Brewing beer is a complete sensory experience. I can feel the heat on the stove top as the grains and water are boiled to make the wort, the smell of hops fills the kitchen. Later, I can hear yeast feasting on the freshly brewed wort and see the release of the gaseous bubbles that result.
Making beer is like learning a fine art – one that’s been nourished here in the Bay Area for more than 200 years. And as a San Francisco-based homebrewer, I wanted to find out more about our fermenting forebears.
San Francisco’s brewing history
Dave McLean, owner of Magnolia Pub and Brewery on Haight Street, says that San Francisco has been a great brewing city for its entire history. “Some of the early history shows breweries popping up within the first year after the Gold Rush. Within several years after that there were dozens of breweries. By end of 1800s San Francisco was the epicenter of brewing on the west coast,” McLean explains.
But Prohibition soon forced companies to change what they were offering. Even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many companies decided to stick with non-alcoholic offerings.
McLean says it took time and the major purchase of Anchor by millionaire Fritz Maytag in 1965 to get the city’s beer-making back on track. “That really kicked off the craft brewing revolution,” says McLean.
Maytag was a Stanford graduate who bought a controlling stake in the company for a couple of thousand bucks. It wasn’t long before Anchor churned out America’s first post-Prohibition IPA and porter-style beers. The American Craftbeer movement was underway and has been expanding our palates ever since.
Today, Anchor is part of the San Francisco Brewers Guild, along with 21st Amendment, Beach Chalet, Gordon Biersch, Magnolia, Social Kitchen, Speakeasy, and Thirsty Bear. Many more non-guild local brewers are working to gain that level of success.
The rise of craft beer
According to the Beer Institute, the brewing industry’s lobbying arm, Californians buy nearly 713 million gallons of beer every year. That’s 27.5 gallons per of-age adult – a little less than a pint per day (of course, some beer lovers enjoy slightly more than that).
“Beer at least for me, personally, is a perfect combination of my science background and then being able to be really creative with the flavors of the beer," says Regan Long co-founder of Local Brewing Company, a fledgling San Francisco brewery trying to expand. Long started home brewing seven years ago in his garage. About a year ago, the Local Brewing Company started bringing its beer to Dolores Park and the San Francisco Underground Market for feedback.
Still, the craft brew market makes up just 5% of a $224 billion industry. Which is to say, not everyone who starts brewing on their kitchen stove wants a market share.
Long’s partner, Sarah Fenson, says there’s a lot of help available for curious home brewers who want to take their craft to the next level, "There really is, I’ll say a personhood, a brotherhood, a sisterhood among people in the beer industry. You already have a commonality in terms of what kind of beer do you like ... And it is a real knowledge sharing community,” says Fenson.
But home brewing wasn’t actually legal until 1978, so certain renegades had turned their kitchens into recreational brewing laboratories long before that.
“I learned how to brew out of the back of a Field and Stream magazine," says Gregory William Miller the Thirdstein, also known as Griz. Miller is a brewmaster at San Francisco Brewcraft in the Richmond District, with over 42 years of experience under his belt. After answering an ad for brewing classes, Miller made his first batch. “It tasted like someone had boiled all the jock straps from the San Francisco 49ers,” remembers Miller. “But that just made me want to do it more.”
Miller says brewing at home has grown in popularity since he first started since it’s become easier to learn. Mission-based author William Bostwick’s instruction manual Beer Craft explains how to brew single gallon batches – small enough to allow for experimentation. And Bostwick’s partner Jessi Rymill says that it’s not hard to give beer that unique San Francisco twist by using fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients.
But for homebrewers like myself, beer-making is an experience to share, with friends, family, or a friendly passerby. I like to think of brewing in cooking terms: There’s no sense in making a delicious feast if you’re going to eat it alone. Sharing ideas, food, and drink is an act that makes us human.
The special taste of an amazing homebrew is something that can be savored everywhere – from my house, to your house, to the White House. Yes, recently President Obama became the first sitting American President to brew at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House Honey Ale used honey from bee hives on the property. And it sent an important message to home brewers everywhere: Yes, we can, and keg, and bottle.