As sommeliers go, David Lynch is a star. The former wine director made a splash at Quince and Cotogna with his fixed-price wine list, and he regularly writes about wine in Bon Appétit. So when Lynch opened St. Vincent, his buzzy new wine tavern on Valencia Street, and hired a certified beer sommelier, or cicerone, it came as a surprise.
That cicerone (pronounced siss-er-own) goes by the name of Sayre Piotrkowski. He is one of about 12 beer sommeliers and two master cicerones in the Bay Area now—including Rich Higgins, who designed the beer programs at Delarosa and Starbelly.
Piotrkowski’s thoughtful list at St. Vincent sets aside the Mission penchant for PBR, favoring instead eight small-batch beers sourced directly from California breweries. This careful curation would seem to suggest that the cult of beer has officially caught on.
“Beer can go to a lot of places wine can’t,” Piotrkowski says. “The old adage that wine and cheese are the perfect pairing is marketing B.S. Beer and cheese really sing—so do beer and fried food, beer and dessert, and beer and spicy foods. These are areas where wine has trouble holding out.”
On any given night, St. Vincent hosts a mixed and increasingly savvy crowd of beer drinkers, from couples tucking into the occasional spotted dick dessert paired with a smoked weizen to Zynga gamers glugging pints of Pacific Brew Labs’ pink hibiscus saison.
But in these past few years, beer’s status has been elevated to be on par with that of wine. In 2004, when Christian Albertson moved to San Francisco from Boston, he was floored when he saw a wine bar on every corner but little love for craft beer. “There were some amazing beers coming out of the Bay Area even then,” he says. “Moonlight Brewing Company’s madly talented Brian Hunt has been doing his thing since the ’90s.” But around that time, East Coast brewers were hogging the attention: Maine’s Allagash, which has won several awards for its Allagash White (including a gold medal at the 2010 World Beer Cup), and New York’s Saranac have garnered a lot of praise. Meanwhile, Napa and Sonoma wineries overshadowed Northern California breweries.
Albertson, formerly a manager at Parish Cafe in Boston, aimed to bring craft beer into the light. In December 2007, he opened Monk’s Kettle with nearly 200 beers and suggested menu pairings. Around the same time in North Beach, La Trappe focused seriously on Belgian beers.
Now four years later, hyper-local breweries, including Dying Vines, Devil’s Canyon, and Almanac, are reinvigorating the Bay Area beer craze. Some are even following in the footsteps of SF cult-coffee purveyors, creating custom brews for restaurants. Magnolia Brewery is to thank for Namu Gaji’s toasted rice ale, while Oakland’s Linden Street Brewery created Our Daily (B)red for Bar Tartine—the red lager even counts the bakery’s sourdough bread starter among its ingredients.
In July, Albertson opened Abbot’s Cellar in the Mission, where he serves 100 food-friendly beers by the bottle. Ten beers will be available by the glass nightly, while draft beers are kept at two different temperatures (darker beers are served warmer than American pale ales, for example). Food pairings by chef Adam Dulye and wine are also to set to be part of the program. “It’s important that there’s balance,” says Albertson. “Craft beer is the focus, but we intend to have an excellent wine list too.”
This article was published in 7x7's July/August issue. Click here to subscribe.