Where to Drink in San Francisco, California

Destinations by | Feb 2013 | Issue #73

Illustration by Sam Brewster

Anchor Brewing Co., established in 1896, transformed into America’s original craft brewery in 1965 when Fritz Maytag rescued and renovated it, thereby making the San Francisco Bay Area the epicenter of the beer renaissance. Maytag was even ahead of the real food movement, pioneered by Alice Waters, who opened groundbreaking Chez Panisse across the bay in Berkeley in 1971. Today, the Bay Area is home to over 60 breweries, and the city itself boasts nine beyond Anchor … and that number is growing. In fact, the San Francisco Brewers Guild recently decided to bring the contract and gypsy breweries into the fold, so now membership stands at 15.

As far as beer-soaked watering holes, keep in mind that while craft beer accounts for around 6 percent of overall beer consumption, San Franciscans do better than 20 percent, so you’re virtually guaranteed to find no worse than a decent beer list in most bars and restaurants. That said, several establishments deserve their ale-centric accolades. To hit them all, don’t rent a car. Instead, get around town by foot. Considering San Francisco’s only 7 miles by 7 miles, it’s entirely walkable. There’s also the MUNI and BART systems of public transportation (BeerByBart.com offers a station-by-station list of beer bars), so you’re never more than 15 minutes from another incredible pint, chalice or tulip.

Sure, there’s also the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Park, SF MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) and more, but didn’t you come to drink where craft beer was born?

One of the oldest true beer bars in the country, owner David Keene’s Toronado boasts over 45 taps and a hand-pumped cask, and pints of amazing beers cost as little as $3 during happy hour. In fact, at any hour, only the dusty bottle list features anything over $10. Moonlight Brewing—where brewmaster Brian Hunt wears every hat (or workshirt)—is a staple here, and Death & Taxes Black Lager is liquid gospel. Events like Barleywine Fest, now in its 20th year, make this Lower Haight icon a veritable institution.

The Alembic
You won’t go dry on Upper Haight, either. From publican Dave McLean, who founded Magnolia Pub & Brewery [1398 Haight St., magnoliapub.com] where beers range from sessionable Blue Bell Bitter on cask to palate-wrecking Old Thunderpussy Barleywine during February-long Strong Beer Month, comes this cocktail-centric small-plate destination near Golden Gate Park. Don’t let the small number of taps fool you; between the drafts and Alembic’s usual plus vintage bottle list, this is a gustatory zenith for the small cluster of folks who actually fit inside.

Not everything’s about elevating the beer-drinking experience or challenging your palate. Lock up your messenger bike and order by the pitcher at this beer garden in The Mission.  Sometimes it’s about soaking up rays—and tamales, when Virginia “The Tamale Lady” [@TamaleLady] pops in—and simply having everyone enjoy easy-drinking Anchor Steam or Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA all day long while parked at the end-to-end picnic tables.

City Beer Store
The couple that runs this SOMA bottle shop—Craig and Beth Wathen—take painstaking care to stock the widest selection of hard-to-find beers from the most interesting breweries, no fewer than 300 bottles. Patrons can drink their newfound bounty for a buck “corkage” fee. And since doubling in size from tiny to just small, they’ve tripled their taps to 15, inviting brewers from near and far for “sipping session” takeovers most Thursdays. It’s no wonder breweries like The Bruery and Cascade alchemize proprietary beers for their anniversaries, most recently celebrating their sixth.

La Trappe
North Beach feels like Little Italy, but this basement gastropub is all Belgium, down to some of the best mussels and frites. Once your eyes adjust, ogle the tap list that runs near 20 deep, mostly from Belgium but with nods to Belgian-inspired breweries like SoCal’s Brouwerij West. The leather-bound, multi-page bottle list makes you feel like you should sport a smoking jacket just perusing it. Beware that if the bottle of Lambic you’re eyeing at the onset says 30, that’s not the cost but the page number you’ll find it on.

Church Key
This other North Beach hangout doesn’t specialize in beer pairings unless you count Wednesdays, when DJ Slowpoke spins Motown and the like for “beer with soul.” That it’s not exactly public-transpo-friendly ensures you’re never cramped for space, and when the beer geek population does swell, there’s always the chill upstairs lounge. Owner Jason King has the draft and bottle list on permanent rotation, so one week it’s Marin Pt. Reyes Porter and Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, the next it’s High Water Campfire Stout and Pacific Brew Labs’ Squid Ink IPA.

The Abbott’s Cellar
As if debuting with Monk’s Kettle [3141 16th Street, monkskettle.com] didn’t impress enough, what with the gastrotavern’s two-dozen-plus taps to wash down severely elevated pub grub, the team unveiled this gourmet restaurant not far from their Mission District roots. The shelves behind the bar are a study in glassware, and the bottle cellar numbers into triple digits, but that doesn’t keep the Cantillon and Samuel Adams Utopias from popping out. Ordering the prix-fixe beer-pairing menu is the right call.

Fat Angel
Before a show at the legendary Fillmore concert hall or after a set at Yoshi’s snazzy jazz club, pop into this small Fillmore neighborhood space that packs an impressive draft (beer and wine) menu. It’s always heavy on Belgian ales, but DIPA’s from SoCal’s Port Brewing and the North Bay’s Moylan’s bring the hops. The owners are usually on hand to assist with the beverage and food menus, the latter of which consists of small plates, including charcuterie and butters. Yes, apparently we now have artisanal butters, including savory maple bacon and sweet chocolate cinnamon.

Public House
Imagine watching Pablo “The Panda” Sandoval splash a homer into McCovey Cove outside AT&T Park while sipping Russian River’s equally powerful Supplication Wild Ale, for less than the price of a ballpark macro beer at that! Such is the beauty of Public House, housed on field level with beers available to carry into the park. World Series champs also deserve world-class brewpubs nearby, so there’s also 21st Amendment [563 2nd Street, 21st-amendment.com] in case a Watermelon Wheat sounds more befitting of a ballgame, or go worldly with Thirsty Bear Brewing [661 Howard Street, thirstybear.com], but be careful if you tell friends to meet you at this tapas bar, since there really is a topless bar across the street!

SF Brewcraft
For your homebrewing needs, your best (and only) chance to pick up supplies and ingredients in SF is at this old-school shop out in The Richmond, where Griz and the gang have been keeping folks mashing in since 1978. As such, expect some dust, but don’t expect any of these newfangled fancy-shmancy systems displayed on the floor. There’s room enough for all the specialty malts, hops galore and books, and enough wet yeasts to brew ales from around the globe.