Nix the champagne and ring in a hoppy new year with beer

National Public Radio recently reported that Americans aren’t buying French bubbly the way they used to, and some of it is even being sent back to France. That’s not too surprising. Given the state of the economy and the number of people who are out of work, paying more than $50 for a classy French champagne borders on extravagance.
For that kind of money, New Year’s revelers can quaff some excellent beer. According to, “One of the newest and most interesting styles of beer, the Bière de Champagne has much potential within the beer industry as a top-shelf crossover beer.” Primarily brewed in Belgium, biere de champagne is ale that goes through a lengthy maturation process and is sometimes aged in caves in France’s Champagne region before being put through the “methode de champenoise” process of remuage and degorgement to remove yeast from the bottle. These ales look like champagne, pop and fizz like champagne, and like French bubbly are best served chilled in flute glasses.
Whole Foods in San Francisco sells DeuS made by Brouwerij Bosteels of Belgium for $32.99. Other biere de champagne to consider are Malheur Bière Brut (Brut Reserve) from Brouwerij De Landtsheer NV and Bush Prestige from Brasserie Dubuisson Frères sprl.
Another option could be to get hoppy with some of the fine India pale ales and double IPAs that are available in California. A few to consider are: Blind Pig and Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing, Racer 5 and Red Rocket from Bear Republic, Valley Brewing’s IPA and Uberhoppy, Stone IPA and Ruination, Drake’s IPA, AleSmith IPA and YuleSmith, and many others. All would ring in a very hoppy new year at a fraction of the price of good champagne.
Or you could enjoy a seasonal winter warmer, like a beautiful magnum of Anchor’s excellent Our Special Ale ($14.99 at BevMo), welcome the new year with Samuel Smith’s subtle yet enticing Winter Welcome Ale, or quaff one of my seasonal favorites, Deschutes Jubelale.

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

Nopalito: sustainable Mexican food meets craft beer

Nopa Restaurant in San Francisco and its smaller sibling, Nopalito, are doing their part for sustainable organic farming by serving “simple food created with seasonal ingredients sourced from local purveyors.”
At Nopalito, the emphasis is on Mexican dishes like enchiladas mole with chicken, carnitas (slow-cooked pork), ceviche (marinated seafood) and pozole rojo, a soup made with pork shoulder, hominy, chile mulato, radishes, cabbage and onion. The rustic pozole in particular is Mexican comfort food and very satisfying on a dreary December afternoon.
Nopa and Nopalito also look to local producers for some of their beer, although the selection is sparse compared to the restaurants’ wine lists. Nopa’s wine menu runs 11 pages, compared with two beers on tap and seven in bottles. Nopalito actually has more beer than its larger sibling, with four beers on tap and nine in bottles. Although pickings are slim, you can make some good beer/food matches with what’s available from Magnolia, which is just down the street in the Haight; Mission Brewing Company in Chula Vista; the popular Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa; and Moonlight Brewing Company in Santa Rosa.
Owned and almost solely operated by Brian Hunt, Moonlight only produces about 1,000 barrels per year, which is tiny even by microbrew standards. Nopalito features Moonlight’s delicious Death and Taxes California black lager on tap, which makes for a nice match paired with the soulful pozolo rojo. The other draught options are Magnolia’s Kalifornia Kolsch, a pale, relatively light German-style beer; Negra Modelo, a Munich dunkel lager made in Mexico; and Michelada, which is something like a bloody Mary, but with beer.
Nopalito also has some interesting bottles to choose from, including a 16.9-ounce bottle of Russian River’s tasty Blind Pig India Pale Ale; a Schonramer “Gold” Spezialbier, a German marzen/Oktoberfest beer; and a 22-ounce “bomber” of Mission Brewing Amber Ale. There are some interesting imports from Belgium as well: a Dupont “Foret” Organic Saison, a De Proef “Reinaert” Flemish Wild Ale and a Verhaeghe “Duchesse de Bourgogne” Red Ale.
Lagers are a good choice with Mexican food. The gentle carbonation is refreshing against the Mexican spices and the subtle, understated hops in the beer don’t overpower the simple food. Death and Taxes is a very good California dark beer, and at 4.2% abv, it won’t paralyze you for the rest of the afternoon.

306 Broderick
San Francisco, CA

Phone: 415-437-0303

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week.

Luka’s Taproom: good beer in Uptown Oakland

Uptown Oakland is enjoying something of a renaissance, attempting to recapture some of the luster of the early to mid 20th century, when the area was a prime shopping and entertainment destination. A lot of the old department store buildings remain from that era, and the Fox Theater on Telegraph and the art deco Paramount Theater on Broadway have been beautifully restored and attract world-class talent. Oakland has also made an effort to revitalize the residential aspects of this historic part of the city. Opened in 2008, the Uptown on William Street has created 665 new apartments, 9,000 square feet of retail and a public park.
Uptown Oakland is also home to some nightclubs, like The Uptown Nightclub on Telegraph, and several very nice, up-scale eateries such as Ozumo and Pican. But sometimes before or after a show, say, or during a day of shopping, you just need a quick bite and a good beer. A cone of Belgian-style French fries with a little aioli and a pint of Old Speckled Hen English Pale Ale at Luka’s Taproom fills that bill admirably.
Luka’s 16 beers on tap nicely balance Belgian ales (Chimay, Nice Chouffe, Lindemanns Framboise, Delerium Tremens, Maredsous No. 8, Blanche de Bruxelles, Stella Artois) and beer from the U.S. (Racer 5, Boont Amber, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Blue Star Hefeweizen, Lagunitas Brown Sugga and Dogfish Head 90), with a couple of beers tossed in from the British Isles (Old Speckled Hen and Guinness) and a Jever lager from Germany. Several nice Belgian beers are also available in bottles, including 750ml bottles of Deus biere de champagne and Fantome La Dalmatienne.
The frequently changing “California brasserie” menu is a bit of a mish-mash – a Belgian influence with mussels, oysters and Belgian-style fries; American standbys like burgers, sandwiches and mac and cheese; and Southern-style brunch on Sundays. On a recent Sunday, we tried the Mac and cheese (pretty good), fried chicken (a bit dry), beet soup (tasty), Belgian fries and aioli (good), a biscuit sandwich (underseasoned) and a frittata with artichokes and Brussel sprouts. Overall, the food is OK but not memorable. The real stars are the beer, like the smooth Old Speckled Hen Pale Ale, served from a nitrogen tap to reduce carbonation, and the tasty Maredsous 8 dubbel-style abbey ale from Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat NV. Luka’s might not be the place you want to go for an amazing dining experience, but sometimes a casual environment, good beer and something to snack on is just what the doctor ordered. 
Luka’s becomes a music venue at night, with DJs spinning hip-hop, soul, funk and reggae. Cover is $10 on Fridays and Saturdays. Luka's walls feature local artists, and art exhibits rotate regularly in the lounge, dining room and hallway.
Luka’s, which was named after a stray dog and replaced a hofbrau in 2004, fills a vital niche in the up-and-coming Uptown Oakland, with good beer and decent food, and support for local artists and musicians. If it wasn’t there already, someone would probably have to invent it.

Luka’s Taproom
2221 Broadway
Oakland, Calif, 94612.
Near 19th street BART and close to Lake Merritt
Phone: (510) 451-4677

Hours of operation:
Monday & Tuesday 11:30am-12:00am
Wednesday, Thursday & Friday 11:30am - 2:00am
Saturday 5:30pm - 2:00am
Sunday 10:30am - 12:00am
Lunch is served 11:30am - 2:30pm, Monday - Friday.
Dinner is served 5:30pm - 10:30pm, 7 days a week.
Brunch is served 10:30am - 2:30pm on Sunday.

Give the gift of beer for Christmas

Even on the coast of California, where the weather is generally less severe than elsewhere in the country, winter is a drag. The days are short, temperatures are low and people get the blues. With the recession, even the Christmas holidays can seem more like a burden than a respite.
Throughout history, people have devised antidotes for the winter doldrums, such as choral music, baking cookies and Santa Claus. Among mankind’s cheerier winter inventions are special beers brewed especially for this time of year.
Whereas summer beers are designed to be light and refreshing, winter beers are brewed to warm the body and the soul. They’re typically darker, heavier and higher in alcohol, and sometimes include spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and Belgian candi sugar. Some of these brews hearken back to the mulled beer and mead wassail tradition of the Middle Ages, as sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon would be heated in a bowl and topped with slices of toast to sop up the liquid.
These days, American craft brewers have joined their European counterparts in jumping into the Christmas spirit. Perhaps the most familiar example in the U.S. is Anchor Brewing Company’s traditional Christmas Ale, called Our Special Ale, now in its 35th year. Both the label and the recipe change annually. This year’s edition seems more straightforward and less spiced than in the past, and at 5.5% abv, it’s not as potent as some of the other holiday ales.
Belgium has a long tradition of holiday beers, but some of them can be very heavily spiced and might not taste like what you would expect. Rami Barqawi, owner of Healthy Spirits in San Francisco, pictured holding a big bottle of St. Feuillien Cuvee de Noel, and beer manager Dave Hauslein can help sort through the styles and flavor profiles so you can pick the right ale for your holiday get-together or as a gift for the beer connoisseurs in your life.

Kevin O’Shea, beer manager at Whole Foods on Fourth Street in San Francisco, is also a big fan of Belgian ales for the holidays, and his shelves are brimming with brews: everything from jolly St. Bernardus Christmas Ale (a strong dark ale) to Santa’s Butt (an English-style porter) from Ridgeway Brewing in England. For the adventurous beer or wine lover on your list, O’Shea suggests Deus, a biere de champagne, from Brouwerij Bosteels of Belgium. Biere de champagne follows an aging procedure similar to champagne.
Over at City Beer on Folsom, co-owner Beth Wathen recommends Gouden Carolus, a Belgian strong dark ale from Brouwerij Het Anker; Pere Noel, a Belgian strong ale from Brouwerij De Ranke; 2 Turtle Doves, a Belgian strong dark ale from The Bruery in Placentia, Calif.; and YuleSmith, an American Imperial IPA from the excellent AleSmith Brewing Company in San Diego.
Whether you’re bringing something special and different to your holiday parties, surprising a beer lover with an unexpected stocking stuffer, or just trying to survive the winter blues, all of these brews will provide much needed warmth – even in “sunny” California. And great beer can be a bargain, relatively speaking. While even an ordinary wine can carry a hefty price tag, you can buy some of the best beer in the world, packaged in a beautiful, corked 750ml bottle, for less than $20.

Healthy Spirits
2299 15th St. San Francisco CA, 94114

Hours of operation
Friday and Saturday-9AM-11PM

Whole Foods
399 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94107 USA
Phone 415.618.0066

Store hours:
8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

City Beer
1168 Folsom St
Suite 101
San Francisco
CA, 94103
(415) 503 1033

Hours of operation
Tue-Sat Noon to 10pm
Sunday Noon to 6pm
Closed on Monday

Sierra Nevada’s new beer: risking life and limb with Dogfish

Sierra Nevada is not the sort of beer company to rest on its hoppy green laurels. Even though its ubiquitous Pale Ale is the second-best selling craft beer in the country behind Samuel Adams, the Chico brewery continues to push the boundaries of the American craft brewing industry as it has since it was founded by Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi in 1980.
Sierra’s 13 year-round, seasonal or special ales and lagers range from a 4.8% abv Kellerweis Heffewiezen all the way up to its 10.2% abv Life and Limb collaboration with Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. Sierra recently held a tasting of three of its most current ales at Lucky 13 in Alameda. Beer distributor Chris Baker (above) paired his barbecued ribs with Sierra’s Celebration IPA, Estate Ale and the aforementioned Life and Limb.
Life and Limb literally brings together two of the country’s most influential craft brewing companies, combining Sierra Nevada’s estate grown barley with pure maple syrup from Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione’s family farm in Massachusetts. The yeast is a blend of both breweries’ house strains. The strong, dark ale is naturally carbonated with birch syrup from Alaska and it’s bottle conditioned. At first sip, Life and Limb explodes on the palate with flavors not typically associated with beer, but it goes down dangerously easily. It’s available at selected locations on draught and in bottles. A beer from the second running, called Limb and Life, was brewed in very limited quantities on draught.
Celebration Ale is yet another example of how well SN balances its smooth Pale and English Caramel malt with Chinook bittering hops, and Cascade and Centennial hops for finishing and dry-hopping. The dry-hopped ale has very floral and forward hops, but it’s also very drinkable. It’s widely available all over the Bay Area in reasonably priced 12-packs ($12.99 at BevMo) and deserves a place in every serious ale drinker’s fridge.

The Estate Ale (pictured in a Celebration glass) is all Sierra Nevada, with 100% of the ingredients grown on Sierra’s property. According to the company, it’s one of the only estate-made beers in the world. Of the three beers, the well-balanced Estate Ale was probably my favorite with the barbecued ribs, with the hops and carbonation offsetting the sweetness of the pork. It’s a fine maiden voyage effort for Sierra Nevada and definitely worth seeking out.
It’s hard to believe, but next year will be SN’s 30th anniversary, and considering the amount of beer it sells, the “craft brewery” moniker seems out of date. Although Sierra Nevada has established a signature flavor, thanks in large part to the success of its Pale Ale, the company always seems to have something new up its sleeve. It’s no wonder whippersnappers like 14 year old Dogfish Head want to work with Sierra Nevada. SN has charted the success arc for craft brewers all over the country. It combines tradition, like its legendary Bigfoot Barleywine, with risky ideas such as Life and Limb. Some of them will be commercial successes and some won’t. But they’ll all be interesting.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
1075 East 20th Street
Chico, CA 95928

Main: 530.893.3520
Taproom & Restaurant: 530.345.2739
Gift Shop: 530.896.2198

Gordon Biersch: the Starbucks of brew pubs

Chain restaurants are a mixed bag. The stock in trade of franchises like McDonalds, Starbucks and others is to create a feeling of comforting reassurance in a familiar setting. Whether you’re in Honolulu, Atlanta or San Francisco, you can be sure that your Quarter Pounder or Mocha Latte will be the same in an almost cookie-cutter environment.
But since chains by definition appeal to a broad audience, they typically engineer their products so that they don’t offend anyone. So while you can usually count on a predictable experience, it will seldom be extraordinary.
Gordon Biersch is the Starbucks of brewpubs. Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch opened GB in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1988 to combine “exceptional beer and delicious food.” GB was acquired by Big River Brewing Company in 1999 and the company is now based in Chattanooga, Tenn. GB has 27 locations across the U.S. and in several American airports, and has opened its first restaurant internationally, in Taiwan.
Gordon Biersch’s brew pub on the Embarcadero in San Francisco is typical of the company’s operations, with the added attraction of being on the waterfront under the Bay Bridge. As with any Gordon Biersch, you immediately know exactly where you are, down to the layout, the menu and the taps. The interior design has by now almost become a brew-pub cliché: bare brick walls, high ceilings and an almost industrial ambience. Stainless steel tanks are in the background. TVs showing sports are everywhere. Although the beer is German, the menu screams American pub food like burgers, calamari, sliders, chicken wings and GB’s signature garlic fries. (Who decided that burgers have to cost $13 in a brewpub?)
GB brews lagers in the tradition of the 500-year-old German purity law called Reinheitsgebot, which required that only water, yeast, barley and hops be used to make beer. Reinheitsgebot was updated in 1993 by the Provisional German Beer Law, which allows components prohibited in the Reinheitsgebot, such as wheat malt and cane sugar, but which no longer allows unmalted barley. Gordon Biersch has five regular beers on tap – a Czech-style pilsner; a dark lager Schwarzbier; a hefeweizen wheat beer; a Golden export Dortmunder-style lager; and a Marzen oktoberfest – along with one seasonal beer, which on this occasion turned out to be Winter Bock, a strong, dark weizbier. Except for the Winter Bock, the beers are all under 6% in alcohol, so having one in the middle of the day with lunch, as local office workers do, shouldn’t be a problem. However, as the bartender suggested, the 7.2% abv Winter Bock might best be reserved for the end of a long, bad day.
The problem with Gordon Biersch’s beers isn’t that they’re bad; it’s that they’re meh: there’s just not that much to them. While GB’s lagers are true to style, they are a bit too safe. While they are tastier than American macro beer, they could be so much better. For instance, Gordon Biersch’s Czech pilsner lacks the hoppy aftertaste that makes Victory Prima Pils and Moonlight's Reality Czech so outstanding.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if Gordon Biersch gave its brewers more leeway to push the limits of their lager beer styles, but that doesn't seem likely as long as its customers are happy settling for middle of the road beer.
Gordon Biersch San Francisco
2 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
phone: 415-243-8246
fax: 415-243-9214

Sun-Thurs: 11:30 AM - Midnight
Fri-Sat: 11:30 AM - 2:00 AM

Pig and Whistle: a British gastropub in SF

The term “gastropub” is believed to have been coined in 1991, when David Eyre and Mike Belben took over The Eagle pub in Clerkenwell, London. Gastropubs combine fine dining (gastro) with a British public house (pub) beer-drinking atmosphere (though other fermented beverages may be available as well).
Americans have their own take on gastropubs. Some Bay Area gastropubs, such as La Trappe in San Francisco, match Belgian Trappist ales, saisons and geuzes with traditional Belgian food like moules fritte (mussels and French fries) and chicken Waterzooi, a traditional Belgian chicken stew finished with a light cream sauce and fresh herbs. Meanwhile, Monk’s Kettle and Pi Bar eschew geographical and culinary boundaries, complementing their fine selection of Belgian and West Coast beers with everything from burgers and pot pies (at Monk’s Kettle) to pizza and pasta (at Pi).
Then there are places like Pig and Whistle on Geary in San Francisco that hew closer to the “classic” British pub tradition, matching a fine assortment of English and American beers with fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and bangers and mash. Although Pig and Whistle’s beer selection isn’t as extensive as, say, La Trappe’s, it is certainly adequate. Among the beers on tap recently were Fullers, Bass, Carlsberg Lager, Boddingtons, Guinness, Newcastle Brown, Spaten Munich, Speakeasy Prohibition, Anchor Steam Beer and Liberty Ale and Boont Amber Ale. Pig and Whistle also featured on tap “special beers”: Sierra Nevada’s delicious seasonal Celebration Ale and Drake’s IPA hand-pumped from a cask.
Pig and Whistle’s fish and chips were fresh and perfectly cooked, and not at all greasy, and a delicious match with the lower-carbonation cask Drakes IPA. The shepherd’s pie was equally tasty, and even better paired with Sierra’s hoppy Celebration IPA.

Pig and Whistle draws its customers primarily from the neighborhood and the inner Richmond District, as well as from students and faculty from the nearby University of San Francisco. As befits a true English pub, Pig and Whistle proudly features English Premiere League football on a couple of flat screen televisions. A pool table also beckons in the back room. Service from the bartender is relaxed yet efficient.
Pig and Whistle opened in 1991, right around the time the British began toying with the gastropub concept. Surrounded by Irish brogues and British accents, with Arsenal struggling to keep up with Chelsea on the telly, it’s not hard to imagine yourself in an authentic London pub. With reasonably priced, good-quality food well prepared and beer carefully chosen to complement the grub, Pig and Whistle is a welcome local take on the British-style gastropub idea.