It’s the inaugural SF Beer Week, and connoisseurs are learning about the craft brews that are crowding out mass-produced beers at neighborhood pub taps.
With eight breweries within city limits, and dozens more in northern California, San Francisco is an epicenter of the bright, hoppy style of beer unique to the United States.
“It’s almost an arms race of putting more hops into beer,” said Dave McLean, owner and brewmaster of Haight’s Magnolia Pub and Brewery. “There needs to be a treaty to stop it.”
The beer-curious circled around long wooden tables at BiRite’s 18 Reasons art space on Guerrero Street on Monday night to get an intimate taste-bud tour of the Bay Area’s beer legacy from McLean.
Surrounded by linocuts by artist Audra Elizabeth Knutson, McLean poured the small group a taste of the New Albion Pale Ale, what many call the first modern artisan beer. The recipe, which hasn’t been made since the Sonoma-based brewery closed in 1982, was brewed by Napa-Smith brewmaster Don Barkley for the week’s festivities.
“It’s an absolute time capsule,” said Rich Higgins, president of the San Francisco Brewers Guild, who joined McLean and nine others at 18 Reasons. (Full disclosure: Higgins taught this writer everything she knows about beer.)
Nobody was blown away by the tasty, light and slightly bitter flavor of New Albion Pale Ale, but McLean said the pale ale was revolutionary at the time for its hoppiness, and led to the hop race in beers today.
“I just thought the crazy hop thing was a fad,” said Angel Lowry, 31, who attended the event and has brewed a few beers at home.
The history of craft beer in the Bay Area is the history of America: Pioneers forged westward to create bigger products that, they’ll tell you, beat those in the east. In the case of beer, bigger means more citrus, pine and—yes—cat pee flavors.
Beer hasn’t been the same since Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing Company in 1965, according to McLean, who also gave the group a taste of his nut-flavored Cole Porter, one of the first beers he brewed when he opened Magnolia 12 years ago. Maytag used old-fashioned techniques to develop his lagers and ales (including his patented Steam beer), which were more full flavored and dark colored than the typical beers of the time.
“It’s all part of that ‘Let’s make things ourselves’ movement,” said McLean.
Maytag’s craft was part of a larger movement. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse with its season-based menu in 1971. California wines beat out the French at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 and shocked the wine world. That’s around when (lore has it) Don Barkley pitched a tent outside the former New Albion brewery and began experimenting with California’s citrusy Cascade hops along with New Albion’s owner Jack McAuliffe, another pioneer.
In other words, beermakers were among the California gastronomic upstarts.
“Fritz Maytag led everyone out of the beer dark ages,” said McLean.
Drink the history at one of SF Beer Week’s remaining Mission events:
Meet the Brewers of Bear Republic.
Free (beer may be purchased individually).
A Night with the Human Blockhead and Shmaltz Brewing: Part One.
7-9pm, Elixir Cocktail Club
Whiskey Cask-Conditioned Beer with Sudwerk Brewmaster Jay Prahl.
8:30-11pm, Hotel Utah Saloon
A Night with the Human Blockhead and Shmaltz Brewing : Part Two.
5-6:45pm, Monk’s Kettle
First Annual Coney Island Pub Crawl with Donny Vomit and Shmaltz Brewing: Part One.
7-9pm, Amnesia Bar
First Annual Coney Island Pub Crawl with Donny Vomit and Shmaltz Brewing: Part Two.
First Annual Coney Island Pub Crawl with Donny Vomit and Shmaltz Brewing: Part Three.