It's not always on my mind when I'm bellying up to the bar, but making alcohol is serious business. Brewers soak specially prepared grains according to precise recipes, then subject the resulting mixture to a brutal program of hot water baths, boiling, filtering and straining. Mistakes can result in uncontrollable infestations of 'wild yeast' that will, at best, ruin the beer and, at worst, charge through a G.I. tract with all the reserve of a Barbarian horde.
Harder alcohol is produced by distilling, which uses a similar regime of high heat to separate and purify the ethanol produced by fermenting plants. Combining the wrong ingredients and temperatures can result in powerful explosions or clouds of poison gas; improper filtering might fill your final product with ethanol's evil stepbrother methanol, which even in small doses causes blindness or death.
Given these challenges, most commercially available alcohol comes from enormous companies that mass-produce their products in industrial settings. And yet, with a little bit of effort, I found a whole host of eccentrics bold enough to make their brews and spirits by hand, in small batches. These dedicated souls are returning their art to the local endeavor it once was, driven by a philosophy that dovetails nicely with both the local food movement and an awareness of the carbon footprint created by international shipping.
In San Francisco, they tend to toil at the literal edges of the city, far from the watchful eyes of genteel society. But that just means they were even more excited to see me when I got there.
Photo by Mykl Roventine
My first encounter with a real, live producer of delicious booze came in a decommissioned hanger on the old Alameda Air Force Base, right next to the water. In this vast space, St. George Spirits creates a wide range of liquor, led by their founder, Jörg Rupf, a living-legend of American craft alcohol. Joining in on the fun is distiller Lance Winters, a former nuclear engineer on the USS Enterprise, whose passion for his craft is only equaled by his explosive imagination.
Lance is infamous around the small company for being willing to make alcohol out of almost anything, be it wasabi, foie gras, or – one year – his own Christmas tree. That Noble Fir was hacked into pieces, soaked in brandy and then distilled, resulting in, of course, 'The Spirit of Christmas'. This heartwarming tale of the holidays led directly to my next question: who are you? Laughing, Lance explains that he and his fellow distillers are "deviant personalities who like to surprise people." Certainly Winters' next project substantiates the latter claim, as he is creating a series of gins with the "aromatic profiles" of the Bay Area parks he loves to hike.
The business end of the operation features three gleaming, hand-hammered copper and stainless-steel stills imported from Rupf's native Germany. With their columns and complex ductwork, they look like wayward locomotives that have turned to a life of crime or, perhaps, the Devil's pipe organ. A giant shark lurks nearby, a souvenir from a special effects house neighbor. It's the actual beast that devoured Sam Jackson in DEEP BLUE SEA. Finding stills – and shark – in good working order, I headed for the comfortable tasting room, where a lively crowd tippled while enjoying one of the best views of SF's skyline in existence.
For a mere $10, you can get a twelve-part tasting, which includes the company's signature Eux de Vies, clear brandies that showcase the powerful flavors of West Coast fruits, their renowned Hangar 1 Vodkas, and more. Impressed with my non-existent credentials, the staff upgraded my tasting, something that you can accomplish with an extra five bucks. Soon I was quaffing St. George's Absinthe, the first to be produced by an American company after a 95-year-old ban on the stuff was lifted in 2007, and the deliciously smooth Agua Azul, produced from whole, Jaliscan Agave.
Photo by misterbisson
Almost exactly across the Bay from Alameda, in the shadows of AT&T Park, is another of our modern-day alchemists. Arne "The Ginertor" Hillesland may not have perfected the lead-into-gold maneuver, but at Distillery No. 209, his one-man-band operation in a converted warehouse on the pier, he's certainly making something precious. Hillesland, who used to develop artificial intelligence software (sensing a trend?), creates just one beverage: "The 209," an artisanal gin that he told me aims "to change people's perceptions" of the spirit.
Whereas most other gins are made by blending different flavor concentrates on top of each other, Hillesland creates his in small batches that contain the full flavor profile of the finished stuff. The distillery is not open to the public, which is a shame, as the juxtaposition of exposed wooden beams above and gleaming modern equipment below – not to mention its beautiful Bay views – is thrilling.
Looking to establish myself as both "local" and "bold," I managed to get myself invited over for a late-afternoon gathering of liquor distributors, veteran bartenders and other honored guests. As beautiful as the physical space of Distillery No. 209 is, the real star was the gin itself, which subdues the spirit's familiar juniper flavor in favor of a citrusy-floral mélange that blends wonderfully into a wide range of cocktails.
Hillesland took several of us into his "botanicals room," an end-of-days spice bunker made from a converted shipping container and stuffed with fragrant ingredients. As Alain Royer, a visiting French distiller, nosed sacks of spices, Hillesland noticed me furiously scribbling down the names of exotic herbs, which included Guatemalan cardamom, hand-sorted coriander, English cassia bark and many others. "Some of the things in this room are in The 209 and some aren't," he said with a small smirk. "And some of the things that go in The 209 aren't even in this room."
The full recipe of the stuff should rightly remain shrouded in mystery, but that doesn't mean we can't keep trying to figure it out. Numerous spots in San Francisco offer The 209 – impress a bartender by asking for it with a "the" in front. The first time you have some, try a sip neat to appreciate its full complexity, then order up a refreshing Cucumber Collins or a tangy Pink Gin, or both.
Photo by Joe Thorn
For the final stop on my boozy tour I needed a beer, or five. So I headed down to a certain non-descript building in a Bayview office park that happens to be emblazoned with a giant pair of shifty eyes. This is the brewery/headquarters of Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, makers of delicious, high-octane suds in small, handmade batches, including numerous one-off, seasonal brews. Every Friday the happy staff throws open their doors to fans like me for an open house that features tours, Mexican food, occasional music and – most importantly – pints of their wonderful beer, fresh from the vats.
The event began as a pre-game tailgate of sorts when the Giants were still playing at nearby Candlestick Park, but has become a beloved tradition. When I dropped by at 5 p.m., I found a diverse bunch munching on free popcorn and sipping on Speakeasy's rightly famous Big Daddy I.P.A. (6.5% Alcohol by volume, about twice as strong as your mass-produced light beers), it's robust counterpart Double Daddy Imperial Ale (9.5%!) and a new, as-yet-unnamed, spicy Blonde.
Old men puffed cigars by an honest-to-goodness grain silo, while little girls in pink tutus ran around, giggling. $10 got me two beers and a free pint glass, which the long-haired bartender was happy to fill up with numerous 'tastes' of the many varieties. Soon the place was packed with revelers, toasting the end of the week with delicious beer.
The brewing apparatus itself was similar to the stills I'd seen earlier, although the quantities involved were much larger. Speakeasy turned out 2.5 million bottles worth of beer last year, almost 75% of which got drank right here in the Bay. (I can take credit for, like, 40 of those, easy.) Sipping on beer that he made himself, Assistant Brewer Kushal Hall explained that the company is constantly experimenting, combining malt and hops from all over the world with different spices and flavors as they tweak their classics and create new recipes.
Hall sourced Speakeasy's utilitarian vibe in the company's preference to promote from within. Virtually everyone in the place started on the bottling line, which despite your fond "Laverne and Shirley" memories is actually grueling, thankless work. The resulting crew is tight-knit and fiercely proud of their product, as evidenced by how many of them stuck around after hours on a Friday to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
As I chatted with Hall, Speakeasy's sales and marketing guru Tommy Yracheta jumped into the conversation, toting a beer of his own. He expanded on the communal feeling around the brewery, referring to his fellow staff as "modern day pirates" and then launched into an elaborate plan to convert one of the brewery's trucks into a beer-dispensing ship.
The lesson here is that just minutes away from your corner bar are a bunch of deviant, mysterious pirates who are mixing up something much more interesting than your watery well drink. They know all about the danger and hard work involved, but they're doing it anyway. The least you can do is go try some.