The definitive top 7 NorCal breweries, as chosen by 5 SF beer experts
Some things (heart surgery, brain surgery, making those little leaf drawings on the top of your latte...) are best left to the experts, which's why we hit up five SF-based beer authorities to help us come up with a definitive list of the best breweries in NorCal.
We had each of them rank the seven best breweries in order (focusing on the breweries' entire slate of beers, not just their most popular), tallied up all the votes, broke any ties on our own, and came up with this actually-pretty-surprising list.
7. Anchor Brewing Company
Location: San Francisco, CA
About the brewery: A brewery that can trace its roots back to the Gold Rush, Anchor languished for decades in the 20th century before Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag (yes, those Maytags) bought the brewery in 1965 and turned it around. Now owned by a group led by former Skyy Vodka executives, Anchor continues to produce well-regarded craft beers that are highly sessionable. Anchor is credited with helping to kickstart the craft beer movement in the US.
Experts say: “Without Anchor, we would all be drinking 'craft beer' made by light beer super powers.” -- Richard Rosen, Pi Bar
Experts’ favorite brews: Liberty Ale, Anchor Porter, Anchor Steam.
6. Ale Industries
Location: Oakland, CA (formerly Concord, CA)
About the brewery: Owners Morgan Cox and Steve Lopas used to spend their weekdays brewing at E.J. Phair and their weekends brewing at home, before stepping out on their own to form Ale Industries, which recently moved into a larger brewing space in Oakland complete with a taproom. As if their Barrels and Uniquities Department of cutting-edge beer wasn’t already enough to set them apart, Ale Industries also uses no fossil fuels. They employ a biofuel boiler, electric forklifts, and -- for distribution -- a biodiesel truck to make their operation carbon neutral, except for electricity.
Experts say: “They came to the market with a strong, simple lineup of very well-made beers without using the standard kick-you-in-the-balls calling card of extreme alcohol and massive hops.” -- Jason Kirmse, Fat Angel
Experts’ favorite brews: Unity, Rye’d Piper, Someone Talked!
5. Sante Adairius Rustic Ales
Location: Capitola, CA
About the brewery: Founded in 2012, Sante Adairius is a small, seven-barrel brewery just South of Santa Cruz. The brewery is operated by its two owners, Adair Paterno and Tim Clifford, the latter of whom started out with the Bay Area Brew Crew, a now-defunct home-brewing club that has produced a number of influential brewers (including the braintrust behind Almanac). Sante Adairius is heavily influenced by Belgian brewing traditions -- their saisons are brilliant -- but can also satisfy the hopheads with some heavy-hitting IPAs.
Experts say: “[They're a] Super small-batch producer with an unwavering attention to detail, brewing beers good enough to travel for because that’s the only way you’ll get them.” -- Jason Kirmse, Fat Angel / “Their beers are ridiculously good. They do all styles well, but especially hoppy beers and sour beers. Unfortunately, the demand for their beer far outweighs their production.” -- Christian Albertson, Monk’s Kettle
Experts’ favorite brews: Ember, Maiden Fields.
4. Cellarmaker Brewing Company
Location: San Francisco, CA
About the brewery: Located in SOMA and not even a year old, this small-batch brewery has no permanent brews. Instead, they keep a constant rotation of beers running through their four fermenters, adding further variety of flavor by aging portions of batches in red wine, white wine, or bourbon barrels. Cellarmaker hopes to start hand-bottling their beers soon, but for now, you’ll have to find it on tap or visit their tasting room at 1150 Howard St.
Experts say: “Incredibly dynamic hoppy pales and IPAs; they are doing the most exciting things with hops in the area.” -- Christian Albertson, Monk’s Kettle
Experts’ favorite brews: Moonage Daydream, Tiny Dankster, Coffee and Cigarettes.
3. Sierra Nevada
Location: Chico, CA
About the brewery: Sierra Nevada was one of the early pioneers of craft brewing -- they started brewing in 1979 with old dairy equipment and scrap metal, self-distributing their beers before anyone knew what to make of craft beer. Today, Sierra Nevada’s flagship Pale Ale is the second-most popular craft beer in the country, but the brewery remains cutting edge, as evidenced by their placing at #3.
Experts say: “People tend to overlook it on a beer list because they immediately think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and move on. They’re the OGs of California brewing. Consistency, integrity -- one of the few breweries that recognizes bigger isn’t always better.” -- Jason Kirmse, Fat Angel / “Sierra Nevada combines the imagination of Dogfish Head with the integrity of Anchor.” -- Richard Rosen, Pi Bar
Experts’ favorite brews: Estate Homegrown Ale, Narwhal Imperial Stout.
2. Russian River Brewing Co.
Location: Santa Rosa, CA
About the brewery: Russian River was originally owned by Korbel (yeah, the Champagne people) before the company sold it to brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife Natalie in 2003. The brewery may be most famous for its triple IPA Pliny the Younger (released just once a year on February 1st), but their full lineup is where they shine, exhibited by the fact that all of the beer experts had other Russian River brews listed as favorites.
Experts say: “Consistent, high-quality IPAs and authentic Belgian styles. Every beer that gets shipped is perfect. The only thing I don’t love about Russian River is that it is not around the corner from my house.” -- Richard Rosen, Pi Bar
Experts’ favorite brews: Beatification Wild Ale, Damnation Batch 23, Blind Pig IPA.
1. Almanac Beer Co.
Location: San Francisco, CA
About the brewery: Founders and former home-brewers Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan started Almanac in 2010, crafting unique seasonal beers that use local Northern California produce, partnering with a different small farm each year to supply their fruit. Almanac operates under a partner brewing arrangement, meaning that they don’t have their own brewing equipment yet, but honestly -- who needs it when you're getting rated the best brewery in NorCal even without it?
Experts say: “They basically said, ‘We’re going to have a barrel program and it’s going to be better than yours.’ They have truly brought a culinary flare to brewing.” -- Drew Hall, The Beer Hall
Experts’ favorite brews: Dogpatch Sour, Ichibier, Autumn 2011 Farmhouse Pale.
Alex Lovell is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and maybe drank beers from all of these breweries while writing this. Offer to buy him a beer on Twitter.