San Francisco's Emerging Craft Beer Scene

Popular mythology holds that the diverse population who headed to California during the Gold Rush set the stage for the California brewing industry. Most who made the trip were disappointed when they arrived in California. The boomtown that was San Francisco lacked many of the comforts of home. To relieve the anxieties of the emigrants and to profit from offering a bit of home to miners in the diggings, enterprising entrepreneurs from Germany and England opened breweries and put San Francisco on the map as a 19th century brewing mecca. As a historian of California and the American west I have a lot of problems with the legends of the roots of California's brewing industry and would argue that most of them aren't true and were created as a clever means of marketing California beers (that topic however will have to wait for another day), but there is no denying that San Francisco was an important producer of great beer in the past, and is currently becoming an important producer of interesting beer and destination worthy of craft beer enthusiasts attention. 

Unfortunately, San Francisco's influence on craft beer culture is anchored in the past. Stories abound of Fritz Maytag, who most would agree revived the craft industry in California and possibly the U.S., and indeed the history of Anchor Brewing is quite well known by craft brewing enthusiasts. But past achievements are just that, past achievements, and most of San Francisco's influence on the industry has been eclipsed by Portland, San Diego, and even Los Angeles and Seattle. A quick look at craft beer discussion boards, Yelp and other beer review sites reveals that even San Franciscans are dismissive of or reluctant to praise the craft scene in the city.  I'll admit that when prepping for for a weekend trip to The City I didn't think much about beer; maybe a trip to Anchor for a tour of the brewery and a bit of nostalgia*, but I was looking forward drinking wine and exploring the craft cocktail scene. Don't get me wrong, I was familiar with Speakeasy, 21st Amendment, and Almanac all of whom are bottling or canning and have a distribution to Southern California, but I was unprepared and ultimately quite excited by the quiet boom in craft beer that is spreading across the city.

San Francisco is currently home to 19 breweries and brew pubs and according to the San Francisco Brewers Guild; six more will open in 2014 and another dozen or so are in the late planning stages. Along with this explosion of breweries is a recognition by many restauranteurs  of the importance of craft beer to their menus. Several new craft centric restaurants and cafes  have opened in the past few years, and if the lines and difficulties getting a table is any indicator these new restaurants are quite popular. Obviously, it's a good time to be a craft beer enthusiast in San Francisco. 

Beer Engines, Magnolia Brewing

What excited me most about San Francisco's beer scene was the neighborhood focus of the pubs and breweries. Most of these breweries cater to a local community and the vibe in each one was specific to the neighborhood in which it was located (much like Portland, Oregon's brewing culture). This focus on the local and creating a space where community can gather, is how craft beer will survive. While a few regionals will go on to national fame and while ABI and other large conglomerates might buy up some of the craft competition, there will always be room for a neighborhood pub/brewery that serves good beer and offers a place where neighbors can gather, drink and create community and camaraderie. Humans are social creatures and I think we all crave a place that not only serves good beer (and usually food), but brings people together, and breaks down the anonymity and loneliness that can be a part of urban life.

During my too-short stay in the city, I was able to join this community and get a bit of tasting done (tough job, but somebody has to do it) exploring beers from  Magnolia Brewing, Southern Pacific, 21st Amendment and Cellarmaker, but I wish I had had more time to explore. Magnolia Brewing in the Haight (soon opening a second location in the Dogpatch) was my favorite of the weekend; their focus on small, sessionable, English-style pub beers was quite refreshing. None of the beers on tap exceeded 8.5% abv with most toping out around 4%. For real ale fans, Magnolia offers five beers served from the cask and hand pulled through vintage beer machines. I had both Dark Star Mild and Pearly Baker's Best Bitter on cask and both were delicious. 

Magnolia Brewing Tap List

Along with the cask conditioned ales, I also tasted their traditionally carbonated and served Porter, Bitter, Brown and IPA. All of these would make an Englishman weep with joy.

21st Amendment

21st Amendment Brewery, opened in 2000, has become a staple of the SOMA/ATT Park neighborhood and a regional power house whose canned beers are distributed throughout much of the West and in many states on the East Coast. 

The pub offers nine beers on tap and several canned selections. While there I tasted their easy drinking and very good "MCA (jam) Session Stout" 4.5%,  a hoppy and pleasantly dark malt bitter, "Back in Black" black IPA, a tasty English/American hybrid "British Invasion IPA," and an okay but not totally convincing nitro Red Ale "St. Patrick O'Sullivans Irish Red." 

Southern Pacific Brewing IPA

Without wading too deeply into the gentrification debate, I'll say that the Mission has become home to some really fantastic craft-centric restaurants and the Southern Pacific Brewing Co. Looking at Yelp I was surprised to see rather mediocre ratings of Southern Pacific, but then again I don't put a lot of stock into Yelp reviews. I think many of the bad ones are purely vindictive and the good ones are equally suspect. My visit on a late Sunday afternoon was quite pleasant and the beer was good.  Southern Pacific, housed in a large converted warehouse and former machine shop, hints at the recent industrial past of the area and the railroad that once served this great city. The warehouse space offers two stories of seating space and a wonderfully sunny patio, where one can sit comfortably and enjoy your beer. Speaking of beer, they offer a range of six house beers that they say are "true to style beers" and 5 guest taps, plus a full bar and craft cocktails.  All the house beers are low alcohol session ales, their highest alcohol beer being their Extra IPA, which tops out at 6.5% but still maintains its malt/hop balance. The "Robust Porter" (5.5%) is a nice medium-bodied porter with just enough chocolate, black patent malts and a West Coast hop bill that keeps the beer interesting. The "California Blonde" was an interesting German inspired blonde that mixed German Pils Malt, American 2-row, Saaz hops and finished Cascades. I found it a bit boring, but it's a great beer to break San Francisco hipsters of their PBR habit. 

Abbot's Cellar Taps and glassware. 

The gastropub/beer centric restaurant scene is also taking off in San Francisco. The Abbot's Cellar, also in the Mission, is becoming the center of this beer/restaurant universe. Beer rarely gets the kind of reverence that wine deserves, and maybe that's a good thing, but it's refreshing to see restaurant pay attention to their beer programs.  And pay attention they do. The Abbot's Cellar has a tap list of about 30 craft beers that range from light Kellerbier from Mahr's Brau to fruity and citrusy pale ales like San Francisco's Cellarmaker's "Crush a Bale" to dark and rich beers like Port Brewing's "Older Viscosity 2010." The bottle list is even more impressive. Each of the beers is paired expertly with food. I had the four course tasting menu paired with a different beer each course. The beers paired well, but I was disappointed with the beers they poured. Don't get me wrong, the beers were good (La Trappe "Witte," Mahr's "Ungespundet," Coniston "Bluebird Bitter XB," and North Coast's "Old Rasputin"), but I was expecting local beers. Unfortunately the draft list only features three San Francisco beers (Cellarmaker's "Tim's Brown" and "Crush-a-Bale" and Magnolia's "Cole Porter"). While I applaud the focus on craft beer and really enjoyed the food and beers we drank with it, it would have been nice to see more support for local brewing companies.

All in all this was an eye opening trip to San Francisco. Its clear that San Francisco's craft scene is emerging from the fog of its past. 

*Unfortunately I wasn't able to tour Anchor. The Tours run only M - F and have become so popular with tourists that you need to reserve a space three to six months in advance. 

Southern Pacific Patio. Photo: Amy Bentley-Smith

Southern Pacific Interior. Photo: Amy Bentley-Smith


A Personal Beer Geography

This story on the Roaming Pint's website inspired me to pull down my travel diaries and beer notebooks, open up Untappd and map my personal beer travels. As the Roaming Pint points out, mapmaking is essential to our understanding of the world and our place in it. Once the realm of cartographers and geographers, technology has created the tools for every one to map their own experiences in the world and to lay claim to their own personal territories. Rather than allowing us just to see where we've been or where we're going, maps offer a means of visualizing important datasets from our lives giving visual meaning to our personal geographies. To many the map below is just a chart of where I've been and the breweries whose beers I've tasted. To me the map is rife with meaning; placing each pin on the map conjured memories of trips taken, allowed me to relive important moments in my life, and awakened forgotten instances of pleasure and memories of meals and drinks shared with family and friends new and old.

As my beer adventures continue I'll update this map. I hope to turn many of the blue pins green and if I can find the time add my tasting notes from each of breweries. Stay tuned...

Les Biéres à Chambéry et Haute Savoie, France (A Guide to the Beers of the French Alps)

"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends." -- Maya Angelou 

Traveling offers one not only an adventure, but a way of getting to know the world a bit better, breaking down the walls that separate us and proving that we are all, despite our differences, much the same. To be a tourist is fine, but to truly travel one has to embrace local culture, be a bit uncomfortable, and explore the world that locals inhabit. Shop where the locals shop, eat what the locals eat, and most importantly, drink what the locals drink. In France that generally means drinking wine, but in some corners the grape has made way for a wee bit of the grain. 


Chambéry was once the capital of the Savoie region of France, a duchy that dates back to the 11th century and comprises most of the Western Alps of France. Situated on the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland, this contested region (an independent duchy, a part of France in the First Republic (1792), annexed back to the Italian kingdom of Sardinia/Piedmonte (1815), and finally brought back into France (1860) under the Second Empire) owes its cultural heritage to its varied past. 

The region is thus less connected to the traditions of France and maintains an independence to this day. That independence and its geographical location, which makes growing grapes difficult, means that there is a relatively small wine-growing area, and instead of being known for its grapes, the region developed other specialties especially cheese (delicious tommes, Beaufort, and Roblechon) and distillation (Chartreuse, Génépi and Pastis, come to mind and often to my lips),  and surprisingly a brewing culture. In fact, legend has it that the city of Chambéry's name may have derived from the Latin name cambarius, meaning "brewer of beer."  

The region is home to several artisanal and regional breweries, B.A.S. (Brasserie Artisanale de Sabaudia), Biére de Cimes, Biére du Mont Blanc, Brasserie Galibier, La Cordée à Annecy, Brasserie Ninkasi, Rinck, Brasserie du Mont Salève, and La Soyeuse. Most of these breweries' portfolios include ambrés, blondes and brunes, plus seasonal and specialty varieties, many that include fruit or liqueurs from the region. Biére du Mont Blanc, for example, makes a beer with Genepi (a herbal liqueur). 

Rue Basse du Chateau, Chambery

Rue Basse du Chateau, Chambery

Finding these beers while in the region is challenging;  most bars and cafés serve mass produced beers (Heineken, Kronenbourg 1664, Leffe, and Stella Artois top the list) or they serve Belgian bottles, Duvel, La Chouffe, Orval etc...). However, in the center of Chambéry there is a beer oasis of sorts, Les Biéres de Midgard "La Cave à Biéres" a tiny bottle shop on the quaint 14th century Rue Basse du Château where one can find nearly all the specialty beers from the region, an impressive number of Belgian imports, British and Scottish (especially Brew Dog) craft beers and one or two American offerings.

La Cave à Biéres

La Cave à Biéres

While I was shopping for regional products, the proprietor was complaining about the beer culture in France and the difficulty he has finding hoppy or interesting beers. And while he was supportive of the locally crafted beers, he obviously would prefer to stock his shop with more "interesting" American style offerings (a trend I wrote about in my last post). As we talked, the subject of home brewing and the difficulty finding ingredients and equipment came up and it was here that he made what might be an obvious but interesting observation: He believes that it will take a home brewing revolution to really change French tastes in beer and get them interested in beer culture. In other words, like the U.S., where home brewers led the craft revolution in the 1970s, the French will remain comfortable with the limited offerings made in their country or look to German and Belgian imports if they look for beer at all until they try their hand at making their own beer. But there is hope in shops like Perceval, run by young people who see the old wine culture of France as an anathema to their generation. 

Les Biéres de Midgard

Les Biéres de Midgard

It's going to take some time to explore all the regional beers on offer, but I'll do my best and report the results here.  Those that I've had so far, mostly from Brasserie Mont Blanc and Galibeir, have been okay, malty, often sweet with little to no hop bitterness. These are beers brewed with similar recipes of many Belgian beers, but they lack the wonderful complexity of Belgian yeast strands or spontaneous fermentation. Instead the French brewers use a neutral yeast that creates a clean, but often uninteresting beer.  

Brasserie Mont Blanc La Blanche

Brasserie Mont Blanc La Blanche

Brassier Mont Blanc Rousse, for instances, poured an amber brown with red tones and looked quite good in the glass, but fell a bit short in the flavor department. This medium-bodied amber was quite sweet, toasted bread and caramel dominated the palate, but there was nothing to the finish, no hop bitterness at all. The blanche or wit was much the same. This one again was beautiful in the glass, but the flavor was a bit dull. The coriander and curaçao orange peel were evident as was a bit of wheat, but it's overshadowed by an almost overpowering malty sweetness that would benefit from a little more spice and a lot more hops. Overall, the Savoyard beers I've tried have been disappointing; the beer is drinkable, if you really want a beer, but they could use a lot refinement. 


Brasserie Galibier offers a lineup similar to that of Mont Blanc consisting of a blonde an amber and a blanche. The blonde (Galibier Alpine) is marketed as an "American pale ale," the amber (Galibier Matchut) is listed as a India Pale Ale, and the blanche is supposed to be a Hefewiezen. These are tough labels to live up to, and the beer once again falls a bit short of one's expectations. Don't get me wrong, these beers are good, in fact they're much better than those from Mont Blanc. But the problems lies in expectation; if you call a beer an IPA it has to live up to the name and "Matchut" simply doesn't. Eighteen IBUs does not an IPA make.  If anything "Matchut" is a perfectly well-balanced amber and if they left it labeled as such I'd be raving about it. The same goes for "Alpine." Here again we don't have a pale ale instead we are treated to a pleasant and surprisingly good blonde. Again, I think these brewers are playing into the hands of changing tastes in the European market place and rather than being happy producing a fantastic amber, they hype their beer as an IPA in order to sell more of it to a consumer base who's heard the term IPA and wants to be a part of the trend, but who are uneducated in just what an IPA is, and thus buy blindly. 

Brasserie des Cimes

Brasserie des Cimes

Brasserie des Cimes, owned by the Routin Group but claim artisanal status and autonomy from the conglomerate, makes hands down, the best beer from the Savoie. Their Piste Noir and Aiguille Blanche, an amber and wit beer respectively, were very good beers and would hold their own against many Belgian ales. And that's what made these beers so good; like those from Mont Blanc or Galibier, whose beers are largely one-note malty sweet beer, des Cimes start off that way but cut that sweetness using a Belgian-style yeast. Both the amber and the wit thus have the slightly sour, yeasty, banana and clove notes that give interest to what might be an otherwise boring beer. Des Cimes also isn't shy about using hops. Many of the beers I tasted lacked any hop bitterness, most ranging in the 10 - 18 IBU (around the bitterness of a true English mild or brown or even that of a standard American lager), whereas most of des Cimes beers have a noticeable hop bitterness in the 20- 30 IBU range, giving them a pleasant and welcomingly interesting finish. 

Brasserie Artisanale Du Dauphiné

Brasserie Artisanale Du Dauphiné

I had held out hopes that Brasserie Artisanale Du Dauphiné would prove as interesting as their ingredients, but unfortunately my hopes were dashed. Dauphiné's Mandrin lineup is brewed with herbs and spices rather than hops. Mandrin Au Chanvre (flavored with hemp seed), Mandrin à La Réglisse (licorice), Mandrin Au Sapin (spruce tips), and Mandrin Aux Noix (walnuts) all looked delicious, but they were the most disappointing of the bunch. Billed as an herbed spice beer, an English stout, a biere de garde, and a dark amber respectively, they were all almost undrinkable. In fact, the 10th Anniversary beer went straight down the drain after just a couple of sips. Most of these beers were indistinguishable from each other, all amber/carmel malt notes, sweet and no hop bitterness to speak of. The only difference was the flavoring adjuncts, which in most cases added almost nothing to the beer. I suppose if you tried hard enough and used your imagination you might be able to pull herbs, licorice or nuts, but I couldn't. 

Perhaps these complaints are unwarranted given my palate is accustomed to American styles, but the brewers claim to be making craft beer in the style of American, British or Belgian ales, and if that's case the they have a bit of work still to do. 

I'm off to the heart of French wine country (Bordeaux) tomorrow and my journey to find a good beer in France will continue. Stay tuned...

Brasserie Artisanale de Sabaudia

Brasserie Artisanale de Sabaudia