food / travel

In San Francisco Microbrew Mecca, Yearning For Bavarian Beer

A German expat in California explains why American microbrews get it all wrong.

The real thing is missing.
The real thing is missing.
Beate Wild

SAN FRANCISCO — They’re called "Pliny the Elder," "Hammerhead," "Juego Con Fuego" and "Death and Taxes." No, I’m not talking about third-rate Westerns, I’m talking about American beer. All of the beers just mentioned can be had at the Toronado, a bar on our street in San Francisco that is known for its vast beer offerings, presently 47. The selection changes constantly.

Objectively you can only welcome having so many options. But this is beer, where everything is relative. When I’m standing at the bar I keep coming back to the fact that 47 kinds of beer are all very fine and well except that not one of them tastes the way a beer should taste. Or at least the way I’d like it to, which is to say like a Bavarian light.

As a Bavarian, I’m having a hard time getting used to the brews they call beer here. That may sound arrogant but what can you do: I grew up with beers brewed in accordance with the German Purity Law. These beers are praised worldwide. (It is true that many of the beers mentioned here, like German beer made in accordance with the purity law, do not contain additives.)

An informal poll among German expat friends here from Hamburg, Hesse and Saxony showed that they feel the same way about American beer as I do.

That's what beer tastes like back in Munich. Photo: Takeaway

Let’s take the case of IPA, or Indian Pale Ale. On first tasting this beer I thought the waiter had misunderstood my order and brought me a kind of shandy of beer and peach or maybe cherry juice. Or maybe the problem was the glass hadn’t been washed thoroughly enough. Only when I went on tasting did it become clear that there was unfortunately no error: This brazen little cold drink dubbed "beer" was supposed to taste like that.

Death, taxes, hangovers

With Indian Pale Ale the taste of hops stands out. And because a light taste of hops such as we are familiar with in Bavaria isn’t enough for many American breweries they use aroma hops (not to be confused with aromatized hops). These hops have names like Centennial, Citra, Amarillo, Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk. The result is an artificial-seeming fruit taste that makes a frontal assault on my taste buds.

Then there’s lager. That’s the one that most resembles Bavarian light, but what it mostly tastes like is beer left over from the day before, as if a server at Oktoberfest had mixed what was left in a bunch of steins. There’s also stout, which is dark, and steam beer the result of a unique brewing process. Jack London ordered it in San Francisco in 1880, as he writes in his "alcoholic memoir." He probably passed his whole life without being able to taste Bavarian beer, poor guy.

No shortage of choice at the Toronado. Photo: Charles Haynes

Not only, politely put, would you have to acquire a taste for this stuff, but the headaches the next day are unbearable. At the Toronado, after three pints you get a hangover that, at the Hofbräuhaus, would take five liters (1 liter = 33.8 U.S. fl oz) to bring on. A pint is about the equivalent of the sort of glass you drink caipirinhas from.

Anyway, as a newbie I courageously tried the most unusual beers. But when a beer called "Death and Taxes" actually tastes like that I find myself wishing I’d ordered a cup of chamomile tea.

I’ve stopped experimenting, it gets me nowhere. When I order beer now I order Belgian — albeit no cherry beer, thank you very much! — or Czech. If I’m really in luck I’ll happen on a bar that has German export, balm for my culinary homesickness.

My hairdresser went to Munich recently and she raved about how good the beer is. But then she said: "There’s just one thing I don’t understand. Why do the biergartens only have two or three beers to choose from?" I resisted telling her that any one of them beats all 47 choices at a certain bar in the neighborhood.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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