Greetings Beer & Travel Lovers!
In our last blog post we introduced the goings on at Maui Brewing Company in Brewed with Aloha! In this article we travel back to the Bay Area to introduce you to the top three places to go for beer in San Francisco.
A Brief Word from Our Sponsor
Before we talk about beer in San Francisco, we’d like to mention that we recently published our 2018 Munich & Bamberg Brewery Tours dates.
If you’re interested in touring the world's oldest breweries, exploring the 1,000 year-old cities of Munich & Bamberg, meeting local craft brewers, enjoying the finest beer gardens and beer halls, ferrying the Danube River and more, please visit us at Munich & Bamberg Brewery Tours.
Now Back to San Francisco
It’s well known that San Francisco is a top vacation destination for travelers from around the world. What’s lesser known is that Northern California is the birthplace of the worldwide craft beer movement. With this in mind, here’s a brief history of craft beer in SF and NorCal, followed by an introduction to a few of our favorite taprooms in and around San Francisco that you’ll want to check out the next time you visit.
In the Beginning
First Modern Era Craft Brewery
In 1980, in a small town in California’s northern central valley that was best known for having one of the nation’s top party schools, the first of the modern era craft breweries – Sierra Nevada Brewing Company – was founded by Ken Grossman.
Ken and his partner recognized that people wanted more from their beer than the uninspiring lagers that large companies like Budweiser were pumping out. As stated on the Sierra Nevada website, they “set out with a simple goal: brew the beers we wanted to drink.”
A full history can be found here, but it’s fair to say that Sierra Nevada was the country’s first modern era craft brewery, and that their Pale Ale changed the industry and American taste buds forever.
Top 3 Beer Places in San Francisco
Admittedly, any “Top X” list is subjective and based on personal taste, interests, etc. Regardless, even if there are “better” breweries or brewpubs in SF, we’re confident you won’t be disappointed if you decide to check out any of the three on our list. That said, we settled on our Top 3 Beer Places for a couple reasons:
1. Variety. Our Top 3 Beer Places brew and/or serve a lot more styles than just IPAs which many breweries and brewpubs tend to focus on. Whereas I can appreciate a well-made IPA or DIPA, I prefer a diverse selection of beers that, in some cases, are a little more subtle on the palate.
2. Quality & Creativity. We focused on places that brew and/or serve quality and complex beers produced using a variety of ingredients that come together in unique and interesting flavors. In other words, beer that you’re not going to easily find elsewhere.
3. Independence. When a brewery is purchased by one of the industry behemoths, like ABV Inbev, profit eventually becomes the key business driver and they tend to lose touch with the creativity that made them good to begin with. All three of our Top 3 Beer Places (plus the two on our Honorable Mention list) are independent.
So without further ado, here are what we consider to be the Top 3 Beer Places in San Francisco. Important note, these spots are listed in alphabetic order and their positioning does not reflect our preference for one over another.
1. Cellarmaker Brewing Company
Founded in 2013 and located just outside the city’s “high-tech jungle” at 1150 Howard Street, Cellarmaker made the list because of the creativity and quality of their beer plus the range of styles they produce. Co-founders, Connor Casey and Tim Sciascia, describe it best on their website:
“We are a San Francisco brewery producing our beers in small batches one beer at a time. It is our goal to keep your taste buds intrigued by constantly producing different flavors. To us, making the same 3-4 beers all the time would be boring. We hope you feel the same way.”
On the day I visited, they had 14 taps pouring styles that ranged from a slightly bitter “Saazel Tov!” Pilsner (5.6% ABV / 42 IBU) to a Coconut Imperial Stout “Blammo!” (13.5% ABV / 70 IBU). Although I enjoyed several of their beers, I was particularly impressed with the Blammo! because the alcohol was not the predominant flavor. In fact I couldn’t even taste it. This is a sign of a brewery that knows what it’s doing!
Other beers of note included the “Quadruple Dobis” Quad IPA (12.8% / 106 IBU), “Tim’s Brown” Brown Ale (6.8% ABV / 24 IBU), and perhaps their most famous brew, “Coffee and Cigarettes” Coffee Porter (8.5% ABV / 45 IBU)... don’t let the name dissuade you from trying it!
Cellarmaker is located in an industrial area not far from downtown that has yet to gentrify, and their tasting room, although modern, reflects that industrial spirit. Co-founder, Kelly Caveney, manages the tasting room and if you’re lucky enough to have her serve you, not only will you be greeted by a friendly face, but you can learn a lot about the brewery and brewing from her.
Final note, the tasting room is relatively small and filled up quickly the day I visited. So if you plan on going, you’re best off visiting as soon as your internal clock strikes “beer-thirty”.
2. Laughing Monk Brewing
Have you ever walked into a friend or neighbor’s garage when they’re home brewing? That’s what it’s like to walk into Laughing Monk, and an experience you’re not going to get at many other breweries. The first thing that will hit you is the smell of boiling wort, and the friendly folks behind the bar will make you feel right at home.
Besides the welcoming experience, Laughing Monk makes our list because of their unique focus on producing complex and flavorful beers that blend styles from Belgium and California. The inspiration comes from founders Andrew Casteel and Jeff Moakler (also the brew master) who each had memorable beer experiences visiting Belgium. Laughing Monk is located about 5 miles south of downtown (10-15 minutes by car) at 1439A Egbert Avenue but it’s definitely worth the effort to get there.
Laughing Monk brews in small batches (15 to 30 barrels) keeps 15 taps pouring and their most popular beers are “Mango Gose” (Sour Gose, 4.8% ABV / 7 IBU), “Holy Ghost” (Pilsner, 4.8% ABV / 25 IBU), and “Evening Vespers” (Belgian Dubbel, 7.1% ABV / 15 IBU).
I didn’t taste a bad beer, but the two that really tickled my taste buds were the “Third Circle” (Belgian Tripel, 8.7% ABV / 28 IBU), and the “Blackberry Pulpit” (Black Tripel, 7.6% ABV / 15 IBU). I’m generally not a fruit beer fan, but the subtle blackberry flavor blended nicely with the chocolate flavor.
In addition to brewing great beer, Laughing Monk also organizes various activities at the tasting room and one gets the sense that they strive to support the community around them. Check out their home page for a current list of activities, and if you really feel motivated, join them for one of their yoga and beer sessions on Sunday mornings from 10:00 – 12:00 which are advertised as “90 Minute Bhakti Yoga & A Pint Afterwards”.
3. Mikkeller Bar
Mikkeller is located just off Market Street at 34 Mason Street on the edge of the Tenderloin district. The brewery itself was founded in 2006 in Copenhagen, Denmark and last year they opened their first U.S. brewery in San Diego. While much larger than the first two breweries on our list, Mikkeller is still a relatively small, independent brewery that operates more than 30 “bars” around the world that pour their own beer plus many other unique and interesting beers.
Mikkeller Bar SF is as close to beer heaven as you’re going to find anywhere. They have 44 taps and they pour the widest variety of beer styles that I could find. I asked Josh Carney, general manager of the SF location, what key factors he considers in determining what to pour. He responded, “Quality and freshness, new local beers and an always rotating list. Quality as subjective as that is, would be the biggest determining factor.” He added, “We try to have a diverse and balanced list. We have 44 total taps in house so we can have obscure styles as well.”
There are so many choices at Mikkeller that it can be hard to choose, but it’s also hard to not find several that you like. When I visited, I tried eight beers across a range of styles including the following that turned out to be my favorites:
1. Mikkeller “Beer Geek Brunch” (Imperial Oatmeal Stout w/Vietnamese “Weasel” Coffee, 10.9% ABV). The only note I made for this beer was the word “delicious”.
2. Mikkeller “Sort Gul” (Black IPA, 7.3% ABV). A very complex beer that had a subtle bitterness and had a very smooth finish.
3. Mikkeller “Spontansourcherry” (Spontaneous (fermentation) Sour w/Tart Cherries, 7.7% ABV). This beer had a tart start but a very smooth finish. It would be easy to drink more than one of these in a single sitting.
4. Oskar Blues “Ten Fidy” (Russian Imperial Stout, 9.4% ABV). Very smooth and easy to drink for a 9.4% beer.
Depending on your tolerance for “diversity”, the only thing I might recommend for visiting the Mikkeller Bar is to use a ride hailing service to get there. They’re located at the edge of a neighborhood that can be a bit sketchy, but once you’re there, you’ll be glad you made the pilgrimage.
Honorable Mention List
We decided to include an “honorable mention” list because there are a couple places outside of SF proper that deserve to be recognized. It’s safe to say that if either of these two places were located in SF, we would have expanded the list to a “Top 5”.
Fieldwork Brewing: Fieldwork Brewing Company is a craft brewery founded in 2015 and located just across the bay at 1160 Sixth Street in Berkeley (you can take BART from downtown). They also have locations in Monterey, Napa, Sacramento and San Mateo in case your travels bring you to one of those places.
Fieldwork’s website states that they “focus on exceptional, honest beer-making” and I fully agree that they live up to this claim. Check out their Beer Archive and you’ll understand why we felt inclined to create an Honorable Mention List to accommodate them.
The Tourist Club: The Tourist Club is about as real as is it gets, and a place that you really have to want to visit. The Tourist Club is the San Francisco branch of Die Naturfreunde (The Nature Friends), which was founded in Vienna in 1895. If you’re fortunate enough to visit, you’ll definitely get a taste of what it’s like to be nestled somewhere in the Alps sipping a beer.
The Tourist Club is a 30-45 minute drive north of downtown San Francisco, and once you get to the parking lot, you have to walk a half-mile to get to the club itself. For adventure seekers, you can hike there using one of three trails, the hardest of which is the 7-mile (+/-) Dipsea Trail that starts over the hill at Stinson Beach and climbs more than 2,000 vertical feet to the summit before dipping down towards the Tourist Club.
However, if you make the effort to get there, you’ll find them pouring some pretty interesting German beers including one of our favorites from Weltenburger Kloster. Weltenburger is a monastery and brewery that was founded in the year 1050 and is located on the banks of the Danube River.
Warning: Now that we got you interested in the Tourist Club, unless you’re a member, the days you can visit as a guest are limited to one or two per month. These days are marked as a “Guest Day” on their Guest Days Calendar so plan ahead.
Original Gravity Tours
If you’re able to join one of our Munich & Bamberg Brewery Tours next summer, you may not be exploring breweries on the streets of San Francisco... but you will tour the world's oldest breweries, explore the 1,000 year-old cities of Munich & Bamberg, meet local craft brewers, enjoy the finest beer gardens and beer halls, ferry the Danube River and more.
As a reminder, we recently posted our 2018 tour dates so please visit us at Munich & Bamberg Brewery Tours for details.
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Until next time, thank you and Prost!
Greetings! I'm a passionate beer and international travel lover. Other than craft beer, I mostly go for German & Belgian beers and if you share the same interests, you may enjoy my blog. Prost!