|Captain Neil has the crazed glow of Barlewywine in his eyes at the Toronado|
In the City by the Bay there is one beer bar that is on the lips of every beer geek: the Toronado. This bar is an institution a legend even on the level of Portland's Horse Brass Pub, and the first that comes to mind over all other beer bars in the city. And there is no festival in the city that is better known than the annual Toronado Barleywine Festival that takes place each February during SF Beer Week.
This post is the last in my 2011 SF Beer Week chronicles and focuses on the beer bars and taphouses of the Bay Area, including The Trappist, The Monk's Kettle, La Trappe, Zeitgeist, Alembic, and, of course, the Toronado and the Barleywine Festival.
While in San Francisco, your primary mode of transportation should be walking, public transportation, or cabbing. We employed both walking and public transportation, primarily to avoid spending our precious beer money on cabs.
One cannot walk everywhere in SF without developing sore feet and blisters. Especially when you need to get to Oakland or Berkeley, the BART rail system is a godsend. Our sleek metal chariot transported us screaming throughout the night all around San Francisco and Oakland to our alcoholic refreshments time and again, through a bevy of beer bars, from punk rock dives to upscale restaurants and Belgian beer bars. We discovered a few hidden gems, had some disappointments, and I discovered my power animal, a magical hand carved cane with a mysterious inscription that I used as my drinking crutch. More on that later...
|The Alembic's Vice Grip photo by Jason Henry|
The Alembic holds a special place in my heart, even though I have probably spent only a handful of hours in its interior. Owned by Magnolia Brewpub owner/brewer Dave McLean, the Alembic's focus is on craft spirits and cocktails, not beer, though they have plenty of that, too. During SF Beer Week last year I discovered beer cocktails here. Each day during the week bartenders craft an original and often adventuresome one-off beer cocktail that was my inspiration for starting Brewing up Cocktails.
|Beer cocktails at the Alembic|
This year I only managed one visit while they were doing their 'Gypsy' brewers night that featured beers from those brewers who do not actually have a brewery of their own and produce on others systems. The first thing I ordered was the 'Vice Grip', which is a beer cocktail that is featured on their regular menu and a house favorite. I heard of it after seeing an article online on SF Weekly. This drink contains liquor, wine, coffee, and Marin Brewing's Point Reyes Porter. It did not disappoint and was one of the drink highlights of my entire SF trip.
The beer I had from the buzz-generating new farmhouse brewery, Almanac (which was making its debut during SF Beer Week), was, however, a noble failure, as it was completely flat. There were no bubbles at all, leaving the beer completely still. The underlying beer tasted like it had potential, though, so I am hoping this was just a bad keg. Still, that's a shitty way to make a debut, especially for a premium product.
The Monk's Kettle
|Photo from Brookston Beer Bulletin|
The Monk's Kettle is another establishment I had heard about but not yet frequented. As is obvious from the name, it is a Belgian-centric beer bar, but it also is a fine restaurant as well. The Monk's Kettle is located on a pretty busy bar heavy nightlife stree, tnot far from the Mission District and Zeitgeist. It is too bad that it is a small place, but as such they take the opportunity to give it a very exclusive feel. There is a doorman who is not so much there to card people but to decide how many people can fit and when they can come in. On both trips we had to wait outside in the cold and rain. Was it worth it? Ehhhhh...
The Monk's Kettle does feature an impressive draft and even more impressive bottle list, but when looking at the pours and prices, well, I can appreciate a fancy place and the closest thing in Portland I can compare it to is a Higgins, only less restaurant and more bar. The prices are here are absurd. As the Captain (Neil) and I sat down on our first visit for a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, we were stoked to have 4 different versions of the beer on draft: regular, cask, nitro and habanero-infused. Neil ordered the cask, as he leans to the English side of things, and I gravitated to the habanero-infused because I like beers that bring the heat. Each of us was served a 10oz tulip glass as the menu foretold, however the Captain's was filled to the line and mine only half-way. What the what? Apparently they believe in measuring the size of the glass and not the pour. Upon inspecting the bottle list it was awesome to see lots of rare Belgian bottles, things that we have not been able to get in Portland for some time, but I was most stoked to see they had Upright Four, Five, Six and Seven in bottles! Sweet, they have good taste, I will give them that, but then I saw the prices...$26.25 a bottle! Craziness. It then occurred to me that I had no idea what Upright bottles cost in the Bay Area. Maybe the markup was insane, but after a quick call to our distributor I learned the going rate was about $10. Wow, OK. We finished our beers and left.
However, I wanted to give the Monk's Kettle another chance, as they did have a fantastic lineup and some drool-worthy SF Beer Week events, including Firestone Walker night with Brewmaster Matt Bryndilson. I love Firestone Walker, they are in my top 5 breweries and I was psyched to learn that he was in town and would be pouring Firestone's Anniversary beers 12, 13 and 14. After waiting 10 minutes outside (again in the rain), we finally got in from the cold but could not find a seat. Glancing at the menu I saw they were offering a flight of 4 oz pours of each of the anniversary beers for...$30! Shit, those are great beers, but I don't know that I would pay $10 for 4oz of any beer. We opted to pass and headed across the street to Zeitgeist instead.
As I have previously mentioned, Zeitgeist is a dive bar institution that also happens to feature a great beer selection of over 40 taps and a stellar patio. Unfortunately, we never were able to make use of the patio, as they were doing some construction on it and it was pouring down raining all the time so much so that parts of the outdoor area were like lakes and muddy as hell. I half expected some of the punk rockers to get into a mud wrestling match. But Zeitgiest itself is as cool of a bar as ever, improved even with a brand new spiffy draft system that almost seems out of place in this dirty biker punk rock bar. The place is always crowded at night, with loud music, pool, BBQ, partying, shots, beers, and a bad attitude. This is a place for drinkers and it always feels like you are at a house party with friends. It is down to earth and unpretentious. They want to protect that image and keep it cool, so they have placed casual security plainly dressed and bullshitting with the crowd like the rest of the people amongst the space. These guys are here to enforce the rules: No Photography and No Smoking on the covered part of the patio. They do seem to be relaxing the former and making their way into the 20th century, as they now have a website for the first time with photos.
The patio - when it's nice out, as pictured above - is like going to a backyard BBQ. It is covered in picnic tables and bike racks along the walls, fenced in one one side and surrounded by large buildings on the other. Music blasts from windows, a broken down old pickup with plants growing out of it sits in the corner, and cooks make all the food at a covered BBQ station. Back in the day when I lived here this was a favorite happy hour hangout where I used to enjoy Newcastle on draft as I was first discovering craft beer.
On the recommendation of ex-San Franciscan and beer writer Brian Yaeger, we sought out La Trappe, a rather hidden Belgian beer bar in the North Beach/Little Italy neighborhood. Man, this place was a gem and I can't believe I had never heard of it before.
From the outside La Trappe looks like just another little diner feeding off of the tourists in North Beach, near the bottom of Telegraph Hill. The upstairs cafe portion was dull, dead, and lifeless. Not a soul was there, and it certainly did not appear to be a beer destination. That is, until you find the spiral staircase straight out of an Indiana Jones movie going underneath the floor. Coming down those steps into a basement, nay, a catacomb, is like walking into another world.
It's like you have just found a speakeasy beneath a monastery. The basement, though quaint, feels cavernous, with ancient-looking stone and brick walls, curved, cave-like ceilings, hanging lanterns, old archways, and candlelit alcoves.
We only got to spend a short period of time here, but we were impressed. They even have Cantillon on DRAFT. An awesome space with an awesome beer list that is perfect for a quiet night out with a book or to bring a date.
A quick note on public transportation in San Francisco: it is very good, maybe equal to Portland's, with a mix of newer higher-end busses and old, worn down, graffiti-covered ones. They also are occupied by a colorful cast of characters, like this fellow below wearing embroidered jeans, a giant over-sized fur coat and, best of all, a plush kings crown.
While riding from beer bar to beer bar and constantly walking, you can forget how much beer you have consumed. Thus, it is always handy to have a cane. While waiting on a streetcar platform I found mine, and it proved to be an excellent crutch, so much so that I felt reinvigorated to keep drinking and dubbed it my magical drinking cane. No, seriously. You probably think that is childish silliness, maybe it is, but I swear this baby kept me drinking throughout the night, and I think it has something to do with this magical inscription:
|Translation: 'He who holds this cane shall forever be sober'|
|Photo by Oakland Art|
The previously undiscovered gem of our trip was undoubtedly The Trappist, a Belgian-centric taphouse and restaurant located in Oakland. While I had heard of The Trappist over the last year, I perhaps made the mistake of writing it off because it resides in Oakland, a city which I avoided when I lived in San Francisco in the mid 2000s. If Beer Revolution is not reason enough, then The Trappist, both of which are in walking distance of each other and close to a BART stop, make this an absolute must stop city now.
|Photo by Fatemeh|
The Trappist has a very refined, polished and classy feel. I struggle on what to compare it to, but it feels like what a classic taphouse might be like in Belgium. It has lots of treated wood fixtures and engraving, classic old beer artwork hangs from the walls, and all the beers are served in their proper glassware at correct serving temperatures. It's that kind of place.
From the outside you can barely tell it's there, located in a pretty 1870s Victorian building. You could be fooled into thinking it merely housed offices of some kind, especially considering it's location in downtown Oakland away from any sort of residential neighborhoods or happening nightlife. We passed the building after walking right by it one evening, it has no lights and its only signs are a gold engraving in a black window and a small wooden sign hanging above the enormous doors. Upon entering, a medium sized but classic mahogany bar sits to your right and leads back down a hallway, a corridor of sorts. It seems tiny at first, but as you walk to the back you realize it doesn't end with that wall, instead taking a sudden right down another corridor and then another right after that, leading to yet another bar, making a large U shape.
Even then it is still not a large space, but rather a chamber it feels like you have to unlock. Each bar has its own taps and own bottle selection, including offerings from each of the Trappist breweries it takes it's namesake from. The draft list was full of rarities, including a number of offerings from Mikkeller, like a never before seen (by me, at least) rauch beer version of Beer Geek Breakfast.
Toronado and the Annual Barleywine Festival
John Harris is the man. Yes, if you did not know it already, Full Sail's Brewmaster, the legendary John Harris, is a kind man indeed. You see, he gifted us not only a coveted table at the Toronodo's great Barleywine Festival, but a table covered with all 50 or so of this year's entries.
If you have ever been to Toronado, you know they only have about 6 tables. The place is tiny, especially for the amount of beer they have. Never is this more evident then during the Barleywine Fest, where people line up down the block just to get into the door. Experienced BW fest goers bring a 6 pack carrying case to hold their glasses. That is one of the beauties of the fest, there is no mug or glass to buy, no tickets and no wristband, you merely walk into the door and pick up a sheet that lists all of the barleywines and their corresponding number. You then attempt to reach the bar by any means possible, and really you do have to employ a little pushing and squeezing to inch your way up and make your order. And for god's sake, don't ask a question about a beer, damn well know your beer's number, and don't shout out the name, that is just too damn confusing and the bartenders will skip right over you to the next person. When you get a bartender's attention shout out the numbers of your beers and the glass size, either 3 or 6oz, and get your cash ready. (They don't take pansy-ass credit cards here.) You then receive all of your beers, each in its own glass, but the question now becomes where the hell do you take them. Most likely you do not have a table, and you cannot carry all your glasses and stand in a corner. This is where the 6 pack container comes in handy, and when you truly learn the value of a little table space.
So it is not lightly that a table is offered at the festival, in fact one bartender told us she saw a couple sell their table space for $200. If the gift of prime seating space were not enough, how about all of those beers? To my estimation they totaled over $100 worth of beer, not to the mention time and energy saved by not having to go to the bar. Hell, there is no way we would have made it through all of the beers even in a couple days, yet with them all laid out in front of us it was a simple feat. I won't pretend to review all those beers here, because honestly your palate does get burnt out very fast, but it is interesting to taste the sometimes stunning differences in barleywines and people's taste in them. For instance, one pro brewer who joined us for a bit absolutely hated the Lost Abbey Brandy Barrel-Aged Angel's Share for being to sweet and cloying. I myself rather enjoyed it. True, it was sweet, but it was also rich and decadent with a pleasing burn and lots of complexities.
That concludes my 2011 SF Beer Week coverage, at least until I get back to the Bay in just a few weeks for the Craft Brewers Conference. If you see a guy wearing a Toronado shirt, a Zeitgeist cap, and carrying a mysterious cane, make sure to say hi.