Like burritos and sourdough bread, we've got no shortage of good craft beers in the Bay Area. Just down the street from my apartment are a craft beer pub, a beer garden, and two breweries, with at least two more on the way. This doesn't include, of course, the countless bars serving brews that would be hard-to-find anywhere else. But despite the Bay's affection for rare beers (raise your hand if you've stood in line for Pliny the Younger), there's still a place for that middle-ground beer: the widely available, affordable, and still darn tasty IPA.
American style IPAs are a staple of West Coast breweries, showcasing our locally grown hops in ways that range from subtle to bombastic. There are plenty of small-scale operations making killer IPAs, but for this showdown, we're taking a look at two of the longer-running breweries on both sides of the bay: 21st Amendment in San Francisco's SoMa district and Drake's in San Leandro.
21st Amendment: Brew Free! or Die IPA ($8-9 for 6)
Founded in 2000, the 21st Amendment brewery is probably known just as much for their creative cans and charming beer descriptions as they are for their award-winning beers. Their SOMA brewpub is a fine gathering place for happy hour or pre-Giants, er, "tailgating," but six-packs of their cans are available in 14 states, and just about everywhere in the Bay Area.
The first thing I notice when I pour out a can of Brew Free! or Die is that it's difficult to get a proper head on the beer. Blame it on my poor pouring skills, but I still missed that luxuriously creamy first sip of light foam. Head aside, it's a gorgeous beer, and I'm all the more appreciative of its rich gold color since I rarely see it outside of the can. Bringing the glass to my nose, I am greeted with vibrant citrus notes with a gentle background of yeast. It's a refreshing and enticing scent.
Brew Free! or Die has plenty of hoppy character -- it's resiny, bitter, and slightly floral, but the beer doesn't smack of pine trees. Its duo of two-row pale and imported Munich malts bring rounding, balancing sweetness to the hops. This sugar and the residual yeast suspended in the beer gives each sip body and intensity. The only problem? I can't drink more than one or two of these without needing to switch to something lighter.
Drake's: India Pale Ale ($8-9 for 6)
Drake's is quite a bit older. The brewery was founded on the heels of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, in 1989. Their facility in San Leandro churns out a mix of approachable brews smattered with more experimental hop-heavy seasonals. It's a bit of trek to the brewery for those of us not in the area, but the journey is rewarded with plenty of beer and rotating food trucks (shout out to Fist of Flour and Fiveten Burger). Like 21st Amendment, Drake's beers are also widely available by the six-pack throughout the Bay.
This IPA pours a much better head than Brew Free! or Die, with a creamy color to contrast to the copper-toned beer. Its scent is a little weak, though, calling to mind keg parties over brew-pubs. The piney hop flavors are much more apparent here, with a lingering bitterness long after I've swallowed the first few sips. I can make out a bit of citrus, but very little else. In fact, I can barely tell that the beer contains three different malts -- I miss that roundedness. Still, there's one benefit to the beer's lack of complexity: it's easy to drink. And while I'd be hesitant to call a 7 percent ABV beer sessionable, it does go down dangerously easy.
Aroma: 21st Amendment
Color: 21st Amendment
Hoppiness: 21st Amendment
Complexity: 21st Amendment
Sessionability (not a real word, but a good one): Drake's
The winner? 21st Amendment. S.F.'s most distinctive can takes the prize.