Travel Stories · Signifiers

Dust Bowl Brewing — A Central Valley Oasis

After an epic week in Yosemite, me and Hillary decided to take the highway up the central California Valley for the trip back to San Francisco. Not only would this avoid the glorious, but perilous switch-backs that run through the Sierras, but it was a chance to see a part of the country that I have almost no impression of. 

So after a couple of hours of pistachio farms and endless gold hills dotted with black walnut trees, there we were, sitting in an In-N-Out in Merced (my first time!) waiting for my double-double animal style when the thought finally occurred to me: “hey, I wonder if there are any breweries on the way back!”

After some iPhone-ing, we discovered a likely stop, Dust Bowl Brewing in Turlock, right off 99 about 30 minutes north. Only a few years old, the brewery was relatively off the internet radar. We couldn’t tour the brewery on a Sunday, so we opted for it’s 8-week-old brewpub in downtown Turlock. And upon our arrival, we were stunned by the contemporary design, open patio and impeccable branding of the space. This didn’t look like a brewpub in a small town — it was on par with the polished hippiness of Magnolia in San Francisco, or the designer rusticness of Longman and Eagle of Chicago. 

We bellied up and ordered the sampler. “Which five would you like?” asked the Raiders-clad bartender. “I want to start at the left and finish on the right,” I said, pointing at the wall of 17 taps. He blinked a couple times, and then got to pouring with pride.

Having no real knowledge of Dust Bowl’s brews, I had no idea what to expect from such a wide-ranging portfolio, including IPA, stouts, Belgians and then some. But we were consistently impressed. Standouts include the Hops of Wrath IPA (their only bottled offering as of yet), the Marzen Oktoberfest, which has a slight cinnamon-like spice in its otherwise thin, light viscosity, and the stout. 

Halfway through our journey, Dust Bowl’s brewmaster, Don Oliver, stopped in and happily chatted with us about the brewery’s experience over the past few years, and what as coming soon on tap.

As a former Marine mechanic, Don made his break into the brewing scene as the 2006 winner of the Samuel Adams Longshot National Homebrew competition for his rendition of an Old Ale. After completing the UC Davis Master Brewer’s program he joined Dust Bowl, and went on to be recognized by Jim Koch as one of “9 beer innovators to watch” published in Draft magazine.

On we journeyed, with Don nearby. But nothing, not even our trusty guide, could have prepared us for his one-off blended beer. Similar to a wine blend, Don mixes two beers together to create a unique flavor profile. A simple enough concept (and not unprecedented), it was his mix choices that surprised and delighted us: a barleywine and a pale ale, not exactly where most brewers would start when considering a blend. And unlike other blends I’ve tried, these two never quite homogenized. Instead, both flavors bounced off each other, lighting up different taste buds from bitter to syrupy sweetness and back again. It was an amazing brew experience. 

We finished the sampler-to-end-all-samplers with a taste of both their ciders — refreshing and tart. But of course, we re-upped on a full pour of the stout before departing. We decided, after such a great tasting experience, that we had to see the brewery, even if we couldn’t get in.

So we set out for western Turlock, past a never-ending expanse of light industrial parks and empty lots, to a spot tucked back behind the train tracks where Dust Bowl housed its small brewery. Not much to look at from the outside, of course, we pondered how the kettles and fermenters might be arranged in such an unassuming building. 

And as we drove away, we saw a small hand-written note on yellow legal paper hanging on the door that read: “for beer deliveries, call 209-277-0781. Ask for Don.”

Michael Kiser