Beer here!

Why choosing Bay Area craft brews is good for the earth, the economy, and your palate. Plus: Light beer's plight
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Turleen hoists a few
Photo by Jeffery Cross

molly@sfbg.com

It all started with Stella.

I'd made my weekly (OK, sometimes twice or thrice-weekly) stop at Amnesia and ordered a pint of the Belgian lager not-so-affectionately known among beer snobs as "British Budweiser." Why Stella? It's light, easy to drink a lot of, and feels classier than PBR. So when I'm not on a $2-a-beer budget, Stella Artois is often what I order.

This time, however, the mustachioed bartender Matthew Harman didn't simply poor me a glass. It was earlier than usual. He had some time. And he knew me well enough to guess I might be open to the speech he was about to give.

"Do you really want a Stella?" he asked. "Because there are better beers that aren't shipped halfway across the world and owned by InBev." I consented to let him give me tastes of alternatives and eventually settled on a slightly more hoppy but equally drinkable lager from Sudwerk brewery in Davis.

I enjoyed the beer. But better yet, I enjoyed the wake-up call. Though I've become accustomed to buying groceries, clothing, gifts, coffee, and even liquor from local, independent manufacturers and retailers, when it comes to beer, I've been lazy. I don't think before I drink.

What's worse? I live in the land of craft brews. Though there are now 1,500 craft breweries nationwide, the movement started in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington — with flagship brands like Anchor, Pyramid, and Anderson Valley within driving distance (or, in the case of Anchor, a stone's throw) from my office. And as the industry has grown and changed, there are ever more options for a range of palates — and purses. In short: there's little excuse for thoughtless imbibing.

So why drink local? First, there's the environmental reason: it requires a lot of energy to ship all those heavy bottles and kegs full of liquid across the country and around the world. Then there's wanting to support the local economy: money spent on Bay Area businesses stays in the Bay Area. There's the more intangible concept of local pride. "We support our lousy local sports teams," says Lars Larson, master brewer at Berkeley's Trumer Brauerei. "Why not support our local brewing excellence?" And perhaps most important is taste: beer, like produce and dairy products, is best when fresh.

But the world of beer-making is complex. When it comes to assessing a brewery's greenness, for example, the question often becomes: how green? If you grow your own hops but send them to Wisconsin for brewing, is that still environmentally sound? Or if a brewery is based in Seattle but makes beer in Berkeley, does it still support the local economy? The answers vary and can be subjective. But the good news is that whatever the reason for wanting to choose brews more thoughtfully, there's a nearby option — or 12 — to satisfy it.

If you still just love the taste of Stella, or want an import that has no local substitute (like Guinness), or appreciate that the Budweiser you're sipping was probably made in a brewery 60 miles away, well, more power to you. Even Harman won't argue (though he'll happily give tastings of alternatives to anyone who stops by the Valencia Street bar Sundays at 6 p.m.). The real point is to use the same criteria for choosing beer — values, politics, and palate — you do for food and wine. Here's hoping our guide to some of the Bay Area's famed and favorite breweries will help you make that decision.

ANCHOR BREWING COMPANY

This landmark brewery has existed in one form or another since 1896, making it the granddaddy of Bay Area brewing. Its current identity comes to us with thanks to Fritz Maytag, who bought 51 percent of the operation in 1965 and is still the driving force behind the company best known for its unique Anchor Steam beer.

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