Pub Talk

What are the four most iconic Bay Area beers?

Because every special beer issue deserves a good, old-fashioned barstool debate, we asked some of The Chronicle’s top beer lovers — ahem, experts — a simple question: Which beers belong on the Mount Rushmore of Northern California beer?

What are the four most iconic Bay Area beers?

That is, as we consider the state of local craft brewing for Beer Week 2017, which four beers are the region’s most important, iconic, influential and delicious?

It’s a question that sparked much debate in our office, and hopefully will be a fun conversation for you, too. Share your four picks and join the discussion on social media with the hashtag #FourBayBeers.

 

Esther Mobley, Chronicle wine, beer and spirits writer

Anchor Steam. This is the easy call: the absolute, undisputed OG of San Francisco beer — arguably of American craft beer. You could make a case for other Anchor beers (Liberty Ale, the first West Coast IPA, or Christmas Ale, because it’s so unabashedly, kitschily San Francisco), but I’ve got to give this to the steam beer. It’s been Anchor’s signature since the 19th century, decades before Fritz Maytag bought the company and transformed it into the craft-beer icon it is today. Obviously Anchor Steam is George Washington. I dare anyone to dispute this.

North Coast Old Rasputin. First of all, North Coast Brewing (in Fort Bragg, a place once settled by Russian immigrants) started making this 9% alcohol, mega-rich, malt bomb way before people were used to drinking such full-flavored beer — which is a classic California beer trailblazing move. It’s also one of the best Imperial Russian Stouts on the market, IMHO. And I know, I know, Fort Bragg is technically outside of the nine-county “Bay Area,” but when it opened in 1988 there were so few breweries in Northern California that I’m gonna say it gets grandfathered in.

Russian River Brewing Pliny the Younger. I was tempted to say Pliny the Elder, the more democratic of Russian River Brewing Co.’s ancient Roman-inspired IPAs. But what single beer could capture the contemporary sense of the craft-brewing craze better than Younger, the ultra-hoppy triple IPA that draws thousands of people to wait in line for hours (days!) at the Santa Rosa brewery every February? It encapsulates “cult” as no other California beer can.

Fort Point KSA. OK, this is the shocker, but every Mount Rushmore’s gotta have its Teddy Roosevelt: the “Him? Really?” wild card. (I get it, actually — FDR didn’t become president until after Mount Rushmore was already under construction.) Fort Point’s Kolsch Style Ale is symbolic of the Bay Area today. No brewery here has grown at such rapid speed as Fort Point, which in its barely three years of existence has become relentlessly ubiquitous around town. KSA represents the moment we’re in right now: beer gone viral.

 

Paolo Lucchesi, Chronicle food editor

Anchor Steam. Yes. What Esther said.

Lagunitas IPA. Even though Heineken owns half of the company these days, there must still be a spot reserved for Lagunitas (Laguneiken? Heinekinitas?). And given the city’s ongoing, fervent love affair with IPA, IPA still rules the city. So there needs to be one IPA on the list. Bear Republic’s Racer 5, Speakeasy’s Big Daddy and Lagunitas IPA all brought that beer style into our mainstream, but more importantly, they were part of the generation that really helped propel craft beer to the San Francisco masses — not just fancy breweries, but normal corner bars. And in pure volume, Lagunitas still easily leads the way for all Northern California brewers not named Sierra.

21st Amendment Hell Or High Watermelon. You can’t talk about Fort Point — its whimsical branding, its smart cans, its easy-drinking beers — without 21st Amendment. The SoMa (and now San Leandro) brewery rode the novelty of its watermelon wheat ale as it became a de facto summertime drink. It’s unique. It’s creative. It’s seasonal. It’s Bay Area. And there is no mistaking it, ever. You know what you’re drinking, and that logo design — the Statue of Liberty lounging on the Golden Gate Bridge as she gazes wistfully into space — is about as perfect as a modern beer label can get. Amid a tempest of hoppy beers and SERIOUS BEER PEOPLE, Hell or High Watermelon is a welcome reminder that beer should be fun, easy and light.

Speakeasy Prohibition Ale. First, the contenders that missed the cut: Trumer Pilsner (too German), Fort Point (too new), either Pliny (not democratic enough), Sierra Nevada (not Bay Area enough), Sufferfest (not gluten enough), Magnolia (not one standout) and Oakland’s Linden Street (in transition to a new brand). I even tried to figure out how to get Hamm’s in here, in honor of the old sign by Seals Stadium. But Speakeasy Prohibition Ale is my pick. The amber ale was the Bayview brewery’s first beer and it still holds up. Readily available throughout the Bay Area, those Speakeasy sneaky eyes are a welcome sight on any tap.

 

Maggie Hoffman, Bay Area beer writer

Anchor Liberty Ale. Sure, Steam has been around much longer, but in 1975, Liberty was the beer that changed it all, that in many ways launched the identity of the hop head. Maybe some other small brewer would have come along to popularize dry-hopping with copious (for the time) quantities of Cascade hops and convinced us to embrace deliciously bitter beer — the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale arrived on the scene soon after — but Anchor’s Liberty took that first step, and for that, we should be thankful. (Though Lagunitas IPA is a pretty good call, too.)

Trumer Pils. We drink a ton of hoppy beer here in San Francisco, but we’re also partial to lighter thirst-quenchers, and we’re lucky to have such a widely available crisp and delicious example of pilsner brewed in Berkeley so we can drink it fresh. We take this gold medal-winning beer for granted way too often. (And thankfully, they’ve finally started packaging it in cans, so you aren’t stuck drinking skunky green-bottle versions.)

Moonlight Brewing Death and Taxes. Few people nationally would say black lager is their favorite style, but it’s second nature to San Franciscans to order this beer, which makes me proud to live here. I love that it’s rich in coffee-and-chocolate flavor but not at all heavy, and I love that it can be found on tap all around the Bay Area but not too far beyond. It’s ours, all ours.

Russian River Brewing Consecration. This list would feel incomplete without a sour or wild-fermented beer — many of the best local breweries today focus on tart, earthy, fruity brews made with the help of brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus. Russian River started brewing this delicious concoction in 2008, inspired by a deep, rich anniversary beer it brewed for Toronado’s 20th anniversary. Made with black currants and aged in Cabernet barrels, it brought together wine and beer, tannins and fruit, gathering so many flavors of the Bay Area together in one bottle. Owner-brewer Vinnie Cilurzo says he’s still drinking bottles from the original release; it makes me wonder which beers the Bay Area is producing today that will go the distance, and which new breweries will live to see another decade.

 

Tim O’Rourke, Chronicle assistant managing editor

Anchor Steam. It’s the obvious choice for a reason: It’s been the signature San Francisco beer since before Mount Rushmore’s giant presidential heads were carved in South Dakota granite. Steam’s success paved the path for Anchor’s Liberty Ale and Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing, which inspired Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada, which led to just about every one of the approximately 4,000 craft breweries producing excellent beers across the U.S. today.

Russian River Brewing Pliny the Elder. What’s the most important measure of a beer? Its drinkability. This, however, isn’t only about pleasing the palate. More important, it’s about being able to find the beer and drink it when you’re thirsty. Pliny the Younger is the California cult craft beer, no doubt. But its double IPA Elder cousin is bottled and sold year-round across the region, and is available without standing in line with the tourists for five hours in the rain. Plus, at 8%, and with a blend of Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ and Simcoe hops, it’s smoother than the 10.25% Triple IPA hop bomb that draws the hordes to Russian River Brewing Co. every February. Hail to the Elder of the Plinys.

Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA. Yes, we know. This list is getting a little hop heavy for the refined tastes of the Bay Area. Still, there’s no denying the region’s impact on the global interpretation of the indefatigable India pale ale, no matter how oversaturated the market. With apologies to Lagunitas, Drake’s, Fieldwork and Faction, Bear Republic’s standard-bearer has defined the floral-accented flavor profile of the Bay Area IPA better than any of its rivals.

Almanac Saison Dolores. The Teddy Roosevelt pick could have gone a number of directions. Cellarmaker’s Coffee & Cigarettes porter might have cracked the top 4 if it were available year-round. The Rare Barrel’s ever-rotating list is a sour fiend’s dream, but it doesn’t help the Berkeley brewery scale Mount Rushmore. Outside the nine-county Bay Area, Sierra Nevada is the benchmark, with Sante Adairius in Capitola, Ruhstaller in Sacramento, Tahoe Mountain in Truckee, and Berryessa in Winters all making exciting, expectation-shattering brews outside the mainstream. The Bay Area’s most popular saison isn’t Almanac’s most ambitious offering, but it’s fruit-and-fermentation forward, does justice to the style and offers the masses a flavorful option outside the hop highway.

 

Jonathan Kauffman, Chronicle reporter

Anchor Steam. Refusing to put Anchor Steam on the Mount Rushmore of beers is like saying George Washington doesn’t deserve a 60-foot bust because he wasn’t as eloquent as Samuel Adams (no slight, Bostonian beers). Every city needs a house beer, and we’re lucky enough to have Anchor Steam. I do have to grumble that Anchor has chosen to trademark “steam beer,” forcing a wave of younger breweries that also want to honor the Bay Area’s only native beer style to call it “California commons” instead of by its historic name.

Russian River Brewing Consecration. I’m with Maggie on this one: Consecration is a stunning sour, with fruit and funk and tart all kept in balance, a wily corralling of wild yeasts. Compared with many of the sours that have come on the market since Consecration was first brewed, not to mention every brewery that thought sticking a beer in a wine keg for a few months would make it magic, Consecration gives lie to the assumption that progress is always chronologically forward. (Not you, Sante Adairius, Rare Barrel, Almanac, and Tahoe Mountain Brewing — you’re doing some great work here.)

North Coast Le Merle. First off, I think all Northern California is one beer ecosystem, not just the Bay Area. This 9-year-old farmhouse ale is my Teddy Roosevelt, whose release helped signal a counter movement in local brewing: food-friendly beers. Le Merle has the richness of a Belgian golden ale but with enough of a hop-sharpened edge to remind you it’s from the West Coast. You can see its legacy in the saison boom, but also in the work of younger breweries like Fort Point and Woodfour, which are focusing on beers that don’t demand you pay attention to them, but reward you when you do.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Someone has to give Ken Grossman a shout-out! As a beer lover who likes his hops kept in check, this is all the IPA I need.

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