Food & Wine

A tribute to the beer festivals that once showcased the region

Since 2010, the Opening Gala in San Francisco has been the traditional kickoff to SF Beer Week, featuring hundreds of beers crafted in the Bay Area. The event typically brings beer lovers from around the Bay Area, sometimes generating long lines to enter, then more lines inside for particular breweries with special releases.

At the other end of SF Beer Week is the annual Meet the Brewers festival in San Jose, which also started in 2010. Meet the Brewers is much more laid back, but it often features up-and-coming brewers before they are well known (such as Alvarado Street Brewery back in 2015).

We don’t know how long it will be until events on either scale can occur again in the Bay Area. While we’re all stuck sipping at home, here are some of the outstanding brews featured at this year’s events – and a memorial to waiting in line, tasting together and other pleasures that must be deferred for now.

freewheel brewery
Courtesy of Derek Wolfgram
A taste of the legendary Pliny the Younger triple IPA was available at the SF Beer Week Opening Gala for those willing to wait.

SF Beer Week

While my normal tendency is to avoid the longest lines at the Opening Gala, this year I decided to follow the crowds and stand in all of the most popular lines. It goes without saying that the longest line was for Russian River Brewing Co.’s iconic Pliny the Younger triple IPA, released annually since 2005 in conjunction with Beer Week. This year’s Younger featured hop aromas of fresh pine and sweet citrus, and a powerful, intense bitterness with an earthy pine hop flavor and minimal sweetness. Despite the substantial bitterness, which lasted long into the finish – and through the next couple of beers I sampled – the beer was pleasantly dry, balanced and smooth.

Numerous other excellent Triple IPAs were also available at the gala. While the 2020 Younger was a delightful brew, the citrus punch of Altamont Beer Works’ Scarcity and the surprising smooth subtlety of Ghostwood Beer Co.’s 12% alcohol by volume (ABV) Clearly Dangerous were certainly comparable in quality without the long wait.

Another line formed at Santa Cruz’s Humble Sea Brewing Co., known for its “foggy IPAs,” which pack in the juiciness expected from the ever-popular hazy IPA style, while also providing a hint of West Coast bitterness. Tiny Umbrella IPA was no exception, with its hop aromas and flavors of peach, papaya, orange and pine.

People also queued up for Soakin’ Up Rays guava passionfruit golden sour ale from Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel. Soakin’ Up Rays showcased a tart, tropical aroma; a balance between punchy acidity and sweet tropical fruit notes on the palate; and a sharp, bright, dry fruity finish.
People were willing to wait for the wide variety of styles from Monterey’s Alvarado Street Brewery. On one hand, its Triple Haole Punch demonstrated what Hawaiian Punch would taste like if it were all fresh juice, with all its subtle tartness and complexity, and 10% ABV to boot. Its Barrel Aged Tres Leches imperial stout, weighing in at 15% ABV, was brewed with lactose and sweetened condensed milk, then spent 22 months in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels with cinnamon and vanilla. The brew was sweet, boozy and viscous, with a velvety mouthfeel and a strangely balanced character because all of the elements were equally intense.
Meet the Brewers

At Beer Week’s Meet the Brewers Craft Beer Festival, newcomer DTSJ Brewing Co. brought four fine beers – the crisp, clean Brookwood Amber Lager kellerbier; Fabricator Belgian Pale Ale with a zesty punch of Belgian yeast character on the finish; the roasty smoothness of Stonegate Irish Export Stout; and the fruity complexity of Don’t Eat Yellow Snow Double IPA.

Brewed exclusively with Zappa hops, a wild Neomexicanus varietal discovered in northern New Mexico, Yellow Snow’s fruity hop character included grapefruit rind and Fruit Stripe gum notes. The beer was fermented with a Lithuanian landrace yeast strain that added dried apricot notes into the mix, resulting in a complex fruitiness that masked the potent 9.4% ABV.

Other highlights of the festival included the bright citrus and pine character of the Needle Tip IPA from Livermore’s Shadow Puppet Brewing Co., which was brewed with a substantive quantity of Rocky Mountain spruce tips.

San Jose’s Clandestine Brewing brought a unique lineup that included a tartly refreshing raspberry Berliner Weiss called Raspberry Undercover and a potent 11.2% ABV Fire & Fury strong ale brewed with smoked malt and dried chilipeppers.

For more information on the annual SF Beer Week and its Meet the Brewers Craft Beer Festival event, visit sfbeerweek.org.

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