The Beer Highway in Northern California, Part II

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Written by Tom Becham for

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On the next leg of our journey to Northern California, my wife and I stopped in San Francisco for a few days. Besides some of the more obviously touristy stuff, we also did some beer tourism.

Our first beer-related stop was at the Magnolia Pub and Brewery. Located in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, the neighborhood around the Magnolia still retains a bit of the old funky, hippie-ish vibe it was known for in the 60’s and 70’s, but with a more tourist-centric aspect now. The interesting people watching on the streets could fill a volume on its own.

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The food at the Magnolia is quite good, though a bit pricey like everything else in the city. I especially recommend the fried fish on sourdough or the seafood boudin, which consists of cajun-style shrimp and scallop sausages over a bed of dirty rice. The beer ice cream is also a nice touch, made from the house stout. If Baskin Robbins made a similar ice cream, they’d call it Malted Milk Ball, as that’s exactly what it tastes like.

The atmosphere is vibrant, even noisy and raucous, though the design is airy and light, with many art deco touches.


The beer is the main draw, of course, and rightfully so. The Magnolia brews everything on premises and would be in my Top 10 Brewpubs list. There were FIVE cask ales on the beer menu when we visited, though being at the end of a holiday weekend, three had already sold out. Never fear, they have at least ten other taps of their other beers available. All of the beers there are made painstakingly and are very faithful to style. The Kalifornia Kolsch compares favorably to many of the genuine German articles I’ve tasted, with a faint biscuity malt, and an assertive – but not obnoxious – hop finish. The Speedway ESB is the genuine article, as well, unlike many American brewpub versions, which are simply stronger versions of the house amber. The Piper Pale (cask version) is an American (read: more highly hopped) version of an English pale, with fruity esters comingling with some interesting earthy, minty hop flavors. Big Cypress Brown is nice, but (at least for the Magnolia) a fairly lackluster brown, more in the northern English style with a more dry finish. Cole Porter (cask) is another genuine article, and had a bit of sour bite at the end of a roasty and semi-sweet body. Finally, the Proving Ground IPA proves one thing: the Magnolia can also make “big” American hop monsters, and do that just as well as they do everything else.

I highly recommend a stop at the Magnolia Pub and Brewery next time you are in San Francisco.

Our other beer tourist foray in San Francisco was to a classic location: Anchor Brewing.

Do yourself a favor; if you go to San Francisco, you MUST take the tour at Anchor. However, you need to plan in advance. Apparently the tours fill about 6 weeks in advance. Luckily, we managed to get two tour spots a mere week in advance. It might’ve been my mention of Professor Goodales, but I’ll chalk it up to good luck on my part.

The first striking thing about Anchor Brewing is the 1920’s-1930’s feel of the building. This is not Anchor’s original location, but they did manage to find an old coffee roaster’s building from that era and renovate it for brewing. The office furniture is all oak and polished brass, and overlooks the immense copper brewing vessels on the brewing floor. The tasting room is no less of a throwback, as it also contains the wood and brass motif, and a marble counter-top.

Most beer geeks will know a lot of things about Anchor Brewing. If you do not, I’d encourage you to research Anchor, and it’s owner (until recently), Fritz Maytag. Fascinating history.

A few interesting details about Anchor that even beer geeks might not know:

– Anchor uses San Francisco tap water for their brewing. SF is one of the few urban areas in the state that has good-tasting municipal water.

– Anchor does not use hop pellets, but only whole-leaf hops in their brew. A look at their hop room confirmed this.

– Anchor Steam is the only beer Anchor makes that is a lager. But even so, it’s more of a hybrid beer than a true lager, as the lager yeast ferments at temperatures rather higher than the macro-brewers would ever be comfortable with. Even Anchor’s Bock is an ale, as it contains wheat, and is therefore a weizenbock.

As far as the Anchor line-up of beer goes, I will give a few of my impressions:

Anchor Steam – A true classic. It’s no mistake that this is the beer pictured on the dust cover of the book 1001 Beers to Try before You Die. It may not seem an exciting beer now, but remember that it was introduced in the mid-1970’s, before the craft boom, when macros ruled America. In that context, you will realize how truly revolutionary a beer it was, and still is.

Bock – A drier, nutty interpretation of the style. Restrained, as if saying, “I could totally blow away your taste buds, but I don’t think you could handle it.”

Old Foghorn Barleywine – A trendsetter and style definer. This particular barleywine marks the transition line from the sweeter, maltier English style of barleywine to the more hop-centric American version. Displays both characteristics, though the hoppiness is more in the delicious aromas, with just a bit of a bite at the finish.

Liberty Ale – The prototype for the American Pale Ale style. More hop centered than a true English pale, but not as tongue-scrapingly bitter as some current American varieties. Well-balanced, perfect for summer thirst-quenching.

Our Special Ale – Anchor’s holiday beer. It varies from year to year, but is invariably dark, spiced, and uses a botanical ingredient hinted at by the picture of the tree on that year’s label. Some are quite aromatic, others more earthy, but they are always delicious and perfect for cooler weather.

Porter – Another beer where Anchor marks the delineation between classic English style and American innovation. This is simply the best American-made porter I’ve ever tasted. Bar none. It is, in my opinion, the benchmark for American porters. If you’ve never tried it, your beer knowledge is woefully incomplete.

The rest of Anchor’s beers are no less than good, although their Summer Beer, Humming Ale and Small Beer are not their strongest offerings.

In all, San Francisco is a great beer city, even though we only got to scratch the very top layer of its offerings.

Next: Part III, Eureka and Lost Coast.

Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for

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