San Francisco Beer Week's opening night Gala takes it next level

S.F. Beer Week in lights at the front entrance of Friday night’s opening Gala.

I’m standing inside a long, hangarlike warehouse in the Fort Mason area of San Francisco. Herbst Pavilion, it’s called. And it’s the first day of S.F. Beer Week, opening night, the big gala (that’s the logo all lit up at the entry in the above photo.) It’s a big day for NorCal brew: Some 100 breweries uniting in a room in S.F., and it’s also day one of Russian River Pliny the Younger season. To my surprise, I’m actually sipping on this year’s batch (more on that later), and there’s no line. And then, even more to my surprise, Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker heads over toward me and says “Hey, how’s it going?”

I’m kind of stunned that Walker actually remembers me, even though we just chatted a week earlier, at Sacramento’s Art of Beer Invitational Festival. Impressed. People praise big “celebrity” when they are super nice and down-to-earth all the time, so it loses meaning when you say that, but Walker for sure is one of those nice, down-to-earth guys. I’ve been lucky enough to chat with the likes of Armand Debelder and Jean Van Roy (yes, I’m dropping!), and Walker is just as legit and cool and chill and willing to brew down as those humble Belgian legends.

Anyway, the S.F. Brewers Guild, who put on the night’s annual S.F. Beer Week Opening Night Gala, was nice enough to allow Firestone Walker to pour, even though they’re not technically S.F.-based. After the event, Walker said he was going to hop into his Firestone truck and embark on his “Walkers Wild Ride,” where he tours around during beer week with a cab filled with kegs on ice. At each stop, a bar owner or brewer randomly selects a keg, and it’s then put on draft right away. I saw a picture of Agrestic on draft during S.F. Beer Week. Pretty awesome (rumor has it that WWR will be in Sacramento during beer week later this month).

I get to chatting with Walker—about brewing Pliny the Elder at Firestone while Russian River replaces equipment (going great, he says), to the first cans of Union Jack, which came off the line last week (taste great)—and then, in what will possibly be the coolest moment of my year in beer, I tell Walker, “Hey, they’re pouring Younger over there.” I point the Russian River booth, where there’s a line of maybe four people. Only four people!

“Younger?” Walker responds. And then we walk over and enjoy a pour. Together. With David Walker. Pretty cool.

Firestone Walker’s David Walker accepts a Pliny the Younger pour.

OK, so I’ll get off the FW jock, I’m sorry. What I want to say is that Sacramento’s own beer week doesn’t kick off until later this month, February 27. But this city’s most rabid local beer enthusiasts don’t have to go far to enjoy some killer brew in the meantime. S.F. Beer Week is in full-effect through next Sunday, February 15. All sorts of fun pop-ups and tap takeovers and what-have-you. Visit the website for deets.

This will be a write-up on the brews and happenings at the sold out Opening Night Gala, however, which for sure lived up to its hype. At this point in my life, I’ve been to all the big California beer fests, and the Gala ranks up there at the top. Easily worth the price of admission.

The problem for me was that there were nearly 100 breweries and 1,800 attendees, so the night turned into a blur (no thanks to all those high-octane tripe-IPAs—‘tis the season). Best way to go about thoughts on the Gala is to use pictures snapped with the ol’ smartphone. Here we go:

The Gala paviion: ample space, good signage, relaxing, excellently laid out.

The Gala’s set up and organization was top-notch. Great signage, beaucoup food options, pleasing design, vintage video games for kitsch points, coat check, recyling and green-friendly trash options—they did it right, so props the crew!

Each attendee received a commemorative glass. This one above is filled with this year’s Younger.

Never had Younger this fresh—kegged less than 48 hours before poured—and the brew’s dryness and clean finish truly shined. Less tropical, on nose and taste, than in year’s past. Excellent pine-y character. Alcohol relatively mellow for a triple. I think I read in the past few days that brewer Vinnie Cilurzo said it’s not as “flabby” on the finish this year, which cracks me up.

One thing I wanted to do with Younger was sample it head-to-head, preferably against a local triple-IPA, so I cruised over to the Track 7 booth, where head brewer Ryan Graham was conveniently pouring some Motherland IIIPA.

This was a fun experiment: Motherland offers a noticeably distinct tropical-fruit profile, finishes a bit hotter, but also with a unique mint character. Both Motherland and Younger are exceptionally well-crafted brews, and I’d argue it is genuinely a matter of preference when differentiating between the two. (Of course, I wrote on Twitter that Track 7 won the head-to-head, but that was mostly to stir shit up. I don’t actually prefer one or the other.)

I also interviewed Graham recently about brewing Motherland, which you can find here.

Cellarmaker’s list.

It should come as little surprise that S.F.’s Cellarmaker Brewing Co. was the evening’s best in show. They hauled in six brews to pour for the night, impressive. The most desired was their collaboration with Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, in Santa Cruz, a DIPA called I See A Dankess, which was brewed with the relatively new Equinox hops. That brew had a super musky but sweet taste, like mango or papaya, and with a richly dank mouthfeel (no surprise there). Killer brew. Here’s a pic:

I See A Dankness, a DIPA from Cellarmaker and SARA, also won the audience award at this weekend’s Bistro’s DIPA Festival.

A fun brewery find for the evening was Alpha Acid, out of Belmont in the south bay, which just began brewing in October of last year. Brewmaster Kyle Bozicevic, who says he was one of the early contract breweries at Knee Deep, brought two hopped beers and two others for the night.

Fun Alpha Acid brews–just need to work on the names.

I’d sampled the cleverly named “Citra Bro” the night before at Toronado and definitely could taste the Knee Deep similarities. His Berliner on fruit was nice if aggressively tart (and everyone’s doing Berliner’s lately!), but I really enjoyed that base beer on its own—solid. Also, a special place in my palate for the low-alcohol oatmeal stout with TCHO and coconut (hard pairing to resist). Keep an eye on this brewery.

Alpha Acid head brewer Kyle Bosecevic, plus his fruited Berliner weisse.

You know you’re at a legit beer event when Tim Clifford, head brewmaster at Sante Adairius, is there offering boss pours. In this instance, Clifford had with him a case of the 2015 Cellarman, his official beer-week brew, a super tart and refreshing, high-carbonation barrel-aged saison. So gentle and tart and refined around the edges—the only local beer that’s come close to the Sante saison character is a saison with Mosaic dry hop I had from Mraz Brewing this past weekend with John Zervas from Hops To Table (incidentally, Mike Mraz and Clifford are old surfing buddies, so there you go).

SARA head brewer Tim Clifford and Cellarman, a now-annual S.F. Beer Week BA saison.

At this point in the evening, it was easy to lose track of what you’d drank and whether you liked it. Dangerous terrain, but not unfamiliar at this mega-festivals. 

Gigantic Brewing co-founder Ben Love, of Portland.

Gigantic was in town because of Monstrous Cabal Triple IPA, which he brewed with Roger Davis of Faction in Alameda. Here’s Roger giving me a piece of his mind:

“Screw off, drunk journalist!”

A surprise of the night was an unfiltered cask of Trumer Pils that’d been dry-hopped with Citra. This is not your Midtown bar with six-month-old Trumer in the walk-in fridge. This shit was Berkeley holy water.

Ge this, Sacramento.

Berryessa Brewing was just one of the many Sacramento breweries in the house, including also Ruhstaller, Knee Deep, Auburn Alehouse, Sudwerk, Rubicon, probably more. Here’s a shot of Berryessa brewmaster Chris Miller and his wife, Lori Nicolini (gently out of focus, because this is probably three hours in to the festival by now).

The couple behind Berryessa.

There’s a reason this event sells out and fast every year: It’s straight-up rad. And the brewers this year truly were playing industry oneupsmanship, bringing their A-plus games and busting all sorts of inspired and unique beers. I’ve neglected to mention such rad pours, like Auburn Alehouse’s ZZ Hop in cask, and so on. Tickets were $75—and that was a steal. I hardly had a chance to drink even half of the night’s brews. But it’s not just the beer; the attention to detail and ambience at the Gala made for a fun place to spend five hours brewing down. See you next year.

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