Sunday, 22 May 2011

Boggle Goes West: Oakland & The East Bay 1

(So, a trip Stateside, my first in almost two years. I am making my first visit to the West Coast since the infamous November of 2008, when temperatures in California hit 90 degrees, causing forest fires and sunstroke in a de-hatted Matt Wickham from the Evening Star. I am staying with my friend Rap who lives over the bay from San Francisco in Oakland. This post is about my beery experiences there...)

Oaktown. San Francisco's obnoxious little sibling. Id to SF's ego. Oakland - where the dirt says hot and the label says not. A whole city with a chip on its shoulder. I've never seen so much spitting in the street. By adults. The home of the Raider Nation, channeling arseyness through its once-overachieving sports teams. Oaksterdam. Where going out for a smoke means something different, and can empty a bar...

Enuff. Enuff of this. Cross the seismically-unstable Bay Bridge from SF (they're having to build a new one), past the port and towards the slowly-gentrifying Downtown around Jack London Square and you're in Alameda County and the City of Oakland. This place is off the Bay Area tourist trail, but has become attractive to workers from over the Bay thanks to lower rents and good transport links. Slowly, neighbourhoods are becoming more socially mixed and new businesses are opening. And there's good beer and some interesting places to drink it.

Beer contacts have given me a rundown of good places to go for beer in Oakland, and further afield in the East Bay. Mr & Mrs Snake, friends who meet me at Rosamunde's in the Mission District in SF, pad out the list with some helpful insights, so I'm ready to head out.

My first afternoon in downtown Oakland, I take a wrong turn and end up at Pacific Coast Brewing Co. Mr Snake has warned me this place only brews beer from extract. I'm looking for Trappist, which, it turns out, is just along the block, but I want a pint, and they have guests. The place is busy, I assume from its proximity to the Oakland Convention Center. I get a seat at the bar, and look over the beer menu. You can almost chart the beginning of the second wave of craft brewing in the US by looking at the awards some of the beers have won at GABF. These dry up in the mid-90s, about the time when the industry shook out a lot of the over-optimistic or poor quality brewing businesses. They've been going for over 20 years here, ploughing their own furrow. The menu is your generic brewpub range with something called 'Cask'. Bizarrely, they seem to offer this as a style. I grin - I won't be drinking it, but I'd love to see the face of one of the Kevin's on perusing the bill of fare.

I have an RRBC Pliny The Elder and a slightly off-form Bear Republic Racer 5. The hairy kid behind the bar is puzzled by my overlooking the house beers, but it turns out he knows the people at Commonwealth Cafe & Public House, where I am to watch the Cup Final, so he's cool. I've been in town less than two hours and get the first guess at my accent, as a conventioneer having his dinner takes a stab at either Irish or Scots. Git aht ovvit!

Having got my bearings, I wander over to Trappist. I had a brief chat with Phil Lowry about Oakland before the trip. "Why go there?" he challenged, and in a way he has a point. I probably won't get anything here I couldn't get in London. That isn't why I'm going here, though. This is one of two tickerific venues in Oakland, a destination pub which appears able to lure punters across the Bay. Curiosity demands a visit...

I go in by the back bar room, a large, cool room with a Yooropean vibe. Plenty of affluent-looking people are sitting around sipping their imported Belgians and I notice there's also stuff from other scenes, including Mikeller. I'm drinking Moonlight Reality Czech, a local 4.8% pilsner. Brewer Brian Hunt was at The Rake a year or two back, and his beers are well-brewed, full of flavor and, unusually for a US brewer, hovering either side of 5%. Rap arrives and we head around to the narrow front bar. Much more of a city beer bar feel, and it doesn't get the sun. A very nice place, though.

From left: sign in Trappist back bar; back bar room; Peter Reid is world-famous?; door sign at Beer Revolution; Oakland Youth show out at Beer Revolution; Rap and Mr & Mrs Snake on roof terrace at Triple Rock Brewing

Next day, after a huge round trip taking in Marin Brewing and SF, I head for Beer Revolution, the other tickerific bar, with almost 50 taps of nano and craft deliciousness. There's a real hipster feel to the neighbourhood, but thankfully none of the ennui or snotty attitude you get in Williamsburg in NYC. Unbelievably, I am 'carded' as I go in.
Biker Door Dude: Can I see some ID?
Boggle: You're putting me on! I'm 50 next birthday.
BDD: I need to see some ID...
SB: I'm not carrying my passport. Can't you see my hair is grey?
(Dude peers at my shaven pate)
BDD: I can't tell, it's too short.
SB: I can show you my chest hair if you like... (make to lift tee shirt)
BDD (grinning): no, no! You can go in.
Later, I realise they card everybody if they don't know them. I get talking to some guys who used to have a band together. Circumstances mean they can have a reunion, so they're meeting for beers before heading off for a late-night jam session. In a way, it reminds me of Creme Brulee off the League of Gentlemen - the bass player is a pro, but wants to do something with his old band. Inside the bar it's crowded, but the bartenders are very efficient and friendly despite all the piercings and tattoos on display. A few friends had warned me there's a "we're not worthy" beer elitism vibe here, but I didn't pick it up. The clientele might put one in mind of the cantina scene in Star Wars, but they're out for a good beer, and this place sells it, from what I tried. Cool logo, too.

Luka's is a Jekyll-&-Hyde sort of place not far from where I'm staying. On Friday I'm heading back to get changed and get ready for a night out, and I badly need a restroom. Off the 19th St BART, and I get as far as Luka's before I crack. A large two roomed bar on a corner, the main area has loads of table seating through a long room, and a decent-size bar which is already pretty busy with late lunch diners and early drinkers. I get a seat and order a Racer 5. It's in top form here. The staff are friendly and it feels chilled, but later at night, this turns into a bit of a nightclub, with music and dancing in the back. They tell me if you fancy a beer at two in the morning, you can pop over here.

I sorted my trip out without thinking about the FA Cup Final. Being a Man City fan, usually it wouldn't matter, but this year we're at Wembley,so I need to find somewhere to watch it. The recommendation is Commonwealth Cafe & Pub, in a neighbourhood known locally as 'Pill Hill'. I'd checked before the trip and got back a vague confirmation, but luckily a regular is also a Blue, and he gets the owner, Roscoe, to open up. I'm there at ten to seven on Saturday morning, slightly suffering after a night out followed by an entire bottle of Captain Lawrence Nor'Easter winter warmer. Arrggh.

There are four people in the bar plus Ross Adair, the transplanted Glaswegian who co-owns the place. He's brewing up coffee and there's iced water. I'm grateful there's no early beer, but I'm soon dealing with caffeine jitters and sweaty palms as City conspire to frustrate their fans by making the game closer than it need have been. There are seven taplines and a couple of fridges full of mostly Scottish beers - Belhaven, Harviestoun, some BrewDog - but also Harvey's Elizabethan, Thornbridge Jaipur...

He's got keg Fuller's London Pride on, which a scouse expat called Tim decides to drink when the bar 'opens' at 10am. He knows good beer - indeed, in one of those small world moments, he once walked into the Evening Star in Brighton off the plane, to be confronted with Racer 5 on draught and bottles of Speakeasy Prohibition. As he relates his story ("the barman was just heading out here to stay with a mate in Oakland!") we tell him that Matt Wickham (for it is he) is a mutual friend, while that Speakeasy beer he drank would have been made by Mr Snake. The world of beer is smaller than we think. But we coat him off for drinking that Pride. The hairy kid from Pacific Coast wanders in 20 minutes from the end. He doesn't remember me.

I came back here for a spot of lunch before I flew home. The menu is based on UK cafe favourites, but with a twist. Excellent toasties, an interesting take on shepherds pie, and you can wash it down with some interesting local beers.

I asked Ross about getting BrewDog. He said his supply had been interrupted while they changed US distributors, so he wasn't sure if there was any supply problem generally. He had Hardcore at around $10 a bottle and Paradox at $15. He said the lower ABV's usually sold OK. He also said James Watt owes him a reply to an email, so if you're reading, James...

So, that was my Oakland experience. It's off the tourist trail, but that was fine by me.

Coming up: SF & Marin Brewing; The Rest of the East Bay; and Sonoma & Napa.


EyeChartBrew said...

Excellent write-up, as always Sir Londonporter.

I think you let Pacific Coast Brewing off a bit easy -- there's a very good reason why no one drinks the House Beers there. Shame too, since I used to call out this place by name as an excellent example of an Extract Brewpub. Alas, the `09 NHC in Oakland (at the hotel directly across the street from PCBC) fully displayed the wonkiness of Pacific Coast beers (both House and Guest beers).

Thankfully O-land has many other options now. And there's always BART to get from there to there.


Sid Boggle said...

Cheers Todd ;-) The convention guy sat next to me at the bar had 3 pints of the Gray Whale Pale Ale while I was in there. He asked me what I was drinking and looked boggle-eyed (no pun intended) when I explained about RRBC.

Pub Diaries said...

Just as I was thinking of starting to research my trip to San Fran later in the year and up pops this... Looking forward to the further run down.

rabidbarfly said...

You have to understand that with the general obesity in the states, you probably looked like a 14 year old girl! ;-p.