Right before SF Beer Week began in February, Jesse Friedman of Almanac Brewing Co. wrote a blog post for SF Weekly excoriating local beer culture. "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," he wrote, and went on to make the (valid) argument that San Francisco lags far behind West Coast peers like San Diego and Portland in embracing local beer as part of its everyday food culture. Once Beer Week ended, Friedman wondered, would the city's restaurants and bars sustain their enthusiasm for local brews, or would beer fall back to being a third-class citizen behind wine and craft cocktails?
Beer Week's been over for nearly two months, and the Bay Area's craft brewing momentum doesn't seem to be slowing down. San Francisco has a ways to go before it catches up with Portland and its 53 breweries — S.F.'s currently around 20 — but the number has been growing. 2014 has already seen an explosion of openings: Woods Polk Station from the Cervaceria de MateVeza guys, Fort Point Beer Company in the Presidio, Triple Voodoo in the Dogpatch, and Barrel Head Brewhouse in NoPa. Next week, Magnolia Brewing's second location is slated to open in the Dogpatch, followed later this year by the Lower Haight's Black Sands Brewing Company, and Sunset Reservoir Brewing from the Devil's Teeth Baking Company owners.
And those are only the openings that have been announced to the public. Brian Stechschulte, executive director of the San Francisco Brewers Guild, the nonprofit that throws Beer Week, estimates that he's heard of at least a dozen in the planning stage. "It's pretty amazing right now in terms of where we're headed," he says. "I think it's good overall. Most of them will be smaller, serving the neighborhoods where they're popping up. I think there's a lot of room in San Francisco."
The rise in craft breweries isn't only limited to the city limits either. According to recently released data from the U.S. Brewers' Association, national craft beer sales went up 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, while the number of breweries in the United States rose by about 15 percent — the country now has the most breweries it's had since the 1880s. Craft beer is having a national moment, and San Franciscans are finally taking a break from Napa wines, artisan cocktails, third-wave coffee, and farm-to-table dining to take notice.
"San Francisco's swinging toward beer right now, which is pretty fantastic," says Rich Higgins, master cicerone (basically a beer sommelier) and consultant to a number of restaurants and upcoming breweries. "It's all coming together in a perfect storm."
To be fair, S.F. has always been a beer town. The Gold Rush was also a golden age of local brewing, as migrants from all over the world brought their brewing styles to serve thirsty miners. Steam beer, also called California common beer, dates back to this time; it was a cheap lager that didn't need to be refrigerated during fermentation. The brewery that would eventually become Anchor built its reputation on it.
Then came Prohibition, which wiped out breweries across the country. Most never recovered, even after the amendment was repealed. For the next few decades, the American brewing scene was dominated by large companies making watery, uninteresting lagers, including local breweries like Hamm's, Lucky Lager, Acme, and Burgermeister.
Things changed in 1965 when Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and transformed it into one of the country's most influential craft brewers. Anchor released the first American porter in 1972, and followed it with the first modern American IPA in 1975. Liberty Ale was made with flowery Cascade hops which were then adopted by Chico's Sierra Nevada (in 1980, with Anchor's blessing), and soon after by IPA makers around the world. Sonoma's New Albion Brewing and Mendocino Brewing Company also came. And so it was that Northern California, and specifically S.F., set the tone for beers for the rest of the country in the Great '70s Craft Beer Renaissance.
It's not that the brewing scene here just languished after that, Higgins points out — breweries like Gordon Biersch, Thirsty Bear, the San Francisco Brewing Company, and others all saw good growth in the '80s and '90s. (And, in the aughts, great breweries like Magnolia, Speakeasy, and 21st Amendment.) But the Bay Area had a lot more going on, food- and drink-wise, than cities like Portland and San Diego, and its focus shifted away from beer while the other cities doubled down on it. Meanwhile, high rents and a complicated permitting process kept the bar for entry high, especially for homebrewers who didn't necessarily have much business know-how. So it transpired that other cities gained a name as beer towns, and though California became known as a Mecca for hop-heavy IPAs and pale ales, San Francisco did, a tiny bit, begin to skate by on its past.
But the pendulum always swings back, and genuinely interesting things are once again happening in the beer scene. At Beer Week's opening gala, which featured 80 breweries from all over Northern California, there were fewer hop-bombs than intriguing experimental beers finding new ways to use European yeasts and different types of aging processes. Barrel-aging is becoming a big deal. Sour and fruit beers are everywhere. When brewers do use hops, they're looking beyond Cascade, Centennial, and others traditionally tied to Northern California, and finding new varieties in places like Japan and New Zealand.
Beer and food are also becoming more intertwined. The Cicerone Certification Program, which began in 2008, is an international set of standards to identify people who have the skill and knowledge to sell and buy beer — aspiring cicerones have to take a test like the sommelier exam to get certified. Those who pass, like Higgins, are working with restaurants, wine bars, and cafes like Abbot's Cellar, St. Vincent, and Mission Cheese to create sophisticated beer-pairing programs.
Local brewers are collaborating more with restauranteurs to create beers specifically to pair with the food. Almanac made a Japanese lager for Ichi Sushi using the restaurant's own sushi rice, shiso, and yuzu. Fort Point Brewery is making a kolsch-style beer for April Bloomfield's Tosca Cafe. Mikkeller, a Danish brewer that opened an outpost near Union Square in 2013, has made a beer for Mission Chinese food made with Sichuan peppercorns.
A lot more of this collaboration needs to happen before beer — the great democratic beverage — is viewed with the same respect as a glass of wine or a finely crafted cocktail. More restaurants need to buff up their beer lists (have you ever been offered a special beer menu at a nice restaurant, let alone tried to find one on its website?) and train staff to be able to recommend beers or pairings. And the public needs to keep supporting these brewery experiments by buying and drinking them, leading to more investors willing to put money into new breweries.
But the past few months have revealed that the S.F. beer scene is ready to step out of the shadow of its past, and those in the scene think that people are ready. "San Francisco has a huge audience for local products, obviously," says Stechschulte of the S.F. Brewers' Guild. "In the long run there's lots of talk about can it be sustainable, are enough people making the conversion to craft beer? I'm pretty confident that it's gonna last."