Beer Reviews

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Super Bowl Beer Showdown: Baltimore vs. San Francisco

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[Photos: Orr Shtuhl]

The Super Bowl brings out the competitive spirit in everyone, from wing eaters to barbecue poets. Indeed, we have no shortage of food features for the big game. But what about beer?

All four of the final teams this year hail from hallowed beer ground, so in the spirit of sport, we've pitted the Super Bowl cities in a brawl of the brews to see who would come out on top if the best beer town took home the trophy. We'll compare New York and New England later this week, but in the meantime let's take a look at the also-rans from the conference championships: Baltimore, home of the Ravens, and the 49ers' San Francisco.

San Francisco: Tradition at Bay

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Bill Walsh. Joe Montana. Jerry Rice. Anchor Brewing Company. In beer as in football, San Francisco boasts a long and storied tradition of blending innovation with block-and-tackle fundamentals...OK, I can't do this. No pained football symbolism, I swear.

Along with Chico, California, San Francisco is the cradle of craft beer in America. There, Anchor has been bottling its flagship Steam beer since 1971, and it holds up today: it's a dry, refreshing beer that opens with sourdough and finishes with pretzels. Anchor's portfolio expands in an English direction, with a pale ale called Liberty Ale that's maltier than most, and the warming Old Foghorn barleywine that might be the bottled essence of hearth. On the dark end of the spectrum, both Anchor Porter and the Christmas Ale lead with an anise note that for beer nerds is as much a trademark as the Steam. Fans of their button-down brewing style have seen them innovate with smart restraint lately—in the last two years, Anchor has added the Humming pale ale and Breckle's Brown to feature new hop varieties such as the juicy Nelson Sauvin and the supremely vogue Citra.

San Francisco is also home to renowned cannery 21st Amendment, which opened in 2000 as a brewpub in the South Park district. They've since grown to sell in 14 states (plus D.C.) on both coasts, in part thanks to a contract-brewing operation in Minnesota. They win points for San Francisco with creative, well-made seasonals like Allies Win the War!, an English strong ale brewed with dates. But most notable is their Back in Black IPA, a standout in the new genre that amps up hops, malts, and roastiness like a campfire s'more dragged through the pines.

Across town, Speakeasy Ales and Lagers also deals out hops with vigor, most recently with their new Butchertown Black Ale, which adds a welcome wisp of licorice to the mix. Their signature IPAs, Big Daddy and Double Daddy, are raw and full-frontal, but their West-Coast approach shines in Prohibition Ale, a hoppy amber that's rich with brown sugar and citrusy verve. With a recipe that dates back to 1997 (an eon ago, in craft beer years), it's a time capsule that showcases the hop-slinging philosophy and mish-mash of styles that was percolating through the West Coast in the 1990s beer scene.

Baltimore: Newer Than Natty

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Let's get one thing out of the way first: kitschy cute or not, Natty Boh is now owned by Pabst and brewed in North Carolina, so it's disqualified from this competition. If you're bummed Wisconsin's not featured here, talk to Aaron Rodgers.

But who needs adorable mascots when you've got a voluminous IPA like Heavy Seas Loose Cannon? In earlier days of good beer, when distribution was scarce and nerds would yearn to taste exalted IPAs such as AleSmith IPA and Bell's Two-Hearted Ale, drinkers in the Mid-Atlantic often overlooked this beer with equal citrusy wallop in their own backyard. The family brewery was founded in 1995 as Clipper City, and over the years they've gone through a couple transformations. Last year they created the requisite blackened version of their IPA, and just this weekend the brewery announced it will hold off on some older recipes to make room for a new batch of seasonals, including an imperial cream ale, a barrel-aged barleywine, and a tripel wit.

Perhaps more indicative of Baltimore's beer temperature is Stillwater Artisanal Ales, the one-man gypsy project of brewmaster Brian Strumke. He's a veteran homebrewer with a penchant for wild yeasts, wilder ingredients (hyssop, anyone?), and ludicrously high-concept labeling. And he's built a reputation with his flagship Stateside Saison, a New World take on farmhouse ale that rides a wave of pungent Nelson Sauvin hops. One sniff of this aromatic quaff and you'll see why the name sounds like "Sauvignon Blanc."

If you're serving pizza for the game, look for Stillwater Cellar Door, which will turn any pie into a white-tablecloth occasion. It's a Belgian-style witbier spiked with lemony hops and a breath of white sage that, stemware aside, was made to perk up a slice of margherita.

Strumke earns his "gypsy" title by churning out collaborations at manic speed, bouncing around Europe to brew one-off recipes with luminaries including Mikkeller, De Struise, Emelisse, and Hofbrouwerijke. But one of his finest cooperative efforts came from the heart of Baltimore, where he teamed up with stalwart brewpub The Brewer's Art. The result was D├ębutante, a saison with an herbal tickle and a spicy note of rye. As for The Brewer's Art, you can find a few of their Belgian-style ales in bottles around the area, but a visit to the brewpub is a must to try the greatest hits, like their 7 Beauties rye pale ale.

The Results

So who comes out on top in this consolation match? Both cities boast storied breweries and young innovators. A look to X factors also finds them evenly matched: both sport brilliantly talented brewpubs—and oddly enough, both are Anglophilic. San Francisco's Magnolia Pub & Brewery took both silver and bronze last year in the bitters category at the Great American Beer Festival. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Oliver Ales at the Pratt Street Ale House is led by studied English expat Stephen Jones. Both pubs crank out fantastic cask ale at fantastic rates, so that's a wash for this contest.

The tiebreaker has to be the recent news that 21st Amendment will brew their hoppy quencher Bitter American year-round. This beer is a tall glass of grapefruit and pine, fragrant and refreshing as you like, and yet weighs in at just 4.4% ABV. As someone who enjoys quaffing as much as I like plain old drinking, a flavorful beer with less alcohol than Bud is the perfect fit for a good football experience. It's no Lombardi Trophy, but this match between beer cities goes to San Francisco.

Disclosure: all beers but Stillwater's were provided as samples for review.

About the author: After serving for three years as the Washington City Paper's dedicated beer columnist, today Orr Shtuhl writes and drinks in indiscriminate order. You can follow him on Twitter at @beerspotter.

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