S.F.’s Famous Beer Bar Has Two Women at the Helm

Women in craft beer are rare — but not at Mikkeller Bar.

Natalia Saarela (left) and Devon Virgo (right) run one of the busiest beer bars in San Francisco. Photo by Nuala Sawyer

Walk into Mikkeller Bar on any given night and chances are it’ll be fairly full of men. With limited-edition brews costing as much as $13 for a small pour, plus the bar’s proximity to Downtown, it’s become a popular after-work joint for those with a penchant for hops and a large enough bank account to support the habit. That, combined with the overall maleness of the craft-beer industry, means it’s usually packed with dudes.

But walk up to the bar, and it’s fairly likely you’ll find a woman. Half the staff — highly trained beer professionals who know their shit — are female. Rarer still, the entire place is run by two women, each of whom happens to be under the age of 35.

“I didn’t know what craft beer was when I started to like beer,” says Natalia Saarela, Mikkeller’s 31-year-old beer manager. “I didn’t have this conversation with anyone. I just liked beer, period. I had no idea that there was a scene, I had no idea there was a culture, I had no idea there was a conversation about men and women in beer at all.”

That gender divide is something she learned about as soon as she set foot behind a bar. Saarela’s career path in beer has been highly immersive; she’s toured breweries in Europe, and worked at Mikkeller & Friends and the original Mikkeller Bar in Victoriagrade, both in Copenhagen. Now, with 24-year-old General Manager Devon Virgo, she’s one half of a dream team.

Chuck Stilphen handed the duo the keys (so to speak) last August. Turnover had left the general manager position open, and Stilphen decided to switch things up. Instead of having one person hold down the job of hiring-and-firing, buying beer, training new employees, and maintaining the bar’s complicated tap system, he split the role into two, simultaneously promoting two current employees. Saarela would purchase beer for the 42 taps, a quarter of which change daily. Virgo would take care of the day-to-day, keeping the staff trained and up to speed on the constantly evolving menu. It was a strategic move, but also a rare one: Across San Francisco, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a craft beer bar led by even one woman, let alone two.

“There’s always going to be that recognition that some will not take my knowledge as seriously as I want them to,” says Virgo. “But we’re in direct contact with everyone in Copenhagen — Jacob [Alsing] and Mikkel [Borg Bjergsø] — and our owner, Chuck. We have all of these powerful successful businessmen telling us, ‘You’ve got this. We have the utmost confidence in you.’ Not only is it great to have women in beer, but to have men support women in beer, and be all about it.”

Saarela and Virgo jumped in head-first and quickly instituted some changes. They bought back braces to protect employees when they haul kegs, launched weekly meetings with their team of barbacks, and created a successful fundraiser for people displaced by the Camp Fire.

But this weekend, they’re faced with their biggest challenge yet: running their first-ever Beer Week.

To understand the complexity of managing seven days of hot events at Mikkeller Bar, you must first understand its tap system. Mikkeller has one of the only Flux Capacitors in the country, which Virgo describes as a “big crazy octopus-looking machine.” With it, Saarela can control the input of nitrogen and CO2 into each of the 42 beers that are piped upstairs. That, and the fact that Mikkeller has two coolers to serve beer at three different temperatures, sets it far ahead of the competition. It’s chemistry, and it’s delicate.

“With a German pilsner you’re always going to want to serve it at 40 degrees,” says Saarela. “You don’t want to serve a beer at the wrong temperature; it’ll affect the person’s experience of the beer. If you served a beer that’s supposed to be served at 40 degrees at 55 degrees — which some of our beers are served at — it would create a different sensory experience: aroma, mouthfeel, taste. You would get different flavors out of it, and a different perceived sense of bitterness.”

Because of this hyper-sensitivity to chemical balance and taste, Mikkeller has become a spot that brewers make a bee-line to in order to taste their own wares.

“Brewers want to come in and drink their beer at Mikkeller because they know it’s being served at the exact temperature it should be, it’s being stored the way it’s meant to be, and the lines are clean,” Virgo explains. “We clean our lines with water and a caustic push every single time we change a beer. It’s the cleanest, best gas-blended, perfect-temperature version of their beer that they made.”

Managing this draft system during a busy Beer Week is no small feat, but Virgo says the team is trained and ready to go, with extra staff on hand to manage the chaos. And it will be busy. Included in the week’s events is one long “sour beer weekend,” launching with one of the rarest beers in the world: a keg of Cantillon Fou Foune. It’s something Saarela says was bestowed upon them by “the beer gods.”

“When I buy beer every week I never see Cantillon on our menu of what I can order,” she says. “It is such a treat when someone who I’m buying beer from surprises us.”

When it’s tapped at noon on Saturday, Feb. 9, it will no doubt go fast — the keg holds only 80 glasses’ worth. But if you miss it, there’s plenty more to sample, as 30 of Mikkeller’s taps will be devoted to sour beers that weekend.

“When I first started serving beer seven years ago people were just starting to learn what sour beer was,” Saarela says, and that popularity continues today. “They’re sour and funky and awesome.”

The sour beer weekend is the bar’s Beer Week finale, but the festival also starts with a bang. On Saturday, Feb. 2, Ben Love, the head brewer at Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Company is taking over not only 10 of the bar’s taps but also its music. Love has an extensive funk and soul record collection, and pitched a DJ set to Saarela and Virgo almost as a joke when he visited the bar a few months ago. They hopped on it immediately.

“He wears a coat that looks like he’s in Game of Thrones,” Saarela says.

“Not only is it the coolest event we’ve ever done, but Natalia booked it as the first thing, months in advance,” Virgo says. “We were like, ‘Even if this is all we do, this is going to be amazing.’ ”

The Mikkeller duo are still in their first year of running the bar, but they tell SF Weekly they’re just scraping the surface of what is possible. They also feel that their gender — although rare in the industry — is a boon to the future of the bar they love.

“I read something the other day that said that women are 37 percent of craft beer consumers now,” says Virgo. “Whereas when it was started, it was below 10. We’re infiltrating! Women have such a chance to make everything better. To have women in the craft beer scene has given it a whole other dynamic that it didn’t have before. We’re very detail-oriented and focused, and that has helped us exponentially.”

Saarela agrees.

“We are here because we want to be here, because we care about beer and we care about Mikkeller,” she says. “This is the first bar I’ve worked at ever that, when we first opened five years ago, we were over 50-percent female staff. That was very purposeful when hiring happened. There was a while where that went away, but we’re back there now.”

Mikkeller Bar’s Sour Celebration Weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 9-10, with the tapping of Cantillon Fou Foune at noon on Feb. 9, 34 Mason St., mikkellerbar.com/sf

Read more from SF Weekly‘s Beer Week issue:

Beer and Food? Do They Go Well Together or Something?
Your guide to the best Beer x Food events at SF Beer Week 2019.

‘Patched Up: Magnolia Brewing Gets a New Spin
Magnolia Dogpatch is not the English-style pub you’re looking for, as brewer Dick Cantwell oversees a venerable operation in the middle of a major expansion and reformulation.

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