Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco opens this weekend—let’s talk about the state of craft beer
On the collision of brew's inherent blue collarness and a new, blossoming high-end brew experience
If your beer predilection begins and ends with Coors Light, you can stop reading now. No judging here. It’s just that you probably won’t be interested in the finest of international or domestic small-batch beers, ones crafted with the utmost care. Or whether said beer was served at the proper temperature, and in the proper glassware. Or even if the damn label on said proper glassware faces directly at you, and not to the side, when a very knowledgeable (and surely proper) bartender presents it to you. Atop an artfully designed coaster, of course.
There’s a place for this type of beer experience, opening this weekend in Northern California—but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, I want to discuss snobbery.
These days, food-and-drink experiences matter to Sacramentans more than ever. That is, at least when you’re talking about bone marrow or pinot noir. But there’s a term for such attention to detail and artisanship when it comes to brew: beer snob.
And what an unfair double standard. What a loaded word. Order an appetizer of microfarm cheese and house-cured bresaola, perhaps plated on a bed of hydroponic watercress with shaved Marcona almonds, at a $20 price tag, and suddenly you’re “organic,” “health conscious,” even “farm to fork.” Enjoy a $15 wine pour, and it’s your “happy hour.”
But sip Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales sour saison in a teku glass for 7 bucks? You’re a straight-up beer snob.
Which is understandable. Beer is America’s “man juice.” To disassociate beer from its blue-collar, working-class refreshment roots is to betray beer itself. Brew cannot be cliquish or pompous. It can just be beer. That’s what defines it.
Yet attitudes toward beer are evolving, and fast. Craft-beer sales keep surging (at a clip of nearly 15 percent annually, according to the Brewers Association trade group, while overall beer sales are down 2 percent). And, not unlike connoisseurship of top-tier wines, the world’s finer beers finally are earning a place in the American diet. The “snobs” are coming.
And then, this week—courtesy of a new high-end beer bar in the Bay Area opened by a Dane and a guy with Sacramento ties—the matter of beer cliquishness comes to the front burner. The spot: Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco, where dozens of fine international and Belgian ales will be poured from European machines and served in unique stemware. For the uninitiated, it’s possibly a beer-snob heaven. For those who love craft beer, it’s just doing things right.
Will it change the way Californians think about beer?
Former punk-rock guitarist Chuck Stilphen is a Bay Area guy, but he still visits Sacramento every Monday, he says, to check up on his businesses: House of Hits and Sacramento Rehearsal Studios, the two largest and most popular band-rehearsal spaces in the City of Trees.
The rest of the week, however, his focus is now on his new spot, Mikkeller Bar. Not to mention a few of the more successful fine-beer bars in California, including The Trappist and The Trappist Provisions in Oakland and ØL Beercafe & Bottle Shop in Walnut Creek. These spots serve rare, small-batch American, international and European brews only, and have introduced a bevy of fine suds to customers that would otherwise remain unbeknownst to Northern California.
But these days, it’s Mikkeller Bar, just off Market Street in the broken-bad Tenderloin neighborhood, that’s really upping the craft-brew ante.
The spot is poised to do for beer what places like San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch did for new-wave cocktails. Why is it so monumental? Let’s begin in Denmark.
In 2006, longstanding home brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø co-founded Mikkeller, his first official craft-brew company. Mikkeller was antithetical to how most breweries worked. In fact, it wasn’t even a brewery: Bjergsø operates as a “gypsy brewer” and brews out of other people’s headquarters. Unconventional, sure. But his refined-yet-experimental beers (branded with inimitable, funky art labels by Keith Shore) quickly turned palates. And heads. Now, he’s one of the premiere craft-beer artisans in the world.
During this time back in NorCal, Stilphen and his business partner opened The Trappist. It wasn’t your average beer haunt. Trappist only served brew—no wine, no cocktails!—and the beer was poured out of draft machines imported from Europe. The glassware wasn’t just plain-old pints, but instead, tulips and globes and goblets and chalices and snifters. Stouts were served just below room temperature, Belgian blondes and the like at the proper chill. The beer was stored and transported with a scrupulous attention to temperatures and quality control, since light and heat and all sorts of ambient transgressions can ruin a brew (this is why so many macro, mainstream beers can really taste crappy).
Trappist’s beers also were different than the usual craft and “microbrew” fare of the time. Bartenders didn’t even pour popular craft offerings like Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas. It was the next level.
Stilphen said he was inspired by the care and thoughtfulness that went into beer presentation abroad. “It had to do with just seeing what they do in Belgium, and I guess Europe, in general. They took a lot more care,” he explained.
Very un-American, perhaps, the idea of sipping demi brews in fussy glasses.
But it worked. “We had no idea we were going to be successful,” Stilphen told SN&R last week.
They also caught a wave: The small-batch craft-beer world exploded: Micro and independent craft brewers whipped up about 8 million barrels in 2009, according to the American Homebrewers Association, but today, in 2013, that number will nearly double, to an estimated 15 million. And overall beer sales gushed to 200 million barrels in 2012.
Unlike the intimidating wine bars of S.F.’s SOMA district and high-end restaurants, such as Saison in San Francisco or The French Laundry in Yountville, even the toppest tiers of the beer-drinking world remain informal, democratic, fun.
Mikkeller Bar, for instance, is in the slummiest ’hood of downtown San Francisco, on the first floor of an old turn-of-the-century edifice on an everyman street, where crack addicts and tweakers roam. But it also belies its Tenderloin digs. A dapper-looking bouncer greets you at the door. Inside, it’s a mix of European and S.F.-chic aesthetic: tile-floor entryway, tan wood paneling, handcrafted bar and tables. And, most importantly, 42 drafts, all part of a beer system that surely costs more than six figures.
The bar, despite its refined aesthetic, is welcoming. You may not know any of the beers on the list—from De La Senne’s Taras Boulba (a light, citrusy, tart, Belgian-style pale ale) to Mikkeller’s own It’s Alive (a wild, sour brew, aged in chardonnay barrels with mango fruit). The bartenders’ friendliness and good humor disarm any apprehensions. They’re chill and funny—but also enlightened and passionate (one moved all the way from San Diego to San Francisco just to work at Mikkeller).
It’s also an authentic experience. In the basement, there’s a small, auxiliary bar dedicated to only sour beers, and the floor is painted seafoam blue, not unlike the original Mikkeller Bar in Denmark.
At this Friday’s grand opening, there will be the usual inauguration hubbub—extraordinary dinners and brunches, out-of-town guests and S.F. hospitality-world bigwigs, plus ridiculous crowds (seriously), and even an appearance by Bjergsø himself.
Yet it’s the beer—and beer’s inherent proletariatness—that will save this high-end brew world from the snobs. Yes, there’s a more refined craft-brew quotient out there these days. It will get everyone, from consumers sipping Stella Artois to restaurateurs making their beer lists, thinking deeper and differently about beer’s possibilities.
But brew will never be for the elite. It’s still a damn beer.