It was a Saturday morning and we were northbound on the 101 Freeway. The historic “Camino Real” was flanked by strawberry fields and the infinite Pacific Ocean on one side―brown, rain soaked hills on the other. My wife Anita and I were headed to Solvang, in Santa Barbara County, in the midst of what would be the heaviest storm in three years. Whoopi, our dog, peered nervously through the water blasted windshield. Under a hanging grey sky, the ocean was a dirty sage green and powerful, misty waves pummeled the rocks below. It wasn’t going to be a typical day along California’s Central Coast.
Paul Simon drummed from the Volkswagen’s speakers as we passed through the beach town of Summerland. In an instant the rain became frighteningly intense―I was driving under a waterfall a quarter mile long and could scarcely see the glowing tail lights 20 feet ahead. My limbs went taught and my hands gripped into the steering wheel, we slowed to forty miles per hour.
“I’ve never driven through rain like this before,” I said to Anita, my voice sharp with adrenaline and my eyes super-glued to the blurry scene ahead.
“I know me either, my heart is beating really fast,” she replied, her blue eyes bright and alert. Venturing out from our cozy apartment was beginning to feel irrational.
Driving on the 101 North towards Santa Barbara, the rain began to pelt us so furiously that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up and I couldn’t see a thing. Luckily for us this only lasted 30 seconds or so.
The deluge calmed and we continued past Santa Barbara, taking the 154 San Marcos Pass exit. I wondered if taking the mountain highway was smart in the torrential downpour, but a line of cars streaming down the road put me at ease. Soon we were high into the dense clouds, milky brown water coursed down the sides of the road and visibility was scant. We crept up the twisting asphalt until it crested over into the next valley. Wind driven rain bombarded the car in waves as we cautiously swooped down the hill, sheets of water flowing horizontally across the road. “Slip slidin’ away, slip slidin’ away. You know the nearer your destination the more you slip slidin’ awaaaaay.” Paul Simon’s lyrics were unnervingly ominous as the rain battered us once again.
The town of Solvang (“sunny fields” in Danish) was founded in 1911 by Danish-American settlers with the intention of establishing a colony on the west coast. They bought 9,000 acres of Rancho San Carlos de Jonata and began developing a Lutheran community amongst the flowing hills and oak trees of California’s Santa Ynez Valley. In 1939, Prince Frederik of Denmark made a visit to Solvang and subsequently, interest in the town piqued and by the late 1940’s became a bona fide tourist attraction. Local buildings were remodeled and painted to mimic Danish architecture, folk dance and art were showcased and traditional bakeries and restaurants sprung up. Along with Scandinavian style, the region is ideal winemaking country, with warm days and cool foggy nights brought in from the Pacific. Oenophiles are particularly drawn to the areas Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. The 2004 film Sideways, shot almost entirely in the Santa Ynez Valley, brought the splendor of the landscape and the quality of its wine to the broader public almost single handedly.
After passing a flooded golf course and a quick stop at Lake Cachuma, we turned onto Highway 246. It was still raining fiercely as we drove down Alisal Rd, past a giant windmill and the half-timbered buildings of downtown Solvang. The plan was a hike to Nojoqui Falls a few minutes outside of town, but as we curved through the lace lichen covered oak trees, the dark clouds above began to dump.
Anita looking out over Lake Cachuma. 2013 was the driest year on record for much of California and despite three days of pounding rain the lake is at a mere 38 percent of it’s capacity. ” When I saw how low that lake was, I realized how bad our water situation really is,” our friend Sharon told us after a recent trip to Solvang.
“How bout we go get a pastry and a coffee,” I suggested.
Anita sighed, “Yeah we can wait and see if the rain stops. Maybe we shouldn’t have even come up here today.”
We parked on Copenhagen Dr and walked up the deserted red brick sidewalk. The savory smell of baked goods delighted my nose in the heavy, cool air. It certainly felt more like Copenhagen than California as wind driven rain soaked every square inch of the normally bustling walkway. The Danish Mill Bakery was dimly lit and near empty as we stepped in. A long glass display housed Danishes of every conceivable variety, along with éclairs and strudel amongst a glut of others. I ordered a cream cheese Danish from the glowering woman behind the luminous counter. Anita ordered a plain croissant.
“Coffee?” I asked
“No, they have shit coffee here. We’ll get a good coffee somewhere else,” Anita answered.
“Good idea, this place is a tourist trap,” I said smiling as we sat down at a small table.
“I’ve had better Danishes at Starbuck’s,” she continued, while spreading butter and honey on her croissant. The rain had no doubt dampened our spirits and after quickly eating the confections we paid and left. Under soggy awnings we scurried down the street and took shelter under a vine infested, red brick alcove. We had been in Solvang twice before. On both occasions we visited the strangely cute miniature horses in neighboring Ballard, ate Danishes and drank local wine. But this trip was different. This trip was about beer―local beer.
The glowing display case at The Danish Mill Bakery contains so many pastries that making a choice is a time consuming affair. This place pales in comparison to just about any European pastry shop, nevertheless we stop in every time we visit Solvang.
Across the street, in a swampy park, an American flag flapped audibly. “What time does the brewery open?” I asked Anita.
“11:00 I think.”
It was 10:30am, so we poked around an antique shop to pass the time before heading to the Solvang Brewing Company on Mission Dr.
Adjacent to the brewery, a huge windmill spun lazily as we walked past. A wooden sign above the door read, THE VIKING ROOM.
“You know one of the benefits of running your own restaurant,” the bartender told the three men sitting in front of him―his hair graying, a web of tattoos across his forearm― “is working sixteen hours a day.” Burgundy leather, studded with brass buttons lined the underside of the bar and the booth we sat down to. The service was swift and we ordered a six beer sampler. Names like Valhalla IPA, Great Dane Pale Ale, and Odin’s Oatmeal Stout played on the local theme. Anita and I split a burger while polishing off the small glasses of beer. Creamy and robust, with a coffee aroma, Odin’s Oatmeal Stout was perfectly suited for the grey and blustery day, and we ordered a full pint of it from our spiky haired waiter Kane.
“The Blue Eyed Blonde is our most popular, that’s why we’re out of it,” he shared.
“Where’s the beer made?” I asked, now tipsy and chatty.
“Right here in the back,” he said proudly.
As we left, the place began to fill for lunch and felt much like a cozy Irish pub. The food and beer had been tasty―the atmosphere and service just a bonus.
Established in 2010, The Solvang Brewery is the new kid on the Santa Ynez Valley craft brew block. Prior to our visit I had heard some bad reviews on their service but we experienced their staff as exceptionally attentive and knowledgeable. Both Anita and I were also impressed with their beer, especially Odin’s Oatmeal Stout. The bacon burger was very nicely done as well. It’s not often you actually get “medium-rare” when you ask for it.
Before driving the four miles to the Firestone Walker Taproom in nearby Buellton, we decided to clear our heads and give the Nojoqui Falls another try. Along with a few other soggy tourists on the muddy, California Walnut tree lined path, Anita, Whoopi and I hiked up to the waterfall. The steady rain had created a surge of splintered streams that pounded down a hundred feet into the earth. Lush plants clung to the slick cliff like a great green beard. Driving back to town we spotted a group of cautiously moving deer and a lone coyote laying casually in a nearby field.
MANGE TAK, KOME IGEN, a sign said in Danish on our way west to Buellton. We whizzed past Ostrich Land, and chuckled at the ostriches strutting about like Mick Jagger in the rain. On McMurray Rd we parked in front of the formidable cinder block Firestone Walker building. Known for their unique oak barreling system, Firestone Walker is the local darling of the craft brew movement. Inside, people sat at tables having lunch and we bee-lined to the shiny silver bar. The interior was sleek, industrial and felt―on a rainy day―especially frigid in ambience. A ponytailed woman behind the bar began filling the samples we had selected―Pale 31, Taproom IPA, Winter Wookey and Velvet Merlin. While sharing a split plate of fish and chips―or in this case chips with a bit of fish―we tasted and compared the brews. Dark beer fit the mood again and a pint of Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout was ordered without delay.
Our chosen line up at The Firestone Walker Taproom. These guys have been crafting inventive beer fermented in oak barrels since 1996 and have won numerous awards. The Taproom is located in Buellton and their brewery/gastro-pub an hour and a half North in Paso Robles. Both locations sit conveniently next to the 101 Freeway.
Unlike the Solvang Brewing Company, Firestone Walker wasn’t a place to sit at the bar and tell stories. While modern and sterilized might work for some, I prefer my bar to be moody and character rich. The bartenders in Buellton were mannerly, but no match for the boisterous and knowledgeable bar man in Solvang. “You know the history of Pale Ale is―” he began, as we left the Viking Room. Firestone-Walker produces distinctive and delicious beer and so I will continue drinking it―at home. The Solvang Brewing Company on the other hand, contained all the ingredients of a place I could swill away an afternoon in.
Inclement weather, hearty food in the belly and a veritable smorgasbord of beer―a suitable day, I reckon, in the so called “Danish Capital of America.”