Any doubts about whether craft beer has entered the mainstream are quickly dispatched with a walk down the beer aisle in most Northern California Whole Foods Markets, where the selection of foreign and domestic beers surpasses that of any other supermarket in the area, and even a lot of specialty beer shops. And despite the store's “Whole Paycheck” reputation, the prices are actually quite reasonable considering the quality of the beer. Moreover, I've always found Whole Foods' beer managers to be knowledgeable and friendly. Don't hesitate to ask them for help if you've got some questions; they love talking about beer.
Last week, Whole Foods on Potrero Hill took another big step forward in craft beer by opening the chain's first taproom in San Francisco (it already has one in its Coddingtown store in Santa Rosa). The 16 taps at Potrero Hill focus primarily on local and regional beers, with Magnolia and North Coast prominently on offer, as well as a few well-chosen surprises. Steep Brew already has one “tap takeover” with Magnolia scheduled for March 23, so you can meet the brewer.
The current list at the “Steep Brew” taproom has something for just about everyone. For people who like lighter but still tasty beers, there's Magnolia's Kolsch, Hacker Pschorr Weiss and Almanac's Winter Wit; for lovers of the hop, there's Grand Teton's Pale Ale, Dying Vines English IPA (a very nice English-style session beer), Pacific Brewing Labs Squid Ink Black IPA, Magnolia Proving Ground IPA and Victory's Prima Pils, a hoppy and delicious pilsner. For the more extreme beer lovers, there's North Coast Old Rasputin on nitro—smooth and creamy, Lagunitas WTF Imperial Brown Ale, Rodenbach's complex sweet/sour Flanders red ale and Ballast Point Victory at Sea Coffee Imperial Porter: dessert in a glass and not to be missed. Taps will rotate regularly, so there will always be something new to try (which is half the fun).
California bottles include the iconic Pliny the Elder double IPA from Russian River Brewing, Green Flash's Rayon Vert and North Coast's Pranqster, among others, as well as some interesting imports: Augustiner German Pils, Rochefort Trappist 10, Piraat Triple, Schnieider Aventinus, Hitachino Nest White and Yoho (Tokyo) Black Porter. Steep Brew also has gluten-free beers from Dogfish Head, New Planet and Lakefront. In addition, you can buy bottles upstairs in the store and enjoy them in the appropriate glassware for a $1 corkage fee. There's also a wine bar with a nice variety of wines. Or you can buy a bottle of wine in the store and have it served for $2 corkage.
Sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, small plates and salads are also available from the nearby kitchen.
Although the bright and sunny Steep Brew taproom is separate from the main store, drinking craft beer in an upscale supermarket environment might take some getting used to; the vibe is much more family-oriented than a dive bar (not that that's a bad thing). But Steep Brew has a lot of potential, and the care and attention that Whole Foods has put into it is readily apparent. The taproom, which is open from midday to 10 p.m. nicely fills a niche in the neighborhood, and it's not hard to imagine shoppers popping in for a nosh with a nice glass of Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay or a pint of Prima Pils after shopping.
Unlike the typical American beers and so-called Lite beers, craft beers are meant to be sipped and savored, and it's refreshing to discover that Whole Foods recognizes the role of quality beer, as well as wine, in fine dining, both at home and in a restaurant.