The Hills Are Alive

Napa and Sonoma valleys are saidto be easy-going and unrushed; in contrast, the city built on hills just south of them, San Francisco, is a fast-paced, bustling town. Even at its most maniacal thrum, there are moments of serenity, melodic sounds and breathtaking beauty. The Golden Gate Bridge, its towers cloaked in fog, Palace of Fine Arts with its soaring dome, the Presidio’s quaint cottages, a street car’s clanging bell as it climbs one of the steep hills, and the explosion of color, sound and aromas of Haight-Ashbury. Beyond all the sights, cacophony and crowds of the region are dozens of thriving breweries.

In San Francisco proper—an area just seven miles by seven miles—we visited several amazing breweries, including Barebottle Brewing Co., Magnolia Brewing Co., Almanac Beer Co. and Mikkeller Bar.

Barebottle is in an area that’s at once grungy urban and 21st-century capitalism. Go one block in one direction and you’re confronted with lower-middle-class homes in various stages of decline; go another and you’re on a busy street lined with modern home-improvement stores and all manner of other retail outlets. From the street, the brewery doesn’t look like much, but step inside and you’re in a cavernous space with polished concrete floors, a long wooden bar and seating areas; towering fermentation tanks line up behind the scene. The beer here is tasty and uncomplicated, served with the neighborhood vibe—it all seems to naturally fall into place.

Almanac Beer Co. is known for its standout sours and barrel-aged brews. Its San Francisco taproom, several miles from the brewery, features at least 15 Almanac brews on tap and a full menu for those who need refueling after a long day of sight-seeing.

Outside San Francisco, we were fortunate to have tour guides—my cousin Angie and her husband Dave have lived in Castro Valley in the East Bay area about 25 miles from San Francisco for years. They took us to several of their favorite breweries: Drake’s Brewing Company, Cleophus Quealy Beer Company and 21st Amendment Brewery.

When we drove to Drake’s, I thought it odd that we went behind a Home Depot to get there. But as we got to the corner of the large building, there was the brewery, in an industrial area parking lot. The standout beer at Drake’s? Drakonic Rum Imperial Stout. Just like it sounds, this thick brew is aged in rum barrels, retaining a good deal of the rum character along with deep chocolaty notes and roasty malts.

If Cleophus Quealy Beer Company were a winery, it would be called a boutique. It’s small, tucked away in an industrial park, unorthodox yet welcoming. CQBC brews small batches of sours, Belgian-style barrel-aged ales and dry-hopped California brews. The cozy tasting room is homey, the better to sip enticing brews like Cherryland sour or Batch 9/Apricot Golden ale.

Our West Coast sojourn was too short. And, even though we hit many breweries and wineries, there are many we missed. So we’ll be California dreamin’ until we return.