Tuesday, February 22, 2011

San Francisco Beer Week 2011, part 1

Five days in San Francisco would be enough to generate gobs of content for these Brew Lounge pages. Layer its third annual Beer Week into the mix, and I've got quite the dilemma with how and what to present back to you.

Writing, it turns out, is the relatively easier part — at least for me. After processing, editing, captioning, and uploading 11 videos and nearly 200 pictures, there are a few more grays in my beard and a few less last nerves.

Nonetheless, we persevere and move on. I've waffled on how to tell the story. Chronologically seems to make a lot of sense, not to mention easier. I could get creative with people and places, weaving stories in and out of each other. But, then I may never get this out to you. Plus, Philly's spring version of Philly Beer Weekend, aka Craft Beer Express et al, is coming up and I'm sure I'll spend some time around at least a few of those events.

Getting There
Let's jump right in to San Francisco Beer Week 2011. Mother Nature tried unsuccessfully to keep me from the Bay Area much like last year, but it turns out she just didn't have another 20 inch wallop in her this year. Any threat of a nor'easter coming up the coast didn't materialize. Patty and I were able to make it out of Philly to the West Coast with nary an incident.

So smooth was the trip that USAirways actually apologized for being almost an hour early to SFO and promised to "make up for it" on a future flight. Nothing could be closer to the truth, I'm sure, given their track record!

For anyone traveling to San Francisco for the first time, if you're heading downtown in the City and not renting a car, take heed. There's virtually no reason to take a cab from the airport. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) leaves the airport frequently and costs just a bit over $8 one-way per person. The trains do appear to have lost a little of their polish over the years, but it is still one of the more efficiently and intuitively run systems in the country. Sure, there could be better (read: any) service to Marin County and the North Bay, but what they do have to the other areas of the region seems to work quite well.

And, work very well it did for SF Beer Week and our plans. During our five days, we were able to go roundtrip from the airport to downtown and attend all of the events that I'll go on to describe here via BART trains, one bus, and two cabs for a total of $40 per person. But enough about public transportation. I believe that most of you "get it".

Friday 2/11
Upon landing, catching BART into the city, and getting checked in to our hotel (disclosure: Hotel Palomar was base camp for The Brew Lounge during this trip and for which I'll be doing some general travel writing about in an upcoming Washington Times Communities column), we headed off to lunch in the Mission District. This would be the trip to SF that would have us learn more about the Mission District than in previous trips. I've never done more in the Mission than simply head to the 16th Street BART station and walk the couple of blocks to Monk's Kettle.

Mission Pie, at 25th & Mission Streets just one long block from the 24th Street BART station, made Steak and Stout Pot Pies for SFBW. I envisioned some large vessel — a pin, a sixtel? — of beer being delivered to the restaurant. But, it only took two growlers of Thirsty Bear Koslov Stout to braise enough Niman Ranch beef for 90 pot pies. San Francisco's only organic brewery meets organic restaurant — perfect!

We ordered one of these SFBW pies and one chicken pot pie along with a couple of coffees to get us going. It turned out to be just what we needed to get through the afternoon. Excellent coffee and savory pot pies with tender meat and potatoes wrapped inside of firm pastry dough made for a satisfying lunch. Mission Pie is the kind of neighborhood gathering spot that will feed your stomach and your conscience. They practice all of the "good things" from sustainability, to organic, to locally-sourced, to recycling, to community outreach, and on and on.

When on vacation, how better to follow up a satisfying lunch than with a 10 minute walk for dessert?! Along our walk we passed the Mission Cultural Center and the second location of Rosamunde Sausage Grill (the first being next door to Toronado). We made our way to the well-regarded Humphrey Slocumbe ice cream parlor. They were embarking on their second annual project (or is it third, by now?) of incorporating beer into their already excellent ice cream. We met up with wanderin' Chaz. Anyone primarily in the western half of the States will likely recognize him simply by his first name. Hailing from Alaska, but working for an airline, he travels quite readily and easily in the name of good beer. He brought along a love interest this time around and we all shared some ice cream.

Not leaving any stone unturned, I ordered the four "beer varieties" that they had for the day: Unfermented Wort with Honey (very, very good; sweet like you'd expect); Coconut Sour Stave (interesting to be sure, with a bit of a lambic-like finish); Imperial Stout (not quite the richness that I expected); and Porter with Cocoa (nicely balanced). There would be additional flavors unveiled as the SF Beer Week went along.

Decadent and unnecessary, to be sure, but also worth the taste was what was in Patty's bowl. She ordered their year-round crowd favorite, the Secret Breakfast. What do you think might be in the Secret Breakfast? You'd be correct if you guessed Corn Flakes and Bourbon. You'd also be incorrect if you thought that this would somehow be wrong. This couldn't have been more right!

At this point, it was time to catch BART back to our very dog-friendly hotel at 4th and Market Streets, conveniently just above the Powell Street Station. After a short downtime and freshening-up, it was off to the Opening Gala, whose VIP session actually began at 3:30 p.m. I suppose in the "Original Craft Beer-Drinking City", they don't need to wait until the official end of the workday to get the party started.

The VIP line at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was long, but it moved quickly. It gave us time to catch up with some old friends while waiting in line. We learned later that during general admission, things outside the festival did not go so smoothly with some paying customers actually being turned away and for others who were admitted, not enough commemoritve tasting glassware to go around. For something so well planned, this all seemed odd to me, but not being a part of their day-to-day "local" beer scene, I'm not really equipped to opine any further on these topics.

But, I can say that from my own experience, by half way through the evening, it became obvious that the venue may not have been large enough to accommodate all of the ticket holding customers. Fortunately, there was an outdoor garden area where a few vendors were stationed. California in February, at least this year, was so pleasant that being outside presented absolutely no issue whatsoever. Plus, we counted ourselves extra fortunate considering the roughly 55 degree temperature difference between when we left home and when we touched down at SFO.

Inside the festival, three primary organizers, Jay Brooks, Meg Gill, and Rich Higgins kicked off the festival with introductions, toasted Don Younger's life contributions to the industry (recently deceased owner of Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Ore.), and introduced an all-star panel of California brewers to the stage.

In alphabetical order, Matt Brynildson (Firestone Walker), Mark Carpenter (Anchor), Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), Brian Hunt (Moonlight), Shaun O'Sullivan (21st Amendment), Pete Slosberg (Pete's Wicked), and Terence Sullivan (Sierra Nevada) all took to the stage for a spirited conversation about what makes the Bay Area so strong in the world of craft brewing.

One easy observation to make from both the festival and the week's schedule of events — The small guys are taking over. Much like similar trends spotted around the country, nano, pico, and other such small brewers are popping up left and right.

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan, for example, have only just recently brought Almanac Beer Company into local beer lover rolodexes. They were one of the most crowded tables at the Gala until they went through all of the barrel-aged beer that they brought to the festival. Their progress will certainly bear watching over the coming months as they pursue their philosophy of "farm-to-barrel" brewing in keeping with the four seasons of the year.

But, no table was more crowded than that of Russian River's. I found it fascinating that even on their home turf, they still need to beat back the crowds. I tweeted or facebooked something to this extent that Pliny the Younger is just as in demand in Northern California as it is in any other market that gets it each February. I passed on it here, knowing that there would be more opportunities to sample it in coming days.

The Opening Gala, as with Philadelphia's, seems to be pretty much mandatory in participation. Though, in Philadelphia this past year, there were more opening Friday events than ever before to compete with the official opening night festivities. In San Francisco, there were no other "non-everyday" scheduled festivities to compete with the Opening Gala during its timeslot. The couple of events that were scheduled were outside the city.

This, of course, didn't stop Toronado from throwing an after party for the Gala. If our bodies were not saying that we'd been up the equivalent of 21 hours at this point, we likely would have made our way into the Lower Haight for some late night debauchery with Firestone Walker, Ninkasi, and Speakeasy. But, prudence got the best of us and we called it a day — a very good day at that.

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