San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole, has been known for its craft breweries for years. Relatively big-name beers like Lagunitas, Russian River, and 21st Amendment are favorites all over the country, but what impressed us the most at this year’s SF Beer Week was the sheer number of small, relatively unknown, and generally excellent craft beer producers that we ran into along the way at some of the best bars in San Francisco.
SF Beer Week Opening Gala
SF Beer Week kicked off with the opening gala, a massive, sold-out event at Pier 35, just a little ways up the Embarcadero from Fisherman’s Wharf. Hundreds of breweries filled the interior of the pier, organized by region. Representatives from San Francisco, the East Bay, North Bay, and South Bay were grouped into their respective areas, each with a football helmet-themed sign marking the territories.
Unlike a number of similar festivals we’ve attended in the past, there was a certain refreshing egalitarianism to the setup: each participating brewery was allotted exactly one booth. The booths were all identical in size and signage real estate, regardless of size or popularity, so you had small brewers like Pacific Brewing Laboratory (the makers of the beer behind Seven Stills Whipnose Whiskey) and Triple Voodoo presented on an even playing field with Trumer Pils and Russian River.
Luckily, we were able to enter the gala early and spend some time talking to the brewers before the crowd got too out of hand—and believe us, it did. Despite the huge number of attendees and the massive amount of free-flowing beer, the atmosphere was great, and nobody was rowdier than they needed to be.
This year’s flagship event was a charity rivalry between NoMa and SoMa brewers (North of Market Street and South of Market Street for the non-locals), which pitted team captains Mike Schnebeck of Fort Point Beer Company and Dave McLean of Magnolia Brewing Company against each other in a battle of the specialty beers. The winner, determined by popularity at the end of the week, would receive a $4,000 donation to their charity of choice, while the runner-up’s charity would get $1,000.
McLean and Team SoMa came up with a cozy coffee porter, while Schnebeck and Team NoMa put forth a summerier Saison. Both were excellent, but unfortunately we were never actually able to determine who won out in the end. We’ll report back if we figure it out.
Lagunitas Tap Takeover at Zeitgeist
Since we’re working stiffs, we were only able to make it to a few other events throughout SF Beer Week. One of the surprise standouts, though, was the Lagunitas Tap Takeover at Zeitgeist, a fantastically grungy beer bar in the Mission District. Like many drinkers, we’ve come across a good number of Lagunitas’ offerings over the years, and we went in expecting to be, frankly, underwhelmed.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. The tap list featured 17 different brews, many of which we’d never even heard of, and everything we tried was delicious. From the Hot Side Sour Wheat to the High Westified Imperial Coffee Stout, aged in High West Whiskey barrels, it really was a great change of pace.
Russian River Tap Takeover at Pi Bar
The other favorite from the week was another tap takeover, this time by legendary North Bay brewers Russian River at Pi Bar. Once again, having tried a few of their notoriously difficult-to-find brews in the past, we thought we already had a good sense of what they had to offer.
Instead, we were treated to an astonishingly creative lineup of 12 beers, almost all of which were entirely new to us. Their hybrid session ales, wine barrel-aged sours (one each for pinot, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon), and the impeccably-balanced IPAs that Russian River is known for had us staying out far later on a Thursday than we’d planned.
All in all, this year’s SF Beer Week was as educational as it was fun. We always love an excuse to leave the office early and grab a few brews, but it was particularly exciting to get to meet the people behind the beer as well. From Pine Street Brewery and Woods Beer to Black Hammer and Bartlett Hall, we now have a long list of local spots we need to explore in the next few months—almost all conveniently within stumbling distance of headquarters.
All photos: Will Shenton