Bay Area beer guide: The best places to get brews in San Francisco and beyond



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Friday night, San Francisco’s Beer Week Opening Gala put all of the best beer in the Bay Area on display for a glorious tasting session. If you only had four hours in the Bay, that would obviously be the best way to enjoy the beer scene here. But it already happened. And you’re in town for a San Francisco 49ers game (or viewing party), or a Golden State Warriors double-step, or a San Francisco Giants series, and don’t have a time machine on hand.

We’ve got you covered.

Using that gala and all those breweries as a backdrop, let’s identify the best beer bars and breweries within four major regions within the Bay Area. You could, if you were so inclined, spend a day hitting those spots for an extended and comprehensive tasting session. We’ll also identify the very best one or two locations in each region if you only have a couple of hours to pregame.

Four days, or four hours, here’s your Beer Guide to the Bay Area.

San Francisco

If you’ve only got one hour, there’s one place to go. It’s the best beer bar I’ve ever been to: Toronado, in the Lower Haight. They’ve always got a hot, hot, hot beer list:

The only caveat is that it’s a real beer drinker’s bar. They’re serious about this thing. I’ve either witnessed or personally experienced people being thrown out for wearing a tie, looking at their phone too long and holding up the line, asking for recommendations without any sense of preference or guidance, tipping too little … and that doesn’t even cover the dragged out service you’ll get if you ask for Pliny the Younger loudly by name (it’ll probably be there this week, it always makes an appearance), wear a Dodgers hat, take too long to order, or appear to be logging your beers on your phone. It all adds to the “dive bar looks but serious beer” ambiance in the end, for me at least.

The best brewery in the city is most likely Cellarmaker Brewing, and their beer-and-pizza joint on Mission Street near Cesar Chavez. Their hazy pale ales have that perfect combination of tons of taste and body with lower Alcohol By Volume numbers (and therefore lower calorie counts). Cellarmaker hazies are never chewy in the molars, and often feature southern hemisphere hops for maximum fruit in the nose, all while finishing with a traditional Bay Area drier finish.

“Fresh beer, rotating beer, trying new things, really good pizza, hot sauce, making the beer we like,” is what Cellarmaker is all about according to founder Connor Casey. “We use Chico yeast in our Hazy West Coast IPAs. and maybe our hazies are a little more drier out here generally, our tastes are towards drier things. We like dry beverages out here, sometimes gets a little soggy out east. And sweet equals hangover.”

If you have more time, you can check out Bare Bottle nearby in Bernal Heights. They make innovative, and sometimes strange, beers, but their location has a good arcade and usually interesting food trucks out front. Right now you can get a Double Mango Flossi mango lassi sour if you’re in the mood, and the food trucks are listed on the calendar on their site. In between the two breweries is Holy Water, a smaller bar with great ambiance, plus-plus mixed drinks and a small but strong beer list. (They usually have some beers from southern California newcomer GOAL. Brewing on tap, too.)

The Mission district has a good scene. Rosamunde for sausage and beer is up on 24th street. City Beer Store near Dolores Park has a good takeaway fridge and a killer list, but the space is a little strange beyond limited bar seating, and I haven’t stayed as long as I’ve expected to in the past, given the great list and their place in SF beer history. Nearby is The Monk’s Kettle, with pricey but good fries and beers right on 16th Street, one of the most interesting streets in the entire city in terms of street life. Zeitgeist is not far away and stays true to its biker roots while featuring a great outdoor beer garden, it’s a fun spot when the weather is right.

There are a few other spots to hit in San Francisco proper, but they’re mostly better options if you just happen to be located closer to them. The tea at the gala was that The Beer Hall, which is at Polk and Market now, is apparently adding a spot in the old Mikkeller bar downtown, and they’ve got a great list and great bartenders. By the park, there’s Richmond Republic for a great list. Liquid Gold near Union Square is the best beer list on that side of town, where it gets a little hairier for beer.  Woods Beer, with their empanadas, in Russian Hill is probably the furthest North I’d venture for a beer in the city confines unless it was for some Fort Point kolsch at the ferry building.

By the ballpark, there’s one favorite of mine that I’m a little hesitant to share. Don’t mess it up for everyone, it’s too beautiful, and it’s a perfect little four-block walk from Third and King and the Giants: Garaje. The sandwiches are really good, the beer list is amazing, and for now it’s a little hole in the wall that doesn’t even get all that busy on game days. It’s only a one-mile walk from Chase Center, too. There’s Laughing Monk in Bayview for Belgians and pales if you’re coming from the south, but it’s not walkable to the park. Probably just pregame at The Public House, it’s awesome.

East Bay

It’s harder for me to establish the one place you have to go in the East Bay for beer. There are, instead, pockets of great beer that require attention.

In Emeryville-Berkeley, there’s a hell of a quadfecta for sours, stouts, crispies and hazies in one afternoon. You can start with the always-excellent Fieldwork Brewing, as they are really strong in any style, but they’ve also got six other locations, so there’s an opportunity to add them to almost any Bay Area plan you’ve got in front of you. (To be fully transparent, Fieldwork sponsors a show I do on the A’s network, but I put that deal together myself because I love their beers and felt like it was a good match.) On a bike, you could easily hit that Berkeley location, roll down to Cellarmaker in the old Rare Barrel spot, try some hoppy beers at Tenma Beer Project, and end up at one of the best up-and-coming breweries in the Bay Area, Wondrous Brewing.

“Our owner and head brewer Winn Whisenhunt studied brewing in Germany, and loves and focuses on quality lagers, and is a total hop-head,” said Laura, the brewery’s business manager, at the gala — where Wondrous was so popular they ran out of beer. “Our Helles is probably our most popular beer, we have Helles super fans.”

I haven’t personally loved any of the options up by the school, but Cask Taproom is north of the highway, has a great selection, and a knowledgeable bartender who used to work at a lot of the breweries we’ll mention here. There’s also a great cider shop and bar in Lower Rockridge called Redfield if you’re looking for something different.

If I wasn’t playing around up in Berkeley, I’d focus on downtown Oakland, where there’s a concentration of good options as well. Near Jack London there’s another Cellarmaker, yes, but there’s also Original Pattern and though their best beers are mostly IPAs, they run the gamut from light and crispy to thick and hazy. Dokkaebier is right there in the old Federation space, try their Bamboo Pilsner or something with lychee or kimchi cultures for something unique. On the other side of the highway is Sante Adairius’ northern outpost (their primary taproom is in Capitola), and a little further uptown is The Good Hop, maybe the best single selection of beers in Oakland (with takeaway coolers!), and Beeryland’s great hamburgers and good list across the street. Nearby is also Brix Factory Brewing, whose hazy rye IPA was a revelation to me at the gala.

The rest of the East Bay is a large place, so it’s hard to find these sorts of pockets, but there are some real standouts worth the travel. Faction Brewing sits on the waterfront on Alameda (former military base grounds) facing San Francisco, and it’s an amazing place to have sunset beers. They’re one of the most consistent long-term breweries in the Bay, but something like their IPA The Penske Files tastes both trendy as well as rooted in history, so it’s a great place for an afternoon before an A’s game if you’re feeling nostalgic this year. There’s also Brotzeit Lokal, a German restaurant with a mixed traditional and trendy beer list that’s waterfront, but the views are of Alameda instead. A third in that area: Alameda Island Brewing has some cool Filipino-inspired brews worth checking out.

Degrees Plato bottle shop and Ghost Town Brewing up in Laurel is a worthy one-two punch in terms of getting a true Bay Area list as well as hitting up one of the pillars of the brewery community while also being a short cab ride away from most entertainment options on that side of the water.

If proximity to the A’s is really the main thing, three spots in San Leandro are the best of the closest options: Sons of Liberty Ale House has a wide food menu and list, Fieldwork has an outpost there with great flatbreads and The Cooler has the best list in terms of diversity of styles and breweries. I’ve spent extensive time at all three and don’t regret it. If you’re taking the Vallejo ferry to watch the Giants, have some Mare Island beers in some repurposed shipping yards with a view of the water before you depart.

If I had one hour? My credit card history says it would probably either be spent at The Good Hop and Beeryland, just because the Fieldwork/Cellarmaker/Wondrous trifecta would take much more time.

Peninsula

Maybe because the property values are so high, or maybe because it’s all car culture, the peninsula does not offer many great pockets of best beer options. It’s all very spread out.

That said, it’s easy to pick the one place I’d go if I only had time for one place: Gourmet Haus Staudt. At the Haus, you’ll hear pockets of German speakers enjoying the traditional list or having a beer before they pick up some spaetzle and sausage and beer in the store on the way out, but you’ll also have some great choices from the other side of the menu, which almost always has a couple of stouts, a couple of sours and, of course, pale ales, all usually from Northern California breweries. It’s one of those places like Toronado that combines a unique ambiance with great beer in a way that makes me feel at home.

In San Carlos, you can also enjoy a great list at Ale Arsenal (with takeaway beers), which sits right next to The Refuge with its heaping piles of pastrami (and a Belgian-forward list of its own). That area also owns houses a Bay Area classic in Alpha Acid Brewing. This probably counts as the closest you can get to an afternoon pocket.

Palo Alto has The Rose & Crown pub, where you can always get Pliny the Elder and fish and chips, talk baseball with the primary bartender, and play some darts in an old-school British pub environment. You might even see me, it counts as my local. It’s alone on an island of more upscale restaurants, but there are usually a couple of interesting beers (and great tacos) at San Agus Cocina, and if you want to instead have pizza and Pliny nestled into the foothills in a biergarten surrounded by greenery, there’s also Rossotti’s Alpine Inn. Parking can be a pain.

I’m always on the search for spots near me, and I’ve found a few that work well enough to the south of Palo Alto but north of San Jose: State of Mind Pizza in Los Altos for the slices and a big list, Stein’s Beer Garden in Mountain View for the list and comfortable inside seating if it’s cold, and Ludwig’s Biergarten down Castro street from Stein’s for traditional German beers and board games.

There are a few Super Bowl watch parties in San Jose, and a bit of an emerging beer scene. Good Karma is probably the best beer bar downtown. There’s a trio of breweries you could do with a little walking nearby, though, that might be more rewarding. Fox Tail Fermentation has great sours (tell me you don’t want to try a sour farmhouse with fermented Ume, umeboshi salt, and red shiso … ok, well at least I do), Clandestine Brewing has a great range and will feature styles you don’t always see, and Narrative Fermentations makes some great lighter ales, and they’re all equally spaced in about a mile and half along Third Street.

“We try and do a lot with the space that we have. We are a nano brewery, but we are also primarily a plant-based restaurant that focuses on fermentation of all kinds. Pretty much everything you come in to get is fermented, cultured, and made in-house from scratch with hyper-season local farm-based produce in our beer, in our food, and on top of that we are an art gallery and we host community-based art and music events. I think that’s why we’re cool,” said Wendy Bravo from the brewery at the gala, where I enjoyed their beet lager and also their vegan(!) milk stout with none of the lactose that bothers my gut.

“This year is a special year for us, it’s our tenth anniversary, and we celebrate the entire beer spectrum, from German pilsners to hazy IPAs to sours,” said Clandestine founder Adrian Kalaveshi, as he handed me a taster of their smoky rauchbier, which I enjoyed despite not being my favorite style.

Those are three breweries with three different focuses, making it a worthy pocket that’s doable via bike or on foot. A good portion of these are car-only, but if you’re hopping on and off the Caltrain on the way up to the city, you could hit up Steins‘, The Rose & Crown, and Gourmet Haus on your way up. You could even visit J Kenji López-Alt’s brainchild, Wursthall, for a beer and an upscale brat at the San Mateo stop.

Further Out

Now you’re definitely getting in a car, so you’ll have to figure that part out. But these places are all worth a pilgrimage.

Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa is the GOAT of the region, and even if you’re not going this week for Pliny the Younger, you’ll have plenty to enjoy. Their sours are top-notch, their STS pilsner is crisp and refreshing, and their other assortment of stouts and ales are all great. The food at the beer pub is excellent too. While you’re in Santa Rosa, you can enjoy Cooperage Brewing and Henhouse Brewing for fresh, great IPAs.

On the way to Tahoe, generally at least, there’s Berryessa Brewing (whose beers are great but also gluten-reduced, if that matters) and Moksa Brewing (and their intense range of great IPAs). You can find Berryessa around the Bay Area, but Moksa beers are generally harder to find, so it might be worth the detour on your way to the snow. Moonraker makes amazing IPAs and they’re hard to find too, but you’ll have to make it up to Auburn.

South is the way I might head if I had one trip in me, though. The Santa Cruz area offers Humble Sea’s patented foggy beers as well as the home field for Sante Adairius‘ amazing mix of foeder-aged sour saisons and peppery hazy pale ales. If you continue further down to Monterey Bay, there’s Alvarado Street, one of the area’s trendiest and well-thought-of breweries in the Bay Area. You could get Humble Sea closer to the city in beer bars (or their Pacifica or Alameda locations), ditto for Sante Adairius, and Alvarado Street is always at Tornado, but there’s always a surprise or two waiting for you when you make the drive to the source.

“Most of the beer that makes it up to the Bay Area comes out of our bigger production facility in Salinas,” said Biggie, the head brewer at the production site, “But we also have a small brewpub in Carmel and our original brewpub in Monterrey, and so they have great beers that come only in 10-barrel batches. We’re about very aromatic hoppy beers, generally, but we love all styles.”

From kimchee sours to beet lagers to perfectly crafted traditional styles, the gala showed that the beer scene in the Bay Area is vibrant, even as the industry faces consolidation.

Hopefully, this guide will help you find some of it no matter where you find yourself.

(Photo: Eno Sarris / The Athletic)





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