San Francisco is a beer drinker’s town – it houses the brewery that started the craft beer revolution (Anchor), an internationally acclaimed bar (Toronado) and is located near a number of stellar breweries (Lagunitas and Russian River and pretty darn close). Signs for Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas almost outnumbered the Bud and Coors promotions in bar windows. Four days was not long enough to cover all the top spots (unfortunately, we missed the Magnolia brewpub and didn’t tour the Anchor brewery), but here are some highlights:
- Toronado. I had heard mixed reviews of Toronado before heading to San Francisco and my visit only reinforced them. The positives: over forty taps, three hand pumps, a nice mix of Californian and Belgian, excellent prices for the selection. Cons: grimy bar, surly servers. If you like heavy metal and/or punk music, it could be your kind of place but it’s not the place I’d want to hole up for a couple of hours. Not a cozy bar, though luckily we were there on a sunny afternoon with the light cheering things up a bit. I can see the appeal for some – it is an unpretentious spot with great beer – but wouldn’t become a regular drinking hole for me.
- Monk’s Kettle. This was a little bar and restaurant near our apartment in the Mission district. It was packed every night of our trip and required two employees at the door to deal with the thirsty beer drinkers. The selection was smaller than Toronado, but a nicely chosen 15-20 taps of Belgian, American and German beers, plus an extensive and expensive bottle list. The tap list was even nicely sorted by styles, leading off with lagers, followed by wheat beers, pale ales of all strokes, Belgians and sours. Some of the sizes were weird (6, 10 and 11 ounces?) but that is what happens when your bar has a wide selection of glassware that is appropriate for a range of styles. Our bartender was top-notch, guiding us through a couple of choices with descriptions of the beer and coming around later to have a quick chat about what we thought. The Monk’s Kettle was cozy and warm in the same way that Volo is with lots of distressed wood and people closely clustered in conversation. More expensive than most bars, but the quality of the beer and the atmosphere made it worth every dollar.
California is an open market for selling alcohol, meaning that every convenience store and grocery store sell alcohol. My beer shopping was only done in three stores (no Whole Foods or other big grocery store), which provided an interesting glimpse into how beer retail worked in California.
- Ales Unlimited. This was a little shop tucked away in a fairly fancy area of San Francisco, but not really near any of the big sights (though fairly close to Japan Town, which is why we were in the area). Surprisingly, it does not have any Ratebeer reviews considering it had an excellent selection. We had a chat with the owner, who told us interesting things like, a) their stash of Pliny the Elder goes so quickly they don’t even bother to put it in the display fridges (which also helps from tourists buying up their supply) and b) they get priced out of most local beers by the big grocery stores so focus on imports. The latter was a trend we noticed at most stores – six packs of Sierra Nevada, Anchor and Lagunitas weren’t present. Most of their money comes from European imports or large format American bottles, which makes for difficult purchasing by tourists. (Also, the bottle of Pliny he gave me was eight days old, which is apparently too old for some Californian mindsets.) He pointed me out some local beers, but was hesitant to recommend anything because people’s tastes are so different, which is a policy that I can appreciate. Definitely a nice local shop.
- City Beer Store. Another store located not really close to anything, but a little more downtown-adjacent. The perks of City Beer Store are that it’s also a bar, so you can shop with a beer (either from the local tap list or a bottle from the fridge). A really nice selection, including lots of Russian River, Oskar Blues Gubna, plus a decent local-to-imports ratio. Some rarer treasures that made this a must-stop place for beer shopping.
- Healthy Spirits. A cramped little shop just north of the Castro, Healthy Spirits was a decent enough stop but a little too hodge-podge for my liking. The layout was confusing – imperial stouts grouped together here, beers from one country over there – that made for ADD shopping. A nice selection, but nothing that couldn’t be found at City Beer Store or Ales Unlimited. Apparently they have really good hummus.
The Baseball Stadium
- It was impossible to pass up the Oktoberfest night at AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants. The Oktoberfest wasn’t anything special (Widmer Hefeweizen and Okto Festival Ale), but inside the stadium was paradise compared to any sports venue in Toronto: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Lagunitas IPA, Speakeasy Prohibition and an Anchor Taproom with the Anchor Steam, Liberty Ale, Porter and the Anchor Summer Beer. The only problem was our inexperience with outdoor stadiums in September – damn, it was cold! Aside from the chill, it was a lovely spot to watch a game and drink some local craft beer.
While San Francisco has lots of great bars, stores and breweries, the best part was just being able to try some really fresh bottles of classic beers like the Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. California has been a huge innovator in the beer industry for a longtime, but these two beers are perfect examples that sometimes simple is better.