Beer critic William Brand explains why the hoppin' Bay Area beer scene commands international respect
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"Half of Americans haven't tried decent beer," says William Brand, the Oakland Tribune's resident beer columnist and local brew expert. Back in the sixth grade, Nebraska native Brand was himself weaned on the likes of Budweiser, Hamm's, and Coors, wan beverages he now refers to as mere "alcohol vehicles" — brewed with rice and corn, cheaply made, and lacking any real taste. "That's not beer," he says, "that's just crap."
Brand encountered his first crap-free beer during a stint in the Navy, when he was stationed near Washington, DC. Friends took him out to a posh German restaurant and there, he recalls, he ordered a Wurzburger amber "in a very nice pilsner glass."
"I took one taste," he says, "and it was amazing. I never tasted anything like it. Until then, everything I ever tasted was awful."
He soon mail ordered a home-brewing kit from England and began his long journey to respected beer connoisseurship. Since 1989, his Oakland Tribune column, "What's on Tap," has been steering beer fanatics toward the finest local suds. We asked him to share some Bay Area brewery history and talk about some of his local favorites.
SFBG You used to brew your own beer. Why did you stop?
BRAND I moved to California in 1970. I had one glass of Anchor Steam and realized I didn't have to brew any beer. And of course then the whole beer-making revolution happened. It really all started in the Bay Area, with the Portland area right behind it. In the United States, home brewing was made legal in ’78. Brewpubs became legal in California in ’81.
SFBG How has the American microbrew movement evolved since then?
BRAND For a while it was all Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. But that's all ancient history. Young Americans traveled to Europe, discovered good beer, and started brewing it. Now there's about 1,300, 1,600 breweries in America. There's more beer — and more styles of beer — in America than in any other country in the world.
SFBG What distinguishes the Bay Area microbrew scene?
BRAND Well, you can't really say “the Bay Area." You have to say "Northern California." And it's a toss-up between Northern California and the Pacific Northwest for beer nirvana. In the US it's becoming like Germany or Belgium, where different people from different regions have their own styles. In the Pacific Northwest they go for dark and strong beers. In Northern California we're famous for extremely hoppy beers.
Beers are measured in international bitterness units — it's a scale that beers use. For comparison purposes, Budweiser is 13 IBUs; Stella is 30 IBUs. We have lots of beers that are 100 IBUs or more. It's a style that’s becoming known as double IPA [India Pale Ale].
SFBG With an eye toward both quality and adventurous weirdness, what are some of your favorite Bay Area beers?
BRAND There's one called Watermelon Wheat from 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. It's a blend of wheat and barley, and they actually put watermelon in it, which really comes through. You'd think it would be ghastly beer, but it's quite good. Another of my favorites comes from Drake's Brewing in San Leandro, and it's called Papa Denogginizer. It's hugely hops — and somewhere around 11 percent alcohol. Then go to Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur, and the guy there is making barrel-aged beers. With barrel-aged beers, you brew your beer, you ferment your beer, then you put it in a whiskey barrel or a wine barrel. Going over to Magnolia Brewery on Haight Street, the brewer makes a mild beer in a high hop area. And he brews cask ales — real ale — in the English style.
SFBG If you really want to impress, say, a Belgian — which local beers would you introduce them to?
BRAND Actually, the ones that are really interested in what we're doing in the US are the Belgians. They're really smart, and they're watching us, and there are a few Belgian breweries that are making American-style beer. Most of the Belgians that come over here are looking for something strong and hoppy. So I'd try and find them something like Old Yeltsin — brewed by HopTown Brewing Company in Pleasanton — or a barley wine. There's a bar and grill called Schooner's in Antioch that makes a barley wine. It's quite strong — around 10 or 11 percent — and they age it for a year or two or three, and it's astounding. So I'd go with our own styles. There are also some American breweries that are doing a Belgian style. In the Bay Area one place for that is Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa — they do stunning stuff.
SFBG So you might say that Europeans understand American beer.
BRAND There's a lot of respect in Europe for American beer makers today. And there's no animosity at all. The thing about beer is that people are never snobby. People only become beer snobs when they don't know what they're talking about — or when they're talking about crappy beer. SFBG
Want more brew-haha? Contact William Brand at email@example.com .
21st Amendment Brewery www.21st-amendment.com 
Drake's Brewing www.drinkdrakes.com 
Marin Brewing Company www.marinbrewing.com 
Magnolia Brewery www.magnoliapub.com 
HopTown Brewing Company www.hoptownbrewing.com 
Schooner's www.schoonersbrewery.com 
Russian River Brewing Company www.russianriverbrewing.com