I never know what to make of the specter of medieval monks who brewed beer. It's easy to conjure up images of jolly, self-contained communities of men whistling as they worked or clinking steins at communal tables under a crucifix. Then again, life was probably pure drudgery, and selling beer to local burghers might have kept them alive through lean years as the plague raged outside the monastery walls.
In any case, we who live in the distant future don't have to worry about pleasing a humorless abbot or drinking low-alcohol beer because the freshwater supply is questionable; we can just drink good beer. The San Francisco craft-brewing world is growing almost too rapidly for the Brewers Guild to keep up, and Laughing Monk Brewing, whose tap room has been open for a few months now, is but one of many to burst on the scene this year. It was not born from Trappists or Cistercians, but from two guys named Andrew Casteel and Aaron Hicks, who got into homebrewing and never looked back — until they had a facility capable of churning out 6,000 barrels of beer.
And it's a welcoming spot, where the bartender who clocks out at 5 p.m. might continue to offer patrons helpful recommendations from a few stools away. The wifi password — which I won't reveal, although it's benevolent propaganda for the suds-swilling cause — is right there on the chalkboard, which is always a nice touch. It's open to the sidewalk, the restrooms are spotless, and there's a full-wall mural of a tree in autumn that's big enough to keep the space, which is as industrial as you might expect, from feeling like the employee cafeteria in a power plant like so many brewery taprooms do.
As a sort of Californian-Belgian hybrid, Laughing Monk's brews aren't beholden to any one particular style, and the three-pour-for-$8 sampler trio is definitely the best way of exploring things, 'cause it's fun to go spelunking among the joint's dozen or so taps (with one devoted to a guest brewery, currently Standard Deviant's Pale Ale). The American Blonde has strong notes of hoppy cannabis, while the low-ABV Pink Boots Gose softens its salty edge with a refreshing citrus flavor. There's an unmistakable gulf in the bitterness department between the mellow IPA (7 percent ABV) and the Double IPA (9.5 percent), which is shrewd. (Pair the latter with a pretzel.) There's popcorn, bourbon pecans, butter cookies, and kettle chips, along with two $6 sandwiches on Fox & Lion bread. And of course, the obligatory growlers are available, at $11-$16 for 32 ounces.
Having just released Bayview Gold — a sessionable golden ale made with chamomile that's sourced from nearby community gardens — they're already on to the next one. A note on the chalkboard solicits possible names for the forthcoming Belgian wheat with mandarin, and since the leading contenders seem to be mostly in-jokes suggested by drunk people, further feedback would probably be appreciated before the taps turn on next week. In the meantime, there will be a Burning Man “Pre-Compression” party with the Flaming Lotus Girls as part of the SPARC Festival on Saturday, July 9 — with discounted tickets for people who live in the neighborhood — and release parties every Thursday through the end of the month (for the possibly unnamed Belgian wheat, a Summer Willow IPA, and a barrel-aged beer).
The tricky part is getting there. Without wading too deeply into the distasteful politics of the T light-rail line, it took 50 minutes for me and a friend to get there from Powell Station at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Luckily, although Laughing Monk is about a dozen blocks south of the Bayview's livelier commercial core, it's right next door to Seven Stills Distillery, the maker of whiskey, vodka, and bitters whose grand opening is less than two weeks away. In other words, you can feel the neighborhood forming already. The Brewers Guild runs a free, well-coordinated monthly shuttle to expose beer drinkers to new, exciting microbreweries, many of which are in industrial neighborhoods like the Bayview or Dogpatch. But it's nice to see a situation for the inebriation community where you don't even need the bus to get from A to B. Who's laughing now?