Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hiatus: East Coast Edition

You know what's really, really tacky? Starting a blog, promising to provide regular content, and saying it all while you know you have a 12 day vacation planned.

The good news is that I severely doubt my drinking habits will change, whatsoever, because I am going to New York. I'll be in the city for a day, then taking my mom to Jersey to visit a cousin for a few days, going up north to visit another cousin for a day, and then heading to Long Island to lay on the beach and tour a little bit of wine country. I'll come back to the city for three more days, suck up all the Magic Hat I can find (and probably drink a Yuengling or two, because, COME ON), and will finally pile myself onto a plane at 7 in the morning out of JFK to come back on the 31st.

Also, I'm flying Virgin America nonstop both ways, so I will be drinking 21A's Brew Free or Die for 4.5 hours and watching Sportscenter. Maybe inappropriately messaging other plane members, because I hear you can do that.

I will most likely be completely MIA, but I am staying at a hotel in Riverhead that has a business center. I'll have the Android monster with me at all times as well. I lived in New York for a time, but that means I'll be heading places mostly based on 2006 nostalgia factor. Beer tips? Places I HAVE to visit? Shoot me a line and let me know. Otherwise, I'll be occasionally jumping on twitter to irritate all the west coasters with beer I had completely forgotten about, and I'll see you all in two weeks.

Monday, July 19, 2010

From the other side of the bar

I learned two key things from beertending last Thursday. First of all, serving beer is a whole lot harder than drinking beer. Second? Serving beer is a whole lot of fun.

That being said, I'm a very lucky girl. I got to serve beer in a bar I know and love, surrounded by good friends. I didn't have to do most of the hard work - from mixing drinks (my toughest task was serving sangria) to changing kegs, I got off real easy. I was there to tell people about beer and to suggest some new, crazy things to them.

Easily the best part of the night was getting to see so many people be excited about the things I was giving to them. I'm going to skip as much of the sap factor as I can, but let's just say I don't get many chances to actually make people happy at my day job. Occasionally I'll get a file set up really nicely for the designer that comes after me on a project, or I'll get something delivered on a crazy deadline and a producer will be surprised and excited that it actually happened. While those things are occasional bright moments - and I actually do really like my day job - it turns out that they don't compare to the joy I got out of finding someone a beer that they enjoy.

I'm not here to tell you that beer is going to change the world. (People tried to do that to me in design school, too, and it turns out I'm not really into that kind of philosophy.) I am here, though, to tell you that I think taste is really important. And I'm not going to judge you for yours. When I get off work at the end of the day, and I stop by my favorite corner bar, I want a beer. I do. I want it to be cold and refreshing and a little overwhelming. I want to talk to my nerdy friends about it and I want to lose the world for an hour or so. If your thing is beer, we should hang out. If your thing is food, we should probably hang out too. I get that same joy out of a lot of things - it's why I ride a bicycle home after work every day - but on Thursday night, I got to GIVE that joy to people.

We've done the sappy part. Let's talk about the real stuff.

I think I did a good job. People told me that as well. The thing standing between me and being a great bartender is that I really do not know how to deal with a crowd of people. I don't hear all that well, and I am a people pleaser. I want to give you all of my attention. And when it occurred to me that there were six (a whole SIX, for you actual bartenders out there!) waiting for my attention, it became completely impossible for me to focus on one at a time. Thankfully I had an actual bartender with me that reminded me of two things:

1. They will wait.
2. They will come to you.

The second one is important. My compulsion, as a person who hosts the occasional dinner party, is to always be reaching out. Constantly scanning the crowd to make sure everyone's drink is filled, everyone has enough to eat, everyone is happy. (I am exactly this anal-retentive when I host dinner parties, yes.) So the idea of scaling back my desire to be proactive never, ever occurred to me. Once it did, we were smooth sailing.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough - if you are friends with a bartender, please, drop in on them. All the time. I loved meeting new people and getting an opportunity to chat with them, but what really got me through my grueling 3.5 hour shift was how much support I had from my beer-loving friends. They were great. My friend Jeff was always quick with a Mets joke to distract me from my stress, my friends Rhiannon and Staci iPhone-filmed me pouring my first beer, my real-life co-workers came by to heckle me for apparently being a flirty bartender, Harry's co-workers stopped by and gave me their full trust in what they should drink, my housemates showed up late in the game to say hello - and they were just a small sample of many that came by. I really, really appreciated seeing the smiling faces.

And the beer! I was pleasantly shocked at the beers I was moving. I had a sort of vested interest in this list since a few of them were things I had suggested to David. The Alaskan Raspberry Wheat sold like crazy without me even heavily pushing it. Even though I can't get through a description of it without using the word "weird", a ton of people were willing to take the plunge and order a Gageleer. I found a couple of gin-drinkers that were excited by the St. Amand. Lots of people took kindly to the hop-bomb Green Flash IPA. Even though they're crazy popular, I barely poured any Chimay or Stella.

I've been trying for days to really sum up everything I learned in such a short time and what a great experience it was, and I always know I am going to leave something important out. So, let's wrap up with this blanket: Thank you. Thanks to everyone who came, thanks to everyone who didn't hate me if I poured your beer a little funny, thanks even to the people who weren't able to make it but contacted me in the surrounding days to express your regrets. I love beer, but I almost love our beer community more. (Almost.) If you were a new face, it was a pleasure to meet you. Until next time, you can probably catch me toward the end of the bar, clutching a Payback Porter. Cheers!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shotwell's, tonight: New beer!

I'm guest beertending at Shotwell's tonight, so last night, I stopped in to visit David, get an idea of the new stock, and bring him a couple of presents that I really wanted him to try. (For the curious: Drake's 1500, Saison du Buff, Avery Maharaja.) Much to my excitement and surprise, David has amassed such a good list of things for me to sell to the world. Here, for you, the things I am quite excited about for tonight:

Schönramer Festweise - A brand new addition. A beautifully subtle weisse - light and fruity, drinkable for days. This will probably be my beer of choice for the night.

Port Brewing Wipeout IPA - friends of Lost Abbey might get into this guy. A lovely, bright IPA.

Green Flash IPA - on draft, to replace Big Daddy for a night. Super west coast hoppy, with a malty finish. One of my favorites, and I'm so glad David's giving it a try.

St. Amand - last week, when I was bartending, someone asked me for something "weird". I asked if he liked gin, which he did, and so we landed on this guy. For a person that doesn't always have the right palate to pull out flavors, this is SUCH a juniper-forward beer. If you want something weird and your regular drink is a gin and tonic, this is what I will push on you tonight.

Gageleer - a very, very herbal Belgian golden. Earthy and mellow.

Ichtegem's Flemish Red - a very fun little sour. If you're open to sours, this will probably be the one I push on you (though we also have Monk's Cafe and Duchesse, to round out the sour category).

Alaskan Raspberry Wheat - Self-explanatory, but a lovely raspberry wheat from the Alaskan brewery. Dry and subtle.

Abita Amber - Tom and I first tried this at a Wine Warehouse tasting back in May. I'm just in love with everything Abita does. Their amber is so light and crisp and is much more of a light marzen than an actual amber.

Speakeasy Payback Porter - Formerly Hunter's Point Porter. This has always been one of my favorites. Rich, roasty coffee with just the right amount of malt to keep it away from going into stout territory.

Anderson Valley Summer Solstice - My summer beer. Not rare, but an incredibly good beer from Anderson Valley. Described as "cerveza crema", it is honestly the creamiest little summer beer you will ever taste. (If you come over to our house, this is what we will give to you.)

Anchor Humming - Humming is back! Anchor's "special release" from last year is now a regular thing, and we recently got it back on tap. Hoppy, crisp, floral.

I am so excited to share all of these with you tonight. Come visit! 7:00-10:00 at Shotwell's, 20th/Shotwell in the mission. Right in-between the 16th & 24th street BART stations, accessible by countless Muni lines. (Though the 12 Folsom is the closest, the 14, 27 and J are all within a mile.) See you there!

(Also, facebook invite, which may or may not actually work: Here!)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Distribution: Why does my beer cost so much, and why can't I get my favorite beer here?

Next to missing nearly all broadcasts of New York Mets games, the hardest part of being a transplant is that so many of the beers I love so dearly will never see my current coast. Don't get me wrong - I have no shortage of lovely beer out here. Many other people have, but I would never try to draw a comparison between east coast, west coast and midwestern beers. I live less than two miles from Speakeasy and Anchor, four miles from 21st Amendment, Social Brewery and Magnolia Pub, and if I want to grab a Zipcar for a few hours, I am within range of Russian River and Lagunitas.

This is the part where I expect all of you to pull out your teeny, tiny violins.

I originally come from Kansas City, which is Boulevard territory. Even though my tastes range much darker now, I always grab a Boulevard wheat literally the second I get off the plane in KC. (There is a Boulevard bar at the airport that has every single one of their beers on tap. I have absolutely had a Boulevard wheat at 8:30 in the morning.) I went to college in Cincinnati, which is close enough to Bell's country that my heart aches for Two Hearted. One of my very biggest regrets from 2010 is that when I drove across the country last year, I only brought one six pack of Two Hearted and one four pack of Brooklyn Black with me. I am somewhat serious about my non-west coast beer.

Beer distribution was somewhat of a mystery to me as recently as a few months ago. Not so far as to whine about why I can't get endless supplies of Yuengling out here, because I always understood the basics of some beers being distributed in certain states, rather than others. Boulevard, when I was growing up, took pride in the fact that you can only get their beers in a very small radius of the brewery - enough that I can still picture the roadside billboards advertising it.

The slightly more detailed version of "you can't get that beer here" is that your beer goes through a small chain to get to your lips. Distributors, of which there are many, work with either importers or directly with breweries to make certain beers available in your area. They go through all of the awful legal restrictions that are placed on alcohol in order to bring the best products they possibly can from state to state. This, ultimately, is a very good thing, particularly for smaller breweries. Breweries with smaller production scales would have difficulty competing with the big boys, were it not for the distributors that make their living seeking out new beer and figuring out how to get it to you.

Bars and restaurants will strike up a relationship with the distributors in the area. This is the fun part - when a distributor has a new beer that they're excited about, they will often make the rounds and allow bar and restaurant owners to try new things. They also regularly deliver new catalogs. A beer catalog is kind of a beer nerd's dream, but it can also be sort of a nightmare. It's a whole lot of numbers and a whole lot less descriptions of tasty beer. You think you have trouble choosing a beer? The logistics of the level above it are sort of crazy.

I had been speaking to the owners of Shotwell's about potential new beers for quite some time. I move around quite a bit and do my best to try out things I've never heard of. I got in the habit of texting, emailing, or just casually mentioning new things I had tried and was excited about. When David and Tom invited me to make that process a little more formal, David and I sat down with the great big binder of distributor catalogs, and I started to learn just what it means for a bar owner to get excited about a new beer.

My first step was to make a great big list of things I loved. I avoided the things that I had never, ever seen in San Francisco, because if you've never seen it in your area, that probably means there's no distribution for it. Bar owners are not specifically hiding your favorite beers from you. I chose things that I had seen on tap or in bottle around the Bay Area. From there, there are two considerations: size and price.

Size means a couple of things. At Shotwell's, we have 12 taps. We do not have the space for 12 equal size kegs. The coolers are, let's say, cozy. If you've seen a full-size keg before, you should know that the cozy coolers underneath the Shotwell's taps do not have the space to accommodate 12 of them. On top of that, if you're offering a combination of domestic and imported beer, you're going to be dealing with a range of keg sizes. This beer only comes in 5 liter kegs. This one only comes in 30 liter kegs. This one is a 15.5 gallon keg. And of course, those are a range of tall and skinny to short and squat. So if you're in a confined space, no matter how lovely and beautiful that confined space is, you're going to have to consider these things. If you want to replace one beer with another beer that doesn't come in the correct size keg, you have two options: find another beer that DOES come in the correct size, or change the system with another one of the kegs to balance it out. Size can also mean "does this fit in the bottle cooler at all". Two of my very favorite breweries that are distributed in this area are Lost Abbey and The Bruery - both of whom have 750 mL bottles only (with a couple of very small exceptions), and there is absolutely nowhere for them to fit in the cooler without some serious space reconfiguration. This, at the expense of that.

Then comes price. I won't get as wordy about price as I did about space, but the general rule is double markup for bars, triple for restaurants. The restaurant markup ends up being so much different because you're paying for more staff. You've got more overhead in general. Bars have a fair amount of overhead, but might not have to pay cooks, dishwashers, host staff, etc. Bars get it a little easier.

The 2x markup is fairly standard, with a little variation here or there based on how you want to run things. Shotwell's is a bar only, and keeps a wide range of beer options at about the lowest price they can manage. Our good friend Jen at Pi Bar, a mile or so away, has a slightly different system. She's got a full restaurant, so her markup would naturally be a little higher. She, however, rotates kegs in and out every single day. Every time you walk into Pi Bar, they're going to have a slightly different selection. And rather than pricing per beer and trying to keep all of that straight, it's important to her that all the beers be a flat $5. She keeps this system running by sort of cost-balancing. If she offers Trumer Pils, which she could sell at $4, for $5 instead, it means that she can sell those super special beers that might need to be $6 or $7 for $5 as well. It allows customers to try a wider range of things, and it all ultimately works out in the end.

Shotwell's is the type of bar where you want to keep your prices as low as you can. It's a neighborhood bar where people drink multiple pints. It's not a destination that people flock to. It's also not a huge "scene" that you're paying tons more for the atmosphere. A $10 lager is probably not going to fly here. So there's ultimately a little bit of limitation, mostly with the taps. If you put on a super special beer, there's a small niche that will buy it - but you've got to consider the sales that you might be eliminating at the same time.

Still, there are some surprises. David tried out the Brew Dog Tokio for a week. It was the most expensive beer they've ever sold at $18 for a 12 oz. beer. They could get it from the distributor for $8.60 a bottle, if I remember correctly. $8.60x2, rounded up, goes to $18 a bottle. Did I mention it was an 18% beer and sort of hard to come by? I certainly should have. And while it wasn't a super fast mover, the bar sold out of it pretty quickly. I wasn't sure it would fly, and Shotwell's proved me wrong.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about some of the very special things that we have in store for you at my upcoming guest bartending spot on Thursday, the 15th. I've done all the tasting, and David has been kind enough to help me with the real logistics. I think we've got some really exciting stuff. I'm just jealous that I'll be waiting until much later in the night to try it with all of you!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shotwell's: My Bar.

My very good friend Carla, of Hoperatives fame, came to visit me in June of last year. At the time, Hoperatives was only six or seven months into their launch, and she was still trying to come up with regular features that guest writers could contribute to. The one she pushed to me - and the one that, unfortunately, it took me a whole year to come around to - was a feature on describing "your" bar. It is incredibly appropriate that she introduced this idea to me on the day I took her to Shotwell's.

You see, Shotwell's is my bar. It is a lovely bar full of really exciting history. It's owned by my friends David and Tom, and if you're ever in the San Francisco area, I highly suggest you stop by so you can hear their actual stories. They've owned the bar for about four years. It's named Shotwell's now, but prior to this, they had named it Inner Mission Beer Parlor. That was its name when I came to know it. Prior to that, with the previous owners, it was Two Thieves, and before that, it was Shotwell 59. (Shotwell 59 being the original exchange number for the neighborhood, for those of you who remember how phone numbers used to work years and years ago.)

I met Inner Mission Beer Parlor in November of 2008. I had moved to San Francisco three months earlier. I lived, at this point, around 20th & Valencia, where the bars within a stone's throw aren't worth much. (The Phoenix, I like you well enough, but you weren't what I was looking for.) Thanks to my good friend Yelp, who I have since broken up with, I was drawn to Inner Mission Beer Parlor. It was basically on my street and it sounded like the sort of place I might be willing to visit.

I definitely went a few times by myself, but the first visit that stands out to me was Thanksgiving week, 2008. My mother and my best friend were in town from Kansas, and I deeply wanted to see a particular Kansas basketball game. I took them to visit Inner Mission, and I asked the young man behind the counter if he would be willing to play this game for me a few days in the future. He reassured me that even though they only had two televisions, he would be happy to put it on when I came in and asked nicely. Lo and behold, when I returned at game time, he followed through.

This young man would turn out to be David Hall, who would later turn into one of my very closest friends. He would also turn out to be one of the two owners of the bar. He and his partner, Tom Madonna, will always be in my hearts as the first people in San Francisco who were legitimately kind to me.

Now, it's worth noting at this point that I will be guest bartending at their bar this Thursday. I was approached by Tom and David to take a guest bartending slot because they are interested in what I know about beer and they trust my abilities to talk to people about what they might be interested in. The funny part of all of this is that my love for craft beer really took off thanks to their bar.

I knew I liked beer. I knew I had a few preferences here or there. I knew I didn't have any friends, because I moved to this city sort of blindly. But sure enough, after a few visits, they knew my face. Soon after, they knew my name. I took the opportunity, through their bar, to try every beer they had. (We'll discuss my beer taste progression at a later date.) I tried Belgians. I tried whites, I tried darks, I tried hoppy, I tried amber. I tried all of it. And as soon as I had an introduction from them, I hit the ground running to suck up all of the knowledge I could in this world.

It was to my delight when, about a year and a half into making friends with this bar,Tom and David came to me and asked me for some light advice on how to move forward with their beer selection. I've taken the opportunity to learn all I could about west coast beer over the past year and a half, so I was more than happy to give them some advice on their list. The things I've learned from them, and the process they've gone through to get that lovely little bar to where it is today, will be featured in a post coming up very soon.

I am proud to say that Tom and David are two of my very favorite friends in this city. The bar became re-christened as Shotwell's a little over a year ago, and it will probably be "my bar" for as long as I live in this mixed up little place. Every person that walks into the bar is greeted with a smile. We are happy to see you. If you want a friend, we're probably happy to talk with you. I've met more people and had more interesting conversations with their patrons and friends than I have with anyone else in this city, and I get the feeling that's exactly what they wanted to happen.

Shotwell's has been a lovely little highlight of my life since coming here two years ago. Over the next couple of days, I'm delighted to share more of this tiny corner bar with you. It has held my happiness and sadness, my laughter and my tears. But most of all? It has held my friends, and it provided a jumping-off point for me to turn into the little craft beer nerd I am today.

Welcome, everybody.

My name is Jen. And I drink a lot. And after four years of diving into every craft beer I can find, coast-to-coast, I've decided to start drinking for you.

I care very, very deeply for the future of craft beer. I live in San Francisco, which means I'm one of the lucky ones that's surrounded by it at all times. You might be too - and my plan is to either tell you about what you might be missing, or discuss what you're partaking in with you.

My day job has nothing to do with beer, aside from the fact that my day job is located within walking or cycling distance of some very excellent beer locations. That day job is what's kept me from writing about beer for so very long. If I'm not posting daily, I fear I'm going to lose you - so, here's my warning that I have the type of job that occasionally means 90 hour weeks (and let's face it, motivation to drink more beer), and occasionally means 30 hour weeks. I'll give you as much content as I can force myself to, because this is as much for me as it is for you.

I'm so very excited to talk to you about what I know. I know a lot - but there's a lot out there. This gets to be an educational opportunity for me, and maybe I can even find you some fun things in the process.

We've covered the pints, but what about the pedals?

I know we've decided to retire the phrase "avid cyclist" from our lexicon, so let's just say I ride a bike a lot. I wish you would, too. While this blog probably won't focus too much specifically on bicycles, you'll have to forgive me if I find some way to work them in. They're a giant part of my life, and so they may well become a part of this blog. (They should not, however, become a part of your beer drinking.)

I have big plans for this little guy someday, but all those "big plans" are sort of getting in the way of me actually getting to know you and developing content that I think might get me rolling. So, here's our soft opening.

I'm Jen, and I'm really into beer. It's a pleasure to meet you.