun brown ale.
Insider's tip: Don't freak out too much when you're introduced to the giant spider. Don't worry; it's not poisonous.
A fitting ending: Mad River Brewing
From Marin all the way to Humboldt County, this has been a (burp!) long tasting trek along the Ale Trail. The best way to end it? At Mad River, a spot that exemplifies what this region's brewery experiences should be about: great beer in a relaxed setting with laid-back folks. Grab a classic Steelhead Extra Pale Ale or a tough-to-find specialty, such as Super Chili Pepper Madness. And after this trip, you'll probably be hungry. Good thing Mad River hosts food trucks Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Insider's tip: Some of the beers you drink here are likely to be made using Sierra Nevada's first brewing system, which Mad River bought in 1989. That's the kind of interconnectedness you'll find in Craft Beer Country.
Pro brew tours
Looking for insider knowledge from experts who have the oh-so-tough job of taking people on brewery tours every weekend? Check out these companies.
North Bay Brewery Tours: Two brothers and a buddy founded this group, the only one of its kind based in the North Bay. They have kegerators on the buses and take pride in preaching about the power of beer education. www.northbaybrewerytours.com
Bay Area Brewery Tours: Tour director Mindy Eastman was raised in Concord but fell in love with suds while working at the Ballast Point tasting room in San Diego. Tour pickups are in downtown San Francisco. www.bayareabrewerytours.com
Golden Gate Brew Tours: Eric MacColl and Ryan Anderson pitched the plan for the company while attending Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. They won a business plan contest, got a grant and now they invite you to "hop on" their buses. www.goldengatebrewtours.com