SF Beer Week Opening Gala Recap

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Friday night’s SF Beer Week Opening Gala hosted an impressive crowd. From causal beer drinkers and professional level connoisseurs, to Mom-and-Dad-on-a-date and monied tech-workers, a wide swath of the city’s thirstiest came out to Pier 48 where over 120 breweries were pouring some of the best beer around.

As doors opened at 5 o’clock, the rather substantial VIP line moved in unison, like a flock of birds, and re-formed in front of the Russian River pouring station. In spite of the growing backlash against manufactured scarcity and people’s willingness to queue up for absurd lengths of time, the allure of their triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, does not seem to have waned. Within minutes there was a couple hundred people, five ounce commemorative glasses in hand, eagerly awaiting a taste of the rarified brew. Things looked to be moving quickly enough, and with just a little more patience I could have sampled the Sonoma brewery’s standout offering, but I had my sights set elsewhere and elected to forego the ancient Roman’s namesake beverage.

After receiving my own glass, and deciding to skip the Pliny, I made my way towards the back of the hangar-like space, wanting to get the lay of the land, but not before grabbing a sample of Moonlight Brewing’s Legal Tender Ale, one of my personal must-trys. This, I think, was a mistake; I was a bit overwhelmed by the size of the building and struggling to take it in. I’d hoped to speak with someone from Mooonlight and ask a few questions about their un-hopped creation, but the moment got the better of me.

My hopes for a discussion about herbal ales vs. gruits dashed, I wolfed down my sample without giving it the consideration I’d intended. This turned out to be a prescient moment; as the night wore on there would be less room to move, and little solace from the din of the crowd. Reflecting on whatever I’d been served became increasingly difficult. This lead to me jotting down confident and nuanced tasting notes like, “Maybe the best smoked beer I’ve ever had?” or “Holy Crap!” Not to say that even under the best of circumstances I’d have penned Master Cicerone style profiles, but I realized early in the evening that given the magnitude of the event, sensory overload would be an issue. It wasn’t long before I abandoned note taking altogether.

I walked the length of the pier, stopping for a sip of Speakeasy’s Popgun Pilsner (oaked and unfiltered for the special occasion) and arrived at the SF Brewer’s Guild booth where they were pouring this year’s collaboration brew, New Frontier, a Kolsch style ale with satsuma and Douglas Fir tips. It was crisp and fruit forward but not cloying, and the evergreen flavors from the fir tips gave it a wonderful finish. It was an early stand out and easily one of the best beers I had all night. New Frontier will be on tap at select locations throughout Beer Week, and is being sold at local Whole Food stores in the bay area. I’m hoping to get my hands on some more before it’s gone forever.

Still shy of six o’clock, I continued surveying the area. Water stations were large and plentiful; food vendors lined an entire wall, and several food trucks were parked just outside on the patio. 4505 Meats was handing out free pork rinds. Best of all, portable toilets occupied a very large space in the back of the building. Fear of breaking the seal and being stuck in line to relieve oneself was not an issue, something I’m told had been a problem in years gone by.

I also spotted San Francisco mayor Ed Lee preparing to give his opening remarks to the swelling crowd. I don’t follow local politics, but from what I gather, his petite, toadstool-esque physique is a rather fitting reflection of his political undertakings. Rather than subject myself to what would likely be inane platitudes about community and such, I moved on to my next taste.

Armed with my list of beers to seek out, I began the processing of crossing off as many as I could. Hop Dogma’s Ol’ Keller, Moylan’s Haze Craze IPA, both went down easy, as I recall. Local Brewing’s Macaroon Pale Ale was good, but ultimately suffered from my own high expectations of a cookie-flavored coconut bomb.

Another standout came early on from New Bohemia Brewing Company out of Santa Cruz in their Light my Fire Smoked Helles. Smoked beers aren’t favored by all, and quite often those who make them tend towards a lighter smoke flavor. Not this one; intense smoke coated everything the way hours sitting next to a camp fire does, yet somehow finished clean. This isn’t a beer for everyone, but fortune favors the bold as they say, and if you like smoked beer, this is a bold one indeed.

One of the beers I’d most anticipated was Laughing Monk’s Peach Pulpit. Unfortunately a line in their jockey box was fouled and they weren’t pouring it when I got to their station. I settled for Coffee and Cream, which turned out to be delicious, and stepped outside for some air. The patio had filled, as had the previously empty picnic tables. Throngs of people were enjoying tacos, burgers, and BBQ. What I couldn’t imagine anyone was enjoying was the line for Pliny the Younger, which now snaked its way outside and more than half way down the length of the pier.

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The P-line-y.

It was after 7 by then, and though there was still plenty of time left in the evening, I did not understand why people were willing to give up so much time for a taster size sample of one beer. There is simply no way to be satisfied with the return on that investment. I’ve had Pliny the Younger and it is very good. But it is not life changing. The skies will not part at first sip, nor will boozy angels sing. Several world class breweries were in attendance, as were dozens and dozens of up-and-comers, pouring a universe of IPA variations: Single, double, and triple. They had dry hops, wet hops, hole cone and cryo-hops. Cascade, Columbus, Simcoe, Citra. Old World, New World, experimental, and noble. Hallertau, Hollerback, added in the boil, added in the keg, pushed through a Randall, and down our greedy throats (I might have made one of those up). What I am trying to say is that if delicious hop bitterness and aroma were what a person sought, it was there for the taking, and without a line. 

Sours also played a prominent role that evening, giving the almighty IPA a run for its money as the most represented style. Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel had a consistent but manageable line that depleted their resources quickly, leaving kegs empty and their station unmanned before the clock struck 8. Firestone Walker served two special sours that also garnered a short wait, as did San Francisco’s Thirsty bear, all of which were tart and tasty.

For my money, San Leandro’s Cleophus Quealy ruled both the sours and the night, serving up a beast of a beer in their gin barrel aged Aviato, with cherries, lemons, and violet. It had a complexity unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, but without overwhelming my brutish, untrained palate. I went back for it three times and was no less impressed after every pour. Just dazzling stuff. A trip to their tap room is in short order, and if the work they put on display Friday is indication of the product they are turning out, Cleophus Quealy could be giving The Rare Barrel a run for their money in the East Bay sour game very soon.

All told, the Opening Gala was a tremendous success. Though the crowd was thick, it remained manageable, the atmosphere convivial. I chatted with people, got recommendations about what to try and gave my own in kind. Though walking around with my notepad in hand did garner some curious looks, it gave me direction and prevented aimless wandering; the two days spent studying the list of beers on tap proved well worth my time. I left the event happily buzzed, feeling oddly accomplished, and looking forward to what the rest of SF Beer Week might have to offer.

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San Francisco Beer Week Opening Gala: My Five Must-Try Beers

It looks as though I’ll be going to the SF Beer Week Opening Gala after all.* Though I still thoroughly anticipate an event that will try my patience for crowds, and which will be comprised largely of hop-seeking dunderheads, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to get my hands on a ticket and to drink what will surely be some outstanding beers.

In keeping with my year long theme of structured consumption, I’ve set two ground rules for myself. Foremost among them, is no beer that is available year-round shall pass my lips. If it’s not a one-off or special release of some kind, why bother? The point of the whole event is to get beers you can’t find in other places. Second, with a few exceptions, I’ll not drink any IPAs, especially of the double or triple variety. One could spend the evening drinking those alone, but that’s a one-way ticket to oblivion. Tasting 25 XXXIPAs sounds good until you have to get home on the bus, shit-faced and ready to piss yourself. I’m sure the latter will be unavoidable; the former I can likely work around. The notable exception to the IPA proscription is Russian River’s Pliny the Younger; unlike most places pouring it, the line will be short and I’ve not had it in a few years now.

At over 120 breweries strong, the list of beers being tapped this Friday is deep. I’ve spent the last few days combing over it, making list of just under 30 beers to hunt for. To get even that may would be a chore. I’ve narrowed that down further to come up with my top five must-try brews. In no particular order they are as follows:

  • Ale Industries, Raw Ale. An ale featuring gin influenced botanicals, including bay, rosemary, cardamon, and juniper. Moreover, it’s unboiled (hence the raw part) and has no hops. None. I’ve been studying up on medieval gruits and herbal ales, so this one is of particular interest. As a side note, Ale Industries is a place I’d like to see figure more prominently in the coming year. Nothing is quite true to style, but everything they make is good. On top of that, they’re committed to sourcing materials ethically, and being environmentally sound. Stop by their tap room next time you are in Oakland.
  • Bear Republic, Tatare Rouge. An American Wild Ale, spontaneously fermented with airborne wild yeast. There is something I love about the idea of literally throwing caution to the wind, and letting nature do what it may. It’s gutsy, it’s different, and it sounds delicious.
  • Firestone Walker, Agrestic. Another Wild Ale that started its life as FW’s delicious Double Barrel Ale gets transformed by some yeasty magic into something else entirely.
  • Laughing Monk, Barrel Aged Peach Pulpit. I don’t go in for Belgian beer too much, nor do I really like Chardonnay. But Something about this beer has really caught my eye; a Belgian tripel aged in Wente Vineyard Chardonnay Barrels with peaches. That’s one I have to try.
  • Moonlight Brewing, Legal Tender Herbal Ale. Another hop-less beer. Though it might seem like I’m waging a personal war on lupulin here, I love hoppy beers as much as anyone. As previously stated though, I’ve been up to my neck in gruit research the last week and really want to see that style realized as best I can. No list of herbs is given for this one, but I’m hoping for bog myrtle to be in the mix.

Other beers that fell short of must-haves, but that I’ll certainly get to include, Eight Bridge’s One Box IPA, Local Brewing’s Macaroon Coconut Oatmeal Pale Ale, Old Bus Tavern’s Wookie’s Delight, Speakeasy’s unfiltered Pop Gun Pilsner, Hop Dogma’s Ol’ Keller, and Moylan’s Haze Craze IPA.

A final brew that bears mentioning is the collaboration done by the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild; a post-modern Kolsch style ale with satsuma and evergreen. Not only does the guild put this whole thing on, but they’re contributing what promises to be one of the more interesting beers served. I can’t wait to try it.

*Special thanks to  the amazing Franny Fullpint for the ticket. I don’t deserve such generosity and cannot thank her enough.

Strong Beer Month and SF Beer Week: a Personal Primer for February Brewdiligence

It’s Fe-Brew-ary! At long last that phonetic convention we all use to remember the proper spelling of February has come in handy to make a creampuff of a joke. In addition to facile word play, the second month of the year means two things: strong beer month and the annual San Francisco Beer Week. It’s 28 days of high octane brews with a week of unmitigated celebrating for all things beer thrown in for good measure.

From the 10th through the 19th, SF Beer Week will run beautifully amok, featuring tap-takeovers, unlimited pours, food pairings and dinners, special releases, meet-the-brewer, educational events, and more. In terms of total area, San Francisco is a diminutive city, but within its relatively petite confines you’ll find a densely packed collection of venues to host the afore mentioned festivities. That, coupled with severely inflated tech salaries that give people the financial leeway to guiltlessly drop money on such things, creates a dizzying array of beer-bashes to choose from. Things could get real ugly given a full 31 days. Even a leap-year might get sideways enough to crash Twitter for a few hours.

For my money (what little there is), I tend towards anything with an educational bent, or the what I feel like I can skew in that direction on my own. Mostly I do this because it’s just the way my brain is wired; research, writing, the curating of facts, and what to others seem insufferable and inconsequential minutiae, are what I love most. I’ve been this way my whole life. Anything I have ever taken an interest in has become an object of study. By turning this attitude on Beer Week, and beer drinking in general, I can curb my tendencies towards excess, and avoid fellow beer lovers who strive for it. I would love to hit every all-you-can-drink party throughout the week, but I’ve matured (somewhat lamentably) enough to know that of the 50 plus beers I might be able to try in one place, I’ll stop remembering them at about 15. What’s more, I won’t get bombed enough to think it’s a good idea to start yanking pretzels off the necklaces of strangers who just want to collect commemorative glasses and funnel as many double IPAs as they can. I don’t judge or begrudge that as a Beer Week endgame, but if I go to a talk on sours that is accompanied by a few tastes, odds are strong I’ll meet some like-minded people, learn a little something, and leave reasonably buzzed.

That said, the marquee events that I’ll not be attending without the aid of a benefactor or a press pass both include unlimited pours. Drunken debauchery may be an element at either, but shouldn’t rule the day. A great way to bookend your Beer Week Experience would be to hit these:

  • The Opening Gala at Pier 48. Over 125 breweries are helping to kick things off. This is sure to be equal part shit-show and best-night-ever, but at between $80 and $120 a ticket, I’ll save my money for something a little less raucous and sidestep possibly falling over a railing into the bay.
  • The Celebrator Beer News 29th Anniversary Party and Fund Raiser for the California Craft Brewer’s Association. 30 plus breweries will be pouring their best stuff for a crowd that is heavy on industry insiders. The more modest $60 price tag includes food, making this the event to pull the trigger on if you don’t mind paying for it and commuting to the East Bay. Though it does not have an explicitly educational element to it, this is the kind of event where if you keep your ears open and your mouth shut between sips, you will walk away knowing more about craft beer than you did when you arrived, and having met many of the people who make this whole thing go ‘round.

My other two if-money-were-no-object events of choice would be either of the off-flavor courses being offered. Diacetyl? Solvent-like? Buttery flavors in my beer? These are things I know in name alone. I should be thankful that I am not getting spoiled or poorly made beer regularly enough to be personally acquainted with off-flavors, but in my pursuit to be a more educated beer drinker, they are things I should experience first hand and learn to properly identify. If you are inclined to sleep with the enemy, there are a couple of options: A two day, advanced off-flavor course at The Beer Hall, presented by Master Cicerone Rich Higgins, the other at the Drake’s Dealership in Oakland given by cicerone.org. At $85 and $49 respectively, they’re a lot of money to go willingly go taste bad brews, but for a monied beer geek, either would likely be an eye opening experience.

In thinking about off-flavor courses, I began to wonder how they find all the bad beer. Do they actively seek it out and save it for the occasion? I’ve been imagining cicerones bellying up to the bar, ordering pint before exclaiming, “My God, man! This tastes like shit! Can we buy the keg?” Maybe they walk around in search of unkempt looking beer bars and asking questions like, “What have you got that’s chunky and smells like asparagus?” Are they intentionally making small batches of off flavor beer and letting draft lines foul? My guess is that it’s something else entirely, and one of the first things they address will be where they sourced the study materials.

As for the events I’m choosing to attend, most have the educational element I favor. Some of those will put me in proximity to special releases happening that same day. One is just to see friends that are in town for the week. Some of the following may change. I might have to skip something, I might make an impromptu trip to this place or that. So long as I come away from the week feeling as though I’ve gleaned something new from my experiences and not drank myself into a coma or new pant size I’ll be happy. After all, it’s only beer.

My Beer Week Schedule

Friday, February 10 – Lament the fact that I won’t be at the opening gala. Console myself with a  couple pints of strong beer (can’t let Strong Beer Month slide by the wayside) at the Magnolia Pub, while keeping in mind that crowds the size of the one to be found at Pier 49 that night are dreadful, and that fear of missing out is for people in their twenties.

Saturday, February 11- Go get my learn on with Ferment Drink Repeat. $20 bucks to try eight beers and have owner/brewer and nationally ranked beer judge Kevin Inglin drop some delicious science on those of us thirsting for knowledge and some his exceptional brews. FDR is probably my favorite brewery in the city right now. I could go on at length telling you why, but will save that for another time. Just know this is an essential stop on the San Francisco brewery circuit.

Being at FDR puts me in proximity to Laughing Monk, who are releasing a couple of barrel aged beers that day, including a Belgian Tripel with peaches and aged in Wente Chardonnay barrels (I’m not generally a Belgian guy, but that one has really peaked my interest). Speakeasy isn’t too much farther down the way, and they doing an oak aged, unfiltered version of their Pop Gun Pilsner which also sounds promising. Beyond that I’ll have to resist my urge to push on into the night and catch the bus home to save my energy for Sunday.

Sunday, February 12-  SF Beer Week’s Annual Battle of the Guilds. Brewer’s guilds from San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will come together at Sessions at the Presidio pouring 45 different beers. Guilds are an often overlooked and unheralded part of the craft beer movement; they put together the events we love so much, and generally speaking, work their tails off behind the scenes. I’m particularly excited about this one, knowing I’ll get to see some good friends who are in town for the occasion. The beer could all be garbage (guaranteed it’ll be the farthest thing from it) and I’d still peg this as the likely high point of my Beer Week experience. Most of the time I skulk around the city alone, a half-drunk lone-wolf stalking fermented prey. I’m grateful to know I’ll have some old friends with me on this day.

Monday, February 13- Weekday outings can be rough for a guy with a day job, so I’m doing my best to keep them simple. On this evening I’ll make my way to the Woods Cerveceria on 18th St. They’re doing Medieval Beverages that night, pouring meads and gruits. The food historian in me is properly geeked for this one; I’ll be giving myself a crash course in medieval ales (really focusing on gruits) in the week beforehand, starting with Beer in the MIddle Ages and the Renaissance by Richard W. Unger.

Time permitting, I might stop by the Social Kitchen and Brewery on my way home for their annual Brett Fest, and have them break me off a piece of some of that funky stuff.

Tuesday, February 14- I’ll likely keep it close to home this night and see what’s happening in the Sunset. A quick trip around the corner gets me to the Sunset Reservoir Brewing Company, and little further down the way I expect the Lawton Taproom to have some Seven Stills beer flowing. From there it’ll just be another couple blocks to the newly opened Woods Beer Co. Outbound post, where they’ll have a special Trouble Coffee infused stout and a coconut pale ale going. Having plotted that out, the better move is to start at Woods and work my way closer to home. As in life, flexibility in Beer Week is key.

Wednesday, February 15- Likely a night off, but a great one to hit would be The Bruery’s Wild and Sour Takeover at The Old Bus Tavern. OBT is one of the best places in the city to eat and still highly underrated, and The Bruery, in my experience, just doesn’t know how to make a bad beer. A perfect pairing for a beer and bite. 

Thursday, February 16- The Eagle Rock Brewery takeover at the Social Kitchen and Brewery sounds promising and is close to home, making it the most likely candidate for me. The always awesome Harmonic Brewing is having a band and food pop-up that night in addition to beer specials, and though I probably won’t get there, Old Devil Moon will be pouring the best of breweries from the North Bay.

Friday, February 17- Triple Voodoo Yeast Profile Demonstration. Yeast plays a huge role in beer, yet its nuances remain something of a mystery to most. Save for being able to taste the flavors in Belgian strains, and knowing a bit about the differences between lager and ale yeasts, the little beast that makes beer beer is something I’ve left tragically unexplored.

Using the same base wort, Triple Voodoo is making five different batches with five yeast varieties. What a great opportunity to sit down with a flight and really put some thought into beer’s most crucial ingredient. With the exception of seeing my friends at the Battle of the Guilds, this is the night I’m looking froward to more than any other.

Saturday, February 18- The California Historical Society is showing “Brewers by the Bay” a documentary film about the history of craft beer in San Francisco, followed by a Q&A with director Jared Stutts. This would be a great chance to find some people who share my interest in the historical aspects of this whole endeavor.

All the same, if I haven’t decided to pull the trigger on the Celebrator party by this point, I’ll likely find a place to have a few last day brews and quietly reflect on the week. And by that, I mean I’ll probably put my loftier academic goals aside and get irresponsibly drunk after restraining myself for the previous eight days. There is a ton of good stuff to choose from, like Barrelhead Brewing’s Bacon, Bourbon, and Barleywine pairing, the Woods Beer Bus Tour which will take you to all five Woods locations, and City Beer Store’s Sea of Sours (sours are figuring even more prominently this year than last it seems). Ferment Drink Repeat’s Beers Off the Beaten Path progressive beer and food tasting will take people to four different locations in some of the lesser frequented neighborhoods in San Francisco, offering a different bite paired with an FDR beer at each location.

I don’t know what I’ll be drinking or where I’ll end up, but this will be my day to go big.

Sunday, February 19- Nothing. I’m taking a day of rest as the good Lord intended. There will still be a lot going on, but my liver and wallet will likely be ready to tap out by this point. So will the kegs at The Willows where their kick the keg party will include 50% off full size pours all night. That’s the kind of deal that could bring even the most weary beer drinker out for one more night of indulgence.

Whatever you end up doing, I hope you have fun, drink a lot of good beers while making an effort to learn something, and for Christ’s sake, don’t drive drunk. Lyft is everywhere, the busses cheap. Use them. If you have ideas about places I should hit, things that are not to be missed, or stories about your own Beer Week adventures, I’m all ears.

Cheers.