In March, San Francisco was hit with the news that the beloved Speakeasy Ales & Lagers was on the brink of bankruptcy. In a last-ditch attempt to save a business that had undergone a $7.5 million expansion just two years earlier — taking yearly production from 15,000 to 60,000 barrels — the purveyors behind classics like Prohibition Ale and Big Daddy IPA put the Hunters Point brewery up for sale.
Now, nine months after shuttering its taproom, Speakeasy is back in business under the guiding hand of East Bay native and beverage-distribution veteran Ces Butner. The brewery could hardly be in better hands.
“We saw the magic, that’s why [we bought it],” Butner, the former owner and CEO of Oakland’s Horizon Beverage Co. and a one-time Oakland mayoral candidate, tells SF Weekly. “It’s an S.F. icon. It’s a beautiful product.”
At Horizon, Butner distributed products ranging from big-name Anheuser-Busch beers to craft brands like Speakeasy.
“Our real distribution is where we’re going to bring the difference to Speakeasy,” he says. “Not just San Francisco, but all over the state. I know all the wholesalers all over the state.”
In buying Speakeasy, Butner also paid out all outstanding employee salaries the old owners couldn’t afford. An African-American, he says he’s proud to establish another Black-owned business in Hunters Point — and he’s begun hiring neighborhood residents to work at the brewery. He sparkles when talking about the renovations to the expanded taproom, namely that the bar was pushed back two feet to create a larger space with wood-lined walls. (It also happens to be just across the street from the printing press that cranks out this free rag every week.)
“We kinda cleaned it up a little bit,” Butner says with a big smile as a car can be heard peeling out past the 19-Polk bus stop on Evans Avenue.
Director of Brewing Operations Clay Jordan stayed with Speakeasy through the ownership change. He’s in command of the beers being poured out of the taproom’s new 17-line draft system. Among the current offerings are four new beers: the sessionable Speakeasy Dark Lager and a tart Speakeasy Saison, along with Holdout and Bootlegger’s Cut stouts.
“We want to try new and experimental beer,” Jordan says.
The Bootlegger’s Cut is an especially successful result of said experimentation. Speakeasy’s Syndicate Series Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout is “cut” with 20 percent of the Speakeasy Dark Lager, and the result in an approachable yet flavorful chocolatey stout at 7-percent ABV that doesn’t knock you over the head.
32-ounce Crowlers of any of those 17 beers are also available to take home. With new systems and processes installed in the already revamped brewery, the quality of the flagship and stalwart beers have added stability. (The Prohibition Ale currently coming out of the taps is as fresh and rock-solid as I’ve ever tasted. It has true balance.) But the essence of Speakeasy’s reincarnation can best be summed up by Jordan’s “true baby,” the smooth, roasty Holdout Stout.
“We started making it when Speakeasy’s future was uncertain. We needed a beer that was ready to go when doors opened and could also last the ups and downs of an uncertain timeline,” Jordan says. “And now, it symbolizes Speakeasy’s grittiness and resilience. Just like our neighborhood.”
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, 1195 Evans Ave., 415-642-3371 or goodbeer.com