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Calistoga Inn sets focus on beer

Calistoga Inn's new brews, crafted by Nick Bartlett, hit the taps this month. Bartlett modernized the brewery and improved quality. The Inn also revamped a bar to boost beer culture while keeping its celebrated menu and scenic patio.

Founded in 1987, the Calistoga Inn's Napa Valley Brewing Company is one of the oldest commercial breweries in Napa Valley. | Supplied Photo

In the last month, all of the Calistoga Inn’s new-and-improved brews have made it to tap.

The new beer recipes have been fine-tuned by brewmaster Nick Bartlett, who took over the Inn’s newly-expanded brewery operation in February following a decision from owner Michael Dunsford to “blanket the Napa Valley” with his Napa Valley Brewing Company label, founded in 1987.

“Nick’s beers have now made it to each tap,” Dunsford said. “I’ve given him full liberty to do what he wants to do. He knows the industry and the business better than anybody.”

Dunsford’s late mother, Rosie Dunsford, opened the Calistoga Inn and Restaurant 35 years ago, and he continues to manage the business, along with his partner, Lindsay Faith Weinhold.

“The brewery expansion allows us to begin distributing our beer, draft only, throughout Napa County and some of Sonoma County,” Dunsford said. “The idea is that if someone is enjoying our beer at a bar or restaurant down valley, they may want to come to the source and try all of our beers while having lunch or dinner.”

The Inn’s brewery had historically taken a backseat to the substantial restaurant operation, but the team is changing that.

“My goal is to better integrate our beer into the overall business,” Dunsford said. “This includes improving quality, building a local beer culture, and sharing our product with those who primarily come to the Napa Valley to drink wine.”

The team first set out to improve their beers’ quality by hiring Bartlett as their new brewmaster earlier this year. Bartlett, formerly the head brewer at Buck Wild in Oakland and Bare Bottle Brewing in San Francisco, studied brewing science at UC Davis and has quickly gotten to work on Dunsford’s vision. 

“I have been making many improvements to the brewhouse, other equipment and processes of the brewery,” Bartlett said. “You could say that I am in the midst of modernizing everything. This is all part of our plan to sell the beer outside of Calistoga Inn.”

Bartlett is joined by assistant brewmaster Henry "Tavo" Gonzalez. 

The Inn recently finished pouring through its beer inventory made by its previous brewmaster and for Cinco de Mayo, Bartlett and Gonzalez brewed a festive Mexican lager.

Bartlett said he takes a very scientific approach to brewing. In addition to the lager, there will be plenty of other new beers to be on the lookout for.

“We are keeping some of our classics and I will be rebooting those to make them even better,” said Bartlett. “I also plan on making even more varied lagers and IPAs than we already have.

“I'm implementing some basic lab testing that was previously absent, so we will know the beers exact specifications without a doubt,” he continued. “I would say our IPAs will get a lot more flavorful.”

And with the brewery expansion, the restaurant has taken steps to foster a beer culture for guests.

Dunsford said the restaurant was in the process of repurposing an old service bar into a new “beer bar” that will have five barstools and be staffed with someone knowledgeable about the Inn’s beers who can educate guests about the production.

“We look at ourselves as the half time show; the valley refresher and palate cleanser,” Dunsford said. “Come take a time out from the wineries, sit at our patio and relax with a beer. Then go on your merry way to the wine tasing adventure.”

In addition to the beer, Dunsford and Weinhold have quietly overhauled the Inn’s food and ambiance in recent months. The restaurant boasts one of Napa Valley's premier outdoor dining patios, nestled alongside the serene setting of the Napa River and Calistoga’s bustling Lincoln Avenue. 

In November, The Calistoga Inn Restaurant completed a sizeable construction project that expanded its brewery and added a new bakery kitchen.

Then in December, the restaurant hired Mathew Cardona as its new chef. Cardona, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was the former executive sous chef at Wit & Wisdom in Sonoma.

But while the Inn’s chef has changed, the menu hasn’t – not much anyway.

“We are not making substantial changes to our menu items but rather making small tweaks to improve every dish,” said Dunsford. “We recognize that to survive in this industry, you must remain relevant and always strive to be better. Our visitors have high expectations when visiting the Napa Valley and we want to make every effort to over deliver. We are very excited about the future and the upcoming transformations of the Calistoga Inn and Napa Valley Brewing Company.”

A few changes have taken place with the front-of-house management team. New team members include Carlos Pallais, who came from Girl & The Fig in Sonoma, and Cesar Guzman, formerly associated with Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil and Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. Cesar’s cousin, Edgar Guzman, formerly from Solbar and Picco Bar, has recently taken over leadership of the bar and cocktail program.