Toronado: holiday beer in a classic San Francisco dive bar

Big Daddy Dave Keene and his Toronado bar have come a long way in the past 22 years, and the lower-Haight Street beer institution has come close to defining the American public house experience. This might come as a bit of a shock to those who have felt slighted and even humiliated by the Toronado bartenders for such perceived transgressions as the wrong attire (“we don’t serve yuppies in here”), lack of beer knowledge or simply indecision. Others malign the “ambiance”: It’s too dark and dingy, too loud, and it smells too much of urine. While all of this is demonstrably true, what the detractors fail to realize is that the Toronado really is all about the beer.
The Toronado opened in 1987 with just two taps and Keene bought out the original owners a couple of years later. The rise of the Toronado, not incidentally, has matched the trajectory of the craft brew movement in the Bay Area and there exists a rare synergy between producers and purveyor that would be hard to fathom in the American macro beer environment. Speakeasy Brewery in San Francisco named its signature IPA “Big Daddy” in honor of Keene and Anderson Valley Brewery named two of its Belgian ales after him: Brother David's Double and Triple, according to a 2007 interview. Beer gurus such as Shaun O’Sullivan of 21st Amendment and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company often hold beer-release events or attend parties at the Toronado. In 2007, Cilurzo debuted a new beer, a Flanders Red-style ale, to celebrate the Toronado’s 20th anniversary and threw a party at the Santa Rosa brewery in Keene’s honor.

Toronado’s nearly 50 beers on tap (with more in bottles) extends far beyond the Bay Area, though, mostly in the direction of Belgium, with the likes of Chimay, Brasserie d'Achouffe and Brasserie Dubuisson, and American brewers whose beers reflect the Belgian tradition, such as the sublime Allagash White (pictured above with a beer sausage from Rosamunde) from Portland, Maine. Keene has a soft spot for Belgian ales. During the holidays, seasonal beers dominate the taps, like Scaldis Noel, Santa's Little Elf, Santa's Little Helper, St Bernardus Christmas and many more.
The Toronado has become the epicenter of the craft beer scene in San Francisco. February will mark the 17th year that the Toronado has hosted the annual barley wine festival – a sort of strong ale Olympics – in conjunction with San Francisco Beer Week. The Toronado brand has even extended beyond the Bay Area, as Keene licensed the name to former employee Ian Black, who opened a San Diego pub in 2008.
The Toronado’s taps are among the best in the Bay Area, but you can have a more enjoyable experience if you remember a few simple rules.
1) Don’t overdress. No one will be impressed, least of all the bartenders.
2) If you’re hungry, stop at the excellent Rosamunde Sausage Grill next door and place your order. Beer loves sausages. You will be told to return in 5-10 minutes to pick it up. You are welcome to bring your sausage in a yellow basket into the bar as long as you clean up after yourself.

3) There really is a caste system at the Toronado; it’s the “regulars” and everybody else. If you belong to the latter category, do not expect any conversation or pleasantries or any other sort of human interaction with the bartenders. Don’t take it personally, they treat everybody this way.
4) Know what you want. There’s a beer board at the back of the bar. Study it and be ready to place your order when the bartender acknowledges you. No questions, no conversation. Grab your beer, tip $1 and find a place to drink it. As you drink your first one, strategize about your second. A session beer, under 5.5% abv (like Moonlight's Reality Czech, pictured above), is a good start; you can always go higher with your next beers.
5) Get to know your neighbors. Unlike the bartenders, most of your fellow beer drinkers are quite friendly and more than willing to share information and beer knowledge. This can help you make your next beer decision.
6) Finally, try to pick a day and time when it’s not likely to be too busy. Mid-afternoons are perfect, even on weekends. The experience is literally night and day.

Special holiday and seasonal beers on tap at Toronado on 12/21/09
Dubuisson: Scaldis Noel
Widmer: brr Winter
Affligem: Noel
St. Bernardus: Christmas
Schneider: Aventinus
Port: Santa’s Little Helper
Sierra Nevada: Celebration
Drakes: Jolly Roger Brown
Anderson Valley: Winter Solstice
Marin: Hoppy Holidaze
Half Moon Bay: Old Solstice Winter
Shmaltz: Jewbelation
Moonlight: Tipple Ale
Iron Springs: Epiphany Amber
Anchor: Christmas
Mikkeller: Santa’s Little Elf
New Belgium: 2 below
Magnolia: Winter Warmer
Triple Rock: Reindeer
Avery: Old Jubilation
Kern River Brewing: Holiday Ale
Lost Abbey: Gift of the Magi
Russian River Brewing: Damnation, Consecration, Publication


547 Haight St.
San Francisco, CA 94117-3406
(415) 863-2276
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily

No comments:

Post a Comment