SAN FRANCISCO — An eighteenth birthday is nothing to sneeze at. It’s a day to grow up. A day to shamelessly buy cigars and pornos (or if you’re that square from The Breakfast Club, go register to vote). When you’re 18 you’re ready to move on to wherever life takes you next, to buckle down and really grow.
On their 18th year of life, Speakeasy Ales & Lagers is no exception.
In an era where upstart breweries are popping up all over the place and where every shmoe with apartment space is trying their hand at making beer Speakeasy sits comfortably as one of the OG brewers in the Bay Area. In 1997 the brewery was founded (by homebrewer and scientist, Forest Gray) and has since become one of the most established and widely recognized beer brands in California. You almost can’t hit a bar or liquor store in SF without finding a Speakeasy beer.
And yet they want more.
The big expansion
From the outside, Speakeasy is more compound than friendly neighborhood tap room. It’s located out in a weird Bermuda Triangle that Yelp calls Bayview Hunter’s Point, Google calls China Basin and I call “way the hell out there.” Big concrete hunks of industrial buildings make up the neighborhood and the entrance to the building itself is surrounded by black iron gates and a surly but bored looking security guard. The only big tell that you are about to go somewhere special is the brand’s trademark shifty eye logo that bedecks the outside wall.
But I was too harsh to judge. Speakeasies, of course, must be naturally inconspicuous, lest the fuzz catch on.
To go inside the taproom is to be transported. Leaving the gray, quiet exterior and stepping into the red lit inside is nothing short of Dorothy ditching drab Kansas for technicolor Oz (if Oz had several live taps which, let’s face it, it probably did). The interior of the taproom is dark and sexy with red accents and shiny taps. A barrage of music hits you, Stevie Nicks crooning her woes, and you see in addition to a long bar several handy nooks and alcoves perfect for discussing secrets.
Brian Stechschulte, former San Francisco Brewer’s Guild exec and current Speakeasy media director, chuckles at my awed face and nods affectionately at his surroundings. “Transports you, huh?” he says before beckoning me into the hum of the brewery itself, the location of another huge transformation.
The brewery is alive with action, the sounds of buzzing construction mixing with the normal sounds of beermaking at work. Stechschulte guides me to step over various cords and building debris up to where he keeps the shining new barrels. He explains that in this next year and a half Speakeasy is going to go through major expansions. These new tanks are just the beginning. He says the plan is to increase the output from 14,500 barrels to over 90,000 – almost a 500 percent increase. He’s quick to temper my jaw dropping by adding, “Really the full capacity potential depends on ales versus lagers because one needs more tank time.” Either way you slice it, that kind of increase in production is a huge deal.
As we walk through the rest of the brewery, dodging forklifts and workers, Stechschulte points out other expansions in the works. Nodding towards a door with a sign warning not to let the “brewery cat” out, Stechschulte explains that soon that space will accommodate an in brewery laboratory. That lab will be working with the beer recipe in house to make sure “everything is more consistent, that the beer tastes the same way no matter where you have it.” He also shows me the future home of an increased canning and packaging line. Sitting near the old canning line is a box of what I came here to taste: the Baby Daddy.
The Baby Daddy Session IPA
Baby Daddy is a special brew released for their 18th celebration. It’s part of the Session 47 series, a group of beers meant for summer drinking. The Baby Daddy is a session IPA (4.7 percent alcohol) captures a taste Stechschulte says is emblematic of Speakeasy beers. “We’re known for big flavorful beers,” he says as, back in the taproom, the bartender draws us two big glasses, “but we also want to be approachable.”
Despite the presence of Citra, Chinook, Centennial, and Cascade hops the beer is surprisingly light and mellow with a nice bump of hop on the nose. It’s crisp with a slight edge of bitterness, a beer that could easily come with you in the shower. Stechschulte calls it a “barbecue beer”. In the summer time especially, he says consumers “want something lighter they can drink three or four of in an afternoon and not fall down in the process.”
Baby Daddy joins the wave of craft brews going into the once humble can. Stechschulte credits the rise in popularity of this receptacle to several factors. The can offers a mobility, he says, that bottles don’t (anyone who has ever been glared at for bringing glass to a beach knows what he means). He also says that cans are lighter to ship and easier to transport because you can fit more cans than bottles onto a typical truck (meaning canned beers need less trucks to move large amounts). Less trucks on the road producing exhaust is good for the environment. No one would say that breweries using cans is single handedly saving the earth but it sure is doing something in the direction of reducing the company’s carbon footprint. As for the myth that cans negatively effect the taste of the beer, Stechschulte says that is something consumers are going to have to just get over.
“The advantage of cans is that they are completely sealed from oxygen,” he says before shrugging and adding, “If you keep putting a product in cans that’s enjoyable, they’ll get it and perceptions will change.”
Celebrating 18 years with a party
The crowd that gathered for Speakeasy’s 18th anniversary party was emblematic of what the SF beer scene always looks like: Some young, some old, all terribly enthusiastic. The parking lot was filled with food trucks making the air smell like slow cooking barbecue and beer yeast. The native pride in Speakeasy was palpable with so many people of all ages (I definitely saw more than one onesie) rocking the brewery’s gear. A few little kids chattered and played gamely at giant Jenga or cornhole while the adults milled around tasting the beers. The standouts where the Philz coffee porter (like drinking chocolate covered expresso beans) and the Joe’s Ale of Strength (strong, heady caramel taste).
Looking around the crowd I eavesdropped. Some where wafting beer smell and commenting on flavor, others were just happy to be drinking (one guy even remarked he’d bought his ticket as a late graduation gift to himself). I was reminded of a conversation I had with Stechschulte before the party. I asked him the question I ask everyone these days: Is craft beer on the way to being legitimized by society at large in the same way wine is? Stechschulte agrees that just anecdotally he thinks it is (he notes that he sees a lot more six packs of craft beer showing up at barbecues, the domain of Bud Lite in bygone years).
“We’re on our way to consumer relevancy in a broader market,” he says, but is quick to point out that wine and beer are different beasts. “You can have a beer and just relax and you don’t have to get hoity toity about it,” he says taking a swig from his own glass. “It’s kind of what you make it.”
As for Speakeasy, they made it bigger and they made it better.