May 23, 2011

SF Beer Guide

As All About Beer's Beer Traveler columnist, I look to local beer experts all over the country (and beyond) since it behooves them to know every single hot spot a beer tripper might be interested in visiting. Yeah, I just wanted to work in the word behooves. When I hit up Jeff "Bull E. Vard" Haught, blogger behind the KC Beer Blog (Kansas City being home to Boulevard Brewing) for a burger-centric column, he kindly obliged. It turns out, I'm far from the first or last person who beseeched his in-the-trenches expertise, so he posted his KC Beer Travel Guide.

Wisely, it dawned on him that all city-centric beer bloggers should do likewise if they haven't already. While I'm too new to Portland to attempt this, not to mention that a comprehensive brewery and pub crawl in a city with more breweries than anywhere else would take superbeero strength and dedication. So, here's my guide to my beloved San Francisco. One personal note I like to point out about beer and SF is that Anchor Brewing Co. was established in 1896, one year and about one mile away from where my great grandmother Germaine was born.

Fritz Maytag created “craft beer" when he rescued and renovated Anchor in 1965, thereby making the SF Bay Area the epicenter of the beer renaissance (and, dare I say, the foodie movement, considering Alice Waters wouldn’t open her groundbreaking Chez Panisse across the bay in Berkeley until 1971.) After 45 years, he sold it in 2010 and the new owners plan on doing something ol' Fritz never would have--creating a "Center of Excellence." Daily tours have always been offered, but soon tours will include the Anchor Distilling corner, too, and welcome all comers. Stay tuned.

Today, the Bay Area is home to over four-dozen breweries, and The City itself boasts six beyond Anchor...and growing. Visitors do well by not renting cars and instead get around town by foot. Considering The City is only 7-miles long by 7-miles wide, it’s entirely walkable. Otherwise, beer lovers can turn to a pair of Web sites that help navigate local watering holes accessible by public transportation. Saving Wet Your Whistles for the focus on the Peninsula and exploring by CalTrain, turn your attention to Beer By BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

“There’s good beer – real local west coast ales and well-crafted brews – all over the Bay Area, and fortunately there is no paucity of good beer within walking distance of public transit,” writes BBB creators Steve Shapiro and Gail Williams.

Beginning with the best watering holes in order of BART stops, three are accessible from the Montgomery Station. If you’re looking for brewpubs, this is the stop to reach two of SF’s five: 21st Amendment and Thirsty Bear. “21 A” is almost spitting distance from AT&T Park and fills up like mad when the World Champion Giants play at home. Here you’ll find the beer that made them famous, their Watermelon Wheat (served with a watermelon wedge in lieu of the more commonplace lemon peel in other wheat beers.) But they have a hearty selection of other house beers ranging from sessionable to extreme and the food is delectable pub grub.

Thirsty Bear is adjacent to techie central, a.k.a. the Moscone Convention Center, so look for programmers galore quaffing anything from the nitrogenated Meyer ESB to whatever brewmaster Brenden Dobel taps seasonally. As for the food, it’s Spanish tapas all the way. Just be careful if you tell friends to meet you at this tapas bar, since there really is a topless bar across the street!

Incidentally, the base of AT&T Park is The Public House, where local Certified Cicerone Eric Cripe has selected 24 beers on draft plus a couple casks. It instantly made the baseball stadium one of the best ballparks to drink craft.

Next stop: Civic Center Station. From here it’s a short walk to one of the most celebrated retailers, City Beer Store, where you can buy singles and even drink them in the store for a buck as corkage fee, not to mention there are about six rare beers on tap at all time. This is the place to shop if you brought an empty suitcase you plan on filling up before heading home.

Also accessible from this station but a mile walk or short bus ride on MUNI # 6, 7, or 71 is the world-renowned Toronado. One of the oldest fine beer bars in the country, the Toronado boasts over 40 taps and a handpumped cask where pints of amazing beers cost as little as $3 during happy hour and only the dusty bottle list features anything over $10. It’s a veritable institution. When you get hungry—and you’ll definitely need to eat—most people pop into Rosamunde Grilled Sausages next door for mouthwatering gourmet dogs but I also like to jay-walk for the best bbq in town at Memphis Minnie’s. You’re free to bring either back into the bar for another round or three.

Note that "The T" is on Lower Haight and Magnolia Brewpub is on Upper Haight. As you've deduced, there's a healthy but manageable walk up a steep hill to get to the Upper Haight. At Magnolia you'll be rewarded with some of the best beers in town ranging from sessionable cask ales to robust Strong Beers (particularly during their February-long Strong Beer Month.) Be forewarned the wait to get a table to eat can be long (but worth it). Same goes for Magnolia founder Dave McLean's cocktail-centric small-plate destination The Alembic just a few blocks up Haight near the part of Golden Gate Park that tries so damn hard to hold onto the Summer of Love. Alembic's vintage bottle list is a work of art in progress.

One stop beyond is 16th Street Station in the heart of the Mission neighborhood. This is the foodie/trendy hub of The City. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to wander around here at night; it’s been gentrified almost to a fault. Case in point: Monk’s Kettle. This upscale gastropub is killing it. The bottles are pricey but the taps are usually decently priced and you won’t be able to get through everything you want to try. Vintage rarities often pop up. This is THE place to go for eating & drinking. Not only is the regular menu lip smacking, there’s also a daily special pot pie and bread pudding. Ask in-house Cicerone Sayre P. what he’d recommend to pair with them. (For the bread pudding, I can tell you right now you should get Black Diamond’s Imperial Porter brewed with cocoa nibs.)

Of course, if Monk’s Kettle is too chi-chi for you, there’s always Zeitgeist which is essentially a bike messenger hangout with dozens of more pedestrian taps and features an awesome beergarden that, on a sunny day, finds every single large picnic table jam packed. You can get house-grilled cheeseburgers or, if you’re lucky, Virginia the Tamale Lady will show up.

The last BART stop in The City is the 24th Street Station. There’s another location of Rosamunde on the same block that has a wider menu beyond grilled sausages and they have some good beer: 26 taps and almost thrice that in bottles/cans.

Another nighttime spot is Pi Bar, home of great pizza and a small but worthy tap list (a dozen drafts, always $5). They open at 3:14 p.m. and a slice of cheese is always $3.14. Double that and they’ll include whatever the beer of the day is.

Alas, BART doesn't cover the entire town. Two breweries you'll need to ride MUNI out to, along the N-Judah line or various buses, are Social and Beach Chalet. Social Kitchen and Brewery is where brewmaster Rich Higgins whips up intriguing and approachable beers (try the Rapscallian, a Belgian Golden that pairs with just about everything on the menu). That this neighborhood spot is two blocks from many attractions in Golden Gate Park is a bonus.

At the western edge and actually inside the park is Beach Chalet/Park Chalet. This is the one to go to if you want to soak up suds in the sun (given it's actually not fogged in). Live music and outdoor grilling are also part of its allure.

Depending on how much time you have to spend exploring San Fran, La Trappe in North Beach is a stellar Belgian gastropub and if you oddly can't find anything on their killer tap list with nearly 30 beers mostly from Belgium, their pages-and-pages long bottle list is a marvel. For bottle shopping and weekly creative beer sample sessions, check out The Jug Shop where the aforementioned Eric Cripe has turned the wall-length coolers into a shopping spree made in paradise. Perhaps the most chill place for a beer is Amsterdam Cafe directly in the Tenderloin, which is the last place most tourists would step. It's cozy, well-stocked, and certainly catching on with ale aficionados.

Sure, there’s also the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Park, SF MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), and more, but didn’t you come to drink where craft beer was born?

May 18, 2011

Special delivery beer pairing: Clouds and Coconuts

Full disclosure: Many bloggers receive free beer in the mail, then review it, but fail to mention they're reviewing complimentary samples. Not me. Sometimes I request samples for my stories; sometimes they're just sent. Lately, in addition to receiving emailed press releases about beers, I'm getting releases from various food publicists. These foodstuffs showing up on my doorstep is fun, but the publicist had nothing to show for it. I've never blogged reviews. Til now. Here's the second in my series of food sample + beer pairings*. (*IF the suggested beers are comped samples, I'll disclose that.)

The Civil War pitted brother against brother yet most of today's rivalries are less fierce. I generally don't know what makes, say, someone from Chicago root for the Cubs or the White Sox; I also don't know what puts someone firmly in the Hostess corner or the Little Debbie corner. The answer is probably true of both groups: it's whichever one you grew up with.

I ate my fair share of Twinkies growing up in Calif. and I feel like Little Debbie (based in Tenn.) was always more of an east-of-the-Mississippi thing. Yet they're trying to change that, hence someone got paid to road trip handing out free LD Cloud Cakes. What's the difference between the two? I'm not SCJCP-certified (think BJCP but for sponge cakes), but I'd say it's less than the difference between, say, Goose Island BCS & Founders KBS. Both are preternaturally spongey, sugary, and keep-it-in-the-closet delicious. Where Cloud Cakes do win out is nutritionally, in that they're ever so slightly lower in saturated fat and sugar.
What beer to pair them with? I pondered beers from fruity sours to sweet stouts or vanilla porters until I came up with Kona Brewing Koko Brown. I'd received some of these and had one bottle left, cracked it, and immediately enjoyed the combo because the beer's sweetness comes from lots of real coconut, not just residual sugars. That means it's not too heavy but the vanilla cream in the Cloud Cake marries perfectly with the strong coconut aroma and flavor. In fact, go ahead, dip the cream-filled cake right into your glass. Initially, it actually embellishes the bitterness of the beer and notes of black coffee burst through, but then it's almost as if you're eating a coconut cream filled cake donut dunked in creamy iced coffee.

Until the next package shows up, mahalo y'all.

May 13, 2011

Yes, Tugboat Brewery. I flippin' love it

I've lived in Portland for a mere 5 months and it's taken me this long to visit a mere half of the breweries in town. The 18th was Tugboat Brewery, perhaps the most misunderstood, maligned, and mysterious brewery in Beervana.

Pouring house beers since 1993, Tugboat remains in its original downtown location under the same owner/operator. If you look aside as you're entering Bailey's Taproom on Broadway at Ankeny, you just might spot it on the poorly lit side street-slash-alleyway. Inside, you're sure to find a sparse population that, I surmise, consists mostly of people drinking alone, but the errant couple, couple of buddies, or small group. You'll find not very many house beers and mostly guest taps because while the brewer may be a "professional," he's hardly working full-time. You'll also find a small menu of appetizing sounding nosh and a jar of serve-yourself salty snack-mix.

What you won't find are any beer geeks.

When I tweeeted from Tugboat that I had found my new downtown nighttime staple, Kris from Beer Musings from Portland tweeted back: I haven't been there for years & I was so underwhelmed I've avoided going back.

Perry from Brewmance NW twitplied: I haven't even made it there yet... damn I feel lazy right now.

And SNOB Ritch from Behind the Pint twote: there must be some mistake, did someone at Tugboat get a hold of your phone?

To be fair, Brady from The Daily Pull, Sean the Homebrew Chef, and some guy in Tokyo named Christopher either supported or didn't mock me for going. (UPDATE: Brady's all about the "MAGIC" sprinkled on the popcorn.)

While they had a whopping three house beers when I stopped in, the Chernobyl Russian Imperial Stout (14% ABV) was actually pretty good, if you like 'em leathery and cigary like I do. I generally don't dig beers named for their color (except Browns) but the Hop Gold was decent (because it was hoppy and tasted like the glass was garnished with grapefruit pith) and I couldn't bring myself to try the Red.

More importantly, I had a great time. The bartender was super friendly and chatty. The drunk on the barstool next to me appeared to be antisemetic at first until I deduced he really just missed his ex-wife who's Jewish. He also got up and stumbled over to the upright piano and started playing great backround melodies. And the other few scattered souls compared Beervana's brewpub scene to their inferior ones back home, which was various cities, respectively.

I asked the bartender (sorry, forgot his name) if Bailey's opening up directly across the street helped or hurt business. He admitted that it has grown to funnel more and more of their remaining customers. And I get that. If I'm downtown and I want a selection of great, interesting beers in a setting where I can actually see the people I'm talking to, I'll go to Bailey's. But Tugboat ain't nearly as bad as my cohorts say it is, and that's WHEN they even acknowledge it backhandedly as Beervana, The New School have done. Then again, Angelo at Brewpublic seems to know what's up. Though whether or not he's returned in the last 2 1/2 years I dunno. (UPDATE: Bill at It's Pub Night also appreciate's its charms.)

As a final note, of the fewer than 100 licensed brewing facilities in Oregon, Tugboat ranked 81st in production (138 barrels) for 2010 and that's with most of the nanobreweries behind them beginning their brewing operations midway through the year! My belated new year's resolution is two-fold. Get to the rest of Portland's breweries, and help Tugboat get up to 139 bbls.