By Bobby Bush
Sometimes pain can be a blessing. I'd spent all day on a lousy plane in complete agony. In the throes of screaming back pain, lightning shooting down to my left ankle, I suffered an agonizing journey and found sweet relief, shortly after landing, at San Francisco's fabled Haight Street beer bar, Toronado. An amazing array of draft and bottled brews, micros and imports, filled the worn wooden wall behind the bar. A knowledgeable, though physically intimidating female bartender complete with numerous pierced body parts, helped with my selection. She latter introduced me to proprietor David Keene, a beer freak and extremely likable fellow, even if he didn't have all those beers. From Hoegaarden to Arrogant Bastard Ale to Anchor Harvest Ale and Alaska Smoke Porter, the selection was interesting and the choice impossible.
Up early the next morn, Sunday as it was, I had planned to drive to Sacramento to cruise several new brewpubs. Barely across the San Mateo Bridge, eight miles of hell on this particular trip, I immediately slid my rental vehicle into the dirt as the span ended. It took several minutes to compose myself, cursing as spikes pierced my vertebrae in multiple directions. Finally clear-headed, it was obvious that the two hour drive to the state capital would take eight, so I diverted instead only fifteen minutes north to Berkeley, home of the University of California, a liberal institution if there ever was one.
Though I'd visited several times in the past, Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse remains one of my favorites. Roaring Rock Brewery, as it was originally known, opened its doors on March 14, 1986, and is California's second oldest and America's fifth oldest brewpub. It is the only one still brewing with its original brewery and operated by the same owners. And it's fun in spite of all the history.
There are two things that ease torturous back pain like mine: anti-inflammatory drugs and beer; not taken simultaneously, mind you. (That medical advise will be 60 bucks, please). You know my drug of choice- a simple concoction consisting of barley, hops, water and yeast. It's what Triple Rock does with those ingredients that's so amazing. Seven brews were on tap. Rocked IPA was gold, crowned with white foam. Though it spelled hops all over, it hid a sweet underlying malt taste. The cask version of Meyer's ESB ran out the night before, so I tried the carbonated version. Fruity flavor stopped quickly with a short bitter whip at the end. Red Rock Ale, their "amber," was all right, though Stonehenge Stout, with brown head and harsh entrance, melded into a smooth, grand treat. I skipped over Buddha's Brown Mild and Black Rock Porter and took a shortcut to Dragon's Milk. This strong Scottish Brown Ale, dark reddish-brown in color, started chocolate, giving way to a roasted harshness, all within a rather thin body. My nightcap, er, it was just noon, was Blitzen Ale, a seasonal mild brew with a peppery aftertaste.
Since my last visit several years ago, this ancient brewpub has added 12 new tap handles, increasing the number of selections without decreasing quality. The walls are adorned with 1900s breweriana and the front window still sports the adage: "Open every day of the year you can get beer." Just a college town bar with good sandwiches and great beer, Triple Rock has become a Berkeley institution.
Feeling absolutely no back pain (a beer-fueled miracle), I hightailed it over to Pyramid Alehouse. The original Pyramid opened in Washington State in 1984 and was one of America's initial micros. The company merged with lager brewery Thomas Kemper in 1992. A Pyramid Alehouse was established in Seattle in 1995. And this Bezerkeley location began operations in January 1997.
Though the menu recommended a specific beer for each food item, I was only interested in beer. And plenty they had: seven Pyramid ales and five Thomas Kemper lagers. Ah! The spicy, smart Snow Cap, thoroughly hoppy IPA and berry-esque Winterbrau were particularly pleasing, though the Expresso's creamy, smooth mocha to coffee brew won my prize.
Behind this huge restaurant and bar is a well-equipped microbrewery. Stainless steel fermenters, at 250 barrels each, are everywhere. Boxes of Thomas-Kemper soft drinks, in flavors like orange, black cherry, rootbeer and cream soda, are stacked among pallets of bottled beer ready for shipment.
Pyramid Alehouse is fascinating. And my pinched nerve was (temporarily) on vacation.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush