At the start of John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer” the main character is lounging in the backyard of a friend’s home in upper-middle-class suburbia, where everyone has a swimming pool. He thinks wistfully of his own house and family, eight miles away. Suddenly, it occurs to him that “he could reach his home by water.”
“He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county,” wrote Cheever. “He had made a discovery, a contribution to geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife.” Whimsically, the protagonist determines to swim it, linking one pool to the next.
Now, imagine that it’s a game day – baseball, or soon enough, basketball – in San Francisco. You’re standing on Third Street at Dogpatch’s southern end, looking towards the ballpark in the distance, searching for an interesting route between here and there. What – besides Muni Metro’s T line – connects Mission Bay to Dogpatch, and of what substance is the connection composed? It’s not the pale chlorinated water of Cheever’s swimming pools, nor, until water taxis are fully realized, the Bay. But it might be possible to imagine that one could swim to AT&T Park through a river of beer.
San Francisco’s first brewpub, ThirstyBear, opened on Howard Street in 1996. In the years since, South-of-Market and Dogpatch have come to form the epicenter of the City’s growing craft beer scene. Today, if you promise to take your time, stay on foot, and imbibe with careful moderation at each location, you can – not that I’d necessarily recommend such an endeavor – follow a string of six brewery taprooms from one neighborhood to the other.
The starting point would be Harmonic Brewing, at 1050 26th Street, the youngest of Dogpatch microbreweries, which opened in late-2015. Only half a mile from the heart of the neighborhood’s commercial district, its industrial setting – amid trucks, warehouses and wide streets that mostly don’t have sidewalks – make it feel like a remote outpost of conviviality within the landscape of heavier labor that, in some sense, forms the backstage of every city. The place seems to function as a “destination brewery” and, especially, as a stop for long-distance cyclists, who lock their bikes on the racks outside and come in still wearing their randonneur costumes.
Harmonic boasts a lineup of six “core” beers, alongside five rotating taps. I was impressed by their Crosseyed Triple India Pale Ale. Though IPAs beyond 11 percent ABV risk entering the territory where their hop profiles get dragged down into an over-sweet syrup of pure alcohol, Crosseyed, at 11.4 percent, manages to pull itself free. Prices are low. Most beers cost five dollars for a 13-ounce pour; ten dollars for a 32-ounce growler fill; a genuine steal in San Francisco.
The taproom has the sleek metallic look beloved of industrial-park breweries in Southern California, and feels spacious even when there’s a good crowd. It’d probably be a nice place to watch daytime ball during the National Football League season, although you’d have to bring your own food, as the food trucks show up outside only on Fridays and Saturdays. The big windows let enough light in to avert the perpetual nighttime that afflicts many drinking establishments and renders them depressing on sunny days.
In 2014, the Haight-Masonic stalwart Magnolia Brewing underwent a $3-million expansion, opening a barbecue restaurant in Dogpatch to complement its cozy English-style pub and basement brewhouse on the other side of town. Most of Magnolia’s production was shifted to 2505 Third Street, which has a 30-barrel brewing capacity in back, compared to seven on Haight Street. The cost of the expansion reportedly put the company into bankruptcy, but Magnolia never stopped churning out the best English Bitters in the Bay Area.
Inside Magnolia Smokestack, it’s easy to see where the money went. The high-ceilinged space was transformed into an almost startlingly beautiful old-style saloon. It has a kind of steampunk aesthetic, but for all its deliberately weathered details, it never goes too far into costume-drama fakery. Its tap list, slightly longer than its predecessor’s, similarly includes a couple of cask ales, which, if you’ve never had one – they’re far more common in the United Kingdom than here – allow for an essential beer experience that may take some getting used
to but is worth the effort. Magnolia’s hand-pumped beers, absent of any unnatural carbonation, emerge warmer and flatter than a normal American drinker would care for, yet the flavors are true and unobscured. I strongly recommend the chardonnay-barrel-aged Saison de Lily, if it’s available, and a plate of smoky meat if you’re hungry. When I lived in North Carolina, my favorite food was the vinegary chopped pork, a cherished Tar Heel State specialty, served with slaw on a bun. Magnolia Smokestack is the only place in town that satisfies my nostalgic cravings.
A block and half from Magnolia is Triple Voodoo Brewery, at 2245 Third Street. To some degree, Triple Voodoo serves as the Belgian-inspired counterpart to Magnolia’s British Invasion. It brews its share of West Coast IPAs, but its flagship, which has earned a permanent spot amid 16 mostly rotating taps, is a Tripel; hence the brewery’s name, maybe? Of the six brewpubs on my tour, Triple Voodoo felt the most like a normal, friendly, neighborhood bar: quiet, unassuming, and comparatively reliant on the foot traffic of passers-by who might simply like to stop for a drink rather than “visit a brewery” specifically.
Oda Restaurant & Brewery, at 1500 Owens Street, meanwhile, is buried so deep within the University of California, San Francisco-Mission Bay campus that possibly only doctors and medical researchers know about it. If so, it’s a shame: it’s a really nice spot, with good food and a friendly owner. It’s more eatery than bar, closing at 10 p.m. Its beer-making seems to exist, in the European fashion, as a natural, casual extension of its food-making, with about five house-made brews amicably sharing space with a few guest taps. That said, Oda’s beer is great, especially its refreshing hibiscus-flavored ale. Wednesdays offer four dollar pints.
Closer to AT&T Park is the Yard at Mission Rock, at Third Street and Terry A. Francois Boulevard, the assemblage of converted shipping containers that occupies the northern tip of a parking lot awaiting redevelopment. There’s a creperie and burger joint and, best of all, a biergarten set up by Potrero Hill’s own Anchor Brewing, whose historic building has never allowed for an on-site pub. The eighteen taps – all of them dispensing ales and lagers by Anchor, which, beyond the indisputably classic Steam beer, offers a wider range of products than many realize – fill a void, at least until the company’s plans – announced in 2013, but recently delayed and possibly even imperiled – to construct a massive new Pier 48 brewing site, with an attached restaurant and museum, come to fruition. On game days, the Yard has a kind of beach party atmosphere. It’s quieter on the San Francisco Giants’ days off, when all-day happy hours drop the beer prices a couple bucks.
Finally, cross the Mission Creek Channel to Local Brewing Company, at 69 Bluxome Street, a buzzy after-work hangout for SoMa tech bros with a food menu of sandwiches, sausages, and even a plate of IPA-brined pickles. The brewer has some intriguingly weird ideas: a coconut oatmeal pale ale on nitro and an oaky, red, mescal-flavored California Common join the usual fleet of India Pale Ales and a solid Berliner Weisse. It has one of those cool devices that provide beer to order, right in front of you, in case you’d like to take some home; although, at this point, haven’t you probably had enough?
How does that Cheever story start again? “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” Be careful out there.