It’s easy to fall into a San Francisco beer rut. It’s the city that launched Anchor Steam, it’s the site of the first Mikkeller Bar in America and it has been the home of influential craft breweries like Speakeasy. My recent trips to The City have rarely extended beyond the SoMa two-step of City Beer Store and Cellarmaker.
Anchor is owned by Japanese brewer Sapporo, Mikkeller runs production breweries on both coasts and Speakeasy went bankrupt in early 2017 before finding new life later that year. City Beer Store is closed while it moves to a new location two blocks away. (At least Cellarmaker is still pouring masterpieces from its cramped SoMa taproom.)
Fortunately, a new batch of boundary-pushing craft brewers has re-energized the San Francisco beer scene. And since many of those breweries are distributing their beers in Sacramento, it’s worth trying some new offerings from The City as the beer scene continues to evolve.
Our trip to The City started with a familiar brewery, albeit one that with a somewhat new presence. The 8-year-old, sour-centric Almanac Beer Company opened the Almanac Taproom on the eastern edge of the Mission District in December 2016. While the combined restaurant, taproom and beer garden seems out of step with the surrounding neighborhood, it manages to feel upscale without sacrificing a relaxed vibe.
The food at Almanac Taproom is simple, seasonal and delicious. The beer list features a deep reservoir of Almanac’s famed sours in addition to craft beer standards like IPAs and pilsners. This is a time of major change for Almanac — co-founder Jesse Friedman recently stepped down as brewmaster, just six months after he helped open a massive brewery, taproom and barrel house in Alameda. While Friedman is gone, Almanac is still pouring the complex and compelling Astounding Enterprises, an imperial sour red ale aged in wine barrels with Merlot grapes, raspberries, cacao and vanilla beans.
With its second anniversary brew on tap the day we visited, Barebottle Brew Co. was teeming with stroller-pushing parents and puppies from the surrounding Bernal Heights neighborhood. Barebottle has already earned a national reputation for its juicy New England-style IPAs and clever branding, so it’s hard to believe that they’re only 2 years old. Barebottle’s anniversary beer was the excellent Dubbel Dubbel Bourbon Style, a blend of barrel-aged Belgian dubbels. Despite the industrial look of the exterior, the inside felt like a warehouse-sized rec room, with arcade games, pinball machines, ping pong table and more games. Best of all, the beers we sampled were uniformly fantastic, including the irresistibly named Nintendo Cartridge Dust, a hazy IPA.
We were able to save a Lyft ride and hit two breweries with one stone by stopping at the adjacent Seven Stills and Laughing Monk facilities on an industrial stretch of Egbert Avenue. In addition to a strong lineup of craft brews, Seven Stills also produces whiskeys and vodkas which are mostly distilled from beers. For example, its Chocasmoke whiskey is distilled from an oatmeal stout “with a shot of peat,” while Citracot began life as a hazy IPA brewed in collaboration with Barebottle.
I don’t drink hard alcohol, but Seven Stills makes we wish that I did. Although only open since early 2016, this brewery and distillery in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood is one of three facilities that Seven Stills operates in the city. Seven Stills also recently launched an “Initial Can Offering” to raise money for a new facility near the Golden State Warriors’ arena.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin was playing on the television at Seven Stills when we visited, while The Cannonball Run played next door at Laughing Monk. I’m not sure exactly how to interpret that divide, but I’m certain there’s a Buzzfeed quiz in there somewhere.
Laughing Monk has a more spacious interior and a more expansive tap list than Seven Stills. They focus on Belgian styles while also offering hazy IPAs, kettle sours and lactose-infused brews. Along with Barebottle and Seven Stills, Laughing Monk’s beers have become much more widely available at Sacramento-area beer bars and bottle shops this year. Whatever their differences, the recipe for success is roughly the same for all three breweries: good beer, smart branding and a diverse portfolio.
We closed our San Francisco beer trip by hitting a couple of classics, starting with the remodeled Speakeasy Ales & Lagers taproom in Hunters Point. Originally opened in 1997, Speakeasy went bankrupt in early 2017, but the brewery was purchased for $2.5 million and reopened for business later that year. All the old favorites like Big Daddy IPA and Payback Porter taste the same, and rest assured Speakeasy can still turn out a sublime “big beer” like its Fixed Fight Barrel-Aged Old Ale. The taproom sticks to the criminal underworld theme with brass knuckle-shaped flight planks, subdued lighting and an old piano in the corner.
The trip ended at Triple Voodoo, which has operated a brewery and taproom in the Dogpatch neighborhood since 2013. Extra brut IPAs popped up everywhere on our journey, but Triple Voodoo was one of the first Bay Area breweries to embrace the style. Triple Voodoo’s takes on this dry and hoppy beer were two of the best that we tasted. We wanted to visit Social Kitchen and Brewery, the place that introduced the extra brut IPA to the world, but its location in the Sunset and proximity to that weekend’s Outside Lands Festival nixed that idea. Other nearby breweries were skipped due to a lack of time, but the SF Beer Bus operates a free monthly hop-on, hop-off shuttle with a rotating schedule that includes Dogpatch, Bayview and Mission lines, as well as lines through the Haight, Sunset and SoMa neighborhoods.