As gently as if she were easing a sleeping baby into a crib, a waitress settles 12 small glasses of beer, cupped in a wooden tray, onto our table in the beer garden outside Eel River Brewing Co.'s taproom in Fortuna.
The breeze is soft, the day is warm, and the beers move with barely a jostle, glistening as the afternoon sun catches their yellows, golds, reds and browns.
This is a tasting flight, but when it first descends, resplendent, in front of John Etter, he's more fascinated by the stream of brewing wisdom flowing from across the table.
How long will Etter's homebrew kit beer need to ferment? When does the carbonation start? What steps require sterilization?
The man dispensing homebrew advice is Jon Ward, tour guide, owner and chief imagineer of Humboldt Beer Tours, a business he founded in 2013. Ward sits tall at the table, wearing his beer tours shirt and a Beer Works baseball cap as if they were a uniform and he were still a Marine. He is in his element, and his element is beer.
I've been hearing good things about Humboldt Beer Tours from brewers and brew pub operators, who say Ward does a great job of introducing tourists to the local beer scene. He offers six to 10 different tours, depending on the season, ranging from $70 to $90 including beer and food.
On this summer day I'm touring along with John and Linda Etter, retirees who moved to Fortuna last year from Simi Valley in Southern California. Their tour is a 70th birthday present for John Etter from their oldest daughter.
We meet in Old Town Eureka and board a big van, one Ward is renting because he'll be taking a bachelor party out this evening. As we head south, he passes around an iPad menu with our Eel River lunch options: fish and chips, a tri-tip sandwich, a black bean burger or a quesadilla. He tells us that Eel River began as an organic brewery, and that most — but not all — of its beers are organic.
Beyond that, he leaves us time to get acquainted, one of the things Linda Etter tells me later she especially appreciates. All afternoon, we bond over beer. We trade photos: the Etters' garden and daughters, my cats, their dog. John Etter talks about his post-retirement days as a Hollywood extra, sword fighting in a pirate movie and two-stepping in a commercial.
At Eel River, all three of us get enormous brewer's flights, but Ward declines. (Drinking on the job wouldn't look professional, he says, and besides, he's driving.) Our tasting trays come with a paper decoder, numbered 1-12, explaining what we're drinking. These beers are well-arranged for tasting, fruity and milder first, hoppy and heavier later. Linda Etter works her way around the tray, sipping, smiling and then giving a small shudder. "These two taste gross."
Ward reassures her, "Do not feel obligated to drink all the beer." He says that a lot, and it's easy to see why. A dozen four-ounce tasting glasses are the equivalent of four bottles of beer, and we're only on our first stop.
The difference between doing this on our own and traveling with Ward is that he answers whatever we throw at him: How to use a homebrew kit, how many barrels Eel River produces, what IBU stands for — a beer with the highest IBU (international bitterness unit) might not taste the bitterest, because higher alcohol beers tend to have more malt, which lessens the perceived bitterness. He talks about the farm traditions that gave birth to the increasingly popular saison style beers. As we head north again, he compares the different market strategies of Eel River and our next destination, the Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka.
At Lost Coast, as we're looking at 10 more four-ounce glasses, Ward recommends a tasting sequence that diverges from the brewery's numbering system. On his advice, we skip around, sampling first the fruitier numbers 1, 5 and 10. We are all slowing down.
Our final stop is scheduled at The Local beer bar, nearby on F Street, where the tour entitles us to $1 off the first glass.
John Etter says it first. "I'm beered out." We all decide to end the tour here.
It has been, the Etters tell me at the end of the day, a great way for a newcomer to start learning about Humboldt's beers.
My take? That depends on the newcomer. Some might prefer to visit one brewery at a time, lingering a few hours at each. For a busy tourist, though, hitting three stops in one afternoon could be perfect.
After all, a visitor has to leave some time for the redwoods and the sea.
A date with beer:
Thursday, July 16-ish, Six Rivers Brewery, 1300 Central Ave., McKinleyville. A new Berliner Weisse, a cloudy, slightly sour wheat beer, will go on tap. Brewmaster Carlos Sanchez has experimented with adding yogurt for part of the sour tang in this one, and since he only made half a barrel, it won't last long. He expects it will be available for about a week.
Tuesday, July 21, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Dead Reckoning Tavern, 815 J St., Arcata. Infusion night every Tuesday. See how flavors meld and change when fresh ingredients are infused into a craft beer just before serving.
Thursday, Aug. 6, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Humboldt Beer Works, 110 Third St., Eureka. Talk beer making, bring your home-crafted beer to share or taste what others have concocted during the monthly meeting of the Humboldt Homebrewers Club. Free to attend; annual membership $20.
Saturday, Aug. 22, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Hops in Humboldt in Fortuna's Rohner Park, with more than 100 different beers from dozens of breweries available for tasting. A VIP ticket that gets you to the taps an hour early is only sold in advance for $75. Regular tickets are $35 in advance or $45 at the door. Non-drinkers get in for $10.
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg didn't come close to drinking all 88 ounces of beer offered on this tour. You can email her anyway at [email protected].