By Jenni Avins
Photography by Laura Flippen
Since the 1849 Gold Rush brought German brewers and thirsty miners to Northern California, San Francisco has been a natural destination for brew culture. Now, a spate of gourmet beer halls has ushered in a new golden age for Bay Area beer drinkers. Here are some of the best, where food – whether a humble bratwurst or a four-course tasting menu – justifiably shares the spotlight.
1. Danish Modern: Mikkeller Bar
Blond wooden booths, minimal decor, and cartoon murals recall Mikkeller’s original Copenhagen location, while exposed brick and antique-style filament bulbs warm up this popular Tenderloin bar for the locals. Bonus: It’s a short walk from Union Square.
On Tap: Forty-two taps of globally sourced rare brews and bartenders’ encyclopedic knowledge make Mikkeller Bar a favorite. The list changes often; visitors might sip a sage-tinged, Baltimore-brewed Stillwater saison, pucker up with a smoky Italian Peat Daydream sour, or ponder IPA’s history over a British Thornbridge Jaipur.
Menu: House-made sausages–from traditional bratwurst with Mikkeller’s own kraut to teriyaki chicken with pineapple salsa–make easy meals, while the daily-changing butcher’s board is perfect for sharing.
Don’t Miss: Thursday through Saturday, check out the downstairs Tivoli Sour Room, a special space for serving sour beers. Often known simply as “sours,” these tart, wild yeast-brewed ales are the current belles of the Bay Area beer scene. 34 Mason Street; 415/984-0279.
2. Locals Only: Jamber Wine Pub
In 2012, Jamber took up residency in a former elevator repair shop, and its soaring ceilings, tracks, and beams provide a laidback industrial vibe that blends with its South of Market environs.
On Tap: Oenophiles and beer lovers will appreciate fuss-free mason jars and juice glasses filled from 30-plus taps of California-sourced microbrews and vintages. Try a four-glass sampler: Start with something light and complex–the Pacific Brewing Laboratory’s Hibiscus Saison, for example–and work your way to Black’s Dawn, a strong, deep imperial stout from the Orange County-based Cismontane Brewing Company.
Menu: Expertly executed comfort food such as coleslaw-topped buffalo meatloaf sandwiches, pilsner-battered fish-and-chips, and fluffy rosemary-mashed “potater” tots draw lunch and after-work crowds.
Don’t Miss: Drake’s Denogginizer, an East Bay-brewed Imperial IPA, has a bold, caramel-backed flavor profile and a cult following. Proceed with caution–it also boasts 9.75 percent alcohol by volume. 858 Folsom Street; 415/273-9192.
3. Refined Palates: The Abbott’s Cellar
A backlit wall of beer glasses illuminates this rustic-modern Mission District restaurant, where diners can watch the open-kitchen action from the chef’s counter or cozy up at a table abutting the two-story stone beer cellar.
On Tap: A wood-spined beer list of biblical proportions contains more than 100 varieties of abbeys, fruit and vegetable beers, strong dark ales, barley wines, porters, stouts, and more, along with tasting notes. About 20 brews are drafts, and there’s a rotating menu of by-the-glass pours available from 750-milliliter bottles.
Menu: Try the four-course tasting menu with beer pairings, in combinations such as fennel vinaigrette-topped sweetbreads with malty AleSmith IPA or steelhead trout and smoked potatoes with clove-scented Hopf dunkle weisse.
Don’t Miss: Save room for dessert. Coriander-coffee pot de crème, for example, pairs beautifully with Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merkin, a seasonal bourbon barrel-aged oatmeal stout from Central California. 742 Valencia Street; 415/626-8700.
4. Bavarian Spirit: Suppenküche
In a break from San Francisco’s industrial rustic restaurant interiors, Suppenküche’s white stucco walls, cozy interior, and jovial clientele make this German restaurant in the heart of hip Hayes Valley feel like an alpine hideaway.
On Tap: Sip from a seasonally changing variety of more than 40 drafts and bottles from Germany, Austria, and Belgium, along with creative concoctions such as the Bananen Weizen–an inspired combination of hefeweizen and banana juice.
Menu: Hearty, heaping portions of traditional German fare (Wiener schnitzel, bratwurst, cheese spaetzle) would satisfy any mountain man at dinnertime, while gravlax with dill-mustard sauce and brandied-raisin pancakes make Sunday brunch a treat.
Don’t Miss: Thirsty, close-knit groups can order Das Boot: a two-liter serving of draft beer in a tall boot-shaped vessel that’s great for sharing. 525 Laguna Street; 415/252-9289.
5. Fresh-Air Fun: Biergarten
This outdoor urban-development experiment and Suppenküche spinoff warms up a formerly vacant lot in Hayes Valley with twinkling lights and shipping containers converted to restaurant facilities. Picnic tables fill with revelers from afternoon into early evening.
On Tap: A rotating short list of Bavarian brews consistently includes helles (light), dunkel (dark), and weisse (wheat) options by the liter and half liter, as well as a handful of bottled and nonbeer options, including excellent hot mulled wine.
Menu: The pork bratwurst with curried potatoes is Biergarten’s most popular offering, but creamy pickled deviled eggs and organic soft pretzels also top the list. On a hot day, check out the seasonal flavors at Smitten Ice Cream, just across the street.
Don’t Miss: Biergarten’s pretzel is perfect alone, but the Cheese Knot – a sandwich version that’s filled with regularly changing cheeses (funky Emmentaler or sharp British cheddar, to name a couple) and grilled – elevates its simple snack status. 424 Octavia Street; 415/252-9289.
Tip: “For beer aficionados, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a tour of Anchor Brewing Company, a craft-beer pioneer. Tours of the brewery, located in an old brick coffee factory in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, are followed by tastings and last about an hour and a half. Make a reservation–they don’t take walk-ins.” – John Stewart Bowerman, travel advisor, San Francisco
Shop San Francisco Treats
If you fall in love with a brew, head to the City Beer Store for a bottle to bring home. For a small corkage fee, City Beer will open any bottle for you to sip on the premises. Try it with a locally sourced snack, such as artisanal pistachio caramel corn. 1168 Folsom Street; 415/503-1033.
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, May 2014.