The monstrous production that is San Francisco Beer Week has concluded, with more than 900 events staged throughout the far reaches of the greater Bay Area. My week this year wound up resembling a three-act play — a massive opening, an entertaining and educational middle, and a gratifying end.
Every big production needs an opening to match. And so, the curtain rises…
ACT I — THE BIG OPENING
San Francisco Beer Week Opening Gala, Pier 35, San Francisco
San Francisco’s cavernous Pier 35 was the setting for more than 120 breweries from the Bay and beyond, pouring their finest creations, many made just for this week, and even just this event.
This was my first Opening Gala, a bucket-list event for me. I figured I’d know what to expect — I attended Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp festival at the same venue a couple of years earlier. Surely I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of this thing, right?
As I made my way through each region’s cluster of breweries, I found myself not even knowing where to start. The taps seemed to go on for miles, as did the lines at the usual suspects (Russian River, Cellarmaker, Rare Barrel, Humble Sea, Alvarado Street).
Although I did enjoy reconnecting with some of my fellow beer peeps, after a while any kind of strategy went out the window, and I wound up just darting here and there, swooping in where I saw little or no lines.
Don’t get me wrong, with the quality and sheer quantity being poured, there was really no wrong answer. But I should have done a bit more (or even some) advanced planning. I knew I left a bunch of “must-try’s” unsampled.
I can say, even with a palate-twisting array of styles on display, the clear frontrunner of the night was Novel Brewing’s Beer Hoarder, a barrel-aged imperial stout w/cocoa nibs, vanilla, honey, cinnamon, and Habanero. Mind-bendingly complex, with all flavors being distinct and harmonious simultaneously. Incredible stuff.
Although the beer was beyond great, my ability to network wasn’t. Almost anyone you could ever hope to talk to in the beer industry was there. But a billion others also wanted to say hi, and even if you managed to wade through the entourage, the decibel level made conversation nearly impossible. This simply isn’t the venue to make connections.
If this sounds like a lot of complaining, I apologize. Believe me, I was beyond thrilled to go and had an amazing time. If I get the chance again, I’ll use this experience to make the following adjustments:
- Use SF Beer Week’s resources. I didn’t realize until it was too late, but you can create an account at sfbeerweek.org and set up a wish-list of beers to try at the Gala. Having a list to consult and check-off would have been invaluable.
- Keep my jacket. I stupidly checked it, and even the vast sea of humanity couldn’t warm up what’s basically an airplane hanger. In the City. At night. In February. During a storm.
- Go VIP. Yes, this is pricey. But if your goal is to cover the industry, make connections, and get story ideas, that extra hour of face time before the masses enter is gold.
One thing I did get right, though, was staying in town that night. The Stanford Court Hotel in Nob Hill had a stupid-good Beer Week promotion going, and a short Lyft ride back to my room was much preferable to navigating mass transit on a blustery Friday night.
Yes, again this will cost some bucks, but to stay in Nob Hill, get $25 to dine with, and a free Seven Stills four-pack in the room, all for about a couple of C-notes, is a deal in itself. Even if you weren’t attending any events. Nice room, friendly staff, great amenities. Highly, highly recommended.
ACT II — THE PLAYERS
After hob-nobbing with the brightest stars in beer at the Gala, it was time to get to know some of the smaller players — the little neighborhood spaces where locals come to share good company and great super-local beer. I found two new cozy spots that fit the bill.
“I’ve Got 5 Hops On It” Tapping — Tiger’s Taproom, Oakland
Two beer-loving friends, Daniel Gutierrez and Brian Chen, made their dream of opening a local taproom a reality with the October opening of Tiger’s Taproom (named after Brian’s dog) in a quickly developing area of the Jack London Square district. This bright corner space sports 16 hyper-local taps, almost all from Oakland, the East Bay, or the City.
I’ve Got 5 Hops on It Pale Ale is a unique collaboration between Barebottle Brewing and several of their favorite East Bay accounts, specifically for Beer Week. Made with, naturally, five hops (Chinook, Simcoe, Azacca, Motueka, and Citra), this clean, zippy pale ale was only released at the brewery and the collaborating establishments.
I also tried Barebottle’s famed collaboration with Humphry Slocomb — the intriguing Secret Breakfast Nitro White Stout. It’s coffee, it’s vanilla, it’s maple, it’s … pale! Tweaks everything you might know about flavors and styles.
If you want to get away from the bustle of JLS and savor a few pints, walk the few blocks to Tiger’s and settle in. You won’t be sorry.
Admiral Maltings Showcase, Libation Taproom & Bottle Shop, San Rafael
I was eager to attend this event for several reasons. Not the least being it’s just a few minutes from where I work!
These are people I need to get to know. Libation has only been open for a few months, and they’ve already lined up some killer accounts — Alvarado Street, Berryessa, HenHouse, Cellarmaker, Almanac, Sante Adairius, etc.
This event, of course, featured several beers made with Admiral Malting malts, and Mr. Dave McLean himself was in the house. I got there right as the event started, and was fortunate to find a seat at the bar, as the smallish space filled quickly.
As this place does one of my favorite things — offer 5-ounce pours, most for an affordable $3-4 each, I was able to try a few offerings, including HenHouse’s wonderful Oyster Stout.
I figured, when else would I ever see it, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. So, I tried it, and…
A touch of nuttiness, a dash of orange. Clean, hardly a trace of alcoholic heat. Was I blown away? No, but it was very good and put a nice little cap on the event. Which, in hindsight, made have muted my experience of it. The palate may have been a little bruised by then.
BTW, Libation is also a bottle shop, with selections available to consume on-site or take to go. This being such a convenient stop on my evening commute, I’ll be coming by often. Like I said, I gotta get to know these guys.
ACT III — THE SHOW GOES ON
The Celebration of Craft, Trumer Brewery, Berkeley
Though Beer Week has never had an official closing event, the Celebrator Beer News annual Anniversary Party (which actually predates Beer Week by a couple of decades) was usually held on the last day and considered the unofficial wrap party.
This year’s final act was somewhat bittersweet. The Celebrator did not escape the shifting winds of the media landscape and ceased print publication last year (although it’s still alive on the interwebs). With it, their annual party was seemingly gone, as well.
Enter the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA), the benefitting organization for Celebrator’s party for many years. With their successful execution of the California Beer Summit over the last several years, it was a natural fit for the CCBA to take over.
This was the first “Celebrator party” I’d been to in many years, since back when they were still held at the old Pyramid Brewing space not far away. But from what I understand, it pretty much went off without a hitch, with weather being the only real issue. The cold and rainy conditions kept many more people indoors, as the biting wind rendered the many outdoor heat lamps barely effective.
Despite the somewhat crowded conditions, I appreciated the smaller scope of this event as compared to the Gala. Lines (except for Younger, natch) were pretty much non-existent. I took full advantage of the early-forming Younger line to walk right up to places like Sante Adairius, Rare Barrel, Alvarado Street, Beachwood, and New Glory.
I used the unlimited-tasting opportunity to venture out into sours, a category I’ve admittedly had trouble appreciating.
Sante Adairius almost immediately cured me of that. Their Beauty Sleep barrel-aged saison with raspberries blended fruit, tart, and wood notes beautifully. One of my favorites of the night.
Rare Barrel featured a brand new release — a canned (!) IPA (!!). Dubbed New New, it’s 80% hazy IPA blended with 20% of their Golden Sour. While quite tasty, I think they could have upped the sour quotient a little bit. A touch of tartness was evident, but it could’ve used a smidge more.
A new (for me) brewery was Moksa, out of Rocklin. Their Moksa One, a monster of a 15% Imperial Stout, certainly didn’t drink like one. The vanilla beans and 1 lb/gallon of coconut smoothed over any trace of heat. While still a substantial presence, the velvety mouthfeel helps it slide across the palate way too easily. Dazzling, and dangerous. Keep on eye on these guys. At only a year out of the gate, they’re off to a running start.
Another desert-in-a-glass was New Glory’s Peanut Butter Lovers Imperial Porter. Liquid Reese’s, only richer. 12.5 ridiculously easy percent.
A treat for me, which is apparently a tradition since Trumer began hosting, are the many Trumer one-offs produced for the event. A great idea — you really can’t ask for a better base beer to play with than Trumer Pils.
The Pils received dry-hopped, barrel-aged, unfiltered, and tropical (citra, pineapple, coconut) treatments.
But my favorite was the citrus-inflected Trumer Zitrone. Made with lemons grown and harvested by Master Brewer Lars Larson, it was bright and zippy, and would be great in a beer cocktail.
With that, the curtain falls on another Beer Week. I laughed, I cried (well, maybe stumbled a bit, perhaps), I cheered. Kudos all around, looking forward to next year’s performance.