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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.

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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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088269 alt="""" original_size="640x228" expand=1]

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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