San Francisco – A Post-Mortem

So I’ve been in the States or more accurately California (or San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Petaluma to be exact) for a while, but now I’m back and at the keyboard. I’m not sure how best to write about my experiences, so I’m just going to ramble for a bit.

Flying economy from New Zealand to Cali sucks. I mean it really sucks. I’m pretty sure Dante describes circles of hell that are more pleasant than a transpacific flight. Anyway, after a shuttle ride, three flights, an air-train and a trip on the BART (underground rail), and a fair bit of legging it, we (I was travelling with my friend Hannah) emerged into Mission Dolores, San Francisco.

I have never felt a more profound sense of culture-shock in my life. I’ve been around the world. I’ve been to Australia. I’ve been to Western Europe. I’ve been to England, Hong Kong and Brunei Darussalam. I’ve even been to the States before (or at least Hudson, Wisconsin). But I have never been as shocked by a place as I was walking out onto Mission Street.

It wasn’t so much the foreignness of Mission, as how much it differed from my expectations. Frankly I thought I must have fallen asleep on the underground and woken up in Mexico. English was the lingua franca but Spanish was the language most spoken and used on billboards and signs. Then there was the smell of the place. That weird city-smell: a mixture of frying foods, rotting vegetation and something sweet and vaguely animal. You don’t get it in New Zealand (except maybe in a couple of places in Auckland), but I’ve smelt it before, in Europe and especially Hong Kong.1

On reflection though, the smell may have been coming from the wall of homeless people that greeted me. I’m pretty sure that if you rounded up all of the homeless in Wellington, there would be fewer than are camped out on Mission Street. At a rough calculation, it seems that there is an average of 1.5 homeless per 100 meters in SF.2 It also seems you can’t just be homeless in the States; you also have to be gibbering insane as well.

Anyway, after a shower, a burrito and a lot sleep, things started to look up. I’m not going to do a blow-by blow of the whole affair. That would take too long. Instead I’m just going to give my general impressions, starting with the plumbing.

I have never seen such a bewildering array of tap mechanisms. The shower tap in the place we were staying seemed to work using a joystick principle, whilst the kitchen seemed to be more of a seesaw affair. The best one though, was a model I’d met previously in America: a knob that you rotated for temperature and pulled in and out for pressure-control.

Toilets were another matter. They seemed to work off a similar vacuum principle as those hateful aeroplane toilets, which was a lot less effective at cleaning off skid-marks than the cascading flush system.

Hannah, my travel budy with a pint.

Hannah, my travel buddy with a pint.

Bathroom fixtures aside, I spent most of my time walking a lot, eating a lot, drinking a lot and looking at very big things. And let’s face it; it’s the drinking that most of my readers are interested in. The bar-scene in San Fran is insane. I reckon I have a sixth sense3 when it comes to finding good places to eat and drink. It makes me able to find good bars and restaurants anywhere in the world. In SF, this sense was buzzing constantly.

Bar Highlights:

Toronado (Haight Street) – Obviously. People had been talking this historic and grungy dive for years. The surfaces were filthy, but the atmosphere was awesome. The bathrooms were horrific, but the beer was fantastic. Paul, my local contact made sure we were really taken care of there.

Paul at Toronado, in a tyupical pose.

Paul at Toronado, in a typical pose.

Zeitgeist (Valencia) – Again, very dive-y and quite historic. Sitting in a rather spartan “beergarden” (read: vacant lot with tables) listening to punk and metal on a Sunday afternoon was one of my beer highlights. Probably Zeitgeist and Toronado sum up the crappy-awesomeness of the American beer-dive.

On the wall at Zeitgeist

On the wall at Zeitgeist. Photo: HK.

Monk’s Kettle (16th Street) – Relatively costly, but very well executed Belgian-esque bar and restaurant.

Benders (Mission Street) – Genuinely a dive bar. We went there late on a rather sedate pubcrawl. My memories get hazy after the first pint of Pliny, but I do remember a woman telling us about her dog’s penis and being invited back to someone’s house for marijuana lifesavers (which we declined).

At Benders. Now that's Divey!

At Benders. Now that’s Divey! Photo: HK.

I may have been a little drunk.

I may have been a little drunk.

Public House (At&T Stadium) – When Paul said we should go to the stadium bar I was surprised, but the place was really good. A little bit corporate in feel, but they had 24 taps and very few slouchers on any of them. They even had some 8 Wired bottles.

And if I could sum up one of the best things about the bar scene in SF, it would be exactly that: very few slouchers. Even bars that have no pretension to being ‘craft’ or even beer-focused sever at least one or two good beers from regional breweries. Speaking of which…

Brewery Highlights:

Russian River (Santa Rosa) – Obviously. I made the pilgrimage to Russian River for my birthday. It was a little too busy to enjoy properly, the bar was a packed tight and it was a struggle to get served, but the beer was excellent.4

So was the Pizza.

So was the Pizza. Photo: HK

3rd Street Aleworks (Santa Rosa) – I found 3rd Street on the way to Russian River and stopped in for a beer or two. It was a pleasant little brew-bar, and because it was my birthday, they shouted me a round (so pretty much have to say nice things about them).

The brewhouse at Lagunitas.

The brewhouse at Lagunitas.

Lagunitas (Petaluma) – Obviously. I’ve had a few Lagunitas beers in New Zealand, and I can say that I didn’t have awfully much regard for them. But decided to check it out anyway. I’m very glad I did. Fresh Lagunitas beers are amazing. Completely different (and by that I mean better) from the stuff you get here. But what really struck me was the size of the place. Without a doubt it’s the biggest brewery I’ve ever been to. As you approach, there are two big tanks by the entry to the brewery. It though they were fermenters. Nope: grain silos. For each days basemalt. Just one days worth.

Those aren't ferments.

Those aren’t ferments.

THOSE are the fermentsers!

THOSE are the fermenters!

It’s brewing on a scale you don’t see in New Zealand outside the multi-national companies. But the beer is still amazing. That you can brew in such quantities but still make great beer is encouraging and I think, or at least hope, that I’m looking into the future of beer in New Zealand. One day we’ll be making beer on that scale, whilst still maintaining quality standards.

Magnolia (Haight Street) – let it never be said Americans only make high gravity hop bombs. It seems May is ‘session beer month’ at Magnolia. Of a flight of five beers and one cider, only two were above 5% ABV. I had an English Brown, Bitter and Mild Ale; all of which were stylistically accurate (euphemism). I also had a Porter, IPA and Pomegranate Cider (a guest tap) which were excellent.

21st Amendment (2nd Street) – This is one that was talked up to me for years and didn’t disappoint. The beer was good, the food was good and the place was good. All around it was good.  Good good good.

Double Plus Good!

Double Plus Good!

Triple Rock Brewing (Berkeley) – I went on a trip to Oakland, but somehow ended up in Berkeley. A quick scan of the internet told me to go to this brewpub on Shattuck Ave. And it was nice. Nothing pretentious, and if the beers didn’t blow my mind, then they were still all really good.

Best experience in the States (beer or otherwise):

That would have to go my sunset sailing trip under the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather was lovely, the seas calm and the crew member an ex-pat Kiwi who chatted to me about sailing and the Oakland music scene.

Oh say can you see?

Oh say can you see? Photo HK.

Best of all though, the boat was stocked with Lagunitas IPA. I drank it from the bottle whilst the bridge soared overhead and the Sun sank into the Pacific. Magical.

Imagine this view, but with  awesome IPA in hand...

Imagine this view, but with awesome IPA in hand.

A Post-Mortem:

So what did it all mean, in the end? Sitting back in Wellington freezing my anatomy off it’s easy to look back on San Fran with a deep rose-tint to my specs. But reading over my notes there are a few things that occurred to me at the time which I think I should articulate.

First of all California is awesome, but I could never live there. Americans are wonderful people (as are all nationalities I’ve ever met), but there is a deep streak of something well fuckedup about American society. This is a beer blog, so I’m not going to get into heavy handed socio-political discussion. But I did notice it in small ways and it unnerved me.

Secondly, the beer itself actually disappointed me a first. You see I came of (drinking) age right in the renaissance of New Zealand beer, but I also grew-up on the legend of American microbreweries.  And I think the fault is mine: I was disappointed by American beer because I expected it to be earth-shatteringly,spectacularly, well… better. I wanted it to blow my mind and it didn’t.5 Certainly, specific beers (such a Torpedo) were much better than when I tried it in NZ. On the whole though, American microbrews were not generally any better than the product of New Zealand.

Yes, you heard me right: The best beers of New Zealand are easily the match of the best beers of America, or in fact, the world.  Now in saying this, I acknowledge that this wouldn’t have been true four, three, even two years ago.  New Zealand has come a very long way in a very short time. I would credit this to the rise of smaller, more adventurous brewers, be they contractors like Yeastie Boys or set in steel breweries like Garage Project. I would more importantly however, credit this to an upping-of-their-game by New Zealand brewers across the board in the last few years.

So I was a little disappointed that the beer didn’t shatter my world (I actually got over thus fairly quickly). But, and this is a big ‘but’, I still have to say in beer terms, America is at least a decade ahead of New Zealand. And I’ll tell you why: it’s not the beer, so much as the culture around it.

In New Zealand, I tell people I’m a beer enthusiast and they’re confused: Is that a thing? What, like Mac’s and Monteith’s? You work at a beer bar? How can you have a bar with just beer? Even in Wellington, I meet people who have never heard of Garage Project and only vaguely know of the likes of Tuatara or Emerson’s.

In California however, it’s the complete opposite: everyone knows about beer. I only had to say “I like beer” and people were tripping over themselves to give me advice. Oh you like beer? Have you been to Toronado yet? Let me tell you my favourite bar. Have you tried Pliny? There’s a place around the corner you should check out!

This was literally everyone I talked to. It’s not that America is a nation of Beer Geeks, it’s just that everyone knows about and appreciates good beer. Even those who don’t would say things like “Oh I don’t drink beer, but there’s a place on Such-and-Such Street. I go there for the wings, but they’ve a great tap selection.” And that’s really the thing. It’s mainstream in California. Like I said about bars: there’s no slouching. Every good bar serves decent beer and every decent drinker appreciates it.

And like I said about Lagunitas, I can’t help but think that I’m looking into New Zealand’s future here. There will come a day, maybe less than ten years away, where every decent bar in New Zealand serves good beer. Where you can ask anyone on the street “where do I get a good beer” and they won’t be confused, but keenly point you to the pub.

One day.

I close now knowing that my time in San Francisco is over, but my business there is unfinished. There were bars and breweries that went unvisited, beers that were left un-drank and good times that went un-had. So what I’m saying is, stay sexy San Fran, cos I’ll be back.  

One last bridge shot.

One last bridge shot.

1. I’m told that since China took-over, Hong Kong has lost its whiff. I must get back there and find out.

2. Distribution is uneven though. Posh quarters like Richmond have practically none, whereas places like the Tenderloin and Mission Street have one every 20 meters or so. I noticed rich places like Union Street have no benches or convenient places to sit. I think they’re afraid that if anyone sits down for too long, they’ll sprout a shopping trolley full of booze bottles and start asking people for change.

3. Or eleventh sense, depending on your reckoning.

4. Speaking of which, yes I had brewery-fresh Pilny the Elder and yes, it was good. You know what though? I liked Blind Pig better. Pliny has a massive cult following, but Pig is I think, pretty underrated compared to it’s bigger brother. Just say’in.

5. This might be why I was underwhelmed by Pliny. Certain beer writers have been talking it up for years, building a myth that doesn’t quite tally with reality.

Um, what the fuck is this? At the Rogue Public Ale House.

Um, what is this? At the Rogue Public Ale House.


Three Men Walk into a Bar

As a barman, I meet all sorts.  Customers are strange creatures, and recently I met a trio that inspired a fair deal of ambivalence in me.  I’m not sure how best to explain the encounter, so I’m just going to take you thorough it as it happened.

So three men walk into a bar: an Englishman, an Englishman and an Englishman (sorry).  They walk up to the bartender (me) and pull out a piece of paper.

“Hi there, we’re looking for some hard to find beers; thought this might be the place to find them,” said their spokesman.  Certainly, said I.  What are you after?

He consulted his list.  “12 Gauge” (a strong lager from Leigh Sawmill Brewery).  No, we don’t have it.  Meow Cafe might have bottles of it.  My mind races for an alternative New Zealand beer: tap pilsner?  Liberty Alpha Dog?

He consults the list again.  “Mammoth?”  (Pink Elephant’s strong ale).  Sorry, we don’t have that either.  Hmm, Liberty High-Carb?  I mentally store that recommendation away for the moment.

“Got any Engima?”  Ah, Twisted Hop’s Barleywine!  It hasn’t been brewed since the earthquake.  We had a lot of the Red Zone version of it at one stage, but we sold out a while back.  That beer’s extinct in the wild as it were.  I know of a couple of bottles in captivity (private cellars), but none for sale.  I explain all of this whilst digging around in my brain for a recommendation. Renaissance Tribute Barleywine.  That’ll be perfect!

I’m about to recommend a Tribute, when he speaks again: “Emerson’s Old 95?”  Ha.  I should have seen that coming.  That’s another extinct beer.  Again, I know there are still bottles in captivity, but that hasn’t been brewed in almost two years.  As I explain this, a thought occurs to me.

Where did you get this list I asked?  It turns out he’d copied it out of the book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die.  Now things are starting to make sense.  That book was published in early 2010.  Most of the writing was probably done in 2009 and the research for it as early as 2007-2008.  Now that’s not long ago in the scheme of things, but with the radical growth of beer in New Zealand, five years ago was practically the Dark Ages.

Don’t believe me?  Winter 2008 was the year Yeastie Boys launched with a single batch of Pot Kettle Black.  They only did four releases in the year following, the second and third being Golden Boy and Kid Chocolate.  The fourth was the second vintage (that’s right, vintage, it started as an annual release) of PKB.

Need more perspective?  Late 2009  was the year 8 Wired launched, with a beer called “All of the Above.” Never heard of it?  It was later re-named ReWired.  I suspect the book would have been nearing completion at that stage, and no one who worked on it had ever heard of the virtuoso Dane, brewing in small-town New Zealand.

Anyway, so now I know what I’m dealing with.  What else is on the list?  Invercargill Smokin’ Bishop.  Well, that’s a winter release.  You’ll be lucky to find it this time of year.  We have no other New Zealand equivalent, but maybe a Rex Attitude?  Harrington’s Big John Special Reserve.  Ah!  If only we had some Double-Barrelled Cockswain’s on tap!  Never mind, an 8 Wired Batch 18 will blow their minds, I think.

Look mate, I say, that book’s pretty out of date.  Let me recommend some New Zealand beers I think should be in that book.   “No thanks,” he says.  “I’ll just have a look through your menu.”  The three of them bury their heads in the bottle-list.

Ok, that’s odd.  Well, clearly they’re experienced beer-hunters, so they know what they’re doing.  Since I wasn’t busy, I grabbed the bar computer and had a quick dig.  Hey mate, I said, it looks like Regional Wines and Spirits have bottles of Smokin’ Bish’ and Big John.  They’re an awesome bottle shop not far from here, I can give you directions if you like.

He looks up.  “No thanks.  The rule is we have to drink them in an on-licence.”  Um… What?  Now I know it’s fun to make make arbitrary rules for simple tasks to make them more challenging; like say only stepping on black tiles when walking across a chequer-board floor.  However to me, what he said was utterly-nutterly-butterly insane.  Isn’t the point of beer-hunting that you go you go out of your way to try beers no matter how you get your hands on them?  I have a friend who once on a trip to Germany, went out of her way to go to Bamberg, just because she liked Rauchbiers.  Personally, I’ll walk across broken glass if I want a beer bad enough.  It’s about the beer, not the method of acquisition: the why matters, not the how.

I was still digesting this revelation when he finally ordered beers: three Rising Sun Pale Ales.  Um, wait, what the fuck?  These guys have come all the way around the world hunting specific New Zealand beers, to probably the best beer-bar in the country.  When they can’t find them what do they do?  Drink imports.  From snatches of their conversation, I gathered at least one of them had already had Baird beer before, in Japan!  Hashigo is probably the only bar in the country that still has Batch 18, but you’re drinking imported beer you’ve had before?

Ok, chill out.  I begrudge no one their tasty beverage.  Clearly these guys know what they like and like good beer.  Except…

They came back the next day and drank Chimay and Rochefort.  What?  Really?  Two (admittedly beautiful) Trappist beers that can be found in almost any beer-bar world-wide?

Alright, fine.  So you know what you want (god-bless you for that).  But readers might see why I’m a little perplexed here.  The point of international beer-hunting is that you go to a place and seek-out the beers that come from there.  Heavens knows I flout the ‘drink local’ ethos almost daily, but if I’m travelling somewhere, I want to try the beers I can’t get anywhere else.

I can’t help feeling like these chaps have lost sight of the wood because of all the pesky trees that keep getting in the way.  They came all this way to not try local beers because they weren’t on an obsolete list?   I suspect a Pokemon1 mentality has take over here: the act of collecting, the ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ has become more important than the actual thing you’re collecting.

I’m going to finish by saying two things:

First of all, I like your style.  The enthusiasm and dedication of going around the world trying beers everywhere is something I applaud.  But also keep in mind that beer is a fluid thing (literally and metaphorically): breweries fail and change hands, new beers are created and new breweries start-up.  Books don’t change though.  The 1001 is fixed in history, so you’re doomed to failure.  You will probably never taste Old 95.  With that in mind, don’t lose sight of what beer-hunting should be about: enjoying good beer, in good places, with good people.

So yeah, keep that in mind.  And god-speed, you mad bastards.

  1. For those mature readers unfamiliar with Pokemon, it was a cartoon/trading card/videogame series where people imprison animals in ludicrously small cages and then sic them on random strangers.  Imagine a blend of stamp-collecting and dog-fighting and you’re pretty much there.