We sped North up the 5 Freeway at an average speed of 85mph. Whooshing by Andersons Split Pea Soup, The Harris Ranch, and that god-awful cattle farm situated just close enough to the freeway for a good whiff (you know the one), the car’s engine purred and the trunk clinked with the LA Beer we’d been hauling. We jettisoned past the windmills on 580 and winked at cops as we passed. They understood. We had a goal to reach, you see. That goal was San Francisco Beer Week.
This year’s SFBW was massive, with over 700 events listed on the books. It’s impossible to get to everything, leaving many with a serious case of FOMO regardless of whatever amazing beer you happen to be sipping at the time. Arriving mid-week, Girls Who Like Beer (my business partner and travel companion for this trip) and I had already missed some of the big events, like the Opening Gala on Pier 35. Instead, we tried our best to be strategic with our two-day stint in the city. We focused on hitting smaller events and local breweries.
Arriving into the Bay Area, our first stop was at Faction Brewing in Alameda. I love visiting this brewery; both for the ambiance (it’s located in an old Marine helicopter hangar and the view of the city across the water can’t be beat) the people, and of course the beer. As head-beertender Corey Hennegan told us, “The thing I like about Faction is that it’s all about balance. There’s a lot of thought put into hop profiles and flavor profiles, we make big aggressive beers but a lot of times they don’t drink like it, they’re very smooth and balanced. Very approachable to people.”
With up to 30 beers on tap, there’s sure to be something for everyone, but my recommendation would be to steer towards the hoppy stuff. Hennegan suggests the Hoppy Pale, a year-round option, or one of the fresh IPAs. “Our IPA program is seasonal,” says Hennegan, “so it’s based on the freshness of hops. It’s winter so whole-cone hops are fresh on the market so that’s what the Winter IPA contains.” My personal favorite was the A-Town Pale and the Hop Soup IPA.
With our inaugural beers enjoyed and minds reset, we headed towards our next stop, Hog’s Apothecary in Berkeley, for a tasting of 50/50 beers from Truckee. This neighborhood spot was honestly more exciting to check out than the tasting itself. Owner and executive chef John Stewart-Streit showcases a great menu of American house-made (and house butchered) culinary treats complimented by a terrific craft beer menu (new local favorites like Fieldworks and Fort Point can be found on draft). It’s a great stop if you’re in the area.
Social Kitchen & Brewery
Following a brief stop to lay down our baggage, we headed into San Francisco proper for a “Beer with Grapes – A night of beers made with wine grapes” event at Social Kitchen & Brewery in Inner Sunset. A flight of six “wine beers” were poured from various breweries including Social itself, as well as from Calicraft and Triple Voodoo. While I still don’t think anyone’s really mastered the wine-beer experiment yet, I thoroughly enjoyed the “Rosebud” from SF local Magnolia, a Belgian abbey ale with rosebuds, rose petals, lavender, and Cabernet Franc juice.
Now let’s bring it back to reality. Wine beers are great (sometimes), but that experience doesn’t wont a candle to a visit to the Mecca of San Francisco beer, the infamous Toronado. No beer themed trip to SF should be considered complete without a couple pints spent among unruly bartenders and loud heavy metal on the jukebox. The place is stained with the history of craft beer, and I’m elated to give Girls Who Likes Beer her first experience here. We raise pints of Russian River Blind Pig IPA and get yelled at publicly for taking too many pictures. Classic.
Day two starts with a visit to Anchor Brewing; an experience that is right up there with Toronado for me. This storied brewery is flat out gorgeous. The simplicity of concrete and brushed copper fermenters within view of the tasting room echoes back to the origins of high quality beer being made in America. This is no brewpub; it’s as industrial as it is beautiful. But don’t let the longevity of Anchor’s history fool you into thinking that it’s “Anchored” in the past (couldn’t help myself). As our guide explained, Anchor has plans to quadruple its production capacity with a new facility complete with museum, brewery, and restaurant. And honestly, fresh Anchor Steam is as delicious as ever; we were poured the full line up of their beers and it was still my stand out.
City Beer Store
Nothing’s too far away in the city of San Francisco. Measuring just 7×7 miles, the only restrictions of the city are the daunting hills and occasional Super Bowl City (a sore topic for residents). It’s a smarter call to grab a $7 Uber that will take you from the doors of Anchor to City Beer Store in SoMo. City Beer Store was kind enough to host my first Kickstarter event for my book, and besides their generosity for the little guy, they have an excellent reputation in craft beer; doing quite a bit with the small basement space they occupy. On this day, we tried variants of Hopocalypse from Drakes Brewing. This IPA came to us in four forms, a 12.5% Black Label Triple IPA, a 9.3% Green Label DIPA, an 8.4% White Label White IPA (maybe my favorite), and a 9% Red Label Blood Orange DIPA (kidding… this was my favorite). While the latter two are only available on draft, get your hands on a monster Black Label if you can, which is offered in bottled.
The Rare Barrel
As the sun went down so did we, into the depths of the BART system to hitch a ride into Berkeley. It’s there that we stopped by The Rare Barrel, a highly regarded California brewery focusing exclusively on sours. Founding partner Alex Wallash was there to greet us and tell us a little bit more about The Rare Barrel. “All of beers take about one year to make,” says Wallash, referred to as ‘Tall Alex’ on his business card. “One thing that we’re always experimenting with is fermentation, and for us that’s both yeast and bacteria. Bacteria puts the sour in sour beer… so when you’re working with [both] they’re competing in a way. We’re trying to change one variable (at least) in every batch… to see which flavors they produce and how to recreate that.”
An interesting thing I learned while speaking with Wallash was how their location was picked to best produce their beers. “We came to Berkeley specifically for the weather. It’s perfect for barrel aging sour beers because of the climate that ranges from 50-70 degrees year round… if you get below that things get cold and slow down, and it’s wasted time. If it’s above 80, particularly for about a week or more, you can get acetic acid production that would turn our beer to vinegar… that’s why we came here.”
“One of the things I’m interested in is dry-hopped sours,” says Wallash about potential future projects in store for the Rare Barrel. “That’s one of the things we’ve been experimenting with quite a bit; it’s one of the more challenging things you can do because of a short shelf life, and there’s still a lot we can learn about how acidity works with hops.”
Lastly, I asked Wallash about what it’s like as a brewer leading up to SFBW: “My least favorite part is leading up to it and all the planning involved. We’re doing four events at the brewery, and it’s not something we do often so we want to do it right. But my favorite thing is once it starts then it’s just a big party and it’s awesome to see how many people roll out from not just the Bay Area but from around the US and world to come to San Francisco and the Bay area to try these beers. It’s cool to see that community come out for it.”
Day three and we’re ready to hit the road, but not before one more last stop on our list. Cellarmaker has been a buzz-worthy brewery for some time, and after our visit I understand why. The full tasting flight is a beast (best shared) and the beers were all fresh, flawless, and innovative. As an almost comical nod to SFBW, Cellarmaker released Quadruple Dobis, a 12.8% beer dry-hopped four times with Citra, using about 20 pounds for the batch while by comparison most dry-hopped IPAs boast about 3-4 pounds. It tasted like an IPA but it drank like a quad. Good luck finding it again, but I really enjoyed both the playfulness of this beer’s concept as well as its astounding execution; the balance of which really threw me for a loop. “Beer Week is for fantastical things that can be a little more lighthearted in a way. It’s not a beer I take too seriously but it’s amazing in its strength and it’s hoppiness,” says brewer Tim Sciascia. “It’s fun to brew and the customers like drinking it, so why do we have to be so serious about it?” I couldn’t agree more.
I spoke to owners Sciascia and Connor Casey for some insight on the brewery. “We offer a hyper-fresh product that is unavailable at any level bigger than us,” says Sciascia. “It’s constantly rotating, it spoils our customers.” Casey jumps in, “The oldest hoppy beer you’ll find here is 10-14 days max. This year we’ll do about 1,400 barrels. A lot of it stays in the tasting room so that’s why people think we’re smaller.”
“I’m from the east coast and I moved out here to learn how to brew beer,” says Sciascia about his start. “I got a job in Marin Brewing where I met Connor… he needed a brewer… and we were on the same page and ready to make the same kind of beer that we were drinking but couldn’t find around here.” The duo, which has been active for about two and a half years, has created an unquestionably deserved early rise within the Bay area. I really appreciated their commitment to being hyper-local while striving to create world-class beer. Do yourself a favor and try them out on your next visit.
It was time to go, and what a shame it was to leave the city. We had barely scratched the surface, but we’d be back. As the heavy rain poured down on us so did a sense of community within this wonderful industry, based on a drive for quality that we’re lucky enough to rediscovered on each stop of our beer travels. It’s an ongoing theme in this industry; be it SF, LA, or the rest of the US. The ability to prop up these businesses; big or small, new or storied, is in no small part thanks to the camaraderie epitomized throughout any city’s Beer Week.
Passing under the fog-laden Golden Gate Bridge, we pushed on North to Santa Rosa, where the RateBeer Best Festival and Awards was about to kick off for the first time ever. We’ll talk all about that in Part II of our NorCal adventure.