By Chuck Lenatti
The late beer writer Michael Jackson declared in the 1970s that good beer won’t just come to you: “The truth is, the best beers – those with the greatest aromas, colors and flavors – must be hunted down,” he wrote.
Fortunately for us in the Bay Area, there are several stores staffed by knowledgeable and friendly men and women who are more than happy to be your guide as you hunt for good beer. Taking Michael Jackson’s mantra to heart, we set off to hunt for the stores that not only sell good beer but talk the talk.
Three of my favorites in San Francisco are City Beer, Healthy Spirits and Star-Ell. Although they are very different superficially, their owners share a love for beer and are eager to help find the right beer for you.
“People ask me what kind of beer I like, and that’s the wrong question,” said Nate Breed, the wine and cheese manager of Healthy Spirits in the Castro. It’s better if they tell him what they’re already drinking and what they like, he said. Breed’s tastes lean toward sour Belgian beers and strong ales, but he’s equally adept at extolling the virtues of a fine pilsner or lighter wit beer. Healthy Spirits is the kind of neighborhood store every neighborhood wishes it had. It has a vast selection of quality ales from all over the world, particularly Belgium. People ask Breed whether his store carries any ales, Breed said, chuckling. “We have more than 600.”
Healthy Spirits also carries a delicious array of cheeses and specialty foods prepared by owner Rami Barqawi’s mom, and Breed sometime holds pairings of cheeses with ale, which is usually a much better match than wine. Barqawi’s wife, Rashida, handles the deli counter and Dave Hauselein is the beer manager. If you want to talk beer with some friendly, knowledgeable folks in a relaxing, low-key store, this is the place for you.
2299 15th Street
New Star-Ell Liquors
New Star-Ell looks like your typical neighborhood corner liquor store, but appearances in this case can be deceiving. People come from all over the Bay Area and beyond to buy beer at this store on a busy corner of Fell and Divisadero, said Salim Nasser, one of three brothers who own and operate New Star-Ell. The store is in the process of remodeling its cold cases and eagerly accepts suggestions from customers. If they don’t have it and it’s available, they’ll try to get it for you. Procuring good beer isn’t a problem confined to consumers, apparently. Nasser said New Star-Ell has been trying for months to get its hands on some of the excellent brews from Russian River Brewery (Pliny the Elder, yum), for instance, but so far without success. They haven’t given up, though. In addition to its fine selection of Belgian ales, West Coast microbrews and wine, New Star-Ell will also sell and deliver kegs, including brews from Dogfish Head, Deschutes, Speakeasy and Kona Brewing, to name but a few.
Nasser said customers sometimes get sticker shock when they see a 12-ounce bottle of Belgian ale selling for more than they’d generally pay for a six-pack of generic American lager. But that might be the wrong comparison. These potent ales aren’t meant to be slammed down the way you might a 12-pack of Miller Lite and their alcohol levels can approach those of wine (be careful with this stuff). And in any event, you don’t have to spend a lot of money for good beer. You can pick up a sixer of the excellent Trumer Pils for $7.99, plus tax or a blond Belgian Brouwerij Affligem for the same price.
New Star-Ell has recently added Valley Brewing from Stockton to its lineup.
New Star-Ell Liquors
501 Divisadero Street
Learning about beer from the people who sell it is a good way to educate yourself, but it’s a bit like talking about sex. To really appreciate it, you have to participate. Located south of Market on Folsom, City Beer takes beer to its logical conclusion: drinking it. City Beer has six taps available, all of them featuring good beer, mostly from the West Coast. On tap this week were Russian River Consecration Batch 2, Dogfish Head Festina Peche, Port Brewing Panzer Pilsner, Sierra Nevada Estate Harvest Ale, Stone Imperial Russian Stout and Napa Smith IPA.
You can also buy beer on the premises and for another dollar per bottle, City Beer will pour it for you in the appropriate glass (very important for appreciating the nuances of the beer). Getting a pouring license wasn’t easy, said owner Craig Wathen, who runs City Beer along with his wife, Beth, and Heather Castro. “It took us about a year,” Craig said.
Considering the location, City Beer is a beer drinking oasis, but the small store can get a little cramped when it’s busy. City Beer is a bit of a hybrid between a store for discriminating beer drinkers and a tasting bar. City beer also sells artisan cheese and salametto plates to nosh on while you relax with your latest find. Although Wathen has a special place in his heart for strong beers and ales, he can also appreciate people who are making the jump to craft beers from American lagers. You don’t have to leap into hoppy beers right away. City Beer recently began carrying the hard to find, iconic Victory Prima Pils. If the only German-style pilsners you’ve had is Becks, you owe it to yourself to taste what this style is capable of when crafted with care.
City Beer’s Web site includes its mission: “Our hope is for beer to be treated with the same respect as a fine wine or fine bourbon. Through continued education and tasting of many brews we will create a beer force to be reckoned with!”
We couldn’t have said it any better.
1168 Folsom Street, Suite 101