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Gonzo Journalism at the SF Beer Week Opening Gala

The 10th Annual SF Beer Week Opening Gala could only be properly covered in that most inebriated style of American journalism.

Grab a glass and stroll around the pier of beer

Friday night is returning slowly, hazy as an East Coast IPA, unfiltered, lingering on the palette. The artist drew vaginas on napkins and sold them to lesbians. “I’m making a living,” he said, waving a hand at the table covered in ink and colored marker sketches.

Ah, but that was the end of the night, having nothing directly to do with the finest craft-beer shin-dig in San Francisco — or did it?

Where had it all began?

In the Lyft car, there was yelling in the darkness as we passed the panhandle: “You come back here now!!”

We both looked up from our phones and our concerned faces met. “Let’s hope that’s a dog situation,” I said. She smiled and responded: “Yeah. Right?”

We got to talking. She was heading to a friend’s going away party. “Oh, that’s nice,” I said, actually attempting to stop the conversation. That’s all folks. Thus concludes our One Minute Ride Share Conversation. Tune in next time. Also check out our alternate program: Small Talk in the Supermarket Line (6:35pm, every gaddam Friday).

But we keep chatting. Turns out she works in the service industry at a well known restaurant. “The first few hours are more fine dining, then as we go later, the drunk people show up, like: ‘Give us hamburgers!’ And I’m so ready for them. I’m tired of talking about wine.”

This is how it goes in 2018. You work all day, then scramble to get home and prepare for the social obligation or journalistic goal. And instead of colliding at a co-ed sporting event, you chat people up in a Lyft ride. Then you say goodbye, likely never to meet again, and return to gazing out the window at the amazing architecture sweeping by on the streets of San Francisco.

Will the flavors of the local beer placate this cloud-shared ennui? Where is the ale to slake the thirst of life in 2018?

The ancient pier buildings of San Francisco came into view and the car pulled over to an eddy on the edge of a rapid river of flowing headlights and glistening chrome. One could almost get away with a game of catch between the double parked bumpers, there’s so much event-fueled gridlock.

The Street scene after last call at the Opening Night Gala

Here we found the rambling tale of Beer, a brave protagonist of erstwhile necessity, currently considered mostly recreational thanks to bleach, fluoride and carbon filtration. No longer the savior to mankind’s dysentery woes, Beer is now the the sophisticated beverage of the urban and suburban elite alike. No longer a taxi cab, the rideshare dispenses its indigenous flavors down alleys and byways.

But humanity still dreams of beer. Last night those liquid dreams flowed through FDA approved, silicone-sealed, stainless steel couplings and into small, branded SF Beer Week glasses — a significant portion of which were accelerated by gravity towards a concrete flow at too fast a pace to maintain cohesive, structural integrity.

So it goes.

After grabbing a glass, the first beer was from the Corralitos Brewing Company! Upon inquiry as to how they were able to achieve pole position in possibly the greatest beer tasting event every held at Pier 35 in San Francisco — if not the greater neighborhood and I dare say the City of San Francisco — they were candid enough to admit the truth: “Sheer luck!”

So the first beer sampled at SF Beer Week’s Opening Gala, thanks not to the All-controlling Agent of Destiny and Change, but to the Mindless Tosspot of Random Chance, was a beer called “Hellbird,” a Munich Helles lager with a 5% alcohol percentage and a 17 IBU score.

The notes on Hellbird in the 33 Bottles of Beer journal, available from 33books.com

It was a solid lager, drinkable by the gallon at a garden party or sporting event, or perhaps to accompany a nice dinner of grilled sea bass. It was a sublime start to an evening that would eventually involve stouts, porters, and quadruple IPAs (or should it be quadru-Pale IPAs?).

Corralitos head brewer Mike Smith (left) and roving brewmaster Dave Bell of New Zealand

We found head brewer and part owner of Corralitos Brewery, Mike Smith (whose beers are certainly more complex and flavorful than his name, we joked) enamored by the t-shirt of Dave Bell, a master brewer from New Zealand. Bell began to describe to numerous collaborations he was working with whilst on this side of the Pacific pond, but then suddenly buttoned up.

“You know, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be telling you this,” he said.

Suffice to say, Bell will be at a very secret brewer’s camp out next week. It’s one that everyone with a beer-brewing buddy is well aware of, but it still remains quite hush-hush.

As Bell drifted away, Smith became embroiled in conversation with a back-of-house gent and a salesperson from Sonoma Springs Brewery: Conar Carr and Daniel Gardino.

“We’re such a small team and so easy to deal with,” said Carr.

“We’re a six person team,” conquered Gardino.

David Gardino (left) and Conor Carr from Sonoma Springs Brewing Company

Here it is: Beer, bringing folks together better than any awkward Uber conversation! Rubbing elbows with who’s who and hearing about what’s what for the up-and-coming so-and-so. Yes, excellent. They recommend trying their Noma Cloud tripel. As someone who grew up in the North Bay, addressing Noma as a — ‘scuse me: addressing Sonoma as something shorter was no new feat.

“Nomer,” I explained. “That’s what we used to say: ‘Heading out to Nomer. Wanna ride ‘long?’”

Well, they moseyed along to wherever-the-hell (which is where people always go after you part ways at a festival-type-thing) and Mike Smith had a moment to talk about the Corralitos Brewery.

“What would you tell someone that’s never been to SF Beer Week about this event?”

“It’s just a great local beer festival that everyone’s participating in,” he said. Truly, with 124 breweries in attendance, it would seem that nearly every brewery in the Bay Area had turned up.

Smith had attended the now semi-mythical UC Davis beer program in 2008, and spent time after at Santa Cruz Ale Works, and Seven Bridges — in addition to doing his own home brews. His Browns Valley English style brown ale was a malty, burnt toffee deliciousness, and their Hop Kiss IPA was heavy on dark fruit and citrus flavors. With some basic journalistic obligations met and my palette thoroughly trodden, I set out on that noblest of beer festival goals: getting shnockered.

But I was met almost immediately by Emily Nathon of 4505 Chicharrones, who gave me some delightfully spicy free pork cracklins. I munched them as I strolled over towards the Brewer Talks. I picked up a Noma Cloud on the way. My notes read: “Spicy. Could be the chicharrones.”

Emily Nathon of 4505 Chicharonnes

On the stage, Tommy Kin from The Rare Barrel, Shane Winkler from Humble Sea Brewing Co. and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle were discussing “Sour” beers. Intriguingly, they posed that the term “Sour Beer” is something of a misnomer.

“Just because you squeezed lime on a taco, doesn’t mean you call it a ‘sour taco,’” explained Mobley.

Tommy Kin (left), Shane Winkler (center) and Esther Mobley

They explained that what we often call sours are really indigenous fermentations. The term for each beer could really come down to the individual organism that made the beer — which yeast snacked on grain-extracted sugars and pooped out its own unique brand of delectable (or mouth puckering) adult beverage.

The panel also touched on proper consumption temperature. (So here’s the deal, if no one’s hepped you to the lowdown before: WE ARE TOLD TO DRINK THINGS COLD BECAUSE IT NUMBS OUR TASTE BUDS!!! Yep. Everything tastes fine if you tongue is frozen.) Those in the craft beer revolution want you to detect every trifling citrus hop and barley pop flavor.

“What’s too cold?” Asked Mobley.

“Right out of the fridge,” said Winkler. “I like cellar temperature, fifty-two, fifty-three.”

Strolling away from the stage, the number of food trucks was impressive. There were picnic tables lined on the outskirts or the tasting booths. Particularly impressive was the pizza wagon, with a line halfway across the room.

Pretzelina is simultaneously happy and sad to have sold out of their handmade, artisanal pretzels. “We made a bunch for pop ups and things this week,” said Jason Bucher, whose wife started the business. “But we sold about 325 pretzels in two hours.”

Jason Bucher of Pretzelina

That’s damn near three pretzels a minute!

Some folks were smart enough to come prepared with Oktoberfest-style pretzel necklaces. Note to self: purchase string, pretzels.

Sione Manu and Brent Capistrano

Wandering around, I ran into the outrageous and fantastic Mickey Healy at the Barrel Head booth. She poured me a Belgian tripel called Blanc de Blancs. The beer is sweet with loads of dark fruit and floral tones. It’s like sipping springtime. On Tuesday, 2/13/18, Barrel Head will have an event pairing this lovely tripel with different caviars. Yum.

Oh, boy am I a sucker for a tripel. The Brother David’s Tripel by Andersen Valley is one of my favorite beers of all time, and I told brewer Kirk Hillyard this. My effusive forthcomings signaled the truth of the matter: I had become buzzed, if not whole-heartedly drunk. Like that olive-wreathed version of Bacchus in Disney’s “Fantasia,” I was a happy sot, splashing around in what superb suds the Bay Area had to offer.

Good thing we took notes earlier.

Kirk Hillyard (left) and Mickey Healy from Barrelhead Brewhouse. “Wow, nice wood,” I said of their display. “Yeah, I get a lot of compliments on my wood,” quipped Healy.

Healy even got me to try a sour beer, despite my decided residence in that “other camp” across the river from the tangy, mouth-puckering-face-slap that is most indigenously fermented libations. The camp with easily palatable pours and distorted guitar music. 

The Sour Diesel from Barrelhead was the first sour in a while that I could schwang-dangle. It comes on like a Jolly Rancher but finishes like an amaro, lingering longer than any bit character in “Pineapple Express,” ringing the juice out of the back of the tongue and allowing astringent vapors to hold court for the foreseeable future — at least until the next sip of tangy bombast.

Why have I been fighting these tart little tarts? Perhaps it’s about time we had a moment alone behind a U-haul truck at Burning Man. Not you, Dear Reader! The sour beer and I. Give us our privacy, would you? Yeesh!

On the way back from the bathroom, we bumped into a collaboration beer, a salted-caramel stout from Discretion Brewing made in Soquel, California, I asked: “How do you pronounce…”

“So-Kell,” said Rob Jenco and his wife Kathleen in tandem.

“Or you can pronounce it ‘Santa Cruz,’” said Rob. “Cause we’re right next to that.”

Kathleen and Rob Jenco of Discretion Brewing

The 6.8%, 35 IBU stout is quite palatable and it washes down smooth. A delightful nutty-stone-fruit treat with a hearty burn and oak that I wouldn’t trade for another beer I had at the event. Rob mentioned that they’re having their 5th anniversary party for their brewery on March 10, 2018.

Across the pier, the 21st Amendment Brewery comes to play with a booth set-up that — were it a Burning Man camp — would be found ringed with sleeping hippies like rats around a poison pile. It’s a crafty mixture of vintage items and wood paneling, sure to draw mustachioed beer geeks like moths to the flame.

Sarah Swafford (left) and Sarah Medina at 21st Amendment’s sub-par booth (jeeze, can we develop a ‘sarcasm’ font, already?)

“It’s garble-garble- of an actual horse,” says Stephenie Medina, as I prepare to sip the Baby Horse Belgian Quad made by 21st.

This gives pause. I’m no Vegan, but drinking beer with anything from an actual horse flashes me back to the alfalfa-fueled fumes of the farm near my childhood home. If I’m to be batted so brutally in the olfactory organ, I’d just as soon enter another boxing match.

Alex Slosberg and Paul Adams are nice enough to clarify that when the pub-system recipe was weighed, the ingredients matched that of a baby thoroughbred. There would be no barnyard scents and questionable ethics to accompany this ale — merely mathematical coincidence.

Alex Slosberg and Paul Adams

If I’ve said in this article that I prefer tripels, well, a quadrupel is something like a tripel with the sleeves turned inside-out and the fuzzy side exposed. Delightful. The fine folks at 21st Amendment described it’s availability but, thankfully, we took notes at the first booth and felt compelled only to smile congenitally as we knocked the ambrosia skyward.

Speaking of ambrosia, we next found ourselves at the Blackhammer Brewing booth (pronounced “BlockBoothHammerBoothingBrew” for those whose night would soondraw to a close). Jim Furman, founder and brewer told us candidly: “Sparkle Pony is the best beer in the world — that beer pays rent!”

Jim Furman of Blackhammer Brewing

Yes, yes, those of you who have traipsed around the mixture of utopia and apocalyptic wasteland that is the varied landscape of the Soma may well be happy to note that the monthly obligation of a fine brew pub is met soley by the imbibement of a single Belgian blonde beer. And at 6.9% with an IBU rating of 24, it is an intensely drinkable treat that is sweet on the tongue with a balanced mixture of floral, citrus and herbal notes.

The final beer we tried was called the Hop Hyzer from Anderson Valley — forever one of the most bahl-horning kettle-cookers this side of the Rio-Grand-y. I would describe it to you, but our adventurous nature had led to a point of inebriation that rendered the glass washing device the dominant interest.

Drey Mayers (right) photo bombs Todd Heppe as he demonstrates proper glass rinsing etiquette.

“What is that?!” I demanded.

Todd Heppe — a.k.a. the Frisk Doolsey (or San Francisco Sweetie as the short-ling translates out) — explained that it was a pressurized garden spraying device, “Chosen because it doesn’t have any unhealthy side effects.”

Well, damn right. It’s about time.

Not much later, after strolling up into North Beach, I found myself drinking an Olympia and purchasing a crude but scintillating drawing of a vagina from David Lovins inside Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum. Perhaps there are those of you that would prefer to separate the SF Beer Week from the vulgar and raucous parts of San Francisco, but I am unable to do so.

After taking an internet-enabled budget taxi to a WWII-era warehouse above the Bay, I got buzzed and bent before frequenting a beatnik, basement bar. And I am all the better for it.

Have a good beer week, y’all!

Mazel!

Oh — PS. The inexplicable, uproarious roars you’ll hear during the SF Beer Week Gala are the result of dropped and broken glassware!

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Sam Devine

Sam Devine

Sam Devine is a San Franciscan weirdo that rides bikes, plays music, drinks beer, and likes to write about the important things in life -- namely bikes, music and beer.