There’s not a lot to look forward to in February. Unless, of course, you happen to be into beer. (And, er, love.) Yes, we're currently in the middle of a great SF Beer Week. But the city has also embarked on an entire month of sudsy exploration. A proud tradition imported from Munich, Germany, strong beer (Starkbier) festivals have become part of the beer drinker’s winter calendar worldwide. In San Francisco, where good beer is as easy to find as a decent burrito, and not much more expensive, Strong Beer Month, co-hosted by Magnolia Pub and Brewery and 21st Amendment (both of which make their own) still stands out on the beer enthusiast radar as a special occasion. First, because it’s about beer. Second, because it’s about strong beer – as in extra-alcoholic. And mostly, because like any celebration of the craft of beer-making, it’s full of delicious and surprising nuances.
Maybe the first surprise to the uninitiated is discovering just how many various beer styles are represented in the festival. The original Starkbier might have been the monastic Doppelbock (famously brewed to chase away the Lenten doldrums, and “replace” the food not allowed to be eaten by the monks who first brewed it), but any beer can be made stronger by the addition of extra malts or sugars. There’s hardly a repeat flavor to be found on the combined menus of the 12 strong beers on tap offered throughout the month at Magnolia and 21st Amendment. Punchcards are available at both locations, and the lucky drinker who manages to get through all 12 during the course of the month, gets a commemorative glass.
The good news, for everyone concerned (and especially your liver), is that the strong beer limit is three nightly at each location, so you can take your time
getting around to them all.
I wrangled brewmaster and owner Dave McLean to give me a brief lowdown on all the strong beers available at Magnolia this year.
Magnolia's Dave dives in. Photo by Jennifer Yin
The venerable Old Thunderpussy Barleywine, named for iconic restaurateur Magnolia Thunderpussy (as is Magnolia), who originally occupied the location, is entering its 13th year of notoriety. Clocking in at a respectable 10.8% alcohol content, this traditional, English-style barleywine is a sentimental favorite for the Magnolia brew-crew and clientele alike. Other returnees include the malt-rich imperial stout—Smokestack Lightning—and the hop-tastic Promised Land IPA, plus a back-by-popular-demand rye beer, the Delilah Jones, the premise of which makes my mouth water.
It was the new brews, though, that intrigued me the most: the Belgian-style Four Winds Quadrupel, and this year’s contender for “most interesting experiment” -- Let It Rauch. This tastebud-stunner contains the famous smoked Bamberg malt used in other smoked beers. But instead of using a lager yeast, Magnolia went with an alt-bier yeast from Düsseldorf, giving it, as Dave puts it, a brighter, more vibrant mouth-feel and ale-like notes.
Magnolia taps at the ready. Photo by Jennifer Yin
Next I dropped in on 21st Amendment and slaked my growing thirst with a tasting of each of the six beers in their lineup. I started with a tipple of their experimental BeerSchool, basically a dry-hopped blonde. Definitely one for the ale-lover, though not nearly as much as the next beer on the tasting rotation: Imperial Jack. This extra special bitter practically sings “Hail Britannia” on your tongue while waving the Union Jack.
But when I got to the Two Lane Blacktop I knew I was in love. A double black IPA, super well-balanced, subtly woody, and smooth on the palate. Blind Lust was next, a blended Belgian-style brew with a “splash” of Lindeman’s Lambic. A sort of cherry cough-drop meets summer meadow affair, or like a frolic in the raspberry bushes. It’s the 10-year anniversary of 21st Amendment’s barleywine, Lower de Boom, which I found to be surprisingly subtle: amber-colored, hop-fragrant, and, despite an alcohol-by-volume of 11.2 percent, dangerously drinkable.
Incidentally, this delish drink won 3rd place last year at Toronado’s annual Barleywine Festival (coming up again on the 13-14th of February!), an award which seems well-deserved. By the time it was time to taste the Hop Crisis, my tastebuds were already in a bit of a crisis, but like a good triple-IPA should, it cut straight through the nerve. The aggressive nose was like snorting an entire packet of cascade hops in an isolation chamber, and after a few sips, my tongue went numb! Probably not a beer for the fair-weather beer dabbler, but definitely a hop-lover’s tour de force.
So what’s the final verdict? It’s beer. It’s strong. And best of all, you still have three weeks to try some yourself.
Strong Beer Month
Magnolia Pub and Brewery
1398 Haight, SF
21st Ammendment Brewery Cafe
563 Second St., SF.