A Different Kind of San Francisco Beer Week Preview

Jen Rizzo, January 30, 2014

The sixth annual San Francisco Beer Week is nearly upon us. Prepared your livers? Reserves properly steeled and all that? You’ve still got a few days left, Northern Californians and visitors, but you might want to get on it. SFBW does not pass quietly.

There will be lots of preview guides to SFBW coming out over the next couple of weeks, highlighting the can’t-miss gatherings as well as recommendations for tiny ones you might otherwise miss in the list of 500+ events. We’ve chosen to focus more on the SFBW mindset rather than individual events, because things sell out quickly and there are all sorts of events for all sorts of tastes. That being said…

The Opening Gala requires strategy

Tickets are sold out. If you don’t have tickets, you’re probably not getting tickets. There are currently 14 requests open on Craigslist from people wanting to buy them and zero listings from people who have extra.

If you do have tickets, this is the time where you start thinking about your strategy. There are eighty breweries participating. There might be a few breweries that bring just one or two beers, and there will absolutely be a number of breweries pouring five or more. Think you’re going to drink everything on the floor? Get out of here with that 2011 nonsense. It’s 2014 and you’re going to attack this event with a plan.

Every year, without fail, the doors open and a massive crowd flocks to line up at Russian River. Everyone in that crowd is an amateur, and you’re a professional. We’ll discuss your Pliny the Younger strategy in a little while. This golden hour is where you can beeline to all of the breweries that are also pouring limited amounts of amazing beer. Start off right.

If you already have a game plan in place to go to an event hosted by a specific brewery later in the week, there’s a chance you’re going to be able to try whatever they’re pouring at the gala at the other event as well. Drake’s will be pouring Hopocalypse at the gala, but they’re also pouring it at the release (a week before SFBW), and it’ll likely be on at Sau and Brau, as well as on draft at the Barrel House all week. The gala is your chance to try beers from breweries you’ve heard of but haven’t been exposed to, as well as breweries you’ve never heard of. It’s beer week! It’s about coverage!

There is food at the gala, and it’s usually pretty great. If you see somewhere that doesn’t have a line, even if you’re not sure you’re hungry yet, pounce on the opportunity. Demand seems to happen in waves, but gets pretty heavy around the 8:00 “I’ve been drinking for two hours and just realized I haven’t eaten since lunch” hour. Consider using the opening gala as your trial run to keep bagels on your person for ten days in a row.

And whatever you do, seriously, consider pacing just a little bit. Four hours is a long time on unlimited, strong beer. Marathon, not a sprint. You have nine days left.

You should go to Beer Talks

(Disclosure: I’m an unpaid volunteer for this event, and Eno Sarris will be covering it for these pages, but other than the excitement of knowing a cool event sold out, I get zero benefits from promoting it.)

For the third year in a row, the boys over at Almanac Beer Co. have come up with an event that’s more than just your typical tap takeover. On the first Saturday of SFBW, they’re hosting Beer Talks, a series of short presentations about the industry. Think TED Talks for beer, complete with pairings, hosted in a stunning room at The Fairmont. They’ve assembled some of the smartest minds in the San Francisco beer world to come together and talk candidly about what they do. Drinking a variety of great beers while listening to people tell great stories is maybe the BeerGraphs-iest event that SFBW has to offer. Tickets are only $25, and still available as of right now.

SFBW is about managing expectations

The lines are long. The bars you love are suddenly overcrowded. They’re out of the beer I ordered? It’s only 45 minutes into the event! And what do you mean, “the people at the front of the Barleywine Festival line have been here since 6 a.m.”?!

Manage your expectations. There are lines for the bigger events. Consider anything with a) pre-paid tickets, especially events that are sold out b) “Russian River” in the title c) “Festival” in the title or d) any event you’re attending to get one specific beer a “bigger event”. Do not show up four hours after the start of a Russian River event and whine about the bar being out of Pliny the Younger. People take off work early for events. People take the week off for this thing.

So be prepared to do a little bit of waiting. Remember to eat. Showing up later to tap takeovers will likely mean that they’re out of their more rare and seasonal beers, but the flip side is that if you just want to check out a brewery you don’t know much about, the crowd might actually be relatively manageable a couple of hours after the frenzy begins. An event that starts at four will maybe still be going at eight, with a smaller selection but possibly with some of the previous night’s leftovers. Hitting up any of the well-known beer bars in the area later in SFBW after their huge events have concluded is a good time to reap the spoils of kegs with just a little leftover in them. This trick also works with restaurants featuring a paired dinner - if you don’t get seats to the event, they’ll likely have leftover kegs still tapped the next day during regular service.

Order a Younger and we’ll throw in the shitshow for free

There are two ways you drink Pliny the Younger: You willingly subject yourself to a shitshow, or you luck out and happen to run into it.

The pre-announced events (Opening Gala, Double IPA festival, Russian River night at Toronado, Russian River night at Pi) are disasters. But they’re disasters of folks like you, idiots who love beer enough to stand in a line in the rain with a hangover just to get a six ounce pour of a really great triple IPA. The first glass of Younger takes the edge off of your hangover and you realize you’re pumped to not be in your office right now and hopefully you got back in line right after you purchased that one because it takes twenty minutes to get a second one.

If you’re up for the pilgrimage, mid-SFBW, it’s much easier to walk in the brewery around lunch time and grab one. A particular Lower Haight beer bar has tapped a keg every morning of SFBW in previous years. Later in the week, the occasional dive bar will quietly tap a keg and you’ll see irritatingly cryptic things about it on Twitter. If you’re out and about, you may be pleasantly surprised where you stumble upon one.

(Oh, and over the next week, you’ll probably have the opportunity to read thirty different articles about how Younger isn’t that great and you should drink these other beers instead. You should also drink those other beers! And you shouldn’t let anyone’s jaded attitude push you off your quest for a beer you’re really excited about.)

This is the perfect time to get into sour beer

The original Sour Sunday event at Jupiter and Triple Rock is consistently one of the best events of SFBW. Almanac Beer Co. is releasing three sour beers for SFBW. Mikkeller is hosting The Rare Barrel for a night. The Sycamore and sister bar The Willows are hosting two sour nights. Fat Angel will be pouring twenty beers from The Bruery, and the Jug Shop’s barrel-aged pouring event is always a great time. If you search the schedule for “sour”, you find a solid sour event every single day.

It’s no coincidence that everyone has stepped up their SFBW sour game - sours are hugely popular right now, and Bay Area breweries have been right there at the forefront of the trend. What that means is not only that we have a ton of sour options on the market, but that we have some great sour options on the market. If you’re into sour beer or want to be, these ten days are flooded with opportunities to explore.

Please be very nice to your bartenders

You should always be nice to your bartenders, because everyone should be nice to everyone. But the world doesn’t always work like that -- we have shitty days and we snap and take that out on the people around us without really meaning to.

Every bartender you see during the course of SFBW is having a shitty day. They are working at a bizarro version of their job, one with completely different systems in place and with things they never have to think about during the rest of the year and a bunch of people who are very serious about drinking. Be nice. Know what you want, get that conversation done as quickly as possible. Speak up and then get out of the way.

I watched a scene unfold at a popular beer bar a few years ago, during their busiest event. The three bartenders had worked out a system where two of them would take orders, while the third stood in the center and just poured, nonstop. She was balancing the entire list in her head and moving them to the appropriate side for one of the others to come back and retrieve. Smart, right? They’re professionals and they knew how to make what’s normally a pretty organic process into an assembly line to handle more volume. Despite clearly being unavailable, no fewer than ten people stood in front of her and barked orders at someone with whom they never even made eye contact. Heads up: that is not an effective way to get a beer.

So yes, yes, everyone you order a beer from is in the service industry and it’s their job to take your order and be nice to you and blah blah look. Bartenders are people, and for these ten days (and a couple on either side, to be honest) they are incredibly stressed out people. Cut ‘em some slack and show ‘em some love so they feel supported to host even more awesome events next year.

SFBW is awesome and you will enjoy it

If it’s your first SFBW, welcome. If you’re a grizzled veteran who realizes they can’t attend seven events every day anymore, you’re in good company. With so much variety available, it gets a little easier every year to tailor your itinerary to your interests. Be safe, grab a buddy, and keep in touch with all of us here at BeerGraphs to let us know what you loved.