San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
What’s up with local craft beers?
Pandemic local craft brews are all about cartooncovered, limitededition cans
The coolbeercan window display is one of the Bay Area’s overlooked pandemic trends.
You’ve seen it if you’ve waited in line outside Palm City in the Sunset, Fool’s Errand in NoPa or Stillwater in Marin County: an array of wildly colorful cylinders decked out in pastels, neons and cartoon drawings. The beers’ names are almost always puns, like Fish Don’t Krill My Vibe IPA. As you await your turn to order, you may find that staring at the vibrant cans has a hypnotic effect similar to looking into a candy store.
These window displays are a pandemic necessity, of course, while safety restrictions are still keeping most customers confined to outdoor spaces. But they’re also evidence of a more complex, and potentially more lasting, trend in the Bay Area craft beer scene. Often, the various beers in these window displays come from just a small handful of breweries, like Santa Cruz’s Humble Sea and Sante Adairius, Monterey’s Alvarado Street and San Francisco’s Cellarmaker — breweries that have found a deeply loyal audience for their aggressive flavors and constant output of limitededition brews. And their explosive popularity is intricately tied to their cans’ suddenly ubiquitous visual presence throughout the Bay Area.
“We can’t keep these beers on the shelf,” says Palm City coowner Dennis Cantwell. His customers are savvy: “People in the neighborhood know which days of the week we get drops from Humble Sea or Alvarado Street.”
Just as paradigms have shifted for California craft breweries in recent years, they’ve also shifted for craft beer bars. It used to be that a bar would carry a wide selection of beers, each one from a different brewery. Increasingly, though, new bars are offering a more curated selection from only a small roster of usual suspects.
As a result, it’s become more competitive for beer bars to get their hands on the indemand brews. The waiting list for bars and restaurants that want to buy from Humble Sea is more than a year long, says coowner Frank Krueger. Bar owners drive to Santa Cruz every week from as far away as Tahoe to pick up their coveted allocations.
In the past, people were fans of specific beers: You were a Blind Pig IPA drinker or a Lagunitas IPA person, returning over and over again to the same exact product. These days, people identify instead as a fan of a producer, open to trying whatever they’ve just released.
That genre of fandom was born partly from the flavoroftheweek model that these breweries follow. Humble Sea, Alvarado Street and Cellarmaker may debut three or four new beers weekly — most of them oneoffs, never to be brewed again. Beer geeks have become used to that constant novelty now, and the mystery that this model engenders — what crazy concoction of Mosaic and Galaxy hops will the brewers dream up this week? — has stoked a lot of the hype.
A far cry from the person who only ever drank Lagunitas IPA, now customers only want beers they’ve never had before, says Beth Wathen, who coowns City Beer Store with her husband, Craig. “They’re always just asking for the newest, the hottest, the freshest.”
Perhaps the brewery that embodies these trends most saliently is Humble Sea, which has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity since the pandemic began.
Part of it was fortuitous timing, says Krueger, who cofounded the Santa Cruz brewery with two friends in 2015: Right before COVID hit, the brewery happened to add a lot of new infrastructure that allowed them to essentially double production, reaching about 6,500 barrels over the course of last year. Not only could they brew more beer, but an expanded canning line meant that they could can it once a week instead of once a month.
Then, as soon as the shutdown began last year, putting beer into cans was a lot more appealing than putting it into kegs. That turned out to make a big difference. Though limitededition beers have been a part of the Bay Area landscape for years — they’ve been the defining characteristic of breweries like Cellarmaker and Fieldwork since their beginnings — they were primarily a phenomenon of kegs, largely reserved for a brewery’s own taproom. Now, however, breweries could no longer sell draft beer through their own taprooms, and many of the bars and restaurants that normally serve draft beer were doing only takeout.
Tap handles were out; fresh cans were in.
But even if the reliance on cans was born of pandemic necessity, it’s now become a major selling point for a certain discerning set of Bay Area beer drinkers, who seek out the new Humble Sea and Alvarado Street beers as much for their wacky labels as for the liquid inside. Krueger, an artist, is in charge of the branding for all of the Humble Sea beers, and, unsurprisingly, he says it’s a big effort to produce several original, strikinglooking cans every week.
The company has a Slack channel where anyone can offer up an idea for a new beer name, and Krueger says they get a constant stream of informal submissions from outsiders. Most Humble Sea beer names are ocean or surfing puns (“Mrs. Troutfire,” “Beach, Please”), often with a nostalgic popculture reference thrown in (“The Shrimpsons,” “Gnarfield”).
The labels tend to feature manic handdrawn cartoons in muted colors — the aesthetic equivalent of the powerful, bold flavors they contain. “Right now, huge, extreme flavors are what everyone seems to want,” Krueger says.
The most indemand style across the board is the hazy IPA. Hazys are a style that originated in New England; their murky appearance and tropical, juicy flavors are a counterpoint to the West Coast IPA style, which tends to be crystalclear, leaning more toward dank, herbal and bitter notes. On a given week, Humble Sea — which prefers to call the style “foggy IPA” — might release multiple different beers in this genre, each distinguished by a unique selection of hops, for example, or a different malt bill.
Other fullflavored beer styles continue to thrive, too, like Alvarado Street’s smoothie ales (one recent release is peanutbutterandjellyflavored) and Cellarmaker’s dank IPA series, where puns abound: Dank Williams, Highway to the Danker Zone, Tiny Dankster.
Even if a lot of Bay Area beer geeks’ mental bandwidth is being spent on the small roster of Humble Sea, Alvarado Street and Cellarmaker, however, there’s a whole ecosystem of local craft beer that tends to attract less attention but is more compelling than ever. John Dampeer of Fool’s Errand points to Ghost Town and Original Pattern, two relatively new Oakland breweries, as well as San Francisco’s Laughing Monk, as some of the rising stars in Bay Area craft beer.
That’s a good thing, because the coolbeercan window display could turn out to be a fleeting phenomenon. It’s not clear to Craig Wathen, the City Beer Store coowner, whether they’ll be able to keep up with their customers’ newly acquired thirst for these soughtafter cans forever.
As the pandemic ends, breweries will undoubtedly resume kegging a lot of their output. When traffic picks up at their own taprooms, they may not be able to sell as much beer to bars in San Francisco as they have during the past year. In fact, Humble Sea is about to open two additional taprooms of its own, one in Felton, also in Santa Cruz County, and another in Pacifica.
“Will we still be able to even get all these beers six months from now?” Wathen says.