San Francisco’s Thriving Beer Culture

It is easy to make a list of things for which San Francisco is famous: steep hills; the Golden Gate Bridge; Dirty Harry; Haight Ashbury and the Summer of Love; the earthquake and fire; the Castro, gays and Harvey Milk; Pacific Fleet; the Gold Rush; Bullitt; Alcatraz; fog; sourdough bread; cable cars; Chinatown; Levis jeans; the Beat Poets.

There is one thing to add to the list – beer.

San Francisco is an exceptional beer town: excellent craft-brewed beers are simultaneously epidemic and endemic. It is very difficult to find – if you should so-bizarrely wish – a bar that sticks to Bud, Miller, and Coors. Even takeaways are likely to sell craft-brews such as the legendary Sierra Nevada Pale Ale alongside mainstream beers. Supermarkets and local stores carry row after row of six-packs of craft beers in attractively designed packaging that invites the customer to cherish them for their aesthetic qualities as much as the great beer within.

The West Coast of the United States – California, Oregon and Washington – are three key states in the great American beer appreciation revival. To the visiting beerenthusiast, the West Coast can be heaven – beer appreciation is everywhere and even the Californian wine business dare not be condescending and may even feel something of an inferiority complex.

The most influential of the San Francisco breweries is Anchor (see our feature on page 48), famed for its Steam beer which was first brewed in 1896. The old brewery scraped through the prohibition years and post-war economic reconciliation years when the big brewers became mass-brewers and their beers became pale yellow travesties. Dark and rich beers looked doomed.

Anchor’s savior was Fritz Maytag who bought a controlling interest in the ailing brewery in 1965 for “less than the price of a used car.” By the mid-70s, with Maytag’s investment and enthusiasm, Anchor was firmly resurrected and its key beers Steam, Porter and Liberty Ale turning heads across the nation.

The USA took note and a vibrant revival of craft brewing ensued. Anchor is still going strong and the elegant brewery should be top of the beer drinker’s San Francisco itinerary. There are tours ending in the taproom every weekday afternoon – booking ahead is essential.

To say that Anchor spawned imitators sounds somewhat dismissive – it shouldn’t be. The USA is now home to about 1500 craft breweries (up from 10 in 1980), almost all of whom quote Anchor as a major inspiration. San Francisco possibly has more than its fair share. In 2005 the new wave of local breweries and brewpubs formed the San Francisco Brewers’ Guild. And it is to the guild’s eight members we look next.

The San Francisco Brewing Company is a brewpub located on Columbus Avenue in an area known in the Gold Rush era as the “Barbary Coast”; notorious for a drink, gambling, prostitutes and opium dens, this is where the dubious art of ‘shanghaiing’ was perfected.

Today the area is rather more civilized; the visitor doesn’t risk waking up on a boat to China. The SF Brewing Company occupies a site that is largely unchanged (at least in appearance) from that era. The gentle ticking noise of rickety old ceiling fan marks the passage of time. The beers are splendidly fresh and unfiltered ales and lagers delivered directly from the brewhouse in the adjacent room.

The Thirsty Bear brewpub, on the other hand, is large, modern and bustling. Contemporary design, a Spanish menu and great beers attract a huge after-work crowd. Although Spain is more associated with wine than beer, Spanish food and good beer offer plenty of scope for heavenly pairings.

Draught (or draft, as they put it) beer in US brewpubs is usually served under pressure or gravity from kegs or tanks.

One night a week the Thirsty Bear brewers take the trouble to serve a brew cask-conditioned and served by hand-pump in the British style.

Also, keen on the British serving tradition is the Magnolia brewpub. It takes its name from Sugar Magnolias, a song by the Grateful Dead, and it is suitably located close to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. Magnolia beers are big and bold and are all served by handpump in a relaxed pub environment that is uniquely San Francisco.

Gordon Biersch brewpubs, as the Germanic name may suggest, specialize in brewing in various German styles: Pilsner, Märzen, Blonde, Bock, Dunkles and seasonal specialties. Gordon Biersch is one of the great success stories of the craft brewing rival – 25 outlets in 13 states and seven franchises in US airports. The San Francisco restaurant is on the Embarcadero (waterfront) close to the Giants’ Stadium.

Sister businesses, the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet, are brewpubs in the Golden Gate Park from where the former looks out on the Pacific Ocean. Golden Gate Park was designed to outdo New York’s Central Park (which is smaller) and this it achieves with panache. On Sundays, several of the park’s roads are closed and it throngs with walkers, skaters, cyclists and even people on the peculiar Segways, described as “electric personal assistive mobility devices.” Beach Chalet’s imposing pavilion is particularly impressive and given that a brewery is part of its attraction it is a fine testament to the craft brewing revolution.

The USA’s Prohibition years (January 16, 1920, to December 5, 1933) have left a deep scar on the American psyche and the collective memory has the capacity to send shivers down the spines of current brewery owners.

The repeal of prohibition was by the 21st Amendment (to the Constitution) and the act is celebrated as the name of a brewpub near the Giant’s Baseball Stadium.

The 21st Amendment range of beers includes Double Trouble IPA which is described as a “double IPA” – a designation only ever found in the USA. Huge amounts of hops (65lbs to 300 gallons) created intense flavors and super-high bitterness, 120 IBU, in this 9.7% ABV ale.

Unusually for the craft brewery movement, 21st Amendment chooses to sell beer in cans rather than bottles and a watermelon wheat beer is currently earning very favorable reviews.

Eldo’s Grill and Brewery is in the more residential Sunset neighborhood and is less frenetic than the downtown venues. Staff is friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their beers – as is always the case in US brewpubs and craft breweries. A Vienna lager (dark and low-to-medium bitterness) proves popular with local British ex-pats who are keen to sing the praises of Eldo’s.

Speakeasy is a stand-alone brewery whose bottled and draft beers can be found dotted around San Francisco. Visual brand imagery is designed to evoke the 1920s, a decade which roared, despite prohibition, thanks to illicit breweries and distilleries run by the mob. Speakeasy’s emblem is a pair of sinister eyes scrutinizing the visitor before entering a drinking den.

Brewery tours can be made on Friday afternoons and booking ahead is necessary.

Other than brewing operations, San Francisco has many fine bars, and many fine bars feature many fine beers. Two are worthy of particular note: Rogue Ales Public House and Toronado.

Rogue is a Newport, Oregon brewery and so is something of an interloper on the San Francisco scene. Although it is non-brewing, its pub is a gem. The airy, corner pub features many of Rogue’s beers on tap, in super-fresh condition. Unusually for a brewery-branded outlet it also serves beers from many other breweries – as many as 40 on draught at any time. Almost all bars and brewpubs provide food including the ubiquitous burger and fries.

Rogue takes that American staple to a higher level – burgers are Kobe beef, from cattle reared on beer and massaged for tenderness.

Toronado is located on Haight Street a good 10-minute walk downhill (that’s the only possible way to do it after a few beers) from Magnolia brewpub. This small bar is a beer paradise with a self-consciously deliberate urban, gritty feel. The import and US beer selection is mightily impressive and make it a must-visit venue – but don’t expect a light, airy beer salon like the downtown brewpubs – it is more like a run-down British city pub only without the pall of smoke, as smoking is banned in public places in California.

The US craft brewing boom goes on, and San Francisco is a key city – uninhibited by bible belt conservatism, pleasures deemed, by some, to be sinful are almost compulsory and elevated to high art.

To the liberal European, San Francisco can seem a home-from-home. To the beer drinker, this city is nirvana.

Anchor Brewing Company
1705 Mariposa Street San Francisco, CA 94107 Tel: +1 415-863-8350

21st Amendment
563 2nd Street San Francisco, CA 94107 Tel: +1 415-369-0900

Gordon Biersch
2 Harrison Street San Francisco, CA 94105 Tel: +1 415-243-8246

Magnolia Pub & Brewery
1398 Haight Street San Francisco, CA 94117 Tel: +1 415-864-7468

San Francisco Brewing Co.
155 Columbus Ave. San Francisco, CA 94133 Tel: +1 415-434-3344

Eldos Grill & Brewery
1326 Ninth Avenue San Francisco, CA 94122 Tel: +1 415-564-0425 No website

Speakeasy 1195-A Evans Ave. San Francisco, CA 94124 Tel: +1 415-642-3371

Thirsty Bear Brewing Company
661 Howard Street San Francisco, CA 94105 Tel: +1 415-974-0905

Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant and Park Chalet Garden Restaurant
1000 Great Highway San Francisco, CA 94121 Tel: +1 415-386-8439

Rogue Ales Public House
673 Union St San Francisco, CA 94133, USA Tel: +1 415-362-7880

Toronado 547 Haight St San Francisco, CA 94117 Tel: +1 415-863-2276

San Francisco Brewers’ Guild

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