Making Merry During SF Beer Week

We couldn’t make this year’s SF Beer Week.
we had Renee Brincks on the scene.

Don Barkley of Napa Smith kicks off SF Beer Week

When San Francisco Beer Week debuted in 2009, I’d just moved to the city. The first event I attended that first year, along with Beer Geeks Chris and Merideth, was at City Beer Store. Following a Pliny the Younger tapping, we sampled New Albion Ale that Don Barkley had brewed according to its original recipe. The former New Albion employee and current Napa Smith brewer was one of the first people I spotted when I arrived at this year’s beer week opener. He also was one of many in attendance who expressed pride in how this annual festival has grown.

Ready for the opening pours

The opening celebration, one of more than 300 events on the 2012 SF Beer Week schedule, had an impressive beer menu and smart organization. In the Concourse Exhibition Center, the event felt less crowded than in past years – even with big attendance numbers. Plus, with breweries grouped by region, it was easy to find whatever one wanted.

Taste-testing Sierra Nevada's new canned beers

I especially enjoyed Drake’s Black Label Hopocalypse, Hops on Rye from Firehouse, Bear Republic’s Ryevalry and Moonlight’s Misspent Youth. I also sampled some Pliny the Younger (thankfully, I got in before that line snaked past the adjacent three tables), and I aced a Sierra Nevada blind tasting by correctly identifying bottled and canned versions of its pale ale.

Sunday, it was off to City Beer for back-to-back tastings by some out-of-town breweries that I always enjoy. Midnight Sun headlined the afternoon – the kölsch was a nice way to ease into things after lunch – and the Cascade taps turned on at 6 p.m. I was happy to see Figaro on the menu, and also tried the fruity Winter Gose. Even with City Beer’s expanded space, there was a solid crowd by early evening.

Drake's pairings at Mission Cheese

Because SF Beer Week includes so many free events, my budget and I avoided most ticketed happenings – except for one. Drake’s is one of my favorites around here, and I reserved a spot at their Monday night Mission Cheese pairing weeks in advance. The event sold out, not surprisingly, and a lively group packed the place soon after the doors opened. Five beers made the menu: Drake’s Amber, the 1500 pale ale, Hopocalypse, Moscow’s Burning Smoked Imperial Stout and this year’s Dire Straits Barleywine.

It’s tough to pick one pairing that I enjoyed the most, because each was terrific and totally different. But, two that really stood out were the 1500 paired with Pawlet, a washed-rind cow’s milk from Vermont, and Hopocalypse with an organic cow’s milk blend from Weirauch Creamery in nearby Petaluma. Cheers to the Drake’s team for being excellent hosts, as well. One brewery employee looked amused after an enthusiastic guest asked, “Can I visit your factory?” “Well, it’s called a brewery,” he told her. “You can visit our brewery…I think factories make toys or something.”

Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, which is a holiday I’ve never enjoyed. In fact, I told my sweetheart that I’d ditch him if he brought me flowers and candy. Happily, he took that to heart, and we headed to Public House for burgers, bitters and sours. Magnolia’s Billy Sunday Bitter, my go-to during Giants games, was on the list, as were the tart Cuvee de Bubba and a super sour Berliner Weisse from Bear Republic. After dinner, we hit up the Lagunitas night at McTeagues, where founder Tony Magee was on stage with his guitar.

On Wednesday night, it was back to City Beer for a Stillwater Artisanal Ales session. I first met brewer Brian Strumke at a local beer event a few years back, and it’s always fun to catch up. He had just returned from meeting with brewers in Europe, and he was preparing to celebrate his second anniversary in the business. Stillwater’s bourbon barrel-aged Folklore, which is flavorful without being too boozy, and its red wine barrel-aged counterpart topped my list of bests. That whole City Beer evening was a highlight for me, in fact, thanks to good beer and great friends at one of my favorite places in San Francisco. As a bonus, Nosh This was selling sweets in the back. Bacon salted caramels and beer for dinner? Yep.

Due to weekend plans, my beer week wrapped up on Friday with pre-happy hour pints at Toronado. Yes, I had another glass of Pliny the Younger – I’m pretty sure everyone in the bar that day had at least one, actually – and I followed that up with Russian River Temptation and a De La Seven from Upright. People were three-deep at the bar by the time the workday ended, and that’s when we took off.

All told, it was another great San Francisco Beer Week. The celebration gets better every year, partly because of all those creative events that breweries put together, and partly because of this region’s continued interest in craft brewing. At every event, I ran into friends I’ve made at other festivals and local beer bars – it’s an impressive community of engaged and enthusiastic individuals. Happily, SF Beer Week gives everyone a chance to step out from behind the brew kettle, bottling line, Twitter account and Untappd app to enjoy a pint together.

Thanks to the SF Beer Week organizers for
providing my media pass to the opening event.

An Iowa Refresher

Our friend and Iowa native, Renee Brincks, reports on the beer scene in
America’s heartland
. Renee can be found on the web at

Fields and hills and barns and stuff

I’ve lived in California for nine years, but every year I still spend a few months in the pretty corner of northeast Iowa where I grew up. My home base there is a farm outside of Decorah. Yes, there are corn fields, and there also are hiking and biking trails, canoe-friendly rivers, limestone bluffs, lush hills and trees that blaze gorgeous shades of orange and red in the fall. Seed Savers Exchange is based there, and remember that eagle cam that captivated people this spring? That’s in Decorah, too.

Park view

Recently, beer drinkers have been toasting start-up breweries and better distribution of popular brands, as well. Anchor Brewing pioneer Fritz Maytag is an Iowa boy, but until about ten years ago, his home state was lacking when it came to beer. Budweiser and Busch Light were the norm, and I know more than one person who considered Coors Light to be a “dark beer.”

Thankfully, things have changed.

Photo by Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.

When I arrived in Decorah this June, I was eager to visit Toppling Goliath. The brewery launched two years ago, and I’d already become of a fan of their Tsunami Pale. In a community where beer menus were limited for so long, introducing stouts and ambers and bitter brews isn’t necessarily easy – it takes a little coaxing to get customers to look past the Bud Light. These days, however, several local restaurants pour Dorothy’s New World Lager, the lightly-hopped Toppling Goliath flagship that’s an easy-drinking 5.5 percent.

I caught up with high school friends at the Toppling Goliath tap room, where we took advantage of the warm summer night by sitting outside. The outdoor patio there is perfect for happy hours and live music; the brewery also hosts home brew club meetings and airs all sorts of sporting events. I ordered a pint of Golden Nugget IPA. It earned an unofficial “best Iowa IPA” nod during a spring tasting at Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, which dedicates its 10 taps to Iowa beers, and it will definitely be a go-to when I’m in town.

Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek

The other visit I’d planned for this trip was the Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek. My parents have fun stories of this place in the 1970s, and there was a lot of buzz about the bar’s June re-opening. A cozy redecorating job and an Iowa-focused beer menu made the Tap Room a nice place to kick back with Peace Tree’s Hop Wrangler. I sampled releases from Millstream and Toppling Goliath, too, a our table of friends shared the smoked trout dip and a bowl of truffle popcorn.

Guns and booze

One afternoon, my parents and I took a day trip to two little towns along the Mississippi River, about 40 miles away. Our first stop was Stark’s Sport Shop in Prairie du Chien, Wisc. The store sells beer, spirits, wine and Wisconsin cheeses, along with outdoor gear, boat parts, fishing rods, lures, hunting supplies, guns…a whole wall of guns, in fact, hung right over rows of vodka and whiskey. The store’s signature t-shirt even says, “Mixing guns and liquor since Prohibition.”

I’m not from a family of hunters, but we’ve been coming to Stark’s since long before I was old enough to order my own beer. We sometimes swung through on Sunday drives when I was a kid and my parents were stocking up on bottles for backyard get-togethers. I asked to visit this time, because I knew that Stark’s sells New Glarus. There were several options on the mix-your-own-six-pack shelves, so I left with Spotted Cow, Moon Man, Two Women, Dancing Man Wheat, Totally Naked and Fat Squirrel. I also grabbed a few bottles of Bell’s Best Brown Ale, which I can’t get in San Francisco.

From there, we crossed back over the bridge into Iowa to grab lunch at Old Man River in McGregor. It’s another example of how far Iowa has come in terms of craft beer. Here, in a town of about 875 people, is an outfit turning out solid German-style brews. Owners recently announced plans to expand with a 25,000-barrel-per-year production facility near Iowa City.

Tasters at Old Man River

My standard order at Old Man River is “The Iowa,” a steak burger topped with bacon and blue cheese. I washed it down with a taster set – samples of helles, hefeweizen, a German pale ale, a smoky Scottish lager and the brewery’s popular dunkel, plus a splash of root beer that worked well as dessert. With baseball on the bar’s flat screens and an art and food affair happening in the park across the street, it was a festive afternoon in McGregor.

My two-week Iowa adventure included a few other beer stops back in Decorah, starting with pints and pizza at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita (this June, USA Today named their pizza the best in Iowa) and sandwiches at T-Bocks. Toppling Goliath, Schell’s and Leinenkugel are among a dozen brands on tap there, and the bar has a range of seasonals and specialty bottles. I also made a quick survey of the refrigerators at Oneota Co-op, which carries great local, organic food along with Stevens Point, Sierra Nevada, Big Sky and other labels that were unheard of in Iowa just a decade ago.

It was a refreshing trip, thanks to fun family time and great weather (San Francisco’s foggy summers just can’t compete with Iowa’s sunshine…). Good beer options give me even more to look forward to when it’s time for the next stay.

There’s Something About Seattle…

Our friend and freelance writer Renee Brincks reports on the Emerald City.
She can be found on the Interwebs at

I’ll admit, I’ve got a crush on Seattle. You sometimes see sun, rain and snow all in one day. Flowers bloom even during the winter. Public transportation makes exploring really easy, and each neighborhood has its own coolness and character – plus a few good pubs. I sampled the local beer scene during my first Seattle visit in 2010, and was quick to say yes when a Fremont friend needed a house sitter this February. Thanks to great people I’ve met through beer friends and festivals, I landed at Sea-Tac with a full set of plans.

The view of Seattle from the Columbia Center observation deck

The adventures kicked off when I caught up with Dave of Urban Beer Hikes at Maritime Pacific Brewing. It was my first visit, and the bartender was pouring $3 pints to celebrate the Jolly Roger Taproom’s first anniversary. I had an Islander Pale and a Jolly Roger on cask, and then sampled the special release, vanilla-bean aged Navigator Weizenbock. We soon pulled tables together to accommodate friends like Chris, who writes about beer and such himself, and ordered some snacks. Seattle is a terrific city for cheap nights out, because many bars and restaurants hold twice-daily happy hours with $3 pints, $3-$4 appetizers and other deals. While Maritime’s fried ravioli was my favorite, I couldn’t leave without ordering beer-battered bacon. Wow…yes, it was as unhealthy as it sounds, but tasty.

At Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden

From there, Dave, Chris and I took the Burke-Gilman Trail to Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden. When I stopped in last year, the doors were rolled open and summer sunshine streamed in. This evening, the doors were down and a line of beer lovers waited at the taps while others filled every seat in the place. After an Interurban IPA, a few of us made the mile walk to Bottleworks to end the evening with pizza, Big Time saison and a shared bottle of Rodenbach.

The Leary Traveler’s Deschutes dinner featured five well-paired courses

My next big beer outing was a Deschutes dinner at The Leary Traveler. The Traveler has good food (try the open-face breakfast sandwich available on weekends – yum), a good bottle selection, and six regular and four rotating taps. I claimed a corner table with Chris, Dave, who tends bar there, and Dave’s wife Mandy, who works over at Brouwers. The first pour was a surprise: Black Butte XXII. As Mark, the local Deschutes rep, explained, the anniversary beer was scheduled for 2010 release but never hit stores because the chocolate didn’t dissolve correctly. It didn’t hurt the taste – the beer was smooth, with a bit of chocolate and spice – but the visual presentation didn’t meet brewery standards. So, they canceled the release, bottled a few cases and decided to share it only when someone from Deschutes could tell the story and watch the pours.

Five excellent food courses followed, paired with Miss Spelt, Green Lakes Organic Ale, Red Chair and Black Butte. Dessert was the star: a chewy homemade graham cracker dipped in chocolate and toasted sesame seeds, filled with marshmallow, and served with Abyss imperial stout.

Our first Urban Beer Hike stop, The Dray

The highlight of my Seattle trip came a few days later, when Dave and his dog, Link, organized a beer hike for our Deschutes dinner crew and another friend Chris, who also works at The Traveler. Afternoon snowflakes spoiled our West Seattle plans – the city’s public transportation doesn’t always stay on schedule when it snows – so we stayed closer to home. Several soccer fans were watching an Arsenal-Stoke City match when I ordered a Pike IPA at our meeting spot, The Dray. It’s a small bar, and one of those cozy neighborhood places where everyone seems to know each other. We shared a bottle of black label Girarden Gueuze before moving on to 74th Street Ale House. Though the menu listed tempting happy hour appetizers, Link couldn’t come inside, so I had Laurelwood’s Workhorse IPA and we moved on.

Taking a break to warm up at Uber

After a torta stop at Barriaga Llena, we settled in at Uber. More snow was falling by now, and we warmed up around the fire while sampling – with four-ounce pours for around $2 each, it’s easy to create your own impromptu tasting menu. Then, it was off to Kangaroo and Kiwi. There’s not an extensive beer menu here, but one Chris and I relived our Australian university days over Coopers Pale, he and the other Chris went head-to-head at pool, and we all took third in the bar’s trivia contest. When it ended, we bundled up and went to Park Pub a final stop and a Big Al IPA. Altogether, we walked about three miles, sampled beers from Washington and beyond, and hiked home in three inches of snow – a rare thing for Seattle, I’m told.

While in town, I also stopped by my Capitol Hill favorite, the Stumbling Monk, drank Fremont’s Abominable Ale at People’s Pub, and ate at Molly Moon’s, Top Pot, Paseo and Palace Kitchen. Still, there are several places that I didn’t get to visit, and a few people (Philippe, are you reading this?) I didn’t get to see. That’s the thing about Seattle, though. It always gives you good reasons to return.

Big thank yous to my Seattle friends – especially Charyn, Dave, Mandy, Link and Chris D. – for making my week so fantastic. Even if Dave did make me do a Bart Simpson shot… Thanks to Chris and Merideth, too, for letting me invade their blog.

Link, sporting a beer collar that Mandy made for him

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