The craft beer movement happening throughout the Unite States is a testament to the fact that beer has reached an all new height of popularity. Home brewers have taken it to the next level with brewpubs and their clientele are serious beer connoisseurs. Brewpubs, said to have originated in Germany, are establishments where beer is brewed and served on the same premises (they may or may not have food). San Francisco, and its surrounding area, is unequivocally the nucleus of the brewpub scene right now in California.
The selection of brewpub are numerous but here is a list of some of 7 notable choices:
1. Thirsty Bear Brewing Company
Located in the Market District, Thirsty Bear is a large bustling brewpub with a decent selection of house-made beer that is one of the few certified as organic. Start with a flight to get you out of your tasting comfort zone and compare the hoppy with the sweet.
Thirsty Bear’s popular standards are the Meyer ESB, with its caramel malt flavors and citrus hop aromas, and the Valencia Wheat, a belgian style beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. More experimental is the Golden Vanilla that is an interesting effort, but you may not want a whole pint.
2. Cellarmaker Brewing Company
Just down from Thirsty Bear on Howard Street, Cellarmaker is much smaller and has no food but its beer offerings are no less interesting for it and they change all the time. Beer aficionados can order 5 oz glasses at about $2.50 a pop and sample the entire menu.
The Lost Wisdom, a delicious saison style brew is on the sweeter side but has higher carbonation with aromas of spices and herbs. The Hop Slangin IPA is appropriately named. Hops are the female flower of the hop plant. They are used primarily to flavor beer but they also have an antibacterial effect. They impart a bitter, tangy flavor that helps to balance the sweetness of the malt.
The International Bittering Units (or IBU) scale measures the bitterness of the beer. This number depends on how much malt was used (i.e. if more is used then it’s sweeter and needs more hops to balance it out). Light ales will rate between 8-20 IBU and IPA’s will be around 60-100 IBU or more. If you don’t care for beers that are bitter or hoppy then knowing its IBU number is helpful and most brewpubs list the IBU on their menus.
3. Abbott’s Cellar
Not technically a brewpub, Abbot’s Cellar in the Mission District is dedicated to food and beer pairings. While they don’t make their own they do have a local and imported list that reads like a wine list at an upscale restaurant with thirty beers by the glass and over a hundred by the bottle.
Abbot’s Cellar starts you off with an amuse bouche and an amuse beer, in my case a flavorful saison from a Sonoma County brewer. The server explained that saison beers (saison is French for season) were brewed in the colder months by farmers in French-speaking areas of Belgium and brought out in the summer for the seasonal farm workers to drink. They generally had a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) because, well, you don’t want drunk farm workers. Modern saisons are light and have a crisp fruity and spicy flavor.
Other notable brewpubs in San Francisco:
- 21 Amendment Brewery & Restaurant, Market District
- Anchor Brewing, Mission District
- Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, Bayview District
- Social Kitchen & Brewery, Sunset District
- Barrel Head Brewhouse, Haight District
4. Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma
Lagunitas has a reputation and it seems like everyone in the county has a story to tell about them. Even the wine steward at an upscale vineyard knew the tale of Censored ale. According to her, the team at Lagunitas was known to engage in certain indulgences and wanted to name a new beer The Kronik. The federal labeling agency said no way so as a joke the team put a “censored” sticker on it and it was approved!
Grab a beer at the taproom and go on the 30 minute tour that is filled with anecdotes about the microbrewery’s origins and its humorous but sorted past. In general beer production is not very sexy with standard metal tanks and sacks of yeast and barley but what is new in beer brewing these days is that brewers are getting creative with how they store beer. At Lagunitas they (among others) are experimenting with aging beer in whisky and wine barrels.
The finished beer is completely fermented but before filtration it is put in whisky barrels to age and kept in a warehouse at about 50 degrees for two to twelve months. The idea is that what was in the barrel before can contribute flavor to the beer and add complexity. Sometimes it caramelizes (not the good kind) and bacteria is created which ruins it—so it is all a bit of a crap shoot.
Afterwards head to the beer garden to eat and sample some more beer and enjoy the live music.
Beer tours offer the ability to sample beers from the many brew pubs and breweries outside of the San Francisco without the need for a designated driver and if you are a visitor to Sonoma you get built-in drinking buddies as a bonus. Brew Brothers Tours offers group and custom tailored tours but its standard tour visits three to four breweries within Sonoma County starting with:
5. Fogbelt Brewing Company, Santa Rosa
Many of the beers at Fogbelt Brewing Company are named after redwood trees in the fog belt area of Northern California. Enjoy some lunch and a homemade Fogbelt Saison, which incidentally goes well with the bratwurst. Other selections include the Lost Monarch Wit, (witbier meaning “white beer” in Belgian), a wheat beer spiced with cilantro and lime that was named after the largest coast redwood tree or the Atlas Blond, a citrus pineapple flavored beer named after the Atlas tree.
They don’t offer tours at this small establishment but you can check out the brewing process in action in the glassed-in brewing room.
6. Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburg
Bear Republic Brewing Company, a well-known brewpub and brewery, has been around for 20 years and has a family-friendly atmosphere and menu. You can relax in the beer garden to sample beer produced at their Cloverdale brewery.
If you are in the mood for a lighter but still assertive ale try their Grand am Pale Ale. Although described in the menu as sessionable, this beer has a 6 ABV. A session beer is generally defined as a beer whose alcoholic content is usually under 4.5 ABV, which loosely refers to the fact that you can drink a lot in one session without getting trashed.
If you are eating try the food-friendly Peter Brown Tribute ale, named after the British author and beer expert. The difference between an ale and a lager is that ales are fermented warm and made with top-fermenting yeast and tend to have a stronger flavor than lagers, which are generally lighter and crisper.
7. Woodfour Brewing Company, Sebastopol
Woodfour Brewing Company is located in an area called The Barlow, a 12 acre former apple processing plant that is now home to a modern and eclectic mix of restaurants, shops, artist studios and bars. It has a sophisticated food menu to pair with its own brews but it also supports other local brewers in its daily selections.
Woodfour’s unique Sour Farmhouse Ale has a fruity apricot aroma with an extremely sour dry finish. Sour beers are made by allowing wild yeast strains or bacteria (in this case the brewer used a Lactobacillus bacteria).
If sour is not your thing, try the Brett Comet, which is described on the menu as a guava and citrus on the nose with some herbal spice, clementine on the palette with a long balanced finish; brewed with 100% Brettanomyces yeast and Comet hops. Yum.
The exciting thing about the thriving craft beer industry in San Francisco and Sonoma County is that a lot of creativity, experimentation and humor can go into brewing because it takes a lot less time to make then say wine so if a batch is a not a success the financial investment is a fraction of the cost.
Get in touch with the author @furrykarma or at travelingkarma.com