Speakeasy Ales & Lagers brewery. I’d read the San Francisco-required books and seen the nauseating documentaries about food processing plants. In this day and age, sadly, there is a certain sanctuary in not knowing the methods of creation for things you ingest.
Not that I expected a brewery of grotesquely mistreated hops and barley; I just wasn’t sure if I wanted any bit of curtain lifted on Big Daddy IPA. It’s my No. 1 draft pick when bellying up to the bar.
I didn’t want that to change.
As I drove down Third Street, past the outer reaches of the Dogpatch and into Hunters Point, I turned onto Evans Avenue, a tree-lined street of small offices. A peaceful row of houses were perched on the hilltop.
At the end of the avenue I found a square building adorned with the trademark Speakeasy eyes that were slyly looking out for coppers or whatever snitch may be out to blow the cover. Brandon Borgel, Speakeasy’s director of sales and marketing, greeted me and showed me inside.
This was my first brewery tour. Considering that Speakeasy brews are available everywhere from delicate grocery stores like Falletti Foods to local grunge bars like Zeitgeist, my initial thought was, This is it? How does this tiny production keep a whole beer-obsessed city and the rest of California supplied with Big Daddy, Prohibition, White Lightning, Untouchable, and all the rest?
It didn’t seem possible. Most of the brewery floor was packed with pallets, stacks of empty kegs, and boxes of bottles. The brewery vats, where the magic happens, quietly lined the back wall.
Brandon explained that the first shift starts brewing at four each morning. A second shift comes on at noon, and then finally everyone knocks off at eight that evening. In a typical day, Speakeasy pumps out about 1,200 cases and 150 kegs. Demand is expanding so rapidly that they’re considered adding an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift to make a Willy Wonka-esque 24-hour production.
Brandon introduces me to Miles, the brewmaster on shift, and I shake his hand. Miles has a set of Popeye’s forearms and is clearly accustomed to wrangling kegs and hoisting buckets of hops. I nearly lose my hand in his grip.
Brandon tells me hops are Speakeasy’s largest expense. The price varies wildly between $3-12 per pound, and only a couple of mass distributors exist in the United States. Miles procures a bucket of Centennial hops and crushes a couple handfuls in his big paws, allowing me to get a whiff: Yup, Big Daddy all right.
Now that I’m up close, I start to see how the vats connect with one another. Once I’m standing next to the tanks and surrounded by the signature odors, I’m feeling that beer really is wrought out of these steaming cauldrons and towering silos.
Miles explains how each brew requires that ingredients be added manually. And as he tells me this, I realize something has been nagging me about the brewery floor. Other than thermometers, there is no digital equipment to speak of. The closest thing to a computer is a couple of crude panels with singular red and green buttons on them. Every other step is done by hand, by turning a crank, by carrying and dumping a bucket, or by activating a simple engine. There are no robotic arms moving the process along. Humans manage everything.
Brandon picks up on my observation. He notes that most mass-produced beer is made by workers punching buttons on sprawling digital control panels in a tower overlooking the plant. They can spend their whole day never walking the brewery floor. I watch Miles take a whiff from a malt vat, do a few mental calculations, nod, and close the lid knowingly; and I decide that I’d much rather get my beer this way.
“Wait, what is that stuff?” I ask, pointing nervously at a big bag that looks like lye powder, or the stuff that’s used to make the baselines. Great, I think, this is the moment where I regret seeing what they put in my beer.
“Diatomaceous earth,” Miles tells me cheerily. The light, white powder is made from long-fossilized algae, known as diatoms. A couple steps before the beer is carbonated and bottled, the liquid is run through the diatomaceous earth where it’s sterilized. The tiny gaps between the particles strain out any harmful organisms that may have sprouted during the fermentation process.
In essence, it’s a naturally occurring, sterile and organic filter. What could be more San Francisco?
Either way, glad I know.
I look around and notice old wooden barrels standing among the gleaming metal kegs and skyscrapers of cases, echoes of a distant brewery past. “Those were given to us by Maker’s Mark,” Brandon tells me. The beer aging inside will be part of Speakeasy’s specialty releases.
Later, I would see similar barrels that had previously held Evan Williams whisky, which will eventually be Old Godfather, a 22-ouncer Speakeasy is targeting to be ready for San Francisco beer week in February.
I ask Brandon what other beers an expectant fan base can look forward to, and he tells me about the Bootlegger Limited series; the first installment will be the Butchertown Black Ale. I give him the look that says, You’ll need to explain that name.
In the late 1800s, the area south of Potrero Hill and out to what was then the bay’s shoreline was so rife with butchers and livestock that many considered it the West Coast hub of the country’s meatpacking industry. Islais Creek, which is now mostly hidden in dingy culverts, used to run red with so much cattle blood that sharks would stack up in the estuary. Eventually, the industrial explosion of World War II drove the meat packers out and established the early iterations of the dry docks we know today.
Interesting – and intense – I think, as Brandon finishes the story. Then another thought occurs to me: Wait, where does Big Daddy IPA get its name?
“Big Daddy Dave Keene, Toronado’s owner. He was the first one to really support Speakeasy and feature our beers. He’s also part of the Godfather label, a huge influence in the local beer movement.”Glad I know that now too.
Speakeasy brewery turned 14 years old on August 27. Brandon tells me about the big plans in the coming months. The brewery is going to get a reinforced concrete, weight-bearing floor, and new distillation vats will be installed to keep up with demand.
Recently, a construction company vacated the warehouse adjoining the brewery and Speakeasy took over the space. Now, the towering hall is filled with extra kegs, bottles, and cases (sales move so fast that it’s difficult to keep enough of the brewery’s silk-screened bottles in stock). But soon the area will be converted into a large banquet room where wooden barrels will hold specialty beers and the hall will be rented for parties and other functions.
Speakeasy’s upstairs and ground floor offices are moving, too, and will be renovated to create a public tasting room.
“What’ll the décor be like?” I ask.
“We’re going to invoke the speakeasy feel, but think organic brewery – with a punk edge.”
In short, the brewery is growing at an incredible clip.
Did I need to come out to Hunters
Point to find that out? Probably not. But like organic foods,
beer tastes better and becomes more enjoyable when you know where it
came from. There is even some
it. This was certainly one time where pulling back that curtain worked.
It’ll make me smile the next time I belly up to the bar and call on
my No. 1 draft pick.
Speakeasy brewery hosts weekly tastings and general good times called Firkin Fridays from 4–9 p.m., and on Saturdays from 1–6 p.m. with fresh pints of its delicious beer and free brewery tours. (Note: Eat beforehand, no real food is available.) Keep an ear to the ground for the completion of the brewery’s renovation. An early 2012 finish is targeted with an outdoor beer garden, large event hall, and a bigger tasting room.