California really is a beer Mecca. There’s no two ways about it, it just is. Put it this way, there’s nearly thrice the number of breweries in San Diego than there is in the whole of Ireland. Nuts.
I recently spent a few days in San Francisco on non-beer-related business. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t let this deter me from drinking all the beer in sight. And, bloody hell, it didn’t take me too long to realise that SF is up there with the very best beer destinations I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
Here’s a brief-as-I-can-possibly-be travel guide about where to drink the good stuff in the city and its surroundings. I’ve split it into two sections (drink-in and take-out) both of which are in no particular order, cos I’m a right fair bloke.
1) Best places to drink
Mikkeller Bar, San Francisco
(34 Mason St, San Francisco, CA 94102)
This newly opened joint continues the good work put in by the Danish brewer’s two Copenhagen bars (reviewed here) and has quickly turned into a literal must-visit. There’s a wonderful mix of European and US/Canadian beers on the constantly rotating tap list, with a solid bottle menu of mostly (high-cost) European delights. I’d imagine the locals would be getting a lot more excited about the Euro brews than I did – I sure as hell wasn’t travelling half way round the world to drink Belgian gueuze for thrice the price I can get it at home, no matter how much I fancied it.
So what was supped? Christ, how long have you got? Highlights included the wonderfully nuanced yet explosively named Bomb! from Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales – a beautifully easy drinking 14% Imperial Stout aged on cacoa nibs, coffee, vanilla beans, and chili peppers. Also impressive were a couple of lightly funky Brett saisons from Logsdon and Crooked Stave, and of course, plenty of clean, crisp, achingly-fresh IPAs from Ballast Point (Sculpin) and Port Brewing (Wipeout) were sampled, re-sampled, and then checked again for QC purposes.
The place itself is wonderfully open and spacious – a huge snaking bar gives plenty of room to perch, with ample tables and booths spread around. The service was always spot-on (even when it was jammed), all the lads and lasses I met knew their stuff and were unbelievably friendly. The food was top-notch too, some serious, serious sandwiches on offer, with a too-good-to-be-true Reuben being the highlight.
Downsides? Well, it’s a bit pricier than the other top beer bars in town, but there’s nothing too outlandishly expensive on the menu – anyone with any knowledge of Mikkeller at all will be well prepared for having to pay a couple of extra quid here and there. The area it’s in is literally horrible – The Tenderloin it’s called – what a godforsaken place. Breaking Bad-esque crackheads at every turn and filth everywhere. It’s still pretty central though, so it’s easy enough to do an in-and-out without turning into Tuco Salamanca.
(547 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117)
Quick mention to this place, as it’s a literal SF beer institution – these lads did good beer properly before anyone else in the city. This is widely renowned as being the place to drink the much-revered Pliny the Elder DIPA on tap in the city, as it’s always fresh and pouring at a seriously good price: $5 a pint in happy hour (dangerous pricing to be fair).
The tap list reaches far beyond Pliny though, with a wonderful selection of other gems from Russian River and a whole host of brewers from California and elsewhere in the US of A. This place is a proper dive bar mind, never have I seen such an aesthetically shit place with such a jaw-droppingly amazing beer list. Brilliant sausage shop called Rosamunde’s next door – grab a sausage sarnie and eat it at the bar, they’ve no bother with that. Get in here around lunch time, have your godly sausage and a couple of incredible bevvies and then hit the road – unless you’re into your dive bars, then you should don your leathers and get rowdy with the rest of the lads.
So, ‘gan on then’, you say- how was Pliny? Well, in a word: “class”. In more than a word, it was a very good representation of a crisp unadulterated purely hop-forward DIPA, it ticked all the boxes and then ticked them again. Juicy citrus, tropical fruit and fresh pine needles assault the palate, but in a pretty regal and nuanced way. It’s good and it bloody well knows it. Is it worth all the hype? Nah, but then nowt is really, is it? Put it this way, I’d choose a bottle of London’s Kernel Double Citra over Pliny any day of the week.
N.B. If you’re keen on the ‘divey’-vibe, definitely head down the road to Zeitgeist (199 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94103) – another ‘beer institution’ that’s well hyped. Not my bag to be fair, and nowt majorly interesting on the tap list when I was there, but there’s a lovely beer garden area out the back to have a couple of solid IPAs in the SF sun of an afternoon.
The Trappist, Oakland
(460 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607)
A short BART ride across the Bay gets you within a stone’s throw of this absolute beaut of a beer bar. These are the guys who are also partly behind the city’s newly opened Mikkeller Bar – as soon as you get into this place, you can see why them and Denmark’s finest are a perfect match. Jesus, this place does beer well.
As the name suggests, there’s a heavy leaning towards Belgian-brewed delights (Cantillon Gueuze is always on tap, for example), but there’s also a serious amount of Belgo-influenced American brews to keep us Europeans interested. Between the front and back bars there were the best part of 30 taps, and at least a third of these were interesting US farmhouse ales, saisons, sours, quads, and out-there wild ales. ‘Merica from the brilliant Prairie Artisan Ales was the best of the bunch here – it really did take my breath away: an American farmhouse ale single hopped with Nelson Sauvin…pure tropical fruit juicy goodness mixed with a crisp malt backing and a lightly funky, spicy Belgian yeastiness. In all fairness, this was the beer of the trip for me.
Also of note at this place was their intensely good bottle list – again, a great balance between hard-to-find Euro bottles and an interestingly diverse selection of Americans. The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness was a big highlight – a mad oaked sour stout that gave a tongue-tingling mix of funky Brett tartness, deep dark fruity fig notes, and chocolaty roasted malt. A top well-rounded drinking establishment pulling more of a friendly local crowd than other bars in the city itself – couldn’t recommend it any higher to be honest. Go drinking with Chris the barman afterwards too, he’ll get you professionally hungover the next day.
N.B. If you do hit The Trappist, leave time for Beer Revolution just down the road (464 3rd St, Oakland, CA 94607) – a rougher-round-the-edges spot with a nice bit of outdoor boozing space. More California-oriented tap selection than anywhere else I went to, and that’s a bloody good thing.
The Monk’s Kettle
(3141 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103)
Back over into SF proper now, and into a place that’s renowned for its beer and food matching prowess. This place is tiny (proper tiny, not shitting you) and is located on a strip in The Mission area of the city which seems to have a hell of a lot of sordid drinking dens, taco joints, and ‘massage’ parlours. None of that smut in here mind, just a cosy quality-driven atmosphere with a short food menu and an anything-but-short beer list. I sat at the bar and was very well looked after by the lass behind it – samples here and there and plenty of imparted local knowledge. I’m a handsome divvil though, so no surprise there. Seriously though, this place was great – had a top piece of marinated chicken paired with Pliny (haway man, if it’s in front of you on tap you’ve got to have it), and then a few other interesting bits and bobs. They also crack open a couple of rare bottles every day and sell them by the small glass (4oz-6oz, or whatever that is in real measurements), so I gave a messy but interesting pomegranate-infused barrel-aged Quadrupel from Deschutes a go – when else would I be able to do that without splurging thirty-ish quid on a bottle? Get in here early, as they don’t do bookings – and if you’re in a group of more than four, you’re more or less knackered – it’s literally tiny.
2) Best places for take-out beers
Aye, I know, this is taking ages isn’t it – well, put it this way, it’s taking me a much bloody longer time to write, so keep with me – there’s good stuff to come…
City Beer Store
(1168 Folsom St #101, San Francisco, California 94103)
Cheating a bit with this place as it’s a wonderful mix between a bottle shop and a brilliant beer bar. Whatever you’d call it, it’s a first class part of the local scene – a seriously quality joint, and probably the place I spent the most of my time during the trip.
This place is great, ten or so taps of pure quality (Russian River sours – hello) and the best part of 300 bottles in their fridges. Pay one price to take them away, pay a surcharge between $1 and $3 (dependent on bottle size) to drink in-house. Also, there’s a canny couple of fridges full of aged beers and rarities that are for on-premises boozing only – see below…
Look, these lads know their stuff. The folks behind the bar legitimately love beer and are proud to be a prominent part of the local scene. The selection is first class and they’ll look after you really well. Loved the chilled atmosphere in here too, never too manic or loud (plenty of decent soul and old-school rock played too). It closes at 10pm – early you may well say – well, the lads behind the bar had a good point: ‘if you’re on the drink for the night, any pints after your sixth don’t need to be good beer’. Fair enough lads, come in here for six and then stumble off at a sensible hour to your bed, or some other drinking den nearby.
(2299 15th St, San Francisco, CA 94114)
What a beer shop. Just what a beer shop. Up there with the Mikkeller & Friends bottle shop in Copenhagen in terms of that excitement factor where you look through the shelves and fridges thinking, ‘oh shit, I need all of this now‘. David (beer buyer) and Nate (store manager) are two blokes who know their stuff – these lads will point you in the right direction up to the point where you literally have too much beer to carry. A wonderful selection of locals, exclusive Belgian sours, and brews from across the USA have found a happy home in their fridges. The quality, in terms of a shelf-by-shelf look around the shop, is absolutely astounding. Their Belgian selection was pretty jaw dropping, with stuff that most of Europe could only dream of getting their hands on. I stuck to my guns though, and only bought ‘Merican. Some RR sours went in the basket, as did a real rarity in the form of a 2011 FiftyFifty Eclipse Elijah Craig 12-year barrel Imperial Stout. These lads love to chat beer, so make sure you bring them something interesting from wherever you come from and crack it open with them. You’ll be there for hours chatting the world to rights.
So there you go folks, a whistle-stop (ish) tour of the SF beer scene. What a magnificent scene it is, it’s too good for most European beerheads to handle to be fair. Serious stress arises from the process of working out just how many kilos of beer-space you have left in your suitcase as you peruse the shelves of the places listed above. Well, I may as well show you my stash – managed to get the best part of 12kg back in the case, happy enough with that result:
Well lads and lasses, there you go. A quick trip round the SF beer scene. I keep remembering other places I went to that I didn’t put into this piece, but Christ, I’m not writing a Jane Austen novel. My advice: go to the above places for starters and then chat to the bar staff and get their personal beer recommendations, you’ll not go far wrong. What a beer city San Francisco really is.