Whether you're unemployed, underemployed, or squirreling away your, ahem, nuts in terror of the post–American Empire Mad Max economapocalypse to come, these are hard times for beer lovers who like their pints out in public. You need cheap suds. Here's a guide to staying within your meager budget while enjoying an oat soda or 10 to help you swallow the bitter pill that is the Bay Area economy. And cheer up, you ol' bugger: it's beer o' clock!
Most bars have a happy hour, but when you're looking out for numero uno, you notice that some are happier than others. Even among budget-friendly Mission bars (like, I don't know, say, Mission Bar — 2695 Mission, SF. 415-647-2300), the happy hour at Elbo Room (647 Valencia, SF. 415-552-7788, www.elbo.com ) is generous, as far as duration goes. From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., you'll have plenty of opportunity to hit on a hipster hottie while sipping a Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat near the Ms. Pac-Man table top.
My blogger friend Jeff Diehl (spotsunknown.com) and I recently dove into North Beach, where we stumbled, literally, upon a real, cheap gem: International Sports Club (1000 Columbus, SF. 415-775-6036). Don't let the name scare you. This place is as divey as a clean, well-lit place gets, with an interesting mix of tourists and scruffy locals. Bartender-cousins Mi and Emily serve up the ultimate poor man's pour: tap drafts for $2.50, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays — decent drafts like Stella and Widmer.
But possibly the happiest hour(s) for the frugal sud-guzzler can be found at Bean Bag Café (601 Divisadero, SF. 414-563-3634), near the Panhandle. There are no beanbags, but there'd be room for none, as the clarion call of $1.92 pints of hefeweizen brings the thirsty hordes. If you're a bit work-shy at the moment, get there early and beat some of these beasts to the tap.
Obviously, nothing beats a deal with no strings attached. If you're a San Francisco beer lover and you don't know about Toronado (547 Haight, SF. 415-863-2276, www.toronado.com ), you're just doing it wrong. For a place so renowned, the big T's tap selection is diverse enough to accommodate the not-so-rich while avoiding the option of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I say that with the full knowledge that PBR has become something of a cultural touchstone in the city. Why PBR and not Hamm's or Oly? Who knows? I blame Blue Velvet. In any event, there's no shortage of hipster dives that will crack a can for you. (I see no real point of PBR on tap.) For my money, the best is Bender's (806 S. Van Ness, SF. 415-824-1800, www.bendersbar.com ). Not only will you find the obligatory $2 can of Frank Booth's favorite bev, but you'll also find my personal favorite canned option, local brewery 21st Amendment's Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, for a mere $2.50. Can't beat that with a stick, not to mention Bender's other assets, such as a tasty grill and a smoky patio.
I talk to beer freaks who have never taken a tour of the amazing Anchor Brewery (1705 Mariposa, SF. 415-863-8350, www.anchorbrewing.com ), in Potrero Hill, and all of a sudden it's like they're speaking another language. I just don't understand. I've been taking this tour since my first visit to the city back in 1992, and I still go at least once or twice a year. When I got laid off, my second act, after filing for unemployment benefits, was to book a tour at Anchor.
The good folks there recommend that you call two to three weeks in advance. But this is a small price to pay, and the only price. The tour is free, and if you love beer, it's like a guided tour of how God runs heaven (if heaven smells like Grape-Nuts). The coup de grâce is the unlimited tasting that ends your journey of discovery and sends you off in the middle of the day with a belly full of top-notch brew — and hopefully a fresh perspective on the simple pleasures of living in a beautiful city for drinking beer.
OTHER CHEAP BEER FAVES
The Bitter End 441 Clement, SF. (415) 221-9538.
Broken Record 1166 Geneva, SF. (415) 963-1713, www.brokenrecordsf.com .
Delirium 3139 16th St., SF. (415) 552-5525.
500 Club 500 Guerrero, SF. (415) 861-2500.
Greens Sports Bar 2239 Polk, SF. (415) 775-4287.
Horseshoe Tavern 2024 Chestnut, SF. (415) 346-1430, www.horseshoetavernsf.com .
The Page 298 Divisadero, SF. (415) 255-6101, www.thepagebar.com .
Thee Parkside 1600 17th St., SF. (415) 252-1330, www.theeparkside.com .
El Rio 3158 Mission, SF. (415) 282-3325, www.elriosf.com .