Then two things happened: I fell under the sway of a questionable suds-swilling element whose potable preferences I found intriguing, and I began reading, one after another, the private-eye thrillers of Robert B. Parker, who possessed enough literary facility to make beer-drinking sound not only pleasurable but downright life-affirming. Other factors contributed: a growing interest in preparing the sorts of foods -- Indian, Cajun, Latin American -- that beer was seemingly invented to accompany, and the surrounding and exponential late-'80s growth of microbreweries and their snack-supplemented cousins, brewpubs. Before I knew it, beer had joined horseradish, anchovies, and martinis as one of those taste-bud-thrashing sensations I initially hated and eventually evolved enough to appreciate -- nay, love.
And what's not to love? Beer is a lip-smacking exercise in procedural complexity. All you do is steep some barley (or corn or rice or some other starchy cereal) in water until it ripens and its starches turn to sugar, then cook it, strain off the liquid, flavor it with hop-vine blossoms, add yeast, and let the stuff ferment into alcohol and -- the fizzy part -- carbon dioxide.
The oldest European brewery is at the ninth-century abbey of St. Gallen in Switzerland, but beer-making traditions in Bohemia and Moravia are nearly as venerable. In those days, all beers were crafted with yeasts that rose to the top of the fermenting vats and interacted with the local micro-organisms, resulting not only in the strong, hoppy beer known as ale but -- frequently -- spoilage in the brew.
Bavarian brewers discovered that if they stored (or "lagered") their fermenting beer in the icy caves of the Alps, the yeast settled to the bottom of the vats and the result was less susceptible to the elements than the original ales. These "lagers" were also cleaner of sediment and rounder, if less bracingly individual, in flavor. As a result, special bottom-fermenting yeast strains were bred to create lagers without the necessity of a cold climate. This is the yeast that was imported into the United States in 1840 and (with a simultaneous wave of German immigration into St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee) gave rise to the American beer industry. Before then, Yankee farmers made their own spruce beer or swells imported full-bodied ales from England. Neither caught the fancy of the general public, but drinking citizens sure liked the lagers.
They still do, even if (or, cynically, especially since) lager's once-distinguished character has devolved to the mass-produced level of Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft. But the aforementioned microbrew revolution has rescued many an endangered species of the hops-flavored variety, and at the B Spot, a new brewpub along the tony northern reaches of Fillmore Street, the noble lager is -- mostly -- restored to its former luster.
If a brewpub is a restaurant that makes its own beer, the B Spot qualifies, but the venue more precisely comes under the heading of a contract brewery: a place that rents time at an established brewery to create its own beers, with consultants -- usually retired brewers -- making the stuff they like after a lifetime amongst the suits. In the B Spot's case the brewmaster is Dr. Joseph Owades, an industry legend who, in addition to his 12 brewing patents, developed the first American craft beer (New Amsterdam), served as an adviser to Anchor, Red Hook, and Samuel Adams, and above and beyond all that is reputed to be the inventor of light beer. For the B Spot, Owades handcrafts three lagers in 40-barrel batches, never giving ale a second thought.
The B Spot Amber Lager, made with honest-to-God imported lager yeast and two kinds of American barley malt, has a nice rich body to it, with enough complexity to make every sip a pleasure. The Pacific Heights Pilsner is a disappointment: bland, flat, and uninspiring despite the presence of aromatic hops from both here and the Czech Republic. The surprise hit is Buddha Beer, "the enlightened lager," a low-calorie brew with more flavor and elegance than the other two beers, or just about any other you're likely to encounter. The sampler gives you 5-ounce tastes of each beer, a good basis for comparison.
One of the more pleasant byproducts of the mid-19th-century Midwestern beer incursion was the subsequent arrival of the beer garden and its Teutonic versions of pub grub: bratwurst, pretzels, and the like. Beer has traditionally been equated and paired with such hearty fare, Falstaffian viands appropriate to ballgames and tankards of malt. Of course the kind of beer you're drinking has a say in the kind of pub grub you want to ingest, and lagers happen to interact quite nicely with seafood, chicken, and barbecue, each a presence on the B Spot menu. The buffalo wings are perfectly tasty: smoky with hickory, absolutely moist, and properly accompanied by crisp little celery sticks and a moderately pungent blue cheese dip. The crab cakes are predictably sweet and heavy, but moist enough and with a minimum of breading and nice hints of herb and spice.
The modern-classic brewery standby, fried calamari, is tender and inoffensive and supplemented with tiny fried shrimp, while the halibut-cheek fish and chips are, respectively, lightly rendered and tender to the tooth, and wonderfully lusty in flavor: one of the few chips extant that's obviously derived from a potato. The barbecued ribs, while not the best in town, are moderately smoky and succulent, and they come with a nice, crisp, not-too-sweet coleslaw and a big old pile of buttery, richly textured (surprise!) polenta. There's one (ever-changing) dessert per day; the blueberry-peach cobbler we sampled was packed with fruit, pleasantly tart, supported with a rich brown-sugar crust and topped off with a slowly melting dollop of whipped cream -- delish.
The handsome autumnal-colored setting, the former home of the Alta Plaza Restaurant, is staggered on two levels, the pub downstairs, the restaurant upstairs. In addition to the three lagers, the bar offers cocktails, wine, and several alternate beers, and there are plans afoot to offer house-brewed root beer, ginger ale, and cola. Service is pleasant, and the vibe is as friendly as a tall, cool draft on a summer afternoon.The B Spot: A vibe as friendly as a tall, cool draft on a summer afternoon.