Riverside doesn’t deserve all of the criticism it receives. Sure, the weather ranges from terrible to terrible and windy, the crime rate leaves much to be desired and the job prospects for someone with minimal qualifications are lacking, but it has an amazing bar scene. While it can’t compare to certain parts of San Diego or Los Angeles, there are certainly worse places to drink in California. I’ve spent a lot of time all around Los Angeles and Orange County, and Riverside always has more to offer and usually at a better price; you just have to know where to look.
The newest local gems I came across this past week are Brew Crew and Wicks Brewing Co.
Located at the far end of Sterling Avenue in the middle-of-nowhere wasteland that is south Riverside, Brew Crew can be hard to miss. Its windows are perpetually dark, and I strained my eyes to see any sign of movement from within. Some of the interior light managed to pour out around the doorframe, so Tim (my photographer and fellow beer connoisseur) and I headed inside.
The interior reminded me of a pub in the harbor district of some Atlantic town, with its small foyer opening into a large warehouse and a keg room in the back. Aside from the bartender, there were only two other people inside, sipping their drinks in the back room. After a brief readthrough of the three LCD monitors that displayed the selection, we began ordering small tasters of the various drinks.
There are three companies that supply beer for Brew Crew: Delicious Science, Polymath and Brew Toys. Of the three, I found I was drawn to the Polymath selections, as the other two had an extensive selection of IPAs (India Pale Ale) and not much else. I tried a sample of the Dimebag Dubbel, the Ultimate Three Tripel and the Four Horsemen, and decided to order a 12 ounce goblet of the Tripel, which had a smooth, crisp finish (much like champagne) and boasted an impressive nine percent alcohol content.
It was at this point that I realized that the tap list and interior design didn’t match any of the information from the Wicks website, and after a few questions to the bartender, I realized we were next door to our intended destination. This strikes me as a little nearsighted, akin to opening a pizza place next door to a much more well-known pizza place, but the bartender admitted that a fair amount of their business comes from ignorant patrons (like myself) coming into Brew Crew while looking for Wicks. Still, we made the most of our situation, and moved into the back room to taste our drinks.
The drinking room was massive, with brewing containers lining the side wall across from Pac-Man and Galaga arcade machines. The vaulted roof was lit by strings of incandescent bulbs, and we sipped our beers, comparing the legs, hoppiness and finish of the drinks. Brew Crew, aside from their large selection, also offers free popcorn, and I found its saltiness made our drinks go down easier, and we passed the time smoking cigarettes, trading jokes and watching the passing trains, our sobriety dwindling.
As a Portland, Oregon native, I can appreciate a certain amount of self-aware quirkiness. If you ever find yourself wanting to visit the Pacific Northwest, but can’t afford the travel cost, I would suggest going to Wicks. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is that reminded me so much of my auteur hometown, but the vibe was definitely there. Maybe it was the barrels converted into tables, maybe it was the medieval aesthetic of the beer names or maybe it was the bearded brewmaster slaving over the steaming kettles of water, hops and barley while an employee conducted a still-life painting class to a group of clearly tipsy 30-something women. Feeling very much at home, we sat down and began our sampling.
For those new to beer tasting, I would suggest Wicks as a good entry point. Rather than listing their beers in haphazard order, they are ranked from lightest to darkest, from the smooth Belgian cream ale “Squire” all the way to the dark and mysterious “Black Knight” — an Imperial Porter. I sampled almost everything they offered, with the Hefeweizen, Bard’s Song and Blood Moon being my favorites. I settled on ordering 16 ounces of the Hefeweizen while Tim chose the more aromatic Paladin, one of their most popular selections. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try any of the food offered, because the kitchen closed at 8 p.m.
While their tap lists are a little daunting and their locations remote, I highly suggest trying one or both of these places before you leave Riverside. Wicks is a lively, upbeat counter to the dark, relaxed atmosphere of Brew Crew, but both offer competitive prices (around $6 for a large beer) and a selection that is unavailable literally anywhere else. I know that Wicks also offers painting classes and live music performances, and those interested in getting into beer tasting or even brewing would be remiss to try anywhere else in Riverside.