By Paul Kilduff
I like to think my beer guzzling days are behind me, but when pressed into service to review the East Bay’s unrivaled microbrew beer scene, I don’t ask why. I ask, why the hell not?
For obvious reasons, I focus on an East Bay locale with a high concentration of quality beer joints within walking distance of each other. And indeed, downtown Oakland turns out to be the perfect place to enjoy such a beery pub crawl.
My first stop, a little after lunchtime on a recent Friday afternoon, is the Trappist, downtown Oakland’s pre-eminent beer emporium. Just off Broadway on Eighth Street, right next to Starbucks, it exudes serious beer appreciation vibes from several paces away.
With more than 25 rotating taps such as Russian River Damnation and Flying Dog: Raging Bitch Belgian-Style IPA and over 100 specialty bottles available, the Trappist goes out of its way to live up to its mission statement: “No corporate beers.” Or, put more explicitly in other marketing materials: “No crap on tap.”
Brash and unabashed, the bar’s connoisseur approach appears to be working—later this month another outpost will open near Wood Tavern on College Avenue in Rockridge. My homies will be so grateful.
With so many choices, even the most discerning beer geek will find something new to try. Then there are the first-class nibbles, like fegatelli (spicy dried pork sausages) or the popular grilled sandwich with piquant seasoning and the world’s softest, creamiest cheese. The Trappist also features bacon-filled hot dogs on Saturdays. Exactly what constitutes a bacon-filled hot dog, I’m not sure, but I want to find out.
Divided into a front bar (which opens at 4 p.m.) and a back bar, ready for the lunch crowd at noon with a handy outdoor patio as well, the Trappist manages to be roomy yet intimate. Exotic beer bottles line the walls, as well as oddities like a Sports Illustrated cover from the 1970s featuring motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel—was he a beer snob?
What really sets the Trappist apart, though, is that all bartenders are certified cicerones. Similar to a wine sommelier—an expert on all types of wines and what foods to pair them with—a cicerone knows the proper temperature and glassware for each brewski he pours, as well as its ingredients, brewing method, and whether it goes better with beer nuts or corn nuts.
This approach is by no means frivolous. A lot of time and effort has gone into making these beverages, so the proper glassware is important. For instance, with certain Belgian-style ales (all the rage these days), the lip of the glass is curved. This allows the aroma of the beer to seep into the nasal cavities.
The Trappist’s cicerones even go so far as to spritz glasses with a shot of water from a spout hidden below the taps before serving. “A wet glass receives beer better,” says bartender/cicerone Stephen Laborde.
As I sipped my small glass of Allagash White Ale (one of the Trappist’s standbys), I am overcome by an urge to go home and study for the online test to become a bona fide cicerone, but there is more grueling research to do.
A quick stroll in the bright Oakland sunshine down Broadway toward Jack London Square brings me to Third Street, where I make a quick right turn and come upon a beer revolt in progress.
With an unoccupied (at least on the day I visit) wood patio out front and a guy checking IDs as I enter (how flattering), Beer Revolution doesn’t look like much from the outside. Don’t be fooled, though. Open the door and it’s all beer, all the time. It’s also decidedly chilly, almost like stepping into a giant beer cooler.
Behind stools set up around beer kegs, a wall of refrigerators teeming with exotic to-go coldies awaits. There’s also a bar across from the coolers where they’ll pour a half glass for $5 if that’s all you require.
Boasting a draft beer list that rivals that of the Trappist, Beer Revolution does not serve food—however, patrons are more than welcome to sneak in a Nation’s cheeseburger or order of Everett and Jones barbecue from around the corner.
At Beer Revolution, authenticity is the order of the day, so expect the beer to be served in the appropriate chalice—even if it ruffles the feathers of manly types who balk at drinking brew out of anything but a pint glass or stein. “We cater to what the brewer wants,” says bartender Richard Angeles. And if that means a guy has to drink raspberry-infused lambic out of something that looks like a dainty wine glass, so be it. Get over it, dude. Don’t go crying to your momma for a can of Bud Light.
As I delicately savor my half-pour of De Struise Pannepot, I think to myself, this is what your bar down in the garage would be like—that is, if it had more to offer than stale pretzels and a dorm fridge full of Meister Braü in cans.
The ole standby
Ready for a little lunch, I head west on Third one block and take a right up Washington back toward the Oakland Convention Center and the Pacific Coast Brewing Company.
Opened in 1987 and still the only brewpub (meaning they sell beer brewed on the premises) in Oakland, Pacific Coast offers its own beer on tap, as well as selections from other brewers.
This idiosyncrasy, I’m told, is because Pacific Coast’s brewing system does not have the capacity to fully supply the bar’s needs. It does, however, allow brew master Don Gortemiller to whip up seasonal beers with limited demand, like the small glass of Pearl Golden Lager I enjoy with my fish and chips. Delivered directly from the tanks to the taps, Pacific Brewing’s own beers like Gray Whale Ale and Elephant Seal Bitter are as fresh as beer can possibly be.
The atmosphere can seem almost Victorian (what other brewpub boasts a stained glass window on loan from the Oakland Museum above the front door?), but not in a stodgy way. And there are plenty of cozy booths for groups looking to sup and quaff.
The crowd on my visit is decidedly ungeeky—it even includes Tommy, the maker of Pacific Coast’s famous “premium” hot sauce. The staff and patrons are friendly. By the time I leave, I’m feeling so at home I’m ready to apply for a shift behind the bar—but I digress.
By far the oldest of the three spots I’ve visited—the Trappist opened in 2007 and Beer Revolution in 2010—Pacific Coast is friendly not just to patrons, but to the competition, too. The new brewpubs, says bar manager John Campau, bring “new people to the neighborhood.” And presumably not all of them are French horn–playing beer geeks.
With a branch of longtime San Francisco sausage grill Rosamunde soon to move in across the street from Pacific Coast, look for the same cross-pollination that exists between the sausage spot and its beery San Francisco next-door neighbor, the Toronado bar, in the lower Haight. You just can’t get a nosh more classic—or more cool—than a bratwurst and a beer.
The all-draft upstart
My final stop, Linden Street Brewery, is just a short drive away from Pacific Coast, near the Port of Oakland. To get there I enlist the help of my designated driver and life coach Brian and we head off in his low-mileage Crown Victoria with the God’s eye hanging from the rearview.
His enterprise is named after the street where the brewery is located, but owner Adam Lamoreaux doesn’t especially care whether you witness firsthand his Anchor Steam–like brewing process. Mostly, he’s just focused on authentically recreating the so-called California Common Beer that no less a luminary than Jack London tolerated, circa 1890, at Heinold’s First and Last Chance, the tiny hole-in-the-wall not far from Linden Street Brewery. (Rumor has it that London’s ghost appears every so often and picks up a round).
In London’s day, steam beer was the ale of choice out of necessity (apparently the famed writer wasn’t actually too fond of the stuff). According to Andrew Ritter, lead brewer at Linden Street, the steam style was born in California when European immigrants found it hard to brew their customary lagers in the Bay Area, a place blessed with the moderate temperatures more suitable to ales. To remedy the situation, they developed a lager yeast strain that was able to ferment in the Bay Area’s pleasant climes. This produced beers with the crisp quality typical of lagers, but also with more body, like ales. And remember, this was way before Miller’s whole “great taste, less filling” campaign.
Anchor Brewing Company, considered by many to be the country’s first microbrewery, is the only surviving 19th-century brewer still specializing in the unique California Common style (of course, today they also produce other beers). According to official Anchor lore, steam beer supposedly got its name from the steam emanating from vats cooling on the San Francisco brewery’s roof, there being no other refrigeration available. Lamoreaux and company dispute this theory—they explain that because Anchor’s kegs were not stored in a cool place, the fermenting beer built up intense pressure. When the kegs were tapped, the heady beverage would spray forth like steam; thus the name. Amen.
Thankfully, Lamoreaux doesn’t have to cool his brew on the roof of his factory just off the railroad tracks. He’s got a full, modern facility and is ready to expand to another building next door. Just don’t expect to get a tour (unless you’re a journalist on deadline). However, if you absolutely have to see the place, they do hold limited taproom hours (5-8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday). On our visit, my final, final cup of Town Lager impresses with its Anchor Steam–like qualities. Fritz Maytag, the scion of the Maytag appliance company who saved Anchor Steam from extinction in the 1960s (and has since sold it), would be jealous.
Created at a true production brewery—Oakland’s first since Golden West brewery shut down in 1959—Linden Street’s line is only available on draft at Bay Area bars and restaurants like Bar Tartine (where they supply a special sourdough beer) in San Francisco, Hawker Fare in Oakland (for whom they make a rice lager), and Ye Olde Hut in Oakland’s Rockridge district. The company is so quirky, in fact, that the popular Town Lager is delivered only via a custom-built beer bike, with kegs strapped on for the ride across Oakland. And that’s just the way Lamoreaux wants it.
Undoubtedly there’s a glimmer of hope for those who just want to traipse down to the local mini-mart for a sixer of Linden Street Town Lager, but it may take a few years. After all, Anchor didn’t start selling beer in bottles until 1971, 75 years after it started.
Tour de beer
Aside from downtown Oakland, the East Bay offers several other locales for beer appreciation within close proximity to each other. First and foremost is downtown Berkeley where brewpubs Triple Rock and Jupiter vie for top honors along Shattuck Avenue. Triple Rock, opened in 1986, cranks out its brews in full view of the clientele (“Hey, check out that guy climbing up the stainless steel tank,” you may hear patrons exclaim). The place also rocks some hearty pub grub and offers worthwhile diversions such as shuffleboard. Over at Jupiter, the menu features other breweries’ beers, which can be savored on a pleasant outside patio where you just might catch some groovy live jazz.
Up for a closer look at your brewski’s provenance? In West Berkeley, Pyramid Brewery on Gilman offers tours every day at 4 p.m. Afterwards, stay and enjoy the spacious dining and bar area featuring sandwiches, burgers, and pizza, as well as nonstop sports coverage beaming down from eight overhead TVs. Head west on Gilman and south on Fourth and you’ll come to the home of Trumer Pils, Berkeley’s exact replica of an Austrian beer by the same name that dates back to 1601. The Trumer Pils tour starts at 3:15 p.m. (reservations required) and concludes with a visit to the brewery’s taproom where a fresh, ice cold, perfectly cylindrical glass of the pilsner awaits. Ahh.
Another East Bay beer tour option—a little out of the way, but well worth the effort—is offered by Drake’s Brewing, just off the Nimitz in San Leandro. Housed in what used to be a Caterpillar tractor factory, the brewery boasts neighbors like Walmart, Home Depot, and so on. Launched in 1989, Drake’s has made a name for itself as a purveyor of heady brews such as Denogginizer Double IPA. Tours for up to 10 tipplers are offered most Friday afternoons; first come, first served. Afterwards, retreat to the brewery’s Barrel House tavern to sample factory fresh beer—it’ll put you in the mood to head over to Walmart for an unbelievably low price on that 12-pack of tube socks.
Yes, my beer-loving friends, the old saying is true: be in the East Bay when the microbrew mood strikes, and you’ll be in luck. Prost!
Anchor Brewing Company, 1705 Mariposa St., San Francisco, (415) 863-8350; anchorbrewing.com.
Paul Kilduff’s column/podcast, The Kilduff File, has appeared in The Monthly since 1994. For that he deserves a malt beverage.
Beer Revolution, 464 Third St., Oakland, (510) 452-2337; beer-revolution.com.
Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, 1082 B St., Hayward, (510) 886-9823; buffalobillsbrewery.com.
Drake’s Brewing Company, 1933 Davis St., Bldg. 177, San Leandro, (510) 568-2739; drinkdrakes.com.
Heinold’s First and Last Chance, 48 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 839-6761; firstandlastchance.com.
Jack’s Brewing Company, 39176 Argonaut Way, Fremont, (510) 796-2036; jacksbrewingcompany.com.
Jupiter, 2181 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 843-8277; jupiterbeer.com.
Linden Street Brewery, 95 Linden St., Oakland, (510) 812-1264; lindenbeer.com.
Pacific Coast Brewing Company, 906 Washington St., Oakland, (510) 836-2739; pacificcoastbrewing.com.
Pyramid Alehouse, Brewery & Restaurant, 901 Gilman St., Berkeley, (510) 528-9880; pyramidbrew.com.
The Roundup Saloon, 3553 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4817.
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, 1195 Evans Ave., San Francisco, (415) 642-3371; goodbeer.com.
Toronado, 547 Haight St., San Francisco, (415) 863-2276; toronado.com.
The Trappist, 460 Eighth St., Oakland, (510) 238-8900; thetrappist.com.
Triple Rock Brewery, 1920 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 843-2739; triplerock.com.
Trumer Pils, 1404 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 526-1160; trumer-international.com.
Ye Olde Hut, 5515 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-2565.
Bottoms up: The Trappist in Oakland is one of many happening independent pubs in the East Bay microbrew scene. Photo by Colin Burke McClure.
Pub and grub: Oakland’s Pacific Coast Brewing Company offers its own beer on tap, as well as accompanying fare. Photo courtesy Pacific Coast Brewing Company.