Love and San Francisco Beer Week

(Photo courtesy of San Francisco Beer Week)

(Photo courtesy of San Francisco Beer Week)

Another Valentine’s Day is upon us and, to tell the truth, after several decades of marriage a box of chocolate and a pretty card don’t mean as much to me as they once did. Unfortunately for Hugo, my brewing consultant husband, the things I value these days tend to come with a much larger price.

This tale of love starts at a local pub back in early January, when we ended up in a great conversation with a devoted craft beer fan about San Francisco Beer Week. Somehow, after six years in Monterey and with downtown San Francisco only 120 miles away, we’d never made it up for the 10-day affair sponsored by the San Francisco Brewers Guild and now in its ninth year. Currently underway through February 19, this year’s fest is a grand celebration with over 900 events at breweries, pubs, bottle shops and anywhere craft beer is found all over the Bay Area. “If you can only make it to one thing,” the man enthused, “go to the gala.”

A lot of back and forth discussion ensued over the weekend—the money and time involved, the crowds, the traffic, the blah, blah, blah. Suffice it to say that by Sunday night, I had a gala ticket and a two-night hotel reservation in downtown San Francisco. By Monday at lunch, Hugo had relented and gotten his own ticket. If that’s not love, Tevye, what is?

The gala line 15 minutes before the doors opened at Pier 48, three buildings away on the right

Gala line ahead of us 15 minutes before the doors opened at Pier 48, three buildings away on the right

Last Friday, the gala lived up to all its hype. We arrived at 5:40 and found a line so long it took us five minutes to get to the end. A steady stream of people walked past us, growing the line by the second. When the doors parted at 6:00 and the human river began to flow, our IDs had already been checked, our hands stamped and our bracelets taped on. At 6:15, I barely had time to ask the woman who scanned my ticket if she had any idea how many people had gone through. “Three thousand, so far.” And with that, we were inside the Promised Land of Pier 48. Never mind the couple thousand behind us.

Breweries were grouped by geographic location

Breweries grouped by geographic location

Imagine126 breweries spread over 80,000 square feet, each pouring multiple brews—and Russian River at the entrance. For two weeks each February, thousands of beer lovers from all over the world travel to the famous Santa Rosa brewery for a limit of three hours in the pub or three 10-ounce pours of Vinnie Cilurzo’s coveted Pliny the Younger, contributing five million dollars to the town’s economy along the way. Last year, I arrived at 6:30 a.m. and waited 5½ hours on the first day of the Younger release. I’d already planned to find the RR booth first thing at the gala and stand in the much shorter line as long as it took to get my 4-ounce pour of 2017 Younger before it ran out.

I reached the head of the line in under 10 minutes. “What? No Younger?” I asked incredulously. “That’s the line on the other side,” the server answered while she poured a sample of Cilurzo’s slightly less famous Supplication. The Younger line, we discovered, wound around and out a side door way down a chilly open-air area. Twenty minutes later, we had scored 2017 Younger, and I’ll say that I preferred the 2016. The array of hops seemed more balanced while I thought this year’s tilted more towards the piney/dank hops that so many West Coast craft beer fans apparently can’t get enough of. Back at the front of the booth, a perky blond from Brew TV was interviewing Natalie Cilurzo, who manages Russian Rivers’ affairs and restaurant while her husband brews the beer.

(L) Brew TV interviewer and (R) Natalie Cilurzo

(L) Brew TV interviewer and (R) Natalie Cilurzo

The rest of the night was phenomenal. I can’t say how many beers I tried. As usual at beer fests, I asked for half pours (two ounces) and often dumped the remains after a few sips. It seemed like almost every brewery was offering triple/imperial IPAs with a gazillion IBUs. I’m a hop lover, but those beers eventually send my palate into fatigue. I did go back to Sacramento’s Rubicon booth for a second serving of their excellent Czech Pilsner, for which my hop-weary taste buds were most grateful. And I was bummed when we reached the empty Rare Barrel booth an hour and fifteen minutes after the gala started and found a sign saying they were out of beer. It was fun greeting J.C. Hill and his crew from our neighborhood pub, Alvarado Street Brewery, and the Gencos, owners of Discretion Brewing up the road in Soquel. My one suggestion for the Guild would be to add more food booths. Options were a bit limited and at points, the pizza and burger lines nearly rivaled the Younger line.

Russian River booth at 9:15

Russian River booth at 9:15

With noise and serious partiers still surging around us at 9:15, I declared to Hugo that I couldn’t drink anymore beer. The crowds thinned as we made our way to the entrance-turned-exit, due in part to the now nearly deserted Russian River booth.

Out on the street in the cool night air, I leaned into my guy. “Thanks for coming. The evening wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun without you.”


To Hugo: Thanks for the best Valentine’s gift in 39 years of marriage, Big Guy!

With my guy at the 2017 San Francisco Beer Week Gala

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