Monday, February 21, 2011

Reflections on SF Beer Week

I attended 19 beer events over the course of seven days. That's 19 events all within a five mile radius of my house.

I skipped the last three days of SF Beer Week because I was so sick I could have infected all the thousands of you that kept on going right through the 20th. With 19 events, I think it's safe to estimate that I consumed roughly 97,000 beers within 168 hours time. This estimation is rough, of course, but I assume yours are similar.

Joking aside, let's talk for a moment about how lucky we all are to have a week like this to participate in. I've never been a part of a beer week in another city. I hear Denver is great, I hear Philly is great. Everyone I know that's been to Oregon during beer month tells me how much I'd love it. I'm sure I'll make it out to all those cities eventually, but for the moment, I'm happy to revel in what we've got right here.

I'd like to get a little personal and nostalgic for a moment. I moved to San Francisco on September 1st, 2008. I had no money, literally living off of a loan that in the pre-credit crisis era was able to be maxed out on things like rent and burritos that could be stretched to last three days. (Say what you will about Taqueria Cancun; when you've got a broken collar bone and you're living at 18th & Mission, you can make one last for breakfast, lunch and dinner and maybe even breakfast the next day.) I knew one person. He only knew me. The social situation was, let's say, sparse.

I made it a little worse for myself by insisting on being a freelancer. Being a freelancer performs two opposite tasks simultaneously: You meet a ton of people, and you become friends with absolutely none of them. I've racked up more professional contacts in this city than I could start to list, but friends took a little bit longer to find.

Before San Francisco, I made legitimate stabs at building a life in Kansas City, New York City and Cincinnati, three cities with excellent access to craft beer. I've lived with accessible Bell's, Brooklyn, Boulevard - if you can get it between Colorado and Maine, I've probably lived somewhere I could pick it up. When I moved to the west coast, I wasn't excited about moving to some crazy beer mecca. Cincinnati's beer scene was exploding just as I was about to leave with incredible bars and people that cared so much about showcasing their more-than-a-century-old brewing philosophy. Moving to San Francisco made me a little heartbroken, to be honest, for all the beer I'd be losing in my day to day life.

You don't have to go back to 2008 and slap me; I don't need it. You could gently tell me how much I was about to learn and how much my life was about to change, though.

Moving to a completely new area of the country prepped with a really solid knowledge base from somewhere else just turns you into a kid in a candy store. I wandered into Shotwell's, nee Inner Mission Beer Parlor, about two months into moving west. Within a few months I had tried everything on the menu. It wasn't enough. Corner stores, brewpubs, nerdy beer blogs - give it to me.

Somewhere along the line, I got "into" the beer world. I don't know how it happens. You make some friends on Twitter. You start to recognize people because you're always at the same events. You share information, you retweet. You write about beer every once in awhile. Someone sees you talking to people about beer often enough and they decide you know your stuff; soon enough you're being introduced to distributors and brewers. Somewhere along the line, nothing is enough. Never satisfied, never done learning.

It has been an absolute pleasure to party with all of you for the past week. Is it really nerdy that most of my real life friends directly or indirectly met me through the Internet? I don't care. My word, what a party this week was. I have learned to stop blushing when someone introduces me as "At JRizzo". I shared beers - in some cases, quite literally - with so many of you. I wasn't alone anywhere. I'm no longer faceless in this city, and I have beer to thank.

I get so much joy out of telling people stories about our beer scene. A non-beer-drinking friend (I've got them, yes) came by to see me at 21A on Imperial Jack night and wanted to know what the big event was. I told her the whole thing - the first brewing of Imperial Jack, who Richard is, why ESB is so special, what this beer is about, how it came to be entered into the World Beer Cup. Stories I've heard over sharing pints with the people who make the beer as well as the people who love it. Stories that make this city's beer scene more than good beer, more than creative beer, more than just a list of places to grab a pint. I take so much pride in knowing all of those things. I sat at the Beer and Nosh dinner at The Summit and someone opened a door for me to spend three minutes describing the science and use of Brettanomyces, and they cared. They listened. We learned together.

People are always asking how I know this person or that person, how I know what beer is where, how I know where the cool events are. Just saying "Twitter" sounds so silly, doesn't it? I'll figure out how exactly it works sometime, but for now, it's certainly not hurting anything.

Nineteen events. I'm still sorting through all of the photos, and god knows I'll never be able to list all the beer. If I tried less than 100 different beers this week, I'd be shocked. They were all real. Someone made every single one of them. They aren't competing; they're friends. Beer community, you're a card.

Thank you to everyone for the laughter, for the hugs, for the sips of your beer, for the glasses of water, for the immediate @ responses when one of you posted about a fascinating beer that made me rush across town to try it. Singling out my favorite event is impossible, but Breweries of Tomorrow, The Summit, MK/Heart Cask Night, Lost Coast at South End, Local at Shotwell's, Breckle's at Anchor, and Russian River at Pi all hold pretty dear places in my heart.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of great recaps roll in. I'm looking forward to your thoughts, to weeks worth of discussion, and to a whole year to anticipate doing this ride all over again. Cheers, y'all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Breweries of Tomorrow Recap

The Breweries of Tomorrow nanobrewing festival was one of my most anticipated events of SF Beer Week. Organized by Brian of All Over Beer and Bay Area Craft Beer and held at Social Kitchen & Brewery, the point of this event was to highlight my very favorite trend in craft beer: nanobrewing.

"Breweries of Tomorrow" was a particularly clever and spot-on name for the event. These are breweries led by homebrewers on speed. People like me roll into Brewcraft every few months and get a couple pounds of malt extract - people like them write business plans and design logos. These are homebrewers who are really, really good at it. Having nine of them showcased at an event is so exciting because it means within the next few years, we're going to have at least nine new full-scale production breweries to fawn over.

A great aspect of SF Beer Week is how many events are centered around meeting brewers. There are people behind your beer, friends - smart people who love beer the way you do, they just get paid to make it. The new nanobrewing trend is exciting not just because they're going to upgrade to microbrewing soon enough, but because you get to watch that whole process happen. These breweries are evolving and changing ten gallons at a time. The beers showcased last night are results of trial-and-error, and by this point they're all nearly perfected.

When I ran into Brian at the gala on Friday, he expressed concern that there might be a really sizable crowd. He was right.

I arrived half an hour early and was about the twentieth person in line. By the time the doors opened at 5:00, the line had gotten completely out of control. I know a lot of people ended up coming by and weren't able to get in - when the place hit capacity, it became one in, one out. It was certainly crowded, but by no means unmanageable. The setup worked really well - three tables, three brewers at each table.

Pours were... let's say, "generous". My word, there was a lot of booze. As a result, though, people needed to visit tables far less frequently, so getting a beer was never a problem. There was a steady flow of people moving at all times from what I could tell, but I never waited more than a minute to get a beer. Step up, get a beer, find somewhere to post up for a bit while you drink your beer.

This was, by far, the best deal of Beer Week. $15 gets you a commemorative glass, two beer tickets for the Social brews, and access to all the nanobrew you want. With the generous pouring, $15 scored a really, really ridiculous amount of beer. I don't know a single person that walked away unhappy (or sober). Oh, and there were water kegs! Dear, sweet water kegs. Thank you for being there for me.

Reviewing all the beers seems a little silly, because what everyone should really do is look up times when these brewers open their doors and go visit to talk to them about what they're making and where they're going. I will say that standouts included Daddy's Chocolate Milk from Elizabeth Street Brewing, Pacific Brew Labs' Hibiscus Saison, Local Brewing Co's Sutro Tower Stout, the Belgian Strong from Beltane and the Bitter from Bosworth. Those being singled out, however, I didn't have a thing all night that I disliked.

I really hope this trend continues. I hope this event happens every year, and I hope we see new nanobrewers stepping up to join in. The nanobrewing trend has felt a little cultish up to this point - you're in the know or you aren't. Breweries of Tomorrow provided great publicity for the little guys and hopefully gave all nine brewers a push to get those distribution licenses even faster. Seriously, we love your beer. Let's see it on shelves.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts on SF Beer Week Opening Gala

It's really hard to deal with the fact that so many people are getting into craft beer, isn't it? (Most of my problems are first world. I admit this out of the gate.) We worked so hard for so long to get people to love things that weren't Miller Lite. Countless "No, here, try this" attempts met with turned up noses, more piss-water comments than one person can possibly be required to handle from someone sucking down well vodka.

And THIS is our reward? The beer dinners we once held precious sell out faster than we can get to a computer. The beers we anticipate for months get snapped off the shelves before you can get off work. The thing we once looked at as "ours" and really wanted everyone to share with us now belongs to everyone. News stories circulate from time to time about how craft beer is outselling everything, beat the recession, and might as well be the only thing keeping the economy afloat, but it's how that trend trickles down that gets me.

And annoys me. Again - first world.

It's not that it should just be OURS, you know, but the system has not scaled itself up to meet demand. Just because there are ten times as many people drinking craft beer doesn't mean production has ramped itself up in the exact same amount. This was terribly clear last night.

Lots of good folks planned the SF Beer Week Opening Gala. Lots of good, smart people, who love beer. It was a largely thankless job for them and I can't imagine how much stress went into it. I'm thankful that they do things like this so I don't have to, but that being said, I'm about to get super critical. I'm sorry, guys, but I sincerely hope you all learn from these mistakes for last year. And, yes, they were absolutely mistakes.

I bought the $45 Early Bird regular ticket instead of the $65 VIP. That mistake gets to be on my part, and I won't be making it again next year. My reasons weren't really financially driven, more that I knew it was unwise for me to start drinking beer at 3:30 in the afternoon, stay through all of my regular ticket friends showing up from 5-9, then try to hit the Toronado after party. $20 for an hour and a half that will probably just lead to me being drunk and belligerent is not the way I wanted to start Beer Week, so I decided to go with the 5:00 option. Of course, had I waited instead of being responsible and buying my ticket early, the day regular ticket sales went on, I could have bought the VIP ticket for $56 via a Groupon knockoff. Brian has already covered that much better than I would over here at All Over Beer, so I'll save myself the breath needed for that one.

We arrived late, which is a combination of my mistake and Muni being Muni. Delays I am incapable of understanding meant we got there around 6. I had been reading the updates on how bad the line was via Twitter, so I'm not sure what I thought would happen - maybe there was a huge bottleneck at 5 and things would be better an hour later? I couldn't have been more wrong. We waited in line for an hour.

Let's discuss crowd calming, shall we? When we were about 75 people back in line - after we had been waiting for 45 minutes already - someone was sent out to inform the angry, sober people holding $45 tickets on what was happening. He started out by saying that they weren't going to cut off the crowd - yet - and wanted to reassure us that they hadn't overbooked, there's just a fire code on how many people can be inside at once.

Allow me to take a moment to talk about how overbooking goes. I'll use an airplane as an example. An airplane has 200 seats. The airline sells 210 seats. This is traditionally referred to as "overbooking". It is particularly effective on morning flights, because people miss those flights. By overbooking, they can ensure that the 200 seats will be filled. In the event that all 210 people show up, they have to reschedule and offer people new incentives to bail on the flight - a $150 travel voucher for a new flight or something. The airline loses money on this, but since it usually works out, they keep overbooking. And, because airlines are smart enough, they don't get on the speaker and announce "We didn't overbook the plane, but 10 of you that bought tickets can't fit on it."

So let's apply that to something we're all also familiar with, say, a beer festival that opens one of the most popular beer weeks in the country. The building can hold, say, 1000 people. You have two options: you can sell 1000 tickets, or you can overbook. What you CANNOT do is pretend you're not overbooking, because that's ridiculous, and the last thing you should do is tell people who have been standing in line for 45 minutes that you didn't overbook, it's just "fire code". We were reassured, however, that once we got inside, it was going to be "awesome".

I should note that they were willing to refund people's tickets if they gave up, but I wasn't worried about the money. I was worried about the beer. And I was right.

So, of course, we get through the doors and they're out of glasses. Frustrating. Also expected, by this point. And before I can even get to the place where my disposable plastic cup is, Jesse of Almanac greets me with "We're out of beer." This would be a common theme in the next two hours of my life.

You will not be reading reviews here for Almanac, Lagunitas Fusion, Marin's 21 Year Old Ale, Speakeasy's Ritual Payback Porter, Moonlight's Two Weeks Notice, Pliny the Younger, Supplication, Vertical Jewbilation, or quite a few others that you might be interested in discussing. They were all gone.

The phrase of the night was "shit show". Why were there so many people there? (Furthermore, why did people on a damned Bloomspot mailing list get to walk right in while those of us who were responsible and gave our money to the event early had to stand there waiting for an hour? Poor form, guys.) Sell half as many tickets. Double the price. Sell a third and triple the price, for christ's sake.

It's completely unclear who this event was for. Was it for beer geeks? We're a good community, but we're a pretty small community. Usually I feel like things like this are thrown for us - weird one-off beers are kind of our bread and butter. I kind of doubt that Fusion is brewed for people who don't drink beer. Or, if I'm wrong, was the idea to expose people to beer? If that's the case, be a little more upfront about that. I had a similar criticism for the "Beer Fest" at the Giants stadium last year - too crowded, full of people that are just there because they want to get drunk, nothing geared toward beer folk. Be upfront about what kind of an event you're organizing. It really felt like we got tricked on this one.

And I want my glass. I'm very serious about that glass, guys.

I'm also serious about water. If there was any water to be found, I have no idea where it was. I had a giant bottle in my bag and I'm terribly glad that I did. There's got to be somewhere that you can rent little water systems and hire one person to run around all night and make sure they're staying full. It's just responsible.

Overall, I had a really good time. I did. But that wasn't due to the event at all, it was due to all the great folks in our beer community. The social aspect of events like this is great - you get to talk about new beers, you get to introduce everyone to everyone else. I feel like I know a pretty big number of people in our little community, but I got to put some additional faces to Twitter names, which is always a great (if startling) experience.

Oh, and next year, I'm not even going to try to go to Toronado. That one's not worth discussing; we all knew that was going to be impossible. Cheers to those of you smart enough to leave the gala early and get tables.

Next year: Jumping on the VIP ticket, assuming I'm going to take a half day off of work and be there before 3:30. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Locavore, Bernal Heights

I love beer bars. Love them. I love brewpubs, too. But what I'm really drawn to are local neighborhood spots that really care about the beer that they serve, even if they don't have thirty taps. If you have thirty taps, I'm probably a fan - but I can only drink a few beers in a night, you know? Variety is perfect, but sometimes I just want to walk into the place on my corner and find some really great beers.

I happen to live in an area of San Francisco that has just blown up with places like this. It's not really my style to write about restaurants, but I think it's worth highlighting places that are really making an effort. South End Grill & Bar, at the corner of 26th & Valencia, is one of my newest regular hangouts. Seven taps of good, local beer, affordable food, and a Warriors game on the television. I live on the same block as Pi Bar and have considered it my regular spot for over a year. Front Porch is my favorite restaurant on this end of town, and last night they had Double Daddy on cask. I'm really, really lucky - and even though these places (with the exception of Pi, perhaps) aren't "beer bars", they're worthy of very serious discussion.

The newest kid on the block for me is Locavore. Locavore (3215 Mission St., Bernal Heights) has been there for a few months now, but somehow its opening just passed me by. It's right at the corner of Mission and Valencia, next to the southern instance of Taqueria Cancun. True to its name, the idea behind Locavore is locally sourced products. They're a little behind the curve on this one: who isn't turning to local farms these days? It's pretty elitist to say, and for every local, sustainable restaurant there are probably twenty more that aren't - but local ingredients are nothing new, and it's a little surprising to me to see yet another restaurant opening whose entire selling point is based off of regionalism.

Criticism of mission aside, I think Locavore is a very good neighborhood spot, and I know I'll be back. I ordered a burger (medium rare) with cheese (I was told it was a "white American cheese") and a side of sauteed rapini. The rapini was a very good choice - sauteed with a whole garlic clove in what appeared to be a little olive oil and red pepper flakes. Not terribly inventive or challenging but very, very solid, and a hearty portion for the $3 side cost. The burger was cooked to my specifications, came on a fresh roll and was quite tasty. Very simple, so if you prefer a loaded-up burger, make sure you're adding extras.

This isn't a restaurant blog, though, is it? It isn't. It's a beer blog, and their beer list is a fairly extensive one. Four taps currently include Trumer Pils, Lagunitas Lil' Sumpin', Anchor Liberty, Bison Organic Gingerbread (incorrectly listed as "Bison Organic Ginger Beer" on the menu) and 20+ bottles give you quite a few options. True to the name of the place, everything is local. Sudwerk, Blue Frog, Moylan's, Black Diamond and Anchor are all included here.

Even with such a list, I have a few complaints - while the selection is good, it really feels like it's just meant to be a combination of local beers without much thought put into it. There are so many breweries within a 100 mile radius of this restaurant, and it's clear that they limited their choices to certain distributors and missed out on some really great opportunities. Speakeasy is two miles from Locavore. Russian River would have filled a couple of key holes on the menu. Four Blue Frog beers, three Sudwerk beers, five Moylan's/Marin beers - this is not to say that any of these are bad, just that the list looks really scattered and feels like it was whatever the distributor told them to buy instead of a carefully curated list.

It also doesn't feel like we're seeing much of a seasonal focus, which is too bad considering the theme of the restaurant. I know it's nearing the end of winter and this is sort of a transitional time on seasonal beers, but it's also the week before SF Beer Week and it would have been really nice to see a place that boasts 26 beer selections get more involved.

I am terribly grateful for the opportunity to be this choosy, however. To have so many options and get to say "why not them?" instead of whining that they aren't focusing locally at all is pretty great, but since we HAVE those opportunities, I just wish a little more attention was being paid to things. Kudos to the nod to Bison Brewing, whose products are quite in line with the idea of Locavore. I'm hopeful that this restaurant ages well and comes into their own, and I'm also hopeful that bottle list rotates and includes some more truly local options as they figure out their place in the community.