“With a bit of luck, it’ll ruin his life – forever thinking that just behind some narrow door in all his favorite bars, men in red Pendleton shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know. Would he dare to suck a sleeve? Probably not. Play it safe. Pretend you never saw it.”-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The first thing I notice when I step off the plane in San Francisco is an incredible miasma of bland – but it’s not San Francisco’s fault. Airports are a cultural desert most anywhere in the United States; here, a billboard for a steakhouse in terminal A, there, an advertisement for a casino. Announcements over the intercom for an indecipherable flight number, spoken with a strong north-eastern regional accent; “Now boahding fah flight wan six ehhhhhh to chicaaaaaago” warring with refrains from meaningless pop anthems circa 2001.
The car rental is no improvement, and then I drive on a dark highway to my hotel, where I get to really experience that deep immersion of paying the street value of a kidney a night for valet parking in front of a building that’s so historically soaked in urine and marijuana smoke, you could probably clone Jack Kerouac if you could find the right stain on the marble facade.
Don’t get me wrong. San Francisco is a vibrant, moving place, with an inherent beauty to the landscape that would be very, very difficult for man to ruin. We’ve tried; oh, how we’ve tried. But the sea breeze occasionally freshens up the eau d’street and reminds me of why I’m here – beer, food, and a trip up the coast.
I spent a lot of time here as a kid, and the big lesson remains; don’t stay here any longer than you have to. Keep moving – there are sharks in the water, and sharks on the street, and they smell blood and fresh meat. But we’re no strangers to cities, crime, cons and colorful characters, so nothing happens. Now let’s talk about breweries and food. One of the most iconic locations to check out is, of course, the duo of Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. A cute little tourist district on the waterfront where you can take a boat to Alcatraz, eat some ice cream, play games in the arcade, and walk through Chinatown on the way to and fro. I buy a set of four $1 batteries for my film camera for $40, because San Francisco.
11 miles of walking later, we fetch up at Mikkeller Bar SF. One of the first things you might notice as you walk into this unassuming location (other than the Mikkeller style art on the walls), is how each beer is served at very appropriate temperatures, pressures and gas mixes. There are a ton of options. Cask ales are served at low pressures, IPAs at higher pressures, stouts mixed at their own pressures and gas mixes, and so on. Typically, this requires different setups at a bar – nitro tends to require a nitro system, nitro regulators, restrictor plates to aid in nucleation in the pint (nucleation makes the nitro come out of solution and gives you that creamy Guinness head, but nitro doesn’t autonucleate, unlike CO2), and you’d need a separate system for beergas (nitro-CO2 mix pre-packaged at the gas distributor) along with separate regulators for everything. However, Mikkeller SF doesn’t need that – they have a flux capacitor.
This particular capacitor doesn’t, in fact, run off of 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity, but allows the bar to set pressures and gas mixes for each tap individually. Built by Gabe Gordon, founder of Beachwood BBQ and Brewing, and operated by Devon Virgo, bar manager of this curiously well-appointed joint, this bespoke 50+ line control system allows Mikkeller to eliminate some of the typical pesky problem of balancing beer line pressures, while feeding nitrogen from their nitro generator along with CO2 at just the right mixes and pressures to give you the perfect pint for your style. And what’s the style? Well, whatever you want, but I opt for a few sours; SD Passion Pool, which is a passionfruit sour with some delicious mineral and acid notes paired with a sessionable 5% ABV, as well as the Paradise Pils, a fruity pilsner that was brewed as a Camp Fire benefit beer, which is a big deal here in California – as of the time of interview, they hadn’t made their final donation, but it was soon in the offing. They’d also recently participated in the Dine Out For Life benefit, bringing in $1600 for that.
The food options are no slouch, either; I have a muffaletta, which despite being called a muffaletta, is not what I would consider a muffaletta, but is most definitely a hot dog. Very tasty, with some olive relish and other things. If you order one, expect a delicious hot dog – do not expect a sandwich with creole olive salad, spicy Italian cold cuts and a delicious sourdough or ciabatta bun. You’ve been warned, but it’s delicious.
But this is lunch, and there’s an entire half of a day left; we spend it going to Cellarmaker, where I enjoy a nicely funky brett IPA, and Hitachino Beer and Wagyu – a three dollar sign joint with Hitachino Nest beers and some of the most melt-in-your-mouth wagyu tartare tapas you’ve ever had, and also picking up some nicely fresh sushi at Sakana, a convenient stumbling distance from the hotel. All excellent, all pricey (correction – Cellarmaker isn’t pricey).
And then there’s coffee, crepes, and the best breakfast sandwich in San Francisco. We sleep in the basement and pay $118 to get the car back from the hotel legbreakers, then drive up the coast to spend some time with food and drink named for philosophers, rogues, historians and musicians – but that is, quite literally, a tale for another day.