Friday, February 6, 2009

What it's All About...

One of the most appealing aspects of the craft beer world is the downright amazing sense of community that lurks around every corner.  As a group, we are living proof that beer brings people together, no more so than among those who brew it.  Examples abound, from the familiar site of brewers showing up at each others' establishments at the end of a long workday, to the sharing and lending of information and ingredients, as well as coming together around a common cause of charity or solidarity.  Brewers are drawn together to form guilds and groups, to host tastings and festivals, to solve problems, and enjoy to the fruits of everyone's collective labor.  Winemakers sometimes say it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine.  It takes a lot of good beer to make great beer, too.

Brewers have always been this way, going back to the guilds of Europe in the middle ages.  Not event the time-out of Prohibition could break this tradition.  Small-scale craft brewing disappeared after that until the 1970's.  But when it returned, beginning with Fritz Maytag's purchase of SF's Anchor Brewing (thereby saving it from imminent closure), the sense of shared purpose was quick to materialize.

By 1975, Maytag was putting out the first, bona fide, craft-brewed beer in the U.S. since before Prohibition, having re-tooled the company's equipment and researched traditional styles and methods.  At the same time, Jack McAuliffe, recently back from a military stint in the UK, began homebrewing in Sonoma County.  And another pioneer, Dr. Michael Lewis, began teaching brewing science at U.C. Davis in the 60's.  McAuliffe picked his brain about stepping up his operation and building a commercial brewery.  With that advice and some malt from Anchor, McAuliffe opened New Albion Brewery in 1976, releasing its first beer in 1977.  That gave him bragging rights to the first start-up microbrewery in the country.  Don Barkley, an early grad of Lewis' program, came to work for McAuliffe in 1978 and another enthusiastic homebrewer, Ken Grossman, came to visit that year while on his own path to open a brewery in Chico: Sierra Nevada.  Some of Sierra's early equipment was handed down from Anchor and thus began a long tradition of brewers helping each other get started and sharing the know-how needed to make better beer.

The next wave of pioneers had to have found it at least a little bit easier thanks to the efforts of Maytag, McAuliffe, Grossman, and company.  New Albion was ahead of its time but when it closed in 1982, Barkley quickly landed at the start-up Mendocino Brewing in Hopland and so did some of New Albion's equipment.  Mendocino was the first brewpub in California and second in the country (less than a year behind the first).  Throughout the Bay Area in the 80's, brewing systems were cobbled together, information shared, mistakes made and learned from, and a community grew in the form such places as Buffalo Bill's, San Francisco Brewing, Triple Rock, Willets Brewing, Berkeley Brewing, Anderson Valley, and Marin.

Today, we kick off SF Beer Week to celebrate this local heritage and the evolution of the local beer community.  We celebrate pioneering publicans like Dave Keene, Judy Ashworth, and Gene Bromstead, who sold craft beer long before it became fashionable to do so, and chefs like Bruce Paton, who did the same with beer and food pairing.  And, we celebrate the Bay Area culinary environment in which unique and artisan-made products are encouraged to flourish.  It nurtures us, opens doors for us, and allows us to keep pushing the envelope, redefining what good beer means and what you can do with it.  That was every bit as true in 1976, when the small, independent wine, cheese, and other food producers of Sonoma County paved the way for Jack McAuliffe to do his thing with beer.

If you look at the variety of events happening during SF Beer Week, you'll see lots of happy marriages between the local beer and food communities in the form of pairings and dinners that would have been unheard of a couple of decades ago.  You'll also find history celebrated in a glass in the form of the triumphant return of Original Albion, brewed for the first time in decades by Don Barkley, now at NapaSmith Brewery (try it starting today at Magnolia and Alembic, among a great list of places).  You will also find events centered around the cutting edges of the beer scene: tastings and dinners with brewers now working with wooden barrel-aging, unusual fermentations, creative ingredients, and otherwise "extreme" brewing methods.  Not to mention a few events centered around beers from countries with burgeoning craft beer scenes recently inspired by our own.

These achievements reach critical mass more quickly than would be otherwise possible because of the tight-knit nature of our community.  Because information flows so freely, yesterday's weird experiment becomes tomorrow's beer style or technique.  Bottom line: we respect the work of our peers and like each other a lot just for being out there trying to make the best beer we can.  Know that when you walk into a brewpub or order a pint of local beer at a bar or restaurant, you are connecting with a tangled web of knowledge, hard work, friendship, and community.

This coming week, much more so than usual, you will be seeing all of us quite a bit.  Beyond the various angles, the education, the history, the showing off of technique, flavor, and ingredients, the discovery of new pairings and combinations, the diversity of ideas on display, and the enthusiasm, lies a very special solidarity and like-mindedness without which SF Beer Week could never happen.  And underlying that is a profound desire to have fun this week.  It's all about the beer, after all.  Cheers!