CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> 9 Pubs in the Bay Area

Previous Pint Pleasures - May 1999

Guinness Eileen

Pacific Coast Brewing Company, 906 Washington Street, Oakland

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Black Diamond Brewing Company, 2330 North Main Street, Walnut Creek

Guinness Eileen

Faultline Brewing Company, 1536 Cypress Street, Walnut Creek

Guinness Eileen

Willow Street Pizza and Brewery, 812 Fourth Street, San Rafael

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Broken Drum Brewery and Wood Grill, 1132 Fourth Street, San Rafael

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Ross Valley Brewing Company, 765 Center Boulevard, Fairfax

Guinness Eileen

Barclay's Restaurant and Pub, 5940 College Avenue, Oakland

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Ben & Nick's Bar & Grill, 5612 College Avenue, Oakland

Guinness Eileen

Toronado Pub, 547 Haight Street, San Francisco

Once again I'm failing to write about Seattle brewpubs, which was the original intent of this column. Oh, well, what can I say? Seattle may be the center of the coffee universe -- the American coffee universe, that is -- but there are certainly many good pubs and great beers to be found elsewhere. So just be patient, okay?

On a recent trip to the Bay Area I managed to sample a number of brewpubs and pubs, most of them east and north of San Francisco. The Pacific Coast Brewing Company, in the heart of old Oakland, is a pleasant place with a large patio and a wide variety of beers including their own. My first pint was Speakeasy Prohibition Ale, which seemed a bit disappointing for such an eventful Thursday. Yes, the day had started with some major life changes; so why not an appropriate beer to toast the moment? My second pint, Eye of the Hawk Ale (from the Mendocino Brewery) was a bit more interesting but still not up to my hopes. My friend Mistah Rick described it as somewhat apple-y tonight; I, on the other hand, thought it seemed neon, like a small glowing green light in the back of my mind, with a letdown of a finish like a shortchanged flight, the kind where they give you those goddam honey mustard pretzels instead of peanuts.

We moved on to the eastern suburbs. The Black Diamond Brewing Company is located right in the heart of Walnut Creek's auto dealership strip. It's a dark, modern, spacious brewpub with decor suggestive of a 1990s fast food chain for yuppies -- not unsimilar to the Pyramid Brewpub in Berkeley, now that I think of it. The various beers offered include IPA, Amber Ale, ESB, Golden Ale, Maibock, Pale Ale, Oktoberfest, Hefe-Weizen, Irish Stout, Scottish Ale, and a Brewer's Special. You can have your beer in a wide variety of glass sizes, too: 0.2 liter ($2.25), 0.4 liter ($3.50), 0.5 liter ($4.25), 0.1-liter samples ($1.25), or a 62-ounce pitcher for $11.00. Half-gallon growlers are available for $8.50 if you'd like to take some beer home.

Mistah Rick and I each ordered the IPA on cask, but we were a bit shortchanged (CAMRA would not approve) because of the huge head. But at least they were Imperial pints. I thought the IPA tasted like a bright orange-red ride on a huge rumbling Harley -- like a sunset ride through New Mexico, with perhaps Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper on the back. Mistah Rick found the IPA as satisfying as flipping the bird to some southern yokels. Hmm, why were we getting these very un-JC-and-Mistah-Rick images, anyway? It must be because Black Diamond is directly next door to the Walnut Creek Harley Davidson dealership, and on this particular day they were hosting a huge open house with live music, a barbecue, and hundreds of Harleys in the parking lot, not to mention hundreds of bikers milling about, spilling over into the brewpub. There was a lot of black leather in the place in the form of jackets and chaps; and Mistah Rick felt a bit ordinary in his brown leather jacket, and perhaps a bit naked without his brown leather chaps. Both of us were impressed to see this many bikers drinking decent beer, although I did see quite a few half liters of nonmacho Hefe-Weizen being consumed.

Moving on to downtown Walnut Creek we stopped at the Faultline Brewing Company. This brewpub is even more "modern" -- i.e. industrial, streamlined, and non-publike -- than Black Diamond. But there wasn't a single biker in evidence. (I'll admit I was getting a bit weary of all those black leather jackets, zippered chaps, and flame tattoos, not to mention t-shirts with slogans like "COME IN PEACE OR LEAVE IN PIECES".)

Faultline's complete selection of brews is expansive, including Pale Ale (4.75% ABV), London Porter (4.75%), Hefe Weizen (4.4%), Stout (4.2%), Brown Ale (4.5%), Holiday Strong Ale (5.75%), Oktoberfest (5.25%), Dunkel Weizen (4.85%), Belgian Blond (4.5%), Alt Bier (4.5%), Burton Pale Ale (4.5%), Belgian Abbey (6.5%), Pilsner (4.5%), Belgian White (4.2%), Kölsch (4.25%), IPA (6.25%), Golden Ale (4.45%), FBC Best Bitter (4.5%), Spring Bock (6.5%), Doppel Bock (7.0%), Belgian Tripel (7.0%), and Old Battle Ax Barley Wine (10.5%). Mistah Rick and I both ordered pints of the Best Bitter, which our server claimed was on cask. Mine arrived as an American pint glass full of foam, looking suspiciously like a layered cocktail of some sort. And it was way too cold for cask -- after all, this was March in California, not January in England -- with a suspiciously smooth head like a nitrogen-conditioned brew. But wait -- the beer menu says the Stout and the Best Bitter are both on nitro. I thought I tasted that black-bitter nitro overtaste...hah! Pshah! Bah and faux pas, my young mistaken server! You can't pull that nitro wool over my eyes...

Next we headed northwest into Marin County with another friend. Our first stop was at the Willow Street Brewery in San Rafael, which has five beers on tap: Wheat, Berry Wheat, Gold, Amber, and Porter. A 16-ounce pint is $3.50, a 23-ounce pilsner is $4.50, and a sampler of four 4-ounce glasses is $4.00. With such a limited selection Mistah Rick and Lou and I all ordered pints of the Amber. This came ice cold and extremely carbonated, very much like a watery Coke or perhaps a root beer but less sweet. It made me think of skeleton candy, that cheap hard stuff you get in little plastic coffins, and it's usually been sitting around so long it's lost any trace of flavor. Yes, this is a watery beer, similar to the badly tapped Alaskan Amber I suffered through a couple years ago at a club in Seattle. The ironic description on the beer menu says the Amber Ale is "an English-style mild ale". Hmm, English-style? Yes, I suppose I've had a few pretty awful English ales, but not quite this cold and tasteless. This is more like Miller Amber Ale. (Remember that swill? Do they still brew it? Or has Miller reverted completely back to its macrobrewery image?)

The Willow Street is pleasant enough for the family-style pizza restaurant it appears to be, with definite shades of a sports bar. There's a nice mural on the back wall featuring a river, a zebra grazing in a field, and a bunch of unfinished theme it seems, just like this beer: unfinished. At this point we decided not to finish our unfinished pints and move on to the next brewpub.

As soon as we entered The Broken Drum Brewery and Wood Grill, located down the road at B Street, I immediately preferred it. Perhaps it was the bartender, who instead of looking like a hockey player sported bleached blond hair and a bit of wit. He also gave us tastes of the various beers, demonstrating an obvious pride in the brews. The Amber Ale which I had was better than Willow Street's, with a more natural head, but it still seemed too tasteless. It was ice cold as well, and made me feel as though I were waiting in a cold, plain lounge for my car to be tuned up. The Brown Ale, which Mistah Rick and Lou had, tasted a little more roasty, but it was still quite similar to the Amber. Drinking it was like stepping outside, all dressed up and ready for the evening, but you end up going to a chain pizza parlor and then to hear a band which is okay but not too thrilling, and you wonder if you should have stayed home, but you're glad you forced yourself out; after all, perhaps it will snow in Los Angeles, or perhaps you'll be kidnapped by gypsies and then you won't have to show up at your data entry job at the insurance company tomorrow...

I do like the decor and atmosphere of the Broken Drum, though. In fact, there was even a guy in a beret at the end of the bar, detracting from any potential family-restaurant feel -- not to mention the young man with lip ring who just went behind the bar to make himself a lemonade. Cool red rocket light fixtures hang from the ceiling, and I simply had to sit on the bright red wooden bar stool -- it called my name! There's also a drum motif to the place, high tech but without that certain Yupness (i.e. overdone suburban industrial vacuity).

Down the road apiece we came to the Ross Valley Brewing Company located in the Fair-Anselm Shopping Center in Fairfax. This brewery, which opened in late November of 1998, features RePack Red Ale (5.3% ABV), Fairfax Station Wheat (4.2%), Larry's Special Bitter (4.5%), Kölsch (5.0%), IPA (5.9%), St. Marks Ale (6.3%), Shakedown Stout (5.8%), Winter Ale (6.9%), and Tamalpais Triple (7.5%). Lou had a pint of the Winter Ale, which tasted roasty, deep, malty, deeply roasty, even more roasty, like a barbecue of wood-fired dark bread. Yes, it's a dark brunette beer, a slightly unwashed brunette with a mop of thick straight hair. Mistah Rick and I both had the IPA, the first at least partially satisfying brew I've tasted in Marin County. Drinking this IPA was like ascending a staircase in a salmon-colored wedding gown with ice blue pumps -- but oops! Turns out I'm a 68-year-old man! Hmm, does that mean this is a good solid transvestite beer? Or perhaps transsexual? MTF? FTM? Wait a minute, though -- I'm just a little girl, aren't I? Now I'm really confused...

I can't say too much for Ross Valley's decor, although Mistah Rick said finding his way to the men's restroom was like taking a spin on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. I discovered the same thrill when I journeyed to the women's restroom; you'll just have to visit the place to find out what we're referring to. Apparently the Ross Valley's kitchen has won a few prizes, but some of the selections on the menu seem a bit confused as to their identity. How about an appetizer of "Ancho Chicken and Sweet Potato Empañada with Chipotle-Honey Creme and Yucatan Pickled Onions," with a pint of IPA recommended as an accompaniment? How can such a wealth of ingredients produce merely an appetizer? Well, if such nouveau cuisine confuses you, I notice you can also get a PB&J with a chocolate chip cookie, but there are no beer recommendations for that particular selection.

While in the Bay Area I visited three other pubs, two in Oakland and one in San Francisco, with excellent microbrew selections. Barclay's is a sunken pub with a long bar and an extensive beer menu. Mistah Rick and I opted for the two real ale selections on the hand pump. My pint of Barclay's Best Bitter was hoppy and nutty, or nutty and hoppy; perhaps simply hopping mad, crazy, madcap, slightly zany with satirical overtones, and quite clear. Yes, this is clearly a madcap beer. Mistah Rick's pint of Faultline IPA reminded me of a hillside valley in the late afternoon with the setting sun creating sharp pale magenta shadows on the hills; whereas M.R. said it had a long finish and was tangy but not like powdered orange Tang. And then we wondered if one could drink this beer -- or any beer, for that matter -- in outer space. What about brewing beer in zero gravity? Is it possible? The terms "top fermented" and "bottom fermented" would have no meaning in outer space. And what does yeast do at zero gravity, anyway?

Moving down the street to Ben & Nick's, a pleasantly inviting tavern, I had a pint of Moonlight Brewery's Twist of Fate. Believe me, I felt strange asking a man I'd never met before in my life for a twist of fate! This is a very dark bitter, very black and proud, very, well, almost chocolately, but in a good way: inspiring and subtly bitter, not sweet or rich or disgusting like chocolate often is. (Sorry, folks, but I'm just not a true chocolate fan; I like only small bits of deep, dark, bitter, intense chocolate, so you can keep your puffy little candy bars.) Mistah Rick had a pint of Faultline Best Bitter on the hand pump. This brew tasted a bit like orange marmalade, but in a good-beer sort of way. It would probably be excellent on buttered toast, with perhaps just a bit of Marmite on the side...

In San Francisco one night we visited the legendary Toronado on Haight Street east of Steiner. This is a great regular real tavern: no fru-fru decor, no industrial or post-industrial, no yuppies, no bohos, no hohums, no bullshit! It was this very same pub at which Mistah Rick was drinking just before he pedaled his bicycle toward the BART station, catching the front tire in a streetcar track and dumping himself streetward where he cracked his collarbone. Yes, the Toronado is also one of the extremely few places where one could actually find a bottle of Samiclaus, the world's most renown Christmas beer, this past season. And Toronado's happy hour, when pints are $2.50, lasts from 11:30 am to 6:00 daily.

On the blackboard directly above my head I counted no less than 46 beers on tap. Maryl , who had joined us for this evening, opted for a pint of Stone Brewing Company's Arrogant Bastard Ale. A mouthful of this brew brought to my mind a back room in summertime with the screen door open. Blues is playing loudly, it's somewhere in Louisiana, somebody's cooking up some catfish nearby, and somebody else is laughing heartily. As a change of atmosphere Mistah Rick had a pint of Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin IPA. This is definitely a surfing beer; it tastes like a hoppy surfboard, a Southern California sunset with fine waves lapping the beach, and you can catch glimpses of black rubber wetsuits. Yes, it surfs across the hypotenuse of my tongue, smoothly, beautifully, with no chance of wipe-out. Not to be outdone I had a pint of Pacific Coast Brewery's Blue Whale Ale. One taste of this mysterious brew sent me to the bottom of the sea where the neon fish swim; the deep, dark hops were hoppy into the darkest reaches of my consciousness, where ids hop about on one foot, dodging flapping and flailing superegos.

So many images, I know; but it was a very rich, full long weekend. But forget for the moment about surfers and bikers and yuppies and crawdads; what about this beer-in-outer-space problem?

Let's start with the idea of brewing in outer space. The first problem is where would the brewery be located? Obviously in some location where human brewers could survive, i.e. in the comfortable oxygenated environment of the Space Shuttle. But since the Shuttle astronauts cook their food on a hot plate or in a convection oven that heats up to no more than 170 degrees Fahrenheit, this presents the problem of bringing the wort to a boil. If preboiled wort were brought along, as well as hop pellets and yeast squeezable through a tube, there would still be the problem of what type of container in which to ferment the beer in order to keep it from floating freely about the cabin. Would this be some sort of plastic vessel connected to a venting system?

And then how do we get the yeast to settle to the bottom of the fermenter in zero gravity? Even finings wouldn't solve this problem. After all, as I said earlier, "bottom-fermented" and "top-fermented" are meaningless terms where there's no "top" or "bottom".

Okay, so perhaps we could brew the beer on other planets instead. There's plenty of gravity, and hence a pronounced "up" and "down", on Jupiter. But then Jupiter is so huge there may in fact be too much gravity. How would a brewer determine the specific gravity of their beer when the original gravity is 2.64 times Earth's gravity? It's a moot point, anyway, seeing as how Jupiter's surface is gaseous so there's be no place to set the fermenting vats. Case closed. Better to settle for a pint at Jupiter's in Berkeley instead.

And the recent discovery of another solar system around Upsilon Andromedae is no help, either, since the planets are so huge, ranging from at least two-thirds to four times the mass of Jupiter (the planet, that is, not the pub). Don't even think about attempting to brew under such a massive gravitational pull, much less hoisting a mere 16-ounce American pint of the end product. Drinking a beer is supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, not a futile battle against 10 Gs.

Now, Mars has a workable gravitational pull. And it even shows evidence of micro-organismic life. This means that yeast could live on Mars, right? But the lack of atmosphere might be a problem.

And it's this lack of atmosphere, especially when combined with minimal or no gravity, which creates a real problem with carbonation. In a pint of real ale it's gravity which keeps the beer inside the glass; the bubbles rise to the top and escape. But where there's no gravity the carbon dioxide just sits there in the beer like a couch potato, having no desire to go anywhere. You could create artificial gravity by using centrifugal force -- in other words, spinning the beer. If you were to take a slug of beer at Zero G and somehow manage to get it rotating quickly enough, the scattered bubbles will gather along the axis of rotation; this could therefore be defined as the "top", even though you might perceive it as the "middle". But you may as well define something as the "top"; otherwise your space beer will remain nothing more than a foamy mass of liquid filled with large motionless bubbles.

And finally there's the problem of actually drinking beer in outer space. First of all, how does one pour beer into a glass? Besides the obvious issue of gravity, the lack of air pressure would cause the beer to rush out of its dispenser very quickly as if it had been shaken. (And who wants a shaken-up beer?) And because one needs gravity to burp excess gas, astronauts aren't allowed to drink carbonated drinks. So not only might a can of beer explode in outer space, but a beer drinker might as well.

Sad to say, unless some beer-loving scientific genius figures out an alternative, I think we're resigned to drinking our extraterrestrial beer at places like Jupiter's in Berkeley. Apparently there used to be a Neptune Brewing Company in New York City, but it's no longer there. Ah, well; since there's already a Saturn car company, a Mars candy bar company, and a Venus flytrap, I think it's about time for some enterprising and forward-thinking microbrewer to open the Pluto Brewery. Or how about the Uranus Brewery? It could be quite tasty, a pint from...well, never mind...

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