Shandelle Battersby goes beer hunting northeast of Los Angeles.
There are definitely more fake bears than real bears at California's Big Bear Lake, but on a hot July afternoon we were more interested in finding beers than bears, so a local pointed us in the direction of Big Bear Brewery.
It's estimated that the forest behind this pretty alpine settlement, two hours northeast of Los Angeles, is home to just 350-500 black bears, but town merchants have run with the name and there are multiple gift shops selling bear-related merchandise for anything you can think of: Bear toilet paper holder? No problem. Bear-decorated toilet paper? Also no problem. Best bear pun? A surprising lack of decent gags bar one notable exception: Grizzly's Bear Belly Deli. Genius.
We wandered down to the brewery and took a seat on the deck under a bright yellow umbrella. American flags fluttered patriotically. A sign read: "Well behaved and leashed dogs welcome on patio" — and there were dogs everywhere.
Inside was packed, despite the glorious sunshine outside; baseball played on the televisions but it didn't look like anyone was watching. Country pop burbled in the background as the kitchen staff slaved away behind a corrugated iron wall that gave way to an open kitchen.
Around the corner, the room opened up into more seating — a timber-clad dining area with one glass wall revealing the brewery operation. This is a working brewery that you can tour for free, if it takes your fancy.
Our server recommended the Barely Legal Honey Blonde, a lightly hopped "clean, crisp ale" with notes of liquorice, citrus and orange blossom honey. It was smooth and delicious, and in that all-American way, large — it's almost impossible to find a bar that serves half-pints in the Land of the Free. At 6.5 per cent it packed quite a punch.
As well as beer, the brewery is famous for its Avocado Bomb — a honey ale tempura-battered avocado. There are many foods that taste delicious fried, but I wasn't sure avocado would be one of them, so I took the safer route and went for the pulled pork tacos. It's hard to find a bad taco in California, and they were the best I'd had in two weeks of eating as many as possible.
The next day, we went looking for real bears up the road at the excellent Big Bear Alpine Zoo — a rescue operation that has been rehabilitating hurt and abandoned wild animals since 1959.
More than 90 per cent of the animals it takes in are released but it has a great collection of those that need to stay in captivity, including a cheeky bobcat called Shakespeare, three grizzly bears, four black bears (one, Huckleberry, has three legs because he was hit by a car), birds, owls, foxes, deer, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, badgers, raccoons and skunks.
It's a wonderful facility, a chance to get really close to the animals, and friendly, knowledgeable docents wander around and answer your questions.
All that talk of bears sure makes you thirsty though ...
Getting there: Big Bear Brewery is at 40827 Stone Rd, Big Bear Lake. Open Sunday to Thursday 11am-10pm; Friday and Saturday 11am-12am (food until 10pm).
Big Bear Alpine Zoo is at 43285 Goldmine Drive, Big Bear Lake. There are daily summer and winter hours, so check the website.