After two days in wine country drinking Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs and Double IPAs, I spent the rest of my trip in San Francisco, a city that many would argue is at the center of California’s beer scene. Home of the historic and pioneering Anchor brewery, the famous Toronado bar, and close proximity to many of California’s most celebrated breweries, San Francisco is as good a place as any to evaluate the West Coast beer culture. While this wasn’t specifically a beer-drinking trip, I was able to hit up some of these sites while experiencing the culture of San Francisco.
One of the places I needed to go to was Toronado. For many this is the ultimate craft beer bar, the original no frills, nothing-but-great-beer establishment that was a huge influence on places like the Malt House. The feel of the place was grungy, with old, beat-up stools and tables, and stickers completely plastering the walls. The service left a bit to be desired, with a slow moving bartender who was seemingly annoyed when I asked to see the (extensive) bottled beer list. The tap list was no doubt impressive. The vast majority were California beers, with a few choice selections from Germany and Belgium. The imports were fairly standard: Schneider, Dupont, Lindemans, though I give them props for having Rodenbach Grand Cru on tap. The local beers were heavy with Russian River, Lost Abbey and Sierra Nevada. I tried Lost Abbey’s Serpent’s Stout, a big, black, boozy beer, and a glass of ’09 Russian River Consecration, their Cabernet barrel aged sour beer. To me, this aged beer might be what sets Toronado apart. With so many breweries in the area making world-class beers in styles that age well (Barley Wine, Imperial Stout, sour styles), having the capacity to age kegs and occasionally put some old stuff on tap is really cool. Even though I had really enjoyed the current vintage of Consecration when I had it at Russian River two days earlier, the ’09 was far better. All the flavors, the sourness, the wine and tannin flavors, the malt profile of the base beer, just all seemed more well rounded and fit together better; it was quite possibly the best sour beer I’ve ever had. If this were my local pub, the occasional sight of ’09 Consecration, ’08 Angels Share or ’07 Bigfoot on the tap list would be something that would keep me coming back.
We also stopped at a “certified organic” brewpub called Thirsty Bear in the SoMA district. This might be the only brewpub I’ve ever been to where the food was better than the beer (although the Great Dane does make a pretty mean hamburger…). The pub had the unique pairing of house brewed beer, predominantly English and American ales, and Spanish cuisine. I had the flight, and many of the beers, especially their popular Golden Vanilla, had a strange off flavor I can only describe as “green,” a phrase homebrewers use when their beer needs a little more time before being ready to drink. That being said, the cask ESB was quite nice, and the antipasto flatbread with Serrano ham was fantastic.
There were quite a few places I did not have time to make it to, namely the City Beer Store, the 21st amendment brewpub and La Trappe. We tried to get a tour of the Anchor Brewery, but their tours are by reservation and sell out about two months in advance in the summer, so if you’re heading to San Francisco be sure to book your Anchor tours early.
Overall, part of me wants to say I was really impressed with San Francisco’s beer scene, and part of me was a little underwhelmed. This reaction is likely due to the unrealistic expectations that were floating around somewhere in my brain, visions of a city where every bar had a plethora of craft beers on tap, where every time I tried to order a beer I would have to make impossible choices between beers I’d never heard of. This was, of course, not the case. In general, wandering around to bars and restaurants with my friends, the amount of craft beer on tap didn’t seem much different from what one would see in downtown Madison, with the names of the breweries switched from New Glarus and Capital to Sierra Nevada and Anchor. Anchor Steam beer and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale were everywhere, often along side an Anchor Liberty Ale or Sierra Nevada Torpedo or Summer Lager. It should be said that these “accessible” craft beers are definitely more aggressive than Spotted Cow or Island Wheat, which might say something for the beer savvyness of the average San Franciscan, but the variety and access to other great local breweries (21st Amendment, Firestone Walker, Stone, Russian River, etc.) was not as great as I was expecting. I think I saw a Firestone Walker beer on tap once.
This is just my one, limited experience, but my week in California allowed me to understand why people consider the West Coast to be the center of craft beer, while not necessarily becoming convinced of this fact myself. I guess I’ll just have to go back and do some more research.