Beer originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt as early as 3000 B.C. The knowledge of and production of beer eventually made its way to Europe and became a staple drink of regions where wine grapes could not be grown, most notably in Germany, Belgium, and England. However, it was not until the mid 19th century that beer began to be widely produced in the United States. German immigrants introduced the lager style of beer to the US at this time, and it has remained the most popular, mass-produced style of beer to this day.
San Francisco began to form as a modern city in the mid 19th century largely due to the Gold Rush. Many of the town’s original inhabitants were immigrants from Germany and Ireland. With them came a strong beer culture and knowledge of beer making, and San Francisco quickly became a hub for burgeoning breweries and bars. By 1852, there was already 1 bar for every 100 people. However, it was not until the 1970s that traditional beer making began a comeback after the devastation in consumption and production of Prohibition. Since then, the Bay Area has become the center of advocating high quality craft brews. People talk of the aroma and taste notes of beer similar to how one discusses wine. This excitement for beer makes San Francisco and its environs the place to go to discover great breweries, pubs, and beer-related festivals.
Microbreweries; The small, but mighty
San Francisco is the home of some outstanding microbreweries. A brewery is considered a microbrewery when it only produces up to 15,000 barrels a year. Perhaps the most famous San Francisco microbrewery is Anchor Brewing Company, which is accredited for starting the craft beer movement in the US, in 1965. Anchor’s well-known beer, Anchor Steam, is the last surviving example of steam beer -- the only original style of the United States. Steam beer started when San Francisco breweries tried to produce German-style lagers, but did not have the ice required to do so. The result was a beer that was full-bodied and very gaseous, so when the keg was tapped a lot of foam, or “steam,” was released. Anchor Brewing Co. makes other unique beers including Old Foghorn and Summer Ale. A free tour and tasting is available by appointment only, but their beers can be found at many grocery stores and in local bars.
Speakeasy is a recent addition to the microbrew scene and has a strong local following in San Francisco. Their name commemorates the places people would go during Prohibition to drink illegally and discuss forward-thinking ideas. Their beers characterize the West Coast style: they are hoppy, full of flavor, and high in alcohol content. Most of their beers are dry hopped, meaning hops are added after the beer has finished fermenting. This process adds a strong hop flavor to the beer without increasing its bitterness. The brewery is open every Friday from 4-9pm for a brewery tour and samples.
Brewpubs, Gastropubs, and Beer Bars! Oh, my!
The difference between a brewpub and a brewery is a brewpub produces and sells the majority of its beer onsite in conjunction with a restaurant, whereas a brewery strictly produces beer to sell through distributors. North Beach’s San Francisco Brewing Co. is the first brewpub of San Francisco; it was established in 1985, in an old saloon. Thirsty Bear, in the SOMA district, followed ten years later and became the first brewpub to produce all organic beer and serve Spanish cuisine. Other brewpubs include 21st Amendment, in SOMA, and the British-inspired Magnolia, in Haight-Ashbury. These establishments must be sought out because many of them do not distribute their beer to retail stores or bars.
Visiting bars and specialty stores is another way to find new types of beers in San Francisco. Monks Kettle, in the Mission, opened a few years ago as one of the City’s first gastropubs (a term coined to connote a pub with gourmet food and an extensive beer selection). The beer list is comprised of an impressive 150 selections -- the menu is even broken down by category, with explanations for each style.
For a more casual bar, Toronado, in the Lower Haight, is a good choice for its extensive selection of national craft and uncommon international beers. City Beer, on Folsom Street, is truly the beer connoisseur hangout. Not only are there over 300 worldwide bottled beers to explore and bring home, there is also a tasting room with six rotating beers on tap and small bites to enjoy. With places like these all over the Bay Area, the beer enthusiast is sure to have trouble running out of beers to try!
Events worth Raising Your Stein To
There are two notable beer events in San Francisco: the International Beer Festival and Beer Week. The International Beer Festival takes place every year in the spring, near Fort Mason in the Marina. Tickets go for around $60, and even at that price they go quickly. The price includes unlimited samples of beer from over 200 local and international breweries, food, and giveaways.
The goal of Beer Week is to celebrate all the craft beer that Northern California has to offer. Various events are held throughout the area at restaurants, bars, and breweries including beer and food pairings, demonstrations, guest speakers, and beer tastings. Some venues are free, while others charge anywhere from $10-$100. Both festivals are a fun and different way to discover new beer, whether local or not, to learn more about beer making, and to understand how beer can complement food. The next Beer Week takes place from February 5-14, 2010.
The craft brew movement started around 40 years ago in San Francisco, and has made its mark: over 1,400 microbreweries exist nationally today. The Bay Area has the highest number of microbreweries and brewpubs in the nation, which might be why people in this area tend to gravitate away from mass-produced beer. With a large repertoire of craft beers now available, many restaurants and cafes are increasingly starting to offer a wide selection of high-quality beers on their menu, in addition to a wine list. And while the process of making it may not be quite as delicate, beer can be just as multi-faceted as wine. After all, a good brew master still must choose the right blend and type of yeast, hops, water, starch, and sometimes other ingredients to produce a drink that has complex taste and aroma. Done correctly, a great beer can be just as pleasurable as a glass of wine; and recently, more and more people are drawing the same conclusion.
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