I'm going to go out on a limb and express an unpopular opinion: The San Francisco beer scene often skates by on its past and reputation. We have an amazing depth of beer history here in the City by the Bay, but in many ways, we've been a bit slower to pick up on the latest round of craft beer expansion and excitement. Now I'm not saying the local beer community isn't doing anything -- we are. New blood includes Abbot's Cellar, Mikkeller Bar, Mateveza, Cellarmaker, and the new Dogpatch Magnolia. But they are the exceptions, not the norm. Under the shadow of Napa wine and crowded out of restaurant menus by craft cocktails, the local beer scene has some ground to catch up. (Here's a fun experiment: Visit a restaurant's website and see how long it takes you to find out what beers are available. I'll wait.)
For an example of a city that has really embraced beer, look at San Diego, where every new restaurant has 30 craft taps -- not because they're known for their beer selection, but because that's the minimum that's expected of them. Then there's Portland, where new breweries grow like old timey mustaches. Both have a culture that welcomes, embraces, and celebrates craft beer as a part of the local food scene.
But there is an exception, one area San Francisco craft beer culture is ahead of the pack: San Francisco Beer Week.
San Francisco Beer Week is amazing. It proves that we have the excitement, enthusiasm, and creativity that some of these other beer-loving cities have, but that it just hasn't been built into our daily food culture yet. But if SF Beer Week is a sign of the direction that local beer culture is heading, the future's so bright you're going to need ... a dark bar full of amazing craft beer to avoid getting sunburned.
With more than 500 events on the calendar (and more being posted every day) SF Beer Week is the one time of year where the beer geek community throws open it's doors and says, "for this week, everyone is a beer geek." It's just assumed that you're interested in the intricacies of barrel aging, dry hopping, and the differences between ale and lager yeasts. It's assumed everyone is chomping at the bit to wait in line for a bitter aromatic delicous beer that is more than a beer, it's a cultural event.
As brewer and an event planner myself, the excitement is palpable. We [at Almanac] (and every other brewery in town) can't do enough beer dinners and tap takeovers to meet demand for this one week. My planned sixteen-course dinner with Lazy Bear sold out nearly instantaneously. Another dinner at Bar Jules quickly followed. It's an unabashed, irony-free celebration of a drink, history and culture we love. I feel like it gives me license to attempt more and more ambitious events that explore beer in new ways of thinking about beer. This year that event is Beer Talks, a beer-soaked play on TED Talks featuring speakers diving into the smallest and most exciting details of brewing. It's an event that is undeniably geeky, focused, and a little obsessive -- I couldn't be more excited.
Restaurants and bars that like beer but don't make it central to their mission get into the spirit of things too. For just this week, you could be forgiven for thinking that ales and lagers are the new $4 toast.
But then, as the tulip and pints glasses are packed away for next year, San Francisco will go back to liking beer, but not loving beer. We know the passion is there, but how do we extend it to make it part of our everyday food culture? Now comes the hard part, and the heavy lifting for those like me in the local beer and food community. It's a lot easier to pose the question than to answer it.
Sure, there are some easy things restaurants can do right off the bat: more seasonal specialty beers on tap, more pairings, more detailed beer menus, more training for the staff. But maybe that's a matter for when the hangover clears -- from Feb. 7 to 16, it's San Francisco Beer Week. Go out and experience that alternate dimension San Francisco, where beer is always listed on restaurant websites, the cicerone instead of the sommelier comes by to recommend a few drink pairings, and everything is cooked with hops, malt yeast, and water in mind.
The version of San Francisco that exists this during Beer Week is my favorite San Francisco, and if you haven't yet visited it I invite you to come out for a beer. You might like it so much, you decide to stay.