I’ve said it before in the pages of this magazine – there’s something about the food and drink scene in California that is years ahead of us over here in the UK. When I was in CA five years ago, there were poke bowls and CBD juices everywhere I turned; it seems only in the past couple of years that these sweeping trends have casually strolled their way into London and beyond. The same could be said for something as simple as 330ml craft beer cans. Remember when they weren’t overflowing on the shelves of your local Tesco Express?
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited to San Francisco for a disorientating few days with Lagunitas Brewing Company, a subsidiary of Heineken (since the global brewer completed the full purchase of Lagunitas back in 2017). That’s why you’ve seen Lagunitas IPA in so many bars and restaurants in recent years, such is the distribution power of a worldwide enterprise. But while a trip to Heineken HQ in Amsterdam may consist of a few PowerPoint presentations and an on-brand tour of an impressive central site, the Lagunitas experience in CA couldn’t be further from its parent company’s mantra, as I found out at the end of October.
A whirlwind start
Nothing challenges the body and mind more than remaining compos mentis while being handed a beer post an 11-hour flight, no sleep and a small nibble on an airline’s interpretation of ‘chicken’. But, seeing as it was early afternoon in California, there was no choice but to smile, raise a bottle, fight off the jet lag and absorb as much of the San Francisco F&B culture as possible.
I don’t know whether our hosts purposely chose such an aptly named business to kick off our tour, but as we walked through the doors of Tornado, a dive bar in the Haight Ashbury area of the city, little did we know what a whirlwind few days lay ahead of us. In fact, the reason Tornado was chosen to look at is because it is a renowned beer haunt for local craft enthusiasts. Indeed, the bar was propped up by many a hairy drinker enjoying a mid-afternoon beer on a Monday… well, why not? It was one of those places that had a beer range so large, you found it near impossible to select your tipple of choice. To my relief, I was praised for my selection of Death & Taxes, a deceptively light, black lager from San Francisco’s Moonlight Brewing Co. One of our hosts, Russell Smithson, who is Lagunitas’ global cultural training manager, has chosen the same beer and compliments me and my taste. The truth is, I tell him, I chose it based on the fact it was the only beer I could see below 6% ABV. He laughs and says that it is always the British who are so concerned about the strength of beer, which I suppose is true. Why is that?
Before we leave Tornado, I chat to the barman, who happens to be from Derbyshire, which was most unexpected considering our location. Despite the East Midlands origin, he tells me he has been working behind that bar for 15 years – a reminder of the passionate American pride for careers in hospitality.
Next up was a wonderful little bar by the name of Vesuvio Cafe, a place that, we’re told, was regularly frequented by Beat Generation legends such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, not to mention Bob Dylan. I have no doubt that in years to come, the names of a few special UK trade journalists will be added to that list of those who once visited. There’s an art alley and enough culture to shake a tambourine at – Vesuvio is wonderfully old school. So old school, in fact, that the homepage of its website encourages you to visit its Myspace. Love it.
Finally, it was dinner time… or was it breakfast? Who knows? The jet lag had set in heavily as we made our way to Original Joe’s, ‘the best Italian restaurant in San Francisco’, or so the sign said. A beautiful restaurant, classically adorned with varnished wood, white tablecloths and elaborate chandeliers. It had a private dining room that one could see the Sopranos taking over, had they ever made their way to the west coast. There was a big group of us, so Joe’s had a set menu waiting. Caesar salad, followed by chicken parmigiana or Joe’s meat ravioli, and then a tiramisu for dessert. I think that’s an element of American foodservice that doesn’t make sense; obligatory salad (or soup) starters of giant proportions. Even so, all was devoured and enjoyed, with all of us managing to avoid falling asleep and face-planting into our tiramisu.
Lagunitas is based in the town of Petaluma, a short drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge and not too far west of Napa, famous for its vineyards. A nice part of the world to be living, that’s for sure. Day two began with an arrival at the brewery, with the group being welcomed by brewing supervisor Sam Thompson alongside a hearty spread of Bloody Marys and breakfast burritos. It had been decided that the best way for us to learn about some key bars and restaurants that are close to the business was to be taken on ‘The Dip’, a tour/endurance challenge that all Lagunitas employees go through when they start working for the brewery. In fact, some new recruits did join us on the excursion, with some spectacularly failing the beer-based endurance fairly early on. She’ll remain nameless, but I hope she recovered well and eventually found her phone.
The Hog Island Oyster Co. was a particular highlight for me. From the roadside, you wouldn’t assume you could stop for some food and drink there, but once you make your way through the more industrial-like buildings that seemingly allow for oyster sorting and distribution, you come to a bar, some picnic benches, a few outdoor grills and a sun-drenched backdrop of Tomales Bay. I mean, I like Whitstable and everything, but this place was something special. Our group were encouraged to shuck our own oysters, which we happily/clumsily did, before some were grilled in a piri piri and garlic butter. Totally worth burning your hands and mouth over. Now, of course, beers had been flowing for some time by now and as much as I don’t want this piece to be about product placement, there was one addition to the Lagunitas portfolio that, at this time of the tour, really stood out. It’s called Hoppy Refresher, a zero-alcohol, hop-based water that is the best beer alternative I’ve tried in recent years. The beauty being that it’s not trying to be a beer, but packs in flavour alongside hydration. When asked why they haven’t yet brought it to the UK, we’re told that they don’t believe people will pay the high price point that the ingredients determine. It would cost the same as a standard craft beer over here. Would people pay £5 for a bottle of water? They don’t think so.
From Hog Island, we made our way down Route 1, famous for hugging the coastline from northern California, taking you through the Big Sur and into Santa Barbara, leading many a sun-soaked traveller towards the shores of Malibu and into Los Angeles. The purpose of this venture south was to visit some classic saloons that were some of the very first bars to stock Lagunitas back when the brewery was founded. With this is mind, you knew these places were as authentic as they come – tired, dusty, populated with bar hounds sipping on tequila in the middle of the afternoon without a care in the world or, perhaps, too many. We occupied a room at The Old Western Saloon that was full of pool tables and a beat-up old piano, and it wasn’t long before one of the many ‘characters’ in that bar started playing some songs with incredible dexterity. While we knew the opportunist pianist had spotted a room full of tourists and smelled a chance to make a quick buck, the piano playing was too good for us to care.
What I took away from the visits to Old Western and then Paper Mill Creek Saloon (just down the road from the town of Lagunitas) was an appreciation for legacy and tradition when it comes to the American on-trade. Much like the great British pub, attempts to replicate these styles of outlet take place across the world, but nothing compares to the real thing in its true surroundings of sparse towns and sooty roads. The neon signs in the window may be the same, but the clientele and palpable atmosphere are what make the experience authentic. These types of places will always be an inspiration for any style of operator from anywhere in the world.
End of the road
As our time on The Dip finished, thoughts turned to dinner, which came in the form of some excellent Mexican food at Mi Pueblo El Centro back in Petaluma town centre, one of seven sites owned and run by the Mi Pueblo group. A modest, classically decorated restaurant with lots of wood finishes and brick wallpaper, hot plates and happy hours a plenty. Some mezcal and jugs of margaritas were ordered, as well as plenty of tacos and nachos for the table. When it came to mains, I asked our Mexican waiter what he would order and he enthusiastically pointed me in the direction of the Camarones Rancheros – $18.50 for a huge plate of shrimp, onions, tomatoes and jalapeños, served with rice and beans. Muy bien. The night was finished off at local bar Jamison’s Roaring Donkey, which, as well as having shuffleboard, stood out for its digital beer list hung high above the bar – such a simple solution for showcasing the many beers on offer while be able to update and change the listings from a computer below.
In fact, Petaluma is home to several notable bars, most of which trade well based on the beer, sport and gaming offers within – pool, darts and shuffleboard seem to be commonplace in northern California. McNear’s, The Hideaway and Buffalo Billiards were all highlights, with the latter demonstrating how the UK snooker club/pool hall is yet to catch up with the US equivalent. This was no dingy members club. Buffalo Billiards was essentially a warehouse offering rows of pool tables, shuffleboard, table football, darts, craft beer and fast food… and it was packed. A terrific operation.
In fact, the whole trip was terrific, particularly The Dip. Obviously, Lagunitas wanted us to be immersed in its own culture, but by showcasing an impressive selection of outlets across multiple towns, we were able to get a grasp of life in the California on-trade beyond the city centres of San Francisco and Los Angeles. With the brewery tap that Lagunitas has at its disposal (which serves a glorious burger), the brewer could have easily just kept the group on its turf and made the whole thing about them. Fortunately for me (and hopefully for our readers looking for some inspiration from across the pond), this wasn’t the case. It’s a trip I’d hop back on in heartbeat.