Good times at the SF Beer Week opening gala

Screenshot 2015-02-11 at 11.28.37 AM

Ah, the SF Beer Week opening gala: the one time every year I turn into the stereotypical beer blogger asking for free shit. I scored a media pass again this year, and here’s what stood out.

My plan failed within an hour. The festival is roughly organized into SF, North Bay, South Bay, and East Bay. I was going to do this thing without leaving the East Bay — you know, sort of like how I live my real life — but I kept getting distracted. I also neglected to take a single photo, but these are better than mine would have been anyway. My other plan was to bring a burrito and lots of water, so at least that plan succeeded.

My first Fort Mason festival! (No, really). While I didn’t love the lengthy public transit trip from the East Bay to Fort Mason, the place worked out nicely. It was loud and full — duh — but I didn’t feel cramped, and there were even enough bathrooms! (Side note: men may disagree, as the line for the men’s room was the longer one. Odd, since appreciation of good beer in this region usually seems quite gender-balanced to me. Is the gala an exception?) There were plenty of food vendors and dump buckets, and everything was easy to navigate, even for a first-timer to the venue. Good job, organizers.

The inevitable Pliny the Younger discussion: I was already inside on my media pass when the doors opened to the public at 6pm, and the swarm of people moving towards the Russian River station like fast zombies was a sight to behold. (Three cheers for the event staff on hand to manage the line). Here’s the thing about Younger at the gala, though: it’s going to be mostly consumed during VIP hour by media, brewers, and sponsors who are less excited about it than you are but figure “there’s no line, so why not?” By the time you get to the front of the line –which Celebrator writer Mike Pitsker aptly joked was big enough to have its own area code — it’ll probably be gone. That’s okay. The other RR beers pouring at 6pm were Supplication (I mean, seriously! we are so spoiled here!) and Russian River’s award-winning pilsner, which I heard nothing but raves about. There will be other chances to get Younger, or some other triple IPA that’s just as good.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the North Bay… Marin Brewing was pouring Brass Knuckle, another fine entry in the extreme hops category. I personally was even more excited about Al’s Not Here Man, a smoked lager. It was a collaboration with Al from Russian River but, Al couldn’t make it to brew day, hence the name. Move Bamberg a little higher up the bucket list, but in the meantime we have Larkspur.

Beyond the Bay: I keep hearing about the promising, growing beer scene in Sacramento, and one name that comes up a lot in these discussions is Track 7. One of the pleasant surprises of my night was their chocolate peanut butter milk stout, which I tried out of morbid curiosity but wound up liking a lot. Their Panic IPA, though I was wrestling with hop fatigue by then, also went down nicely. With a tasting room just a few light rail stops from the Amtrak station, I see a train trip in my future.

Don’t write off Trumer at beer festivals. Yes, Trumer technically only makes one beer, the delightful-when-fresh Trumer Pils. For this party, they brought out a version of the pils with citra hops added. Fun!

The award for Most Impressive Pour With No Line goes to… North Coast, who was serving 2011 Old Stock. Amazing. Not the smartest choice for me, at that ABV, but amazing.

I said this last year too, but: barrel-aged Calicraft beers. Forget everything you think you know about Buzzerkeley until you’ve had it in a zin barrel. Calicraft also brought some non-traditional, low-alcohol (!) meads with fruit that I expect to become crowdpleasers as the weather turns warm.

Sneaky fruit beer: I asked for the story behind High Water Pono Pale Ale and was told it was brewed to celebrate owner Steve Altimari’s first vacation with his wife in years, a recent trip to Hawaii. I sipped, then asked if the tropical fruit profile was all southern hemisphere hops. Answer: there’s Mosaic, but also fire-roasted pineapple. Another surprise from the people who made a beer that tastes like s’mores.

A win for the gypsy brewers: Bison was pouring Whiskey Thief, a collaboration between them, High Water, Pine Street, and Uncommon. I was expecting one of those barrel-aged beers that tastes so much like whiskey you might as well just be drinking whiskey — not this time! Whiskey Thief is a scotch ale with smoked malt and heather, no barrel needed. Slainte!

I’m tired of hops now. I like IPA, but so many breweries focused so hard on aggressive, West Coast-style beers that I was burnt out by the end of the night. I get that for some breweries, that’s the strength of the house and they’d be silly to bring anything else. I also know it’s SF Beer Week and if this area is known for anything beer-wise, it’s big American hops. The gala is a chance to win the hearts and livers of some of the region’s more serious beer drinkers, and you’ve got to give the people what they want. I appreciated the breweries that brought non-hoppy options, though. At one point I bemoaned a lack of lower alcohol options that weren’t session IPAs, and apparently at that point I should have gone to the Freewheel table. I enjoyed their bitter so much at Perdition the next day I had two. (And yes, bitters have plenty of hops, but in that balanced English way.)

This really is a pretty great festival. I now remember why it sells out fast every year. I wish I had the alcohol tolerance to have tried more, because the quality and quantity of choice was insane. Best of all for impatient people like me, there are now enough breweries represented that you can avoid beer lines entirely if you want to. I’m sure whatever Cellarmaker and Rare Barrel were pouring was fantastic, but I was just as happy to try new breweries and revisit ones I hadn’t sampled from in a while, and sometimes even have time to chit chat with the person pouring. Even with no plan, or a plan that breaks down, you’ll have a good time at this fest.

Thanks to the SF Brewers Guild for the pass, but more importantly for a great night for a whole lot of people.

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