I’ll go to California and drink wine, but only if the wine’s fermented with wild yeast.
So says the beer fanatic.
Lara and I just spent 9 days in Northern California, and combined we drank a measly 3 ounces of wine. True to form, it was only because we heard about a winery near our hotel in Santa Rosa that fermented with wild yeast that grows on grape skins---in an open fermenter, no less.
As a wild ale fan, I liked its rough, round fruitiness, but I’d love to hear what savvy wine drinkers think of it.
However, we’re here to talk about all the beer brewed in the fertile crescent of Northern California, and I assure you we didn’t count ounces anywhere between San Francisco and the Russian River Valley. As an East Coast guy who rarely gets that far west, I wasn’t quite prepared psychologically to experience some of the heralded beer temples of that coast. There were plenty of ogling beer tourists like me trying to absorb some small part of these Very Famous Places and keep them for ourselves, but alongside us were locals, the people who blithely and rightly treated places like Russian River Brewing and Toronado Pub as their local pubs.
Seriously, seeing bartenders casually sling gallons upon gallons of Pliny the Elder was dizzying. It exposed the absurd degree to which East Coasters treat beers like Pliny as commodities rather than simply good beer. And I get it, of course. We can’t get the stuff and it’s beloved by so many, so it naturally casts a long, lusty shadow all the way back to North Carolina and the rest of the far reaches.
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to have a humbling reset when it’s so easy to get caught up in the absurdity of rare beer mania.
And really, I liked Pliny the Elder quite a bit already when all I usually managed was a few ounces from a shared bottle a couple times a year, but now, after nine or so full pints in quick succession, I have incredible respect for that beer---not so much for its power but its drinkability and clean, pungent, juicy depth. How does an 8% DIPA drink like a pale ale?
So we’ll start there, at the Russian River brewpub, and talk about the first of many grand beer myths imagined by our country’s inventive, prickly beer advocates.
Russian River: It’s Not Them, It’s You
Spend enough time on Beer Advocate or, god help you, in that despair pit Yelp, and you’ll come to easy conclusions about what a bad time you’ll have at Russian River:
- It’s too crowded.
- The staff is unfriendly, if not downright rude.
- You can’t get a seat. Anywhere. Ever.
- If you’re not a local, you won’t matter.
Bullshit, folks. If you’re on Beer Advocate wailing about how poorly you were treated at Russian River after the grand effort you made in your pilgrimage to their doorstep, stop and think about how you approached the place. Or for that matter, how you approach any packed bar or restaurant. Can you bear to stand in a crowded room, sipping Row 2 Hill 56 while you wait for a table? While gripping a goblet of Consecration, do you know how to angle for people at the bar who might be close to asking for the check? Do you know how to flag for a drink without acting like you’re shrugging off all the world’s problems?
If the answer is yes, you might have a great time at Russian River like Lara and I did. Clearly the place is constantly mobbed. It’s one of the most famous and hyped breweries in the country---and rightfully so. Just don’t swagger in there like some BA goon or flinty eyed reseller, and you might get to sit at the bar and watch the staff move an astounding volume of Pliny the Elder.
Make the effort, people. Be patient. Realize that it’s basically a packed brewpub in the downtown corridor of a small city, and you’ll have a great time.
But Wait. There’s More.
Russian River isn’t the only good brewery in Santa Rosa. A few blocks away, Third Street Aleworks is the quieter, gentler local brewpub. It just happens to make GABF-medaling beer, too. This year, Third Street won gold for its dry Irish stout and bronze for its hoppy imperial red ale.
Both beers tasted great, especially Bodega Head IPA, the imperial red, but to me the real winner was Annadel, their mainstay pale ale. Bright, floral, and dry, it’s an easy sipper that hits all the West Coast pale ale marks that I look for.
Something odd was in the air, though, as Lara and I worked our way through a flight of all the beers on draught: a sour smell, a slight funk that we weren’t tasting in the beer but could sense all around us in the building.
Then we found it, and it had a name. It’s called Cherry Springer, a sour mash cherry ale that went terribly, terribly wrong. The two main risks in sour mashing are introducing vinegary acetic acid and, far worse, clostridium, which tastes like dry heaves.
Sadly, Cherry Springer was absolutely foul with clostridium. The bartender said he liked the beer but that it “wasn’t everyone’s thing.” I’ll grant him that point, but the beer smelled and tasted like vomit sprayed across damp gym shorts. It was a failed sour mash. Quite simply, it’s the worst beer I’ve ever had in my life, a real bummer in a good brewery. Cherry Springer was so bad that, after trying it, the memory and smell chased us out of the bar.
I wish I could say that was the only time we fled from bad beer on this trip, but the next day we headed north to Healdsburg, home of Bear Republic.
Does All the Water in Healdsburg Pass Through a Flaming Onion?
We tasted a lot of beer in the Russian River Valley that tasted like smoldering matches, and even some tap water with the same note, which makes me wonder whether there’s something wrong with the water there.
Healdsburg is a “wine country town,” and by that I mean it’s antiseptic, heavily manicured, and very nice in all the ways people visiting the Russian River Valley expect their wine towns to be. That’s not necessarily a knock, but it feels about as authentic and lived-in as Chapel Hill, NC (a Disney version of a college town) or Bruges, Belgium (an Epcot scrub of a Middle Ages village). That water, though…
That’s what I’m gonna blame for half the beers I tasted at the Bear Republic pub. Several of the pub-only beers had a distinct and sickly sulfurous character that overpowered all the other flavors. We tasted a flight of about ten beers, and nearly half were rife with the smell and flavor of snuffed matches. Beers like Racer X and Churchill’s Pale were really nice, but the flight was a rocky experience. It’s going to make me taste carefully the next time I sit down at my local and have a pint of Racer 5.
Mikkeller Bar...and the Places That Leads You
Let's talk about the Tenderloin for a minute. The Tenderloin is an infamous cluster of blocks just south of the financial district---a desolate, dirty place that’s also home to Mikkeller Bar, one of San Francisco’s greatest beer treasures. Do a little advance reading about the Tenderloin, though, and you might talk yourself out of going to Mikkeller.
People make it sound like it’s 12 square blocks of berserker crackhead attacks and poo flinging.
We went into the neighborhood unsure whether the Tenderloin was “actual scary” or simply “suburbs scary.” Lara and I live in a city that has plenty of tattered edges, and Lara spent her 20s in an industrial part of Brooklyn, so we weren’t sure we could trust the all-caps shrieking on the internet.
Naturally, just like with Russian River, people love to overreact. It’s a shitty neighborhood for sure. Lots of dirt and poverty. Homeless folks abound. And there’s certainly a slight current of racism beneath some of the warnings. But be smart like you would walking through any unfamiliar area of a big city and I bet you’ll be fine.
At the very least, it’s well worth the effort to seek out Mikkeller Bar. Think for a second about the details here:
- 42 taps
- Towers kept at different temperatures so draught beer can be poured at the ideal temperature for the style
- A small sour bar in the basement open on weekends and decorated to feel like you’ve stepped into the label of one of Mikkeller’s “It’s Alive” beers
- Tenderloin Pilsner, a clean, snappy lager with massive hop aroma and flavor but IBUs that keep close to style guidelines
- Plenty of Cantillon if you’re willing to part with the cash needed to unleash one of those bottles
On top of that, the place is gorgeously dark with multiple sources of soft light, and the food is killer. Best of all? The bar manager there, who is just the sort of beer fanatic you’d hope holds that job, told us about a month-old brewery just a mile or so away that he swore by: Cellar Maker Brewing.
And it’s a tiny brewery. Tucked into a garage just north of the Mission neighborhood, Cellar Maker seems to focus on hops and barrel aging (as the name clearly suggests). Not much barrel-aged beer was on hand when we visited, but that’ll presumably change as Cellar Maker stretches its legs and logs more production time. Those beers require patience and space.
For now, though, we tasted several really nice beers, top among them being Moonage Daydream (a Galaxy-blasted pale ale) and Dobis (a Citra-infused pale). They also offer a really nice porter with more complexity and flavor than you’d expect in a session ale.
True to form, as we sat at the bar telling the staff who sent us there, in walks the Mikkeller bar manager raising his hand to order a couple of pints.
That’s my kind of endorsement.
There's a lot more worth the beer fan's time in San Francisco, obviously. Here are a few that didn't make the post:
Toronado: This one's obvious. You have to check out this stale-smelling, dark, cash-only neighborhood pub while you're in town. Unlike at Russian River, the staff at Toronado are legitimately surly and monosyllabic. But they work hard and serve great beer.
Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery: Located in Haight-Ashbury, Magnolia is an English-style pub and brewery with five beer engines and a dozen or so traditional draughts. If you need a place you can drink a cask-conditioned mild ale or try the same bitter on CO2 and then from a cask, this is your spot.
Zeitgeist: A cash-only metal bar with more than 40 taps and a sprawling beer garden.
City Beer Store: 14 or so taps, an extensive bottle selection, and a reserve case of rare beer you can drink only onsite.
The Beer Hall: Like City Beer Store, The Beer Hall offers both an impressive selection of West Coast beers on draught and a nicely curated bottle selection.
ChurchKey: For all the hype surrounding its flagship DC location, this ChurchKey is essentially a small neighborhood bar with a great if not extensive selection.