Once upon a time, when radio stations hadn’t yet consolidated to where every city played the same music as every other, beer was very local, too. It wasn’t quite a sepia-toned version of today’s emphasis on drinking quality ingredients brewed within a few miles of home — but workers carrying lunch pails would trudge in and out of a city’s breweries as they would at any other factory, cranking out bottles and cans to be distributed in a limited geographic area.
That image hails from well before our time, but that’s how I felt upon entering Old Kan Beer & Co., James Syhabout and Adam Lamoreaux’s casual brewpub in an industrial quadrant near the Oakland waterfront. Old Kan isn’t just a return to an earlier phase of human drinking evolution, though. Both principals have operated out of this same space before: Syhabout with The Dock, and later, Lamoreaux with Linden Street Brewing. (Since The Dock’s closure, it had been running as The Beer Shed.) So to start Old Kan, they didn’t need to switch it up much; they mostly needed to flick the switch.
“YOU’RE OK,” reads the back of the menu, which is set in something akin to MachineFont. (If not a particularly “old-timey” typeface, it’s still a retro one.) This brewery is chill, it’s tap handles fashioned with the OK sign you make by pressing your thumb to your forefinger and extending your other three digits. Behind the bar, meanwhile, are cans from long-defunct brew like North Star, Old Shay Golden Cream Ale, or Finast. (One of them, the marvelously named Champagne Velvet, has since been revived by Upland Brewing of Bloomington, Ind.) A building that’s been around for awhile, it puts the brick in brick-and-mortar, with one wall of the taproom dusted in white paint from long ago.
In other words, it might not be the prettiest walk from West Oakland BART, but Old Kan is a lovely spot, only a little rougher around the edges than Uptown Oakland’s Drake’s Dealership, and a bit more modest than Smokestack at Magnolia Brewing in the Dogpatch (and indeed, you can find Magnolia’s Mr. Charlie’s Chocolate Stout on tap).
Once there, you’ll find a solid menu of food and drink that grazes trends with the tips of its fingers before landing on the classics, from the chicken-less Almost a Cobb Salad to the crispy jerk chicken wings to the killer “chicken fried” portabello mushroom sandwich on a potato roll. Syhabout remains the only Oakland chef with a Michelin star to his name — for Commis — so it’s not as though the pimento cheese dip isn’t going to be tangy and addictive, or the olives would be anything but Castelvetranos. And for every moules frites or quinoa-and-roasted-beetroot salad, there’s a Kan-nibal Style Fries (with more pimento cheese, pulled smoked ham hocks, charred scallions, and relish). If you know Syhabout best from Hawker Fare — of which the Valencia Street location is now the only one still going — you might expect more Southeast Asian influences, but there’s virtually nothing. Even the noodles are egg noodles with grana cheese.
The beers that go with all this are slightly scattershot, but in a very enjoyable way. More than half the offerings are canned — that is, in “kans,” and mostly in the $6 range — including the salty, cultish Evil Twin Mission Gose and Ex Novo’s surprisingly worthy Most Interesting Lager in the World. Feeling drafty? Try a Half Acre Daisy Cutter, a West Coast-Style Pale Ale that’s a bit more relaxed than the Vietnam War-era bomb that gave it its name. Settling in with an Alameda-brewed Faction Springs IPA and staring down my beer-drinking buddy for the last of the pimento cheese, I got pretty comfy pretty quickly.
To succeed at luring more people to a dead-end street in West Oakland that’s flush against the track tracks, Old Kan has to achieve some semblance of destination status yet remain casual enough to merit repeat visits. Judging only by our hands-at-back-of-head-with-elbows-akimbo posture and silent nods, I’d say this place has the right Kan-do attitude. And the beer’s good, too.
Old Kan Beer & Co., 95 Linden St., Oakland, 510-338-3965 or old-kan.com