Why choosing Bay Area craft brews is good for the earth, the economy, and your palate. Plus: Light beer's plight
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.
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. We love Anchor's handcrafted brews, commitment to the community, and willingness to experiment with new ideas, including distilling gin and whiskey.
1705 Mariposa, SF. (415) 863-8350, www.anchorbrewing.com 
This pillar of the Bay Area craft brew scene has been building its reputation on balanced, drinkable options like Boont Amber since 1987. Other favorites include the nearly hopless Summer Solstice, the oh-so-hoppy Hop Ottin' IPA, and the Brother David line of abbey-style ales (named for Toronado owner David Keene). But we're particularly excited about the 2009 Estate Fresh Hop beer, produced with hops grown on brewery grounds (where, by the way, all water is taken from wells on the property and all beer is made in a facility that's 40 percent solar-powered).
17700 Hwy 253, Boonville. (707) 895-2337, www.avbc.com 
Beer drinkers looking for a truly local, truly independent brewery need look no further than this Sonoma County one-man operation. Well-respected brewer Brian Hunt established the tiny business in 1992 and still delivers his keg-only offerings like Death and Taxes black beer, Reality Czeck pils, and Homegrown Fresh Hop Ale himself. Hunt also has been growing a share of his hops onsite since 2003.
Santa Rosa. (707) 528-2537, www.moonlightbrewing.com 
One of the first craft breweries to appear on the public's radar, this Seattle-based company also has been operating out of its Berkeley brewery and alehouse since 1997. Until recently, Pyramid operated as a publicly-owned company; now it is part of the Independent Brewers Union. Under this arrangement, the brewery is owned by East Coast brewers Mad Hat but conducts its business as an autonomous unit. The company also has revamped its image, renaming classics like Pyramid Hefeweizen (now Haywire Hefeweizen) and Pyramid Apricot Ale (now Audacious Apricot Ale) and introducing a host of new offerings some only available at Pyramid brewpubs. But with locations in Sacramento, Walnut Creek, and Berkeley, that means plenty of access to exclusives like the nitrogenated Draught Pale Ale or the session beer Crystal Wheat Ale.
901 Gilman, Berk. (510) 527-9090, www.pyramidbrew.com 
Now based in Santa Rosa, the brewery most famous for its Pliny the Elder Double IPA used to be owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars. Vinnie Cilurzo and his partner bought the business in 2003, but have continued to combine aspects of both industries, including a line of beers that are aged in used wine barrels from local wineries. Look for tasting nights of this special line, nicknamed the "'Tion" beers, at pubs like Toronado.
725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa; (707) 545-BEER, www.russianriverbrewing.com 
The big news surrounding the Chico-based brewery that introduced much of America to Pale Ale is its upcoming Estate Harvest Ale, inspired by the winemaking of its Napa and Sonoma neighbors and made with hops and barley grown onsite. Also exciting? Two collaborations with Maryland-based brewery Dogfish Head Limb and Life, released on draft this month, and Life and Limb, due out in 24-oz bottles and limited draft in November.
1075 E. 20th St., Chico. (530) 893-3520, www.sierranevada.com 
Many beer drinkers gravitate to Speakeasy because of the distinctive, noir-feeling of its packaging and stay for the big, satisfying taste of classics like Big Daddy I.P.A. and Prohibition Ale. Though the Bayview-based brewery's offerings are available on tap and in the bottle all over the Bay Area, we suggest visiting a Firkin' Friday happy hour open house at the brewery from 4 to 9 p.m. every week.
1195 Evans Ave, SF. (415) 64-BEER-1, www.goodbeer.com 
This Berkeley brewery encompasses what's advantageous about imported and local beers. The only non-Austrian outlet for this 400-year-old recipe gets many of its ingredients from its sister company in Salzburg. But bottles, packaging, and, of course, the beer, all are made in the East Bay. What makes Trumer special is a process called "endosperm mashing," which means brewers separate the barley husks from the starchy endosperm during milling, then reintroduce them at the end of the process to highlight the warm, toasty flavor of the malt. Trumer also uses a process called krausening, a slow, secondary fermentation that helps build natural carbonation. (One reason for its signature glassware is to show off the tiny Champagne-like bubbles.)
1404 Fourth St., Berk. (510) 526-1160
This Prohibition-themed South Park brewery has been getting lots of attention lately for its canned craft beers Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer and Brew Free! Or Die IPA and for good reason. Though cans are the best way to keep beer fresh (since sunlight can't penetrate metal), convenient for carrying, allowed at locales where glass isn't, and (let's face it) good for shotgunning, the delivery method has long been associated with cheap, watery beer. But this stigma seems to be slowly eroding, thanks in no small part to forward-thinking breweries like 21st Amendment.
563 Second St., SF. (415) 369-0900, www.21st-amendment.com 
We realize that this list is only a tiny glimpse at the myriad breweries, alehouses, brewpubs, and better beer bars in and around the Bay Area. Indeed, Northwest Brewing News lists more than 100 such places between Bakersfield and Blue Lake and we're willing to bet there are many more. Check our Web site for information and extended interviews about breweries like Bear Republic, Shmaltz, Thirsty Bear, Triple Rock, and Magnolia, plus recommendations from beer experts at Toronado, City Beer, and Healthy Spirits.
Still think we're missing someone? Let us know.
Light beer's plight
I like to drink beers. Plural. I'm the guy the ad men were thinking of in that classic jingle, the one that goes "Shaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one." One summer a few years back, my friends and I polished off 1,000 cans of beer over a four-day weekend on Lake Shasta; there were only about 10 of us drinking. Do the math on that one, and you get a sense of my taste for the blessed amber fluid.
But that was then, and this is now. And today I have two kids who wake up at 6 a.m. and keep me on the go day and night; I'm not as young as I used to be; and I can't handle the intoxication the way I once did.
But I still drink beers, plural, every day, and I'm not about to give it up. What I've done is switched to light beer. Correction: "Light" is a bad word. Among serious drinkers, it's called "session beer."
It's a choice more and more people are making in this country beer with lower alcohol content is one of the fastest growing parts of the industry. But it presents a problem: how do you drink local (and high quality beer) when most of the craft breweries and brewpubs focus almost entirely on the heavy and the strong?
Quick definition here: light beer is generally promoted and advertised as having fewer calories than regular brew. But I could care less about beer making me fat (I can always give up food). What I'm talking about is what's known in the business as ABV; that's alcohol by volume. Typical American beer say, Budweiser runs about 5 percent. Typical craft brew say, Anchor Liberty Ale is about 6 percent. The more serious stuff is even stronger Lagunitas Maximum India Pale Ale, for example, clocks in at 7 percent.
Typical light beer say, Bud Light, at 4.2 percent ABV has almost 20 percent less alcohol than Bud, 30 percent less than Liberty Ale, and only about half as much as some of the more extreme brews.
And for those of us who would rather have four light beers than two Imperial Red Ales (and really in America, is that even a choice?), the craft brew pickings are fairly slim. Especially in Northern California.
"You are living in the land of the IPA," Bill Manley, communications coordinator for Sierra Nevada brewery, which makes no lighter beers, told me.
It's not as if we're without choices. Anchor makes a Small Beer (with the leftovers from it's brutally strong Barleywine Ale) that comes in at about 3.5 percent ABV, but you almost never see it in stores. The 21st Amendment brewpub makes an excellent Great American Bitter that meets the session-beer standard of less than 4.5 percent. Magnolia makes an English Mild, and there's Stone Levitation Ale (4.4 percent). But again: check out most liquor stores and none of those are on the shelf.
Across the country, that's starting to change. Lew Bryson, a beer writer and blogger in Pennsylvania, has started the Session Beer Project (sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com) to share information about full-flavored, high-quality brews that don't knock you silly after a bottle or two. "There are more people like us than most craft brewers would credit," Bryson told me.
The term "session beer" comes from England. By some accounts, it dates back to World War II when pubs were only open for short "sessions" so the workers could get back to the munitions plants in a relatively functional state. By Bryson's definition, a session beer has an ABV below 4.5 percent and doesn't overwhelm the party.
There are distinct advantages to lower-alcohol beers. "I was at a session brew festival two years ago and went through six pints in about two hours," he said. "I keep a Breathalyzer in my car, and when it was time to go home, I blew .02" well within the legal limit in every state in America.
A brewpub near Bryson's house on the outskirts of Philly sells a Belgian ale called Mirage with an ABV of just 2.9 percent. "I can have a couple of pints with lunch and it doesn't blow my entire afternoon," he said.
Yet the reluctance remains. "A lot of brewers, they hear low-alcohol and they think light beer and that's the enemy," Bryson said.
Mike Riley, marketing director at Anderson Valley Brewing that makes no beer with less than 5 percent ABV, added: "It's one of those stigmas that's gone on for a long time."
In fact, I could only find one craft brewer in the country that actually makes a "light" beer: Minhas Brewery in Monroe, Wis., which makes Huber Light and Minhas Light. "People were asking for it," Gary Olsen, the brewery manager told me. "Our first reaction was, why make something that doesn't taste like anything? But we found out you can make a very good lighter beer."
Yes, indeed. And when Anchor starts making (and marketing) Liberty Ale Light, I promise I'll give up Bud Light forever. (Tim Redmond)