In a sense, the Gala opening event is SF Beer Week in microcosm—if some 80 Northern California breweries pouring from three or four taps each can be considered a “microcosm.” The gala is an opportunity for breweries to strut their stuff not only for drinkers, but also for their brewing peers. Keeping in the spirit of the event, many breweries bring special beers.
Indicative of the rapidly growing beer community were the debuts of many new breweries at the gala, including 101 North, Beltane, Free Wheel and Pine Street, to name but a few. Also, breweries that were relative newcomers a year ago have established themselves as an integral part of the Bay Area beer community, like Social Kitchen (with new brewer Kim Sturdavant), Almanac, Heretic and Pacific Brew Labs.
Sampling everything is, of course, impossible, so it makes sense to pass up the familiar in order to concentrate on the new, rare or unusual. Predictably, Russian River’s seasonal Pliny the Younger was on everyone’s hit list and as usual it did not disappoint. Relatively well-balanced for a big triple IPA, it had some tropical fruit notes. But was it really that much better than other big IPAs from breweries like Moylans or Auburn Alehouse’s excellent ZZ Hop Imperial IPA?
A couple of persistent themes of the gala and beer week in general were “sour” beers and beers aged in barrels. Almanac had both in the form of Farmer’s Reserve No. 1, a sour ale brewed with cabernet and muscat grapes; and Farmer’s Reserve No. 2, an aged wild autumn harvest ale made with pumpkins, ginger and persimmons; as well as Barrel Noir, a blend of American-style imperial stout and Belgian-inspired dark ale aged in bourbon barrels. Russian River brought its standout Sanctification wild ale, always a treat.
Bear Republic revived its barrel-aged brew, Old Baba Yaga, a Russian imperial stout named for the witch who guarded the fountain of life and death in Russian folklore. Shmaltz Brewing got in the act with its surprisingly tasty Human Blockhead dark lager, aged in Buffalo Trace barrels. Not to be outdone, Sierra Nevada brought along a barrel-aged version of its imperial stout Narwal.
All in all, it was a dark and boozy night.