Tuesday, 16 February 2010

My Englishman’s Survival Guide to Beer in San Francisco

1. Drink lots of water. This is essential.

2. Don’t joke with customs. They don’t have a sense of humour, they don’t understand irony or sarcasm and they carry guns.

3. The first bar will be overwhelming. Go with an exact idea of what you want. If your first stop is the Toronado (which it almost certainly should be), then know exactly what you want when you get to the bar and don’t be a dithering Englishman. Those barmen don’t find it cute.

4. Your first beer will taste like nectar and you’ll drink it in no time. The second will be equally as good. After travelling all day, and with your body still being on English time, the third pint (which is of course an 8% IPA, as the other two have been) will render your legs and mouth useless.

5. You have to tip. This is silly, I know, but customary. When they slap your change down on the bar just leave a dollar there or they won’t serve you in a hurry next time, even if you are sitting at the bar waving a fistful of fresh dollars at them.

6. Jet lag is a bitch. Waking up at 4am with a bastard of a hangover in a horrible, cheap little room with no fresh air is no fun. Sleep is very important or the full effects of the beer will hit you harder. Drink Red Bull and eat bananas.

7. Nearly every beer is over 9% in alcohol. This does not make for session beer so do not treat it that way. A pint of 10.5% Double IPA with lunch might seem like a good idea at the time, but watch out.

8. Eat lots. I took the approach that a sandwich per beer was adequate.

9. Don’t sit on your girlfriend’s camera in City Beer Store and break the screen on the first day. She won’t be very happy and you can’t see the pictures you are taking, meaning that most of those wonderful shots you thought you got are in fact out of focus or missing people’s heads.

10. Everywhere will offer you a taster of their beer. Utilise this freely but don’t take the piss. Eight samples is not cool unless you want to buy a couple of pints and will tip freely.

11. Sample trays are great but they are not to be treated in the same way as a tray of shooters. Plus, although it might look like little pours, 16 2oz servings adds up to two pints.

12. Everyone gives you water, especially if they see you stumbling around with blood-shot eyes. But be warned, if you speak like me not many Californians understand ‘water’. One reply, at the Double IPA festival, was (in an incredulous tone), ‘No, we don’t have any porter’, with a silent ‘you douchebag, don’t you know where you are?’

13. The BART transport system is easy to use. The MUNI is not. Take good walking trainers and not an old pair of Converse. Also take a good map. And preferably a phone with Google Maps.

14. The bottled beer selection in many stores is mind-blowing. Try not to get over-excited or you get weird looks as you are taking photos of the beer in Whole Foods at 8am because you can’t sleep thanks to the jet lag. Buying $50 worth of strong, rare beer at 8.30am also gets weird looks.

15. Almost everyone talks to themselves out loud in San Francisco. Do as the locals do and no one bothers you.

16. Smoke actually comes out of grates in the street. This is cool.

17. Breakfast is split between a few choices: pancakes and syrup; omelettes; fried meat, eggs and potatoes; or all of the above on one plate.

18. If you are wasted by 3pm then you are in for a rough afternoon and evening. Looking for a pint of sub-4% mild is fruitless. Get some water.

19. Burgers are universally wonderful. Eat as many as you can.

20. Brewpubs are awesome. The smell of wort and fresh hops is just about the most welcoming smell there is.

21. Over-sized backpacks filled with jumpers and coats and water and other survival essentials are not well received at busy, cramped beer festivals.

22. People ask ‘where are you from?’ a lot. When you say London they say things like ‘Ooh, expensive’, or ‘I love London’. Most people are interested in talking to you, especially if you like good beer, which is nice.

23. The view of San Francisco from Alcatraz is great. The Alcatraz tour is also good if you fancy some beer-free time.

24. Beer is not cheap but dollars are like Monopoly money and you are on holiday so it’s okay.

25. Don’t buy 20 bottles of beer when you don’t know how to get them home.

26. Take a spare, smaller suitcase in your luggage and fill this on the return journey with beer and bubble wrap. It’s cheaper than shipping beer to yourself (although, somehow through a locked case, customs checked my bag and left a note to say they’d opened it and then locked it back up again).

27. If you didn’t take your girlfriend with you, and you broke her camera, then buy a very nice present to make up for it. Also, girlfriends like bar mats so take them as many as possible.

28. Sit by the window on the right-hand side of the plane flying home – the view is simply stunning.

29. The flight home is horrible and it can be made worse if they show The Invention of Lying.

30. You will miss San Francisco, the beer and the cool people when you get home. You will start saving straight away to return.

UPDATE: 31: I forgot to mention the difficult task that is ordering eggs. 'How do you want your eggs?' They ask. 'Fried and with a runny yolk', I reply, obviously. Cue blank stares from the waitress. Seriously, research methods of cooking eggs, find your favourite and remember it. Failing that just say scrambled.


  1. Great post, Mark! The first stop at Toronado takes a little getting used to, regardless of where you're from.

    Good to hear your beer made it back safe and sound.

  2. nice one Mark, maybe you should just by lauren an engagement ring to make up for the broken camera and the going away..

  3. Brilliant summary and funny too!

    Reminded me of my time living in Boston,MA - they were GOOD days!

  4. Love it! Would love to go one day!

    I will take note of these tips. Especially 12, as a Scotsman saying 'water' is equally hard for a Californian

  5. Cheers Ken, great meeting you and Ali. The last night in Russian River and Toad in the Hole was one of the best of the trip!

    Andy, don't even go there mate!

  6. It's wadder dummy and you just ask for your eggs over easy. Runny but not snotty as sunny side up tends to be.

  7. Took me a few trips to get used to the egg lingo. Over easy for me too! :D

  8. You have no idea how much you've made me want a trip to San Francisco!

    Cool post. Why can't we have more of this in the UK!

  9. "Nearly every beer is over 9% in alcohol"

    Don't believe it folks. These are just the ones Dredgy is attracted to.

  10. We love Brits in SF, glad you had a good time. Tell your friends and come on back. You're entirely correct about the Toronado. Here's my take


    check out my blog site for more of my impressions on drinking beer in the Bay Area

  11. Tandleman, I can't speak with a faux-American accent, I sound like an idiot. Instead I just went with my southern finest - 'wooortah'. And I did get a few snotty eggs...

    Chunk, I wish we could have more of this in the UK too! We are a long way off that though, sadly. But then again, the UK beer scene ain't all bad!

    Jeff, haha! I knew someone would bite on that one. So, ok, most beers are over 6%, but mid-afternoon it still feels like 9%! (and it was only in the first couple of days that I wanted 9% beers, after that I was gagging for a session pale ale, but even they are 5.5%!)

    chuckl, great post on the Toronado. A useful list of hints! I think it's a great place. I went back about 1pm a few days later and had the best pint of Pliny - it's totally different during the day. And the sausages next door are a MUST!

  12. Don’t joke with customs? where was the bit informing us not to suck eggs?

  13. I've really enjoyed reading your posts. San Francisco's a great place and, if you can get away from the 10% California hop bombs, one of the most beautiful cities I've been to. If you have some extra cash and want to come back to the States, give Chicago a try. I love this city deeply and we've got tons of great beer here in the Midwest (way beyond the good but ubiquitous Goose Island). Lastly, I appreciate you doing your part to spread the word over there about the good beer to be had in the US. I'm tired of the "making love in a canoe" joke.

  14. I discovered for myself that US Customs/Immigration Officials have a zero sense of humour. Won't make that mistake again. Still at least I managed to avoid the rubber glove treatment!

    Glad you had a good time, Mark. Hoping to visit San Francisco myself in the not too distant future.

  15. Glad you enjoyed San Francisco. I love it here. So you managed to bring back corked beers in your luggage without a problem? That always worries me.

  16. David, San Francisco is a beautiful place. On my first morning I walked around for hours down to the ballpark and all over, just in the sun and loving it. I wish I had more time to explore more. I'll be back though! I'd love to go to Chicago too, it's on my 'US Beer Drinking Cities to Visit' list along with San Diego, Portland and Denver for GABF.

    Paul, get out there, it's great. If you go then let me know and I'll meet you for a beer in the Bean and tell you where not to miss!

    pudu, I filled two suitcases wrapping the beer in clothes and bubble wrap. I was a little worried about the corked bottles (especially as they were the Russian Rivers!) but they were all fine. There isn't that much pressure and I don't think they roll around too violently tucked right up inside a suitcase.

  17. But you missed the fact that they think a pint is 16oz.

  18. Dave, may I direct you to point 11. It's subtle, but it's there. And I will be posting something on the 16oz pint soon, I think.

  19. I am absolutely dooming myself to having a b*strad entry to the States when I'm off to Chicago for the WBC in April but I've only ever had one joyless customers officer and that was getting OUT of New York, not in!

    Mind you, I had spent the afternoon in the Spotted Pig & Blind Tiger so perhaps I wasn't as instantly compliant as someone who, say, hadn't thought it a good idea to squeeze three pints of Racer X on top of everything else!

  20. I recall coming into LAX a few years ago and the customs guy asking me if I had any of that famous Irish bacon in my case. I told him no, that I'd come for those famous American steaks, and he said "come right on in!", waving me though. Luckily he didn't check or he'd have found the stash of Cuban cigars in my travel humidor :P

  21. Melissa, Racer X is wonderful stuff, but potent! I was okay getting out, despite having two suitcases filled with beer (20 in total I brought home). I still do't know how they opened the case, checked it and then closed it back up again. They must have a master key to all the locks in the world!

    Barry, I also got stopped on the way in to SF because I had a banana in my hand luggage and didn't declare it. I got stopped by sniffer dogs and everything! Then through customs the jar-headed officer asked if I had been to America before and I said 'Only to Florida, but that doesn't really count'. He didn't get it. Then thanks to the banana incident I had to go through an extra check!!

  22. In my view joking with US Immigration officials is unwise and best avoided. Lucky they didn't look up your arse after that. And yes, they do have every key in the world more or less.

    Melissa. What is WBC and when? Just interested as I'm in Chicago in April.

  23. Tandleman, I will not be making the same mistake again! US Immigration are scary.

    The WBC is the World Beer Cup. It happens between the 5-10 April, mostly 6-7 I think. If you google it, the website has lots of info - 90+ categories of beer, gold, silver and bronze winners in each.

  24. Ah. Thanks Mark. It'll be over by the time I get there.

  25. Great post, man. Good to meet you during SF Beer Week (after Dbl IPA with thebeergeek.com folks).

    Next time you make it back to SF, consider a longer trip and head north to Portland and Seattle as well. I can take you on a hell of a pub crawl in Seattle.

  26. Excellent post and I plan on printing it out and using it when I am there this summer.

  27. Drop me an email before you go and I'll tell you where is unmissable - it's a great place. I want to go back now!

  28. Great seeing you in SF, Mark. San Diego was very cool, also, but beer touring pretty much requires a car, which as you know it does not in SF.

    As one who travels frequently to the US, I have a long-standing policy of being only frank and friendly with Customs and Immigration. Interestingly, this often ends up with me offering them beer or restaurant suggestions.

  29. Thank you so much for this post, Mark. Thanks particularly for 2,5,15 &24. :D
    We're just in San Francisco for a week, and it's my first time in America ever.

    I love the fact that sticking 'Englishman's guide to San Francisco' into Google brings your blog post up at #1.

  30. #24 also applies to San Franciscans visiting London