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All professional brewers can trace their roots back to a common hobby — homebrewing. We know what you're thinking: All homebrewers are sweaty dudes with beards. Au contraire. As the DIY foodie movement swelled over the last year, urban homebrewing culture has been widely embraced. Case in point: For this year's White House Super Bowl Party, President Barack Obama requested a homebrewed honey ale from his chef. Homebrewing, however, doesn't require any special skillset beyond an arm for stirring, a curious relationship with yeast, and a sixth-grade reading level. The hobby is more about creativity and passion than about scientific knowledge, and numerous underground Bay Area operations have opened their doors to prove that Joe and Jill Sixpack can make great beer and even turn their passion into a profession.
Two trends last year provided a window into the birth of a craft brewery: nanobrewing and Gypsy brewing. A nanobrewery is essentially a smaller version of a microbrewery. These grassroots operations produce beer in small batches, often on systems that resemble advanced homebrewing setups. Think of them as the farm league of craft brewing.
Luckily for us, many nanobreweries hold open houses to showcase their products, get feedback, and generate buzz (while giving you a buzz). Federal licensing and taxation does not distinguish between nanobreweries and microbreweries, so many unlicensed nanos give away their brews or accept donations while they test the waters.
Perhaps the best-known San Francisco nanobrewery is Noe Valley's Elizabeth Street Brewing (798 Elizabeth at Douglass, 244-5496, www.elizabethstreetbrewery.com). The neighborhood fixture is run out of a Noe Valley home that was featured on the home renovation TV show While You Were Out (and naturally remodeled as a "brewpub in planning"). In addition to acting as a testing ground and incubator for the impending licensed business, the nanobrewery serves to build bridges within the local craft brewing community.
Elizabeth Street's appropriately named Richard Brewer-Hay was invited to create a collaborative brew with established San Francisco Brewers Guild member 21st Amendment Brewing (563 Second St. at Bryant), 369-0900, www.21st-amendment.com). Their Imperial Jack was featured during 21A and Magnolia Brewpub's annual Strong Beer Month, and was awarded a gold medal at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Not too shabby for a brewer who hasn't even quit his day job.
Another nanobrewery on the rise is SOMA's Pacific Brewing Laboratories (214 Clara at Fifth St., www.pacbrewlab.blogspot.com). Open to the public every other Thursday, the brewery feels like a speakeasy run by a high school science teacher. If you're excited by beakers and tubing, this may be your happy place. Mad scientists Bryan Hermannsson and Patrick M. Horn brew small batches and share the fruits of their labor with interested friends and strangers who are welcome to subsidize the brewing habit via donation. They recently poured their IPA, Squid Ink Black IPA, and Hibiscus Saison at the Bay Area's first Nanobrewery Festival during S.F. Beer Week. The festival also showcased Elizabeth Street Brewery and seven other "breweries of tomorrow."
While the term "Gypsy brewing" might conjure images of Jack Sparrow hunched over a kettle, the name is derived from these brewers' nomadic tendencies. They take the traditional business start-up model and flip it on its head by renting equipment and time on established brewery systems instead of raising capital to create their own facilities. This isn't as easy as waltzing into Sierra Nevada and asking the staff to make a beer with your name on it. Gypsy brewers craft the recipes and sweat over the brew pot, just like any other brewers. The upside of this model is fewer sunk costs and more batch-to-batch creative flexibility.
Two local breweries taking this approach are Almanac Beer Co. and Highwater Brewing, both operating out of Drake's Brewing Company in San Leandro. Almanac, the brainchild of Damian Fagan and Jesse Friedman (of Beer & Nosh), release seasonal brews that are firmly rooted in the Bay Area's rich farming and culinary traditions. The duo's first beer, a Belgian-style golden ale aged in red wine barrels with local blackberries, previewed at S.F. Beer Week events to widespread praise. Steve Altimari, previously of Valley Brewing, is helming the Highwater Brewing operation. Altimari, whose beers regularly garner praise on a local and national level, released the first batches of his excellent IPA and Double IPA during Beer Week as well. Both breweries were represented at another inaugural beer week event, the Gypsy Beers from Near and Far festival at the Alembic.
Be sure to check out these nano and Gypsy brewers as their products become readily available — then gloat when you find yourself saying that you knew them before they were big shots.