Our first taste of San Francisco beer came at Pizza Orgasmica Brewing Company - a place that wasn't on any recommended list, but just so happened to be within walking distance of our hosts' home.
Pizza Orgasmica offers a house lineup of six beers - golden ale, IPA, amber ale, peach pale ale, 4-grain hefeweizen, and porter. On our visit the IPA and amber was sold out, so we settled into a flight of the remaining four. Our favorite was the golden ale, as there were some obvious beer-judge-type flaws in the others. In any case the beer was serviceable (it did contain alcohol, after all), but we weren't off to the best start. Coming off beer and pizza from Thr3e Wise Men the day before, I'm not afraid to say the beer beginnings of our trip weren't off to the most exciting start.
The next day we took a walking tour to Coit Tower (which was closed for maintenance), but eventually found ourselves at Rogue Ales Public House. Although Rogue is based in Newport Oregon, they have set up shop in a few places, San Francisco among them.
I'll be honest in saying that while Rogue makes fine beer, it's a brewery that never really did much for me. In any case, the Public House's 40 choice tap list was impressive, and the Double Mocha Porter was calling my name. I was not disappointed.
As I made my way through the beer, my thoughts turned to Indiana. While most Indiana breweries have their own bar (Mad Anthony and New Albanian have more than one), could there be a time when we'll see an Indiana brewery with an out-of-state public house? My guess is that we're a long way from that point - there aren't many Indiana breweries with the sort of name recognition (or distribution) that Rogue enjoys. In any case, we do have similar bars in Indianapolis - though not exactly the same style as Rogue, Barley Island's Broad Ripple location is not all that different in practice; multiple taps, a full list of house beer, and a nice selection of guest taps thrown in.
Our next stop brought us to the highly recommended Toronado, where we were greeted by a roughshod interior and limited seating. Luckily we were invited to a table by a white-haired gentleman in a leather jacket by the name of Chuck, and our adventure began. Opened in 1987, Toronado is the sort of place where the rarest of guest kegs magically appear (Pliny the Younger, for example), and our visit lived up to the hype. I started the day with Deschutes Abyss (because Russian Imperial Stout is the perfect party starter), and also made my way a chicken and cherry sausage from Rosamunde Sausage Grill, which provides food for pub patrons from its next door location.
What really made the visit great was the company of Chuck, who - despite my initial reservations about sitting next to the weird guy in the pub - talked us through his favorites from the lineup, Toronado etiquette ("Don't go up there not knowing what you want," he said. "They're not friendly to people looking for Budweiser."), his recommendations for the neighborhood and our visit to San Francisco, and told us a little bit about himself along the way. "I'm pimping my city," he said at one point. It's conversations like the one we had at Toronado that can leave a lasting impression on tourists, but it takes both a willing host and an interested guest who's willing to take a chance on conversation with a stranger.
Can we offer all these factors? A gritty bar with a ton of character, an unrivaled lineup, and talkative and friendly patrons that are willing to "pimp our city"? I think so, but it's rare that all those things come together. One of the elements of a great beer bar are the beers you can find that you can't find at home, and we've got plenty of bars that carry the internationally known Three Floyds, with lineups that can awe in their own ways. As far as I know, we don't have any bars that combine all these things with a playlist that includes old Metallica and Slayer. And Toronado put up our sticker, so it was hard not to fall in love.
Our next stop required the use of a rental car, as we made our way out of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate bridge to Healdsburg, where we paid a visit to Bear Republic's Brewpub. Because this was to be a short stop, I only had one beer - Peter Brown Tribute Ale™ - a brown that had me immediately thinking of Oreo cookies dunked in milk. Gina had Racer X (ON DRAFT!) and Hop Rod Rye.
The Bear Republic space - an open room that contained everything from racecar hoods to custom bicycles - was fun and welcoming. Our bartender, Ryan, was a great big teddy bear of a man, and came across as immediately friendly and obviously happy to be there. Another nice touch was the brewhouse just five feet beyond the end of the bar - not the usual wall separating bar patrons from the brewing process - just a half wall to keep folks from wandering into the work.
Can Indiana do what Bear Republic does? Sure. It's all in the tiny details. And the tasty beer. (As a side note, we tried to stop at Lagunitas, but their tasting room was closed for the day.)
We hopped back in our rental and headed back towards San Francisco - Santa Rosa and Russian River Brewing was next on our list.
As this was our first visit to Russian River, and we tried to keep our excitement to a minimum. There is nothing worse than building someplace up in your mind then being let down. Upon our arrival, the bar was full (a little disappointing) so we took a seat at a table by the door. One thing I noticed in our bar experiences so far is that there are no printed lists anywhere. All beer menus are located on boards behind or near the bar, making it somewhat difficult to be informed while not being in the way or weirding out the person sitting in front of where you are standing to look.
But it is what it is, so we decided on a couple beers ending in -ation. Can't really go wrong there. The awesome thing about Russian River beer is that it always somehow exceeds expectations, even when your expectations are already high.
The food was good, the beer was amazing, but it just didn't feel quite right sitting at the table. We asked our server what our chances of getting a spot at the bar if we came back around 8:30 (it was about 6:30). He said he wasn't sure. So we crossed our fingers that later would be better and headed a few blocks away to Third Street Aleworks. Even though the vibe wasn't quite right, the beer was still incredibly impressive. Third Street had an entirely different (younger) vibe, but anyone brewing award-winning beer is ok in our book.
Third Street Aleworks was a recommended to us by Ryan from Bear Republic and I am glad we made the effort to stop. They had quite a few beers on tap, including their GABF medal winning Irish Stout and IPA, which we started with. Another beer on tap that was of interest was their Cherry Springer, a wonderfully surprising beer. It reminded us of New Glarus Belgian Red, but with a lighter mouthfeel.
We decided it was time to visit Russian River again. We got a spot at the bar this time and made our way through more of the menu - Supplication, Consecration, Temptation, not to mention Pliny the Elder. The beer was amazing, and we got to chatting with a few locals, which of course, made the evening better. We often have this much fun here in Indiana, but there is a reason that Russian River beer is held in such high regard. No one is doing this a menu that covers as many bases as well as Russian River - the trip was definitely worth making.
To be continued..