The San Francisco area has been stoking the flame of America's craft beer movement since at least the 1970s. It seems that the city now has a brewery or craft beer bar on every corner, and new beer spots are springing up weekly in Oakland and Berkeley. But if you're visiting the Bay area and have limited time, you might be wondering which spots in this craft beer mecca are truly destination-worthy.
Here is your list of true beer essentials in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley: the bars, restaurants, and breweries that curate the most epic beer menus, employ staff who bleed amber, and take the extra step with great food pairings or an ambience that makes you feel like you just warped to Brussels. If you're a believer in beer, let me take you on a pilgrimage to the Bay Area's Temples of Brew, both venerable and new.
Mikkeller Bar SF
You'll need to arrive early to get a good spot at this bar. Mikkeller Bar SF is a collaboration by famed gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Bay Area beer bar guru Chuck Stilphen. The excellent (and meaty) menu comes from chef Michael O'Brian, who was snatched away from Washington DC's Churchkey. After scoping out the 42-beer tap list and speaking with the knowledgeable bartenders you'll know this special place gives beer every drop of the reverence it deserves. You'll find loads of rare offerings at Mikkeller, from Dutch and Scandinavian sours to local cask ales. By the bottle, you'll see crazy-unusual offerings like multiple vintages of Cantillon Lou Pepe Gueuze. You'll pay top dollar to drink here, but these beers are worth every penny.
The Monk's Kettle
Keep your elbows tight at your sides when you visit this excellent Mission District bar—you'll be surrounded by other beer lovers on every side. The 24 taps at Monk's pour an excellently curated selection of Belgian styles and the best local brews, including options you'll rarely see elsewhere. Keep an eye out for special releases from the likes of De Struise, Russian River, and North Coast. The enormous bottle list features vintage brews—if you haven't ever tried bottle-aged beers, check 'em out. We recommend the burger while you're at it. Since Monk's gets crowded at night, we especially love it during the quiet daytime hours.
City Beer Store
Over the past eight years, this SOMA destination has gone from a tiny downstairs bottle shop with a couple taps to a full-on beer basilica. Check out the chalkboard for a selection of beer on tap that you've probably never had before, but if that's not enough, chose something from the hundreds of bottles chilling in the fridges and pay an extra couple bucks to open it, or just take it home for later.
The City Beer bartender crew can always talk intelligently about what's on tap, and there's a special fridge of super rare vintage and hard-to-get brews behind the counter that can be purchased for on-premise consumption only. Not many bars or shops out there have the connections to have anniversary beers brewed for them by the likes of Cascade, The Bruery, Marin, and FiftyFifty—and City Beer seems to get access to brews that other folks can't. New beers from all around the West coast are often released at City Beer Store; keep an eye on their Twitter account to find out what's happening.
Cellarmaker Brewing Company
Just a block away from City Beer, Cellarmaker opened its doors on Howard Street in November of 2013. They've come out of the gate very strong, using a lot of experimental hop varieties and making delicious pale ales and IPAs, only available on tap. The tasting room is small but comfortable, with twelve taps serving Cellarmaker beers, and there's typically a food truck parked out front. The Cellarmaker team is constantly working on new brews rather than repeating old ones, so every time you stop by, you're likely to get a different taste. Beers are available in 5-ounce tasters if you want to taste your way through the lineup, and you can also take a growler of your favorite beer home.
Hog's Apothecary in Oakland breaks from the norm by featuring a lineup of 33 rotating taps pouring beer sourced directly from small local breweries (rather than through a distributor). You'll likely see up-and-comers and nearby breweries you haven't seen elsewhere, so a visit to Hog's is a great way to get the pulse of the local brewing scene. The beer program is curated by Certified Cicerone Sayre Piotrkowski, who was seen previously at spots like St. Vincent and The Monk's Kettle. There's a full menu of gastropub fare and very knowledgeable staff—the communal tables and big walls of windows make it a bit like a German beer hall, but with a nice relaxed Bay area vibe.
The Trappist was Chuck Stilphen's first great contribution to the Bay Area beer scene. It's in Oakland, but when you enter this bar, you feel like you just stepped through a portal straight into Brussels. The bar is paneled with carved woodwork and the beer is poured through chrome rotary taps. This place is all about respect for beer, offering an opportunity to explore Scandinavian, Dutch, and Belgian styles along with local options. Snacks available include the 'Green Eggs and Eggs': boiled eggs with wasabi tobiko, Japanese mayonnaise, and habanero oil. (You'll also find charcuterie including Mikkeller Bar bratwurst and pastrami.) There's a front and back bar in separate rooms, plus outdoor seating.
The Rare Barrel
If you're into sour and funky beer, get yourself to the taproom of Berkeley's Rare Barrel. Founders Jay Goodwin and Alex Wallash have been aging beer on site for a year. The tap room has a sleek, modern vibe, and the beers have been really impressive so far. Hits have included All Systems Go, a Sightglass coffee-infused brew, and Shadows of their Eyes, a fruity dark sour beer aged in oak. Many of their beers are one-offs that you can only taste on site. Hours are limited (currently Friday and Saturday only), check online before you go.
This Haight Street bar has offered great beer in San Francisco since 1987—you really should visit this essential part of Bay Area craft beer history. Proprietor Dave Keene was into craft beer waaaaay before it was cool and represents part of a very influential early vanguard of SF beer geeks. In the spirit of being old and crotchety, the Toronado pub is something of a dive and the bartenders have attitude to spare, but that's part of what regulars love about it. Order like you mean it and be prepared to pay cash. The taplist is always solid, and you'll find special anniversary collaborations made with big shot breweries like Lost Abbey. Strong beer fans will want to stop by during the epic annual Barleywine Festival.
Already visited all of the stellar options above? If you're looking for even more recommendations in San Francisco and the East Bay, read on.
In San Francisco you'll find a great beer at Abbot's Cellar, Pi Bar, Rosamunde's, Cerveceria de MateVeza, Zeitgeist, La Trappe Cafe, the Speakeasy taproom, Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery, Church Key, St. Vincent Tavern, Amsterdam Cafe, Shotwell's, Fat Angel, The Beer Hall, and The Sycamore, to name a few.
If you're in Oakland, check out Brotzeit Lokal, Faction Brewing's taproom and patio, Drake's Brewing Barrel House, or Beer Revolution.
In Berkeley, head to the Triple Rock Brewery and Ale House or the new Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room.
About the Author: Chris Cohen is a Certified Cicerone, beer consultant, and the founder and President of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild. He's also the author of the Beer Scholar Study Guide for the Cicerone Exams.