Seated at the bar of the Abbot’s Cellar, I was on course two of five: bone marrow with pickled mustard seeds and spicy greens. Mike Reis, Abbot’s cicerone, appeared at my side with a creamy cask ale from Oakland’s Dying Vines called Dee’z English Mild. With the gravitas of a sommelier, he placed a bulbous glass in front of me and, as he poured, dispensed a lengthy disquisition using terms like sessionable and attenuation.
Boy, have times changed. It wasn’t more than a year ago that mention of the word cicerone (pronounced SIS-uh-rohn, essentially a certified beer sommelier) would elicit blank stares. Now, even casual drinkers nod knowingly. Add to this the fact that the lofty, wood-paneled Abbot’s (one of the latest additions to Valencia Street, perhaps the beeriest boulevard in the entire Bay Area) is no beer bar or gastropub, but a serious restaurant that holds suds to the same standard as haute cuisine, and it’s clear that this is indeed a golden age for beer lovers in San Francisco.
Although I earn my keep mainly as a wine writer, I, like most regular drinkers, am no stranger to the pleasures of beer. Since my teens, when my parents would let me drain a can of Miller after mowing our lawn on a blistering Texas summer day, I’ve had an affinity for cold ones. And even as beer has grown from a blue-collar thirst quencher into a bona fide branch of the culinary arts, it has maintained its approachability. Ask me whether I’d rather sit through a stultifying vertical tasting of expensive wines or sit around a table and share a few beers with local brewers, and I’ll take the latter.
There’s certainly no shortage of new brews to taste. The local craft beer industry is in the midst of an unprecedented explosion: An estimated 20 percent of all beer consumed in San Francisco is craft beer, according to the Brewers Association. On any given night in the city, you can witness the drinking of beer taken to almost pedagogical levels. Recently, I waited patiently at Church Key in North Beach for the bartender to give a group of women a taste of seemingly every one of the 10 beers on tap before the ladies chose a Scrimshaw pilsner.
San Francisco has a long and heady history with beer, but our city’s claim to the throne of the modern craft kingdom is just now being reasserted. We haven't felt such buzz since the mid-’60s, when Fritz Maytag reinvented Anchor Brewing. After a long lull, Thirsty Bear, Magnolia, and Speakeasy breweries opened in the mid-’90s, with 21st Amendment Brewery following shortly thereafter. Then, in 2003, Vinnie Cilurzo took over Russian River Brewing Company and gained legendary status for sharing his love of Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged beers. Three years later, SoMa’s City Beer arrived, with over 300 selections, and a year after that the Monk’s Kettle opened its doors, bringing to the Mission a welcoming global-beer geekery.
And now, the taps have been blown wide open. With head-spinning frequency, local beer brands keep popping up. Consider—to name but a few—Linden Street Brewery, Dying Vines, Pacific Brewing Laboratory, and Almanac. The hottest term in the Bay Area beer world is fresh beer—or brewery-to-glass beer that has traveled the least distance in the shortest time before being poured. As a result, an increasing number of beer-savvy restaurants are devoting their menus not to imports (nor to wine) but to local brews, making one wonder why on earth we were drinking so much Stella, anyway.
But this is only the beginning. Today, the craft beer movement is as concerned with quality and flavor as it is with locality and environmental awareness. Beer represents everything that San Francisco thinks it stands for—not the least of which is a love of drunken revelry. So read on, raise a pint (or in this case a pokal), and down your last resistance to the subtleties and science of exquisitely good beer.
The 9 Best Place to Drink Beer Now
Anatomy of a Beer: From Head to Glass, What Your Beer is Trying to Tell You
Meet the Local Beer Meisters
Good Food for Good Beer
Taste Test: Tap vs. Bottle
Beer Gypsies and DIY Brewers
Know Your Beer Terms: A Short Glossary
Upstart Breweries Around The Bay
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*This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of San Francisco magazine. Subscribe here.