Blurry Thoughts and Images from the 2016 SF Beer Week Opening Gala

What to say about Friday evening’s SF Beer Week Opening Gala? Well, there are a lot more Bay Area breweries than I realized. Cruising up and down the aisles, my alcohol addled mind making critical calculations on what beer to have next, I kept in internal running dialog on each brewery as I’d make my next selection like “Never heard of that one….I heard they’re good…the one beer I ever from them was just OK”. There was a time not too long ago you could reasonably know all the Bay Area breweries without dying of alcohol poisoning. Today, that’s completely impossible. So when contemplating your next beer from what the entire Bay Area brewing scene has to offer, I suggest you do what I did that night. Just try whatever you feel like having.

I had a lot of good beers that evening, but none of them had the real “Wow!” factor. I’m beginning to think that’s not so much an indictment of today’s breweries as an indirect compliment. So many talented brewers have raised the bar so high yesterday’s “Wow!” is today’s “quite good”.  In fact, most of the beer I had was in the “quite good” category. A small few were, in my opinion, just “good”. One was a very interesting experiment, I might really like if I got to know it better, but at this point I’d call it an eclectic acquired taste. Only one beer seemed like a real misfire, although it was still drinkable.

Stuff I particularly liked, in no particular order was Valley of the Hearts Delight by Almanac, SMASH Mosaic by Black Sands, Pipe Tobacco Porter from New Helvetia, Shoeless Joe Imperial Brown from Strike Brewing, Big Moody Barley Wine from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, Citroen Farmhouse Ale from Baeltane Brewing, Briny Melon Gose by Anderson Valley, 10 Lizzy Scotch Ale from Dust Bowl Brewing and Tommy Time IPA from Alpha Acid. I’m probably missing one or two from that evening. Sorry, as you can tell, I had a lot of beer that night.

I’ll leave you from a few, slightly blurry images from an evening with its share of blurry moments.

(And in case you were wondering, I took public transportation all the way home.)

Some Lesser Known Beers to Look Out for During SF Beer Week

San Francisco Brewers Guild Executive Director
Joan Marino addressing the crowd

Last week I wandered out of the beer Siberia of the South Bay into San Francisco’s Thirsty Bear for small pre-SF Beer Week media event. There, a number breweries sampled beers to be featured during SF Beer Week, with many of the brewmasters on hand to talk about them. As you might expect, the heavy hitters you’ve come to know and love like Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, 21st Amendment, Almanac, Magnolia and Speakeasy all pouring both the old favorites and some interesting new concoctions. What I especially wanted to find were some of the new, smaller breweries that hadn’t quite hit my radar screen. Given so that many breweries continue to re-invent beer, I was not surprised to find number of little known interesting and innovative beers to look out for during SF Beer Week. Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t. Either way, let’s get right to some of the lesser known beers I think you should be looking out for during SF Beer Week.

SMASH Citra IPA from Black Sands – The SMASH series from Black Sands stands for “Single Malt and Single Hop” and Black Sands has no fewer than six of these SMASH series beers ready for SF Beer Week. As for SMASH Citra, it uses Weyermann Pilsner Malt to create a platform for the Citra hops to do its grapefruity, lightly resinous thing. The simplicity and restraint, at only 64 ibu’s and 5.9% abv, works to this brews advantage.

Dark Bullitt Imperial Porter from Bartlett Hall – Brewmaster Wynn Whisenhunt described this beer as chocolate coffee milkshake beer. Thankfully, Dark Bullitt didn’t taste like a chocolate coffee milkshake beer. Instead of the horrible syrupy sweet mess one might expect with that introduction, what I got instead was a dynamite combination of coffee, dark chocolate, vanilla beans and lactose sugar giving it a surprising light, complex, dark chocolate and milky coffee quality with very little sweetness.  At 8.8% abv, it hides its alcohol well and all the strong flavors find a way to meld comfortably together to all pop without becoming too intense. A real pleasure to drink.

Lightship Sour Solera from Headlands Brewing – Headlands Brewmast Phil Cutti takes his GABF Medal winning Point Bonita Pilsner, ages it in Cabernet barrels, and then adds various bugs to sour the brew, transforming it into something lively, lightly sour and surprisingly fruity despite no actual fruit additions. At 5.4% abv, it’s an almost sessionable sour and a rare sour you can enjoy without thinking too hard about it….or enjoy by thinking real hard about it.

Park Hoppy Wheat Beer from Fort Point Beer – Wheat beers and hops is a tricky combination, and Fort Point really pulls it off with Park. A smattering of Citra hops creates an extra grapefruit dimension to the underlying wheat beer, producing a rather refreshing and at 4.7% abv, very sessionable brew.

A big part of SF Beer Week is discovery. Here’s to your discovery of these beers, or those just as good, during SF Beer Week.

Lost Memories at the SF Beer Week Opening Gala

Inside this building the SF Beer Week Opening Gala is about to begin

The train gently rolls to stop, the doors open, and I begin the 3.5 mile journey from the San Francisco CalTrain station to Fort Mason, site of the SF Beer Week Opening Gala.  It’s only drizzling outside, the forecast was for heavy rain.  Unable to find an umbrella when I left home, I put on my red Ohio State University for some protection from the elements.  My dad gave me this hat 26 years ago, handing it to me just before I was about to drive myself and all my stuff from their home in suburban Chicago to start graduate school at Ohio State.  I’ve worn it all through those years, mostly when I go on runs.

I start speed walking through the damp chaos of late afternoon San Francisco.  The drizzle stops and cutting through a residential area, a couple women in their 30’s get out of a car. One looks right at me, and says “O-H”.  Why is she talking to me?  Suddenly, I realize she’s seen my Ohio State hat, and I blurt out “I-O” in response  Seems she went to Ohio State, too.  I press on.  I consider putting in my will to be buried with this OSU hat.   The image of my elderly corpse, lying in a casket with a bright red OSU cap on my head jumps into my mind.

It starts to rain hard, and I duck into a small coffee shop called The Underground to escape the rain, get something to eat, and charge up my phone.  Heading back outside with only a few blocks to go, I remind myself to start by drinking the low abv beers first at the gala, to make sure in I pace myself.   Just like a race.

I take my place in line the winds around the Fort Mason building complex, the line staying close to the buildings so the awnings shelter everyone from the rain.  Everyone around me is talking to each other.  I manage to strike up a conversation with the people behind me without coming across as some weird, lonely guy. I mention my wife back home to help deliver that point.

The line starts moving forward and I’m in!  I grab my tasting glass, walk around and see Peter Estaniel in front of the Hermitage Brewing stand.  He talks up their barrel aged Sour Pumpernickel Rye Ale, which sounds kind of weird but I don’t resist when he pours a very generous sample into my glass. Wow, it’s got everything: sour, spice, some oak, lots of smooth maltiness.  It’s also got 11% abv and my low alcohol plans haven’t gotten off to a good start.

The folks at Hermitage Brewing

After thanking Peter for the beer and wishing him a successful beer week, I tell him “Time for a session beer” before departing.  I get a small glass of something called Screaming Eagle Lager s from Iron Springs. Nice beer, and the meager 3.9% abv makes it even better.  I begin to check out the rest of the floor.

Bison Brewing is pouring Kermit the Hop, an innovative organic beer I’ve long wanted to try.   A slender woman with short hair dyed lavender fills my glass, and says “Go Buckeyes! O-H!”.  I realize that must be Ashley Routson, aka The Beer Wench who also went to Ohio State. A bit startled, I smile and cheer back “I-O”.  After a couple more “Go Buckeyes” between us, I move aside so the person behind me can get his glass filled.  Kermit the Hops has all sorts of wonderful hop flavors, an attribute rarely found in organic beers.  It also has something like 9.5% abv and my “start slow” plans are really starting to go out the window.

I drop by Half Moon Bay Brewing’s stand and find Maverick’s CEO Steve Morgan, and introduce myself.  A consummate Northern California net worker, he wants to introduce me to a couple people, but none of them are around.  He’s quite gracious about a couple of recent articles on Maverick’s I wrote, and raves about Half Moon Bay’s new Imperial IPA, which has something like 139 ibus, and of course, encourages me to try some.  It’s an amazing feat of brewing, very drinkable and in balance with it’s own hop character. Some how all that bitterness doesn’t come across as aggressive, and at something like 8% abv, doesn’t seem very boozy either.

Steve introduces me to the Brewmaster of Hop Dogma, which has a small tap room in Half Moon Bay, at the next door stand.  His name is a Dan something-or-rather and Steve urges me to try his Imperial Stout that won some big award at a beer competition in Bend, OR.  I can see why it won, it’s a great Imperial Stout.  It checks in a 10.4% abv and my “start slow” plan is officially dead.  I tell Dan I’ll need to check out their small tap room in Half Moon Bay and move on.

Steve Donohue of Santa Clara Valley Brewing is holding court nearby.  Everyone knows Steve.  I ask him how his brewery construction and, responding like every brewer I ask this question to, he takes a deep breath and starts muttering about permits.  He tells me “You ought to swing by the place sometime.”  I think I will before not too long.

Berkeley’s Rare Barrel is pouring some Raspberry Sour that sounds delicious.  At 6.5% abv, it seems like a good direction to go.  It’s excellent.

Next up, Discretion Brewing in Santa Cruz.  (OK,it’s actually located in Soquel, close enough.)  With my low alcohol strategy officially blown, I ask for the Wheat Wine, a smooth wheat ale at 9-10% abv.  I ask the guy filling my glass, “When can I get bottles of your stuff in San Jose.”  He shrugs and says, “Well, right now, we’re planning to distribute just in Santa Cruz.  I don’t know when we’d get to San Jose.”  I get the feeling it will be a long while before Discretion ever shows up in San Jose.

Moseying around the hall, enjoying the Wheat Wine, I’m startled to see fellow beer runner Brian Yaeger down from Portland.  We chat for a few minutes.  He can’t get over how many new breweries are in the hall he’s never even heard of.  We talk less about beer, and more about our families before moving on our separate ways.

The inevitable time to use the restroom has arrived,  Walking to the back of the hall, a couple sees me and whoops “Go Buckeyes, National Champions!”.  Turns out they went to OSU and we talk about beating Oregon in the National Championship Game.

Bladder depleted, the next beer is something from Wood Brewing.  On a hand written index cards, are tap listings like a Pale Ale and IPA.  Then, I spot a tap labelled “Honey with locally foraged herbs”. Intrigued, I ask for that.  I joke with the lady pouring it, “Did you just walk into Golden Gate Park and grab a bunch of herbs off the ground?”  Her non-answer to the question suggests that’s exactly what happened.  Then, she sees my Ohio State cap and says, “Oh, I lived a year in Columbus.”  As for the beer itself, it’s light with a very menthol character.  No abv is listed. I just hope it is low.

I bump into fellow South Bay beer writer Andy Lee and chat about our favorite beers of the evening so far. We exchange telephone numbers and talk about meeting up some place for a pint or two.   As is often the case, we cheerfully acknowledge it might be another year before this happens despite our initial enthusiasm.

There were a few other beer samples that evening, but I honestly don’t remember too much about them.  I look down at my watch and see it’s 9 o’clock.  My head is starting to hurt, another beer sounds like the worst thing in the world and even if I tried to choke one down, my heavily coated tongue wouldn’t detect a single flavor.  I fill my glass up with water and stand in a corner to recharge my phone so it still has some life.

A large room filled with 2,000 people drinking beer for three hours becomes a very interesting place. People start bumping into each other much more often.  Others quietly retreat to the back, sitting quietly in heavy silence trying to recover.  The ambient festival noise and background music is increasingly punctuated with goofy laughter and loud high fives.  Glasses begin falling out people’s hands, smashing on the floor, eliciting boisterous cheers from the crowd.  It doesn’t always look accidental.  It’s 9:20, and now seems like a good time to get out.

Walking outside for a cab back to get back to the train station, none is in sight.  I ask the security guy about a cab, and he says they start showing up at ten.  I walk through the parking lot, looking for a cab.  I raise my hand to hail an empty one, but it just continues to drive by.  I keep walking and by this time I think “Screw the cab, I can make it to the station and catch the 10:40 train if I walk fast.”

Walking hard through the damp dark yet lively streets of San Francisco the drizzle turns off and on to rain.   I keep checking my watch and a mapping app on my phone, making sure I’m on course and still on time to catch the train.  As I near the station, the winds start to really gust at times, and I grab my OSU cap to keep it from blowing off my head.

Making it to the station with 10 minutes to spare, I duck into the restroom, clutching the OSU hat in my hand before getting on the train.  I text my wife about making the 10:40 train, settle into my chair, and shortly after the train rolls out into the night, fall asleep.

Waking up, I look outside and see we’re Redwood City, half way home.  Jolted, I put my hand on top of my head, and realize I’m not wearing my OSU hat.  I stand up, look on the floor, the seat in front me,the seat behind me, and check my pockets a couple times.  Not willing to accept the obvious reality, I check the floor and seats around me again a third time. My OSU hat is gone.

Nanobreweries are Big Stuff at the Breweries of Tomorrow Festival

I should have expected my predicament. Plenty of people I spoke to in the days leading up to SF Beer Week cited the Breweries of Tomorrow NanoBrewery Festival as one event they didn’t want to miss, which featured a number of small, new breweries in the process of commericializing their operations. This explained why my wife Linda and I were stuck way in the back of a stagnant line leading out the door of Social Kitchen and Brewery and all the way down the adjacent parking lot at 6 pm on a cool Sunday evening. We considered going somewhere else that evening, but decided to wait out the line in hopes we could get in. But with the line not appearing to budge one bit, it was not looking so good for our plans.

Linda and I did eventually make it inside after about an hour of patiently waiting. There is a certain irony in the fact that I wouldn’t dream of standing in line for an hour for a pint of something like Pliny the Younger from one of my favorite breweries Russian River, and yet here I was, standing in line for an hour for beers from a bunch of brewers I basically knew nothing about. You could say this experience gave me a new perspective on waiting in long lines for hard to find beers, since as soon as we got inside, Linda and I pretty much left our frustrations outside and enjoyed this quirky, crowded, and unusual festival.

What struck us was how these new comers genuinely produced beers every bit innovative and well crafted as anything you can find in the Bay Area. Linda and I tasted about twelve beers between us and were impressed by many of them, not finding one clunker in the bunch. It was fun talking to folks in the crowd, asking what they liked, getting various impressions from different breweries that were complete wild cards to virtually everyone in attendence. I was also glad to bump into fellow beer bloggers John Heylin and Matt Knopf.

So congratulations to Brian Stechschulte, creater of the Bay Area Craft Beer Website and blog All Over Beer, who organized this unique event that succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations. And congratulations to all the nanobrewers, who proved they can craft a beer every bit as good as the big boys. While they were all good, I’d like to cite four beers that Linda and I tried that really stuck out from the rest. (Sorry if I got anything wrong here, the crowd made it difficult to take notes and I was just trying to enjoy all the new beers, so my note taking that evening was not the greatest.)

Peppermint Porter from 510 Brewing

Peppermint what? Both Linda and I both thought we weren’t going to like this beer, judging it only by the name. Surprise, surprise, it was our favorite of the night. The peppermint is rather up front, but blended well with the roasted malt flavors of the porter. Think of a peppermint patty and you start to get the idea. 510 Brewing’s Travis Smith explained this was their idea as a winter seasonal beer, since peppermint is a flavor associated a lot with the winter. I don’t know exactly why this beer worked, but give these guys credit for trying something original and pulling it off.

Luminesce Belgian Strong Ale from Beltane Brewing

A close second for favorite of the evening was this arresting Belgian Strong Ale from Beltane Brewing. I enjoyed its rich malty character, aromatic flavors, and banana-like fruity esters at the finish. Beltane also poured a Double Belgian Ale Linda really liked as well.

Porter from Petaluma Hills Brewing

I’m a porter fan, and really liked this porter from Petaluma Hill Brewing. I didn’t take any notes, just enjoying sipping away on this one not wanting to be bothered by writing down any tasting notes. The head brewer at Petaluma Hills Brewing gives his name only as “JJ”. Dyno-MITE! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

English IPA from Orange and Black

I just loved the great hop aromas eminating from this well balanced and refined IPA brewed in the English style. If these guys keep brewing beers this good, they really ought to get themselves a website.

Can’t wait for some of these brewers to give their beers actual names!

I look forward to all the brewers going pro, and might even wait in line over hour for their beers even then.

Discoveries from the 2nd Annual SF Beer Week Beer Run

What if they had a beer run and lots of people came? Believe it or not, this was something I worried about when Bryan Kolesar and Brian Yaeger approached me about holding the 1st Annual SF Beer Week Beer Run last year, as I have this peculiar habit of analyzing ideas in terms of worst case scenarios. What if someone got hit by a car? What if holding a run like this was actually illegal? After a day of contemplation, I realized a bunch of people getting together for a run and drinking beer afterwards was probably not going to lead to a cataclysmic disaster, and so worked together with Brian and Bryan to get the run organized.

Plenty did go wrong. A blizzard hit Philadelphia that week, and Bryan Kolesar never got a plane out of his home town. We publicized the run only a few days before the event, so very few people were actually aware of it. Of the five people who showed up, pretty much all of them got lost at some point running through Golden Gate park, and one guy had to head back to retrieve his girlfriend who was nowhere to be seen. But I think it’s fair to say that despite all that, everyone had a blast, and a beer run turned out not be not such a crazy idea after all.

So this year, we figured with better organization, more people would show up to the 2nd Annual Beer Run. What we hadn’t counted on was a contingent from Team in Training showing up, members of the San Francisco Road Runners coming out, that the run would be the subject of a meet-up , or that one of the runners was already organizing beer runs in San Francisco on her own. About 60 of us took over Social Kitchen that morning, proving once again, the seemingly different activities of beer and running hold some sort of resonance.

Beer has long been recognized as a social lubricant. Running, which involves more hard work than drinking beer, not so much so. But since the time I started running as a socially awkward twelve year old, I certainly recognize and appreciate how the shared effort and experiences from a run brings people together and breaks down social barriers. Unlike other sports requiring memberships, access to special facilities, or expensive equipment, if you lace up your shoes and head outside, you’re a runner. And on that late Sunday morning in San Francisco, 60 of us became less of a stranger to each other.

So for those who ran that morning who might be reading this, all I can say is I hope you’ve felt as fortunate to join the beer run as I did.

The 2nd Annual SF Beer Week Beer Run is on!

I could wax philosophically about the egalitarian nature of both the sport of running and the beverage of beer. Or elucidate how a beer run fits into the California cultural ethic of work hard, play hard. But if I did, I’d probably start putting you all to sleep. So instead, I’ll simply invite you to the 2nd Annual SF Beer Week Beer Run this February 13th at 11 am in front of Social Kitchen and Brewery that I’m organizing with fellow beer runners Brian Yaeger and Bryan Kolesar, as part of SF Beer Week. I’m also grateful Rich Higgins of Social Kitchen and Brewery agreed to participate, but his arm probably didn’t need to be twisted very hard to support an event that would involve several thirsty people stopping on his doorstep before before noon. But he did agree to take a buck off our beers. You can find more details here.

Hope to see you there, and to help us figure out how many people will show up, please leave a comment to this post if you plan to be there.