An expert's pour: What and where to drink during SF Beer Week

Magnolia Brewery hopshot David McLean has the lowdown on SF Beer Week 2012.

Now that Drynuary has basically curled up into a ball and died (take that, seasonal sobriety!), it's time to turn our gaze to SF Beer Week. 10 days of heavyweight gourmet beer drinking lie ahead of us, Bay Area. Even if your hankering for a beer paunch pales in comparison, say, to your desire to fit into your Valentine's Day party dress, you have a responsibility to indulge.

For Beer Week is not just a gustatory pleasure -- it supports what has burgeoned in SF into a thriving biz. Breweries sized from nano to Anchor are filling a six pack near you. Feb. 10-19 will conjure everything from urban beer hikes to beer-and-chocolate pairing events, beer-and-cheese couplings to the finest in bitter ales. Quite recently, we had the pleasure to one-on-one (via email) with David McLean, the mastermind behind all the brews at Magnolia Brewery. This isn't his first time talking with the Guardian about the miracles of local boozing, but this time we've captured his can't-miss picks for hobnobbing and hops that will take place Feb. 10-19 (and yes, they include an stout made with Hog Island oysters).

San Francisco Bay Guardian: In general, what are your top picks for Beer Week this year? 

David McLean: There are still so many incoming events in the queue to be posted to the schedule that I'm not sure we've even been exposed to half of what 2012's SF Beer Week has to offer. But what I think we are starting to see is a more developed, organic process of brewers and other food-beverage professionals coming together in all kinds of great collaborations. This being the fourth year, my sense is that everyone's creativity is much better developed following a few years of trying things out, seeing what works, seeing what other people are doing, and so forth. I'm not sure events like the Speakeasy-Schmaltz-Ninkasi-Homebrew Chef [tasting dinner with circus performers at the Elk Lodge] or the Trumer and Bols dinner at Comstock Saloon could have happened in year one, for example. And, the big opening celebration (Feb. 10) got a lot bigger this year, having moved to a new venue for us -- the Concourse Exhibition Center. [Plus, we've] partnered with Noise Pop for the music and Off the Grid and other great vendors for the food. 

SFBG: Anyone new on the scene whose brews you're excited to sample?

DM: After many delays (all par for the course) it is super-exciting to have Southern Pacific Brewing Company open just in time for SF Beer Week. As the first new brewery built in San Francisco in many years (close to 10), that one leads the pack in terms of excitement level. But the big story in craft beer this year is growth and newcomers to the industry -- there are a number of other new beers and brewing companies in the Bay Area that are all worth trying. Another SF company just getting off the ground is Pacific Brewing Laboratories, which is starting to get its Squid Ink IPA and a couple of other beers into bars and restaurants. Almanac's latest seasonal release, Winter Wit, should be hitting the streets just in time for Beer Week too, and it's worth hunting down.

SFBG: A new release from a well-established local brewery you're excited about?

DM: There are a handful of interesting collaborations among established breweries timed for Beer Week releases, but the one I am most excited about is the SF Strong Ale event that all members of the SF Brewers Guild collaborated on (and which was brewed at Speakeasy). It will debut at the opening celebration and then will be available in a very limited draft release around San Francisco (including at all Guild brewpubs).

SFBG: A food-beer pairing event you think is a can't-miss?

DM: The creativity now happening in the world of beer dinners is something to behold. To me, the range of pairing dinners throughout Beer Week is one of its most impressive strengths. But some pairings are just so perfect as to be timeless -- they're less about being creative and more about flavors that need no help fitting together. A personal favorite is oysters and beer, particularly oysters and certain kinds of stout (especially dry stouts). We go a step further at Magnolia with an oyster stout we make using Hog Island Sweetwater oysters in the beer. The effect is subtle, and maybe it is gilding the lily, but a few freshly-shucked Sweetwaters and a glass of that beer (Oysterhead Stout) is about as good as it gets. We'll be spending all day on Valentines Day shucking a variety of oysters and serving them with that stout and some other good oyster-pairing beers until the oysters run out. But, if I was free on February 13, you might find me at the Butcher and the Beer at the Beast and the Hare - it's a dinner with Ryan Farr and Almanac Beer.

SFBG: Your tip for making it through Beer Week -- how DO you do it?

DM: The well-timed vacation waiting on the other side of Beer Week helps maintain my sanity during Beer Week. I think many of us are already buried in Beer Week-related planning and work and the week hasn't even started yet. With multiple events to work everyday, some near, some far, it's a definitely a marathon and not a sprint. But it is also one of the premier celebrations of craft beer in the country and the sense of enthusiasm, camaraderie, and support from the beer community is more than enough to help us all get through the week. It's energizing, actually. But don't forget to hydrate.

SFBG: Has there been an increase in Bay Area craft breweries over the past year? What are the new ones?

DM: Here and everywhere. We started in 2011 with about 1,700 breweries in the country. We are creeping up on 2,000 a year later and there are something like 800 or so known to be in planning. It's safe to say craft beer is exploding right now, and consumers have never had more quality choices for their beer drinking. In the Bay Area, some notable highlights are Southern Pacific, Elevation 66, Dying Vines, Pacific Brewing Laboratories, and Heretic Brewing. But, there are plenty more on the way in 2012.

For a full list of SF Beer Week events, head over to


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