Imagine a brewery with homebrewing in its DNA. One that prides itself on innovation and quality. One that invites competition from homebrewers to determine its next beer. One that releases a beer once, never to brew it again. Well, that place exists – and it’s on the cusp of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights.
Barebottle Brewing co-founders Ben Sterling, Lester Koga, and Michael Seitz began as homebrewers themselves. Producing better beer than what was commercially available was the objective. It still is.
Michael and Lester competed in regional homebrewing competitions in their respective hometowns. Lester was already established in the Bay Area, but Michael was in Cincinnati at the time. Lester won a Bay Area pale ale homebrewing contest. This resulted in Scurvy Fighter, which was available on draft during Barebottle’s 2016 opening.
Beyond that, Barebottle holds quarterly homebrewing competitions. It hasn’t been held in recent memory, but the idea is to strengthen the homebrewing experience. The best beers are then added to the Barebottle roster.
A homebrewing philosophy of innovation and experimentation with new recipes and ingredients is the fundamental backbone of Barebottle Brewing. Repetition isn’t welcome.
Testing small batches on the pilot system – which is equivalent to one keg – is routine when crafting a potential beer to fill a tap. Small-scale production welcomes failure but also creativity. When a recipe is deemed high-quality, it is made available on draft.
Barebottle’s homebrewing competition builds upon this concept of discovery.
The competition is officiated using the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), and it ensures top tier competitors across the Bay Area. The organization began in the United States but has since become international. Michael and Lester are BJCP certified, which means they spent hundreds of hours learning how to judge every style of beer.
“We held a competition using this official platform to judge it, so that it wasn’t just our personal taste. We wanted to give it some broad baseline credit, so that it wasn’t three guys deciding they like this beer and then we make it. Which would be fine, if that was our approach. But we wanted it to be true to homebrewing,” Ben pointed out. He sees Barebottle as a platform for Bay Area homebrewers to enjoy commercial success through the competitions.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Barebottle distributes its own beer, which promotes flexibility and heavy rotation. “We purposefully didn’t want to be dependent on one beer. We wanted people to trust our brand and not a beer. In the beginning, we became known for Muir Woods and Galaxy Dust. But you’ll see those maybe come out once or twice a year now for us because we want people to become familiar with a wider range of beers,” Ben explained.
“We wanted people to trust our brand and not a beer.”
Exclusive limited-run beers are not uncommon for Barebottle. Lebron Tears and DeMarKush Cousins – both hazy IPAs – tapped out in the blink of an eye. But demand doesn’t inspire reproduction. Something may eventually be made in the same vein, but repetition isn’t part of the Barebottle mantra.
Every week, the beer list changes. Positive reception is never guaranteed. At times, certain beers are more popular than others. This is noted and may contribute to the inception of a future beer.
The Steakhouse Collaboration
Collaborations are becoming increasingly common among breweries. But what about an exclusive collaboration with a restaurant?
Epic Steak Managing Partner Pete Sittnick approached Barebottle with a proposal for an exclusive restaurant brew. Producing a beer that’s distinct to Epic’s identity was important. At the time, there were three beers on tap; one was always an IPA. A number of breweries were featured, but it didn’t quite capture the intended essence of the restaurant.
“His clientele sort of has expectations for the food, and the IPA is the holy grail of the tap list. It’s their highest volume mover. His team had a vision, and then they came to us and asked if they could build something around that vision,” Ben clarified.
The result was the Epic Proportions IPA – a low-bittering IPA that pairs well with Epic’s menu. Epic Proportions is technically a West Coast IPA. It’s characterized by the yeast, clarity, and sharpness of the hops. West Coasts IPAs are generally associated with a hop-forward, bitter nature that Barebottle essentially toned down for Epic. Slight bittering without overpowering the taste buds was critical to the introduction of the beer. It had to pair well with steak. It’s a steakhouse, after all.
“It’s like their house IPA, and it’s always going to be West Coast…”
Pilot batches were sent to Epic for feedback. Constructive criticism led to the next batch until the recipe was perfected to their liking. The recipe still evolves over time. A new menu demands new flavor profiles. The Epic Proportions IPA is, for all intents and purposes, perhaps the only beer without a singular identity. From one menu change to the next, the beer’s ingredients also deviate to compliment new styles.
“It’s like their house IPA, and it’s always going to be West Coast… it’s always going to have certain characteristics to it. But we may amplify a certain hop this time, or we may introduce a new malt into it – all for the sake of making it better, and all for the sake of matching what they’re doing,” Ben revealed.
Food pairings are integrated into Barebottle’s own lineup, as well. “One of our amazing team members is a cicerone [basically a beer sommelier], and he actually helps. On our website, you’ll see we have some suggested food pairings for our tap list, which is fun.”
Fruited sours are popular at Barebottle but admittedly difficult to produce. There are a couple ways to sour the beer. The first is done traditionally by introducing bacteria and barrel-aging. Barrel-aging isn’t necessary, but most breweries do it. Barebottle sours its beer using the other method. The solera method.
Beer is soured within the brewing tanks, but it requires deep cleaning before and after production.
“As soon as you introduce bacteria into your system, it has potential to contaminate everything. So, a lot of breweries are scared of doing it. Our team is just very, very diligent about over-doing the cleaning before and after, just to ensure. You basically boil with the bacteria overnight, so it ties up your brewhouse for a long time.” The demanding nature of brewing a sour requires planning. It can only be done every so often.
Barebottle prides itself on collaborations. From food vendors to craft manufacturers, new ideas are only limited by the imagination. A collaboration with the Bayview’s Sequoia Sake led to Barebottle’s Half-Samurai – a wheat ale fermented with sake yeast.
Another unlikely collaboration involves Philz Coffee. Any Beans Necessary is a golden ale fermented with whole coffee beans. It’s not the color of coffee, but it has some of the caffeine and aroma associated with it.
“We’d love to find a baking partner… we’ve talked to some of the high-end chocolatiers here in the City to see what we can do. Because that’s…. that’s the homebrewer ethos, where you just never stop.”
“I’m glad that people have embraced styles that are not native to the area. We don’t want to have a constant, or a normal, we always want to try something new. San Francisco is all about that, you know, constant curiosity. I’m excited to see what comes next for the whole Bay Area.”