Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

Beer in the Bay Area

A couple years ago, I started getting splitting headaches when I drank the sort of full-bodied red wine that I’d come to enjoy. A lesser man might have despaired, but I found solace in the wide and wonderful world of beer. Since then, I’ve become something of a beer connoisseur, to the point that I’m taking a trip to Belgium later this month almost solely for beer tourism.

The Bay Area is a pretty good place for beer, and getting better. Here’s what I’ve discovered since moving here in mid-2007:

Beer Shops

The City Beer Store is located a bit out of the way in SOMA, the City Beer Store manages to stock an impressive selection of bottles given their meager space. They also have a few things on tap, and you can purchase a tasting glass and hang out at their petite bar or the couple of spare tables they’ve set up. It’s not a particularly inviting place, and seems to attract a khaki-slacks after-work crowd who pack the bar; expect guys in blue Oxfords talking their girlfriends into trying raspberry lambics. I’ve spent upwards of $40 every time I’ve been here and haven’t yet been offered any help or suggestions, and have had to stand around awkwardly until someone rings me up. So, even though this place is maybe a ten minute walk from my apartment, I almost never bother.

Healthy Spirits is nestled between the Lower Haight and the Castro, and this inconspicuous neighborhood bodega happens to have probably the best selection of Belgian beer in San Francisco proper. Always friendly, the staff here keeps the place open late and always has great suggestions. A hidden gem. Apparently they’re hiring a ‘resident beer guru’, so I’m hopeful that their business continues to grow.

Whole Foods SOMA, well, I live here, literally; my apartment is directly above the place. An entire aisle is nothing but refrigerated beer on one side. The case is organized by nationality: American beers on the left, then Belgian and various European countries, then German, then English, and finally a mix of Asian, Australian, and Mexican/South American beers. More or less, the two far ends of the case are crap. Almost all the American beer is local Californian microbrews, and almost all of them suck with the notable exception of North Coast. The Belgian and German selections are where it’s at, and they get new stuff in often enough to find intriguing new bottles a couple of times per week. They also keep some hard-to-find stuff in regular stock, like the Witkap Pater Single and several brews from the Japanese Hitachino Nest label.

Beer Bars

Toronado is San Francisco’s biggest disappointment for beer lovers. A casual pub in the Haight with scads of taps in frequent rotation sounds unfuckupable in theory, but Toronado manages to take this simple formula and botch it. How? It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s cramped, and they insist on keeping their taps stocked with shitty West Coast beers for most of the year, save month-long Barleywine and Belgian festivals. There’s a list of mostly Belgian bottles, but it’s kept behind the bar. Toronado’s final deal-breaker, though, is the bartender. She’ll take a five-minute phone call while fifteen people are waiting to order drinks. She’ll let you order a round for five people one night and demand everyone’s identification and physical presence at the bar the next, insulting you for expecting otherwise. She’s the worst bartender I’ve suffered, and she’s always there, fuck-you glare fixed in place. I don’t bother with Toronado anymore, but their clientele of apathetic regulars will probably keep the place open until doomsday.

The Alembic is primarily for cocktails and hard liquor, but they keep some tasty beers stocked from time to time. Not much of interest on draft, but good bottles. They manage to select better West Coast brews than most. Get there early, though, because they fill up.

The Monk’s Kettle recently opened up in the Mission, and they’re clearly going for the upscale beer market. While their name implies Belgians, their draft and bottle list covers a little bit of everything, although nothing you won’t find at Whole Foods or the City Beer Store. It’s a pretty setting, and they actually have a decent food menu. I would’ve fallen in love with this place if weren’t for one thing: the prices. The Monk’s Kettle is overcharging outrageously for both glasses and bottles alike. Expect to pay double what Whole Foods charges for run-of-the-mill Belgian bottles, $11-12 for meager 8 oz. pours of nice stuff on draft, and even a couple extra bucks for pours of over-hopped local brews. My biggest concern is that newbies to the beer world are going to think that these prices are commonplace for good beer, and that the cost will turn them off. Until the Monk’s Kettle decides to charge a fair price for their suds, I’m not going to be a frequent customer.

The Trappist, which opened just a month ago in Oakland, is the Bay Area’s beer salvation as far as I’m concerned. This beautiful bar is a quick four block walk from the Oakland City Center/12th Street BART station, and it’s practically easier to get to from SOMA than the above establishments. Their beer list is almost exclusively Belgian, and they pour every label-paired glass with care. The proprietors have apparently done their share of beer tourism in Belgium and wanted to bring back the feeling from the pubs there. If they’ve met that goal, I’m all the more excited for my upcoming trip, as it’s a warm, friendly, and completely relaxing place to enjoy great beer at a reasonable price. The only nitpicks are the small size of the bar and the lack of table service, which makes for a huddled mass around the bar as the evening wears on. Still, I’d recommend The Trappist above any other beer establishment in the Bay Area, heads and shoulders.

Summary

The Bay won’t do you wrong if you’re into beer. I haven’t even begun to explore the breweries in surrounding towns, and I’m sure there are spots I don’t know about. Still, I miss the DC area beer scene, which boasted larger, more comfortable establishments with broader selections and far more friendly personalities. Hopefully some of the smaller places above, like Healthy Spirits and The Trappist, will be able to grow into larger spaces as time goes by and encourage fairer prices and better service in their competition.

Been to Belgium or Amsterdam?

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