You can hear the party at Harmonic Brewing from a block away.
Zoned for industry, the southernmost stretch of the Dogpatch is ordinarily pretty quiet by 7 p.m., the sound of Veritable Vegetable vans trundling over the neighborhood's uneven pavement the only noise. But tonight, a DJ is playing the Beastie Boys' “Brass Monkey” through a brewery wide open to the world, children are playing with toy trucks on the stairs, and crowds are lined up on the sidewalk for Casey's Pizza.
It's lively because it's Meet the Brewer Night, a way for the San Francisco Brewers Guild (SFBG) to introduce its new members to one another and to the general public. Some 70 people are clamoring for Harmonic's Rye Old-Fashioned Pale Ale and Skydog IPA, and most of them won't all be staying long before heading to the next party.
That's because in addition to facilitating handshakes and clinked pint glasses between brewers, SFBG has begun running free shuttles among three or four breweries one Wednesday night every month, allowing people to hit multiple destinations in outlying neighborhoods ill-served by Muni or Lyft, and learn a thing or two about the city's exploding craft-beer industry.
“San Francisco is one of the best craft-beer places in the world,” says the guild's executive director, Joanne Marino. “So we have to make sure the world knows that.”
Using a simpler system in San Diego as a model, SFBG launched the shuttle program a few months ago, with three to five different destinations every month. Tonight's itinerary covers the Greater Dogpatch, with stops at Harmonic, Smokestack at Magnolia Brewery, Triple Voodoo Brewery, Anchor at the Yard — in Mission Rock, not far from the company's main brewery in Potrero Hill — and Speakeasy Ales and Lagers in the Bayview. As the Guild's membership has grown — Marino estimates there may be upwards of 35 members by year's end, from barely a dozen not long ago — it became crucial to give craft-beer fans a hand navigating this increasingly dense ecosystem.
“All these breweries have different personalities,” Marino says. “We're reviving the community brewery, and the shuttle is about helping people realize that they've got — in their own backyards — all this great craftsmanship.”
Jon Verna, Harmonic's head of operations, regards the shuttles as an unalloyed good. Beforehand, Meet the Brewer Night was mostly “the brewers getting drunk with each other — which is fun and all, but we all kind of know each other.”
He's not worried that the brewery shuttle is going to devolve into a messy disaster of people binge-drinking until they pass out, either.
“It's definitely a good time, but Wednesday is not a big drinking night,” he says. “The craft-beer crowd is generally not looking to get wasted. It's more appreciation — and keeping liquor out of the equation keeps things in check.”
The shuttles themselves are kind of a hoot. The company the guild contracted has one 22-seat bus with a stripper pole, plus smaller 14- and nine-seat vehicles, and riders are liberal with the high-fives. As Marino and I get into the littlest van on our way from Harmonic to Smokestack, Chaka Demus & Pliers' 1993 song “Murder She Wrote” is playing, and an amiable group of Australian women is discussing whether or not their friend is on a different shuttle. (They don't reach a firm conclusion.)
Once we're ensconced with our Proving Ground IPAs at Magnolia, I ask Marino about how big SFBG might get. Surely, there's a limit to how many craft breweries San Francisco can hold.
“I would be thinking that way,” she says, “but I'm seeing that all these places are trying to meet demand. It's hard to know what the max is, because of population growth plus exponential sharing of interest — turning people on that used to drink Bud Light. There's a lot of different variables growing at once.”
“Will craft beer hit a ceiling someday?” she adds. “Yeah. But is it tomorrow? I don't think it's tomorrow. I don't even know if Portland's done yet.”
The long leases that breweries sign are also indicative of their long-term survival. Suddenly, it's time to pound the rest of our beers, because the shuttle is revving up. Marino approves of my ability to down half a pint in order to stick to a schedule, and we board the bus with the stripper pole. It's half-full of dudes already, and becomes more gender-balanced (and standing-room only) after we stop at Harmonic. The driver gets out for a bathroom break, prudently taking the keys out of the ignition before he goes.
“Aloha!” someone shouts as we clamber out at Speakeasy. “Welcome to Belgium!”
Clearly, the May shuttle drew solid attendance. June's lineup will go through the Haight and the Sunset, stopping at Social Kitchen & Brewery, Black Sands Brewing, Magnolia Brewpub, and Barrel Head Brewhouse. Sunset Reservoir is the fifth participant, and the host of Meet the Brewers. Marino is very excited for that one, calling the Sunset an “underserved neighborhood” with respect to craft beer, and one whose fledgling community of brewers feels a lot of local pride.
“Black Sands, Local, Sunset — they want it to be about their backyard first,” she says. “They're happy to grow, and sell beer, but they want people to feel comfortable and hang out and enjoy themselves.”