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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.↑