By Bobby Bush
The land mass just to the left of Oakland Bay is known to locals as East Bay. And that's where ol' Suds, traveling light and alone, found himself on this rather bleak Sunday afternoon. Already a patron at two of Berkeley's fine brewpubs earlier in the day (see last week's ish), I had three more stops before heading south, then west back to south San Fran.
Bison Brewing Company was founded by California brewpub pioneer Bill Owens, and a host of other owners, close to ten years ago. Back in the early 90s it was a dive, a poor excuse for a brewpub. A dirty, tacky hippie hangout, little has changed in the ensuing years, though there have been improvements. Buffalo Bill has long been gone. Dreadlocks, pierced body parts and backpacks are still standard attire in this college town bar. And Bison's eclectic beer, always their saving grace, may have gotten better. Not that it was ever bad, mind you.
Finding a place at the small, crowded bar, not far from a gruff-looking individual with a talking parrot on his shoulder, I tried several Bison brews. Keeping one eye on the roving bird (are they house-trained?), the Coriander Rye Ale featured a high head of white foam. Boldly hopped, its bubbly body was spicy up-front only. The Chocolate Stout was available on cask and under forced carbonation. Although served too cold, Toasted Out Molasses Brown exhibited none of its expected characteristics. Flat and sharp, its complex flavor made for a good pale ale. Sorry, no molasses here. Gingerbread Ale, though neither exciting nor festive, held pleasant spice notes within its chocolate taste profile.
Bison features a limited food menu. Live music packs the place on weekend nights. Daylight fares better, with sunlight permeating the dour interior, highlighting strange artwork and livening up the place. Go to Bison Brewing for the beer, only for the beer.
Down in Oakland, Pacific Coast Brewing Company has been a brewing enigma since it opened in October 1988. Because its diminutive brewery is located in the basement, with no streetside access, brewer/co-owner Don Gortemiller brews with malt extracts. Disdained by all-grain brewers, which most brewpubs and micros are, Pacific Coast beers have beaten the odds, taking awards against stiff all-grain competition. Since their first in 1989, Pacific Coast has pulled in eight GABF medals, so say what you will about extract brews.
Amidst a selection of guest beers, which included Rogue Mogul, El Toro Oatmeal Stout, Sierra Nevada Big Foot and Mendocino Eye of the Hawk, were six house beers. Gray Whale Ale is the standard pale ale, a proportioned balance of sweetness and bitterness. The Emerald Irish Cask ran out just as I arrived, but Blue Christmas Ale, originally their '95 Yuletide offering, was a hopped up version of the strong amber Blue Whale Ale. Cloudy copper colored, Holiday Abbey was served in a goblet to temper its powerful Trappist alcoholic punch. Pilgrim's Porter received a dose of Vermont maple syrup and enough hops to prevent an overly sweet sensation. At 10% alcohol, the black, full-bodied Imperial Stout was surprisingly smooth, with roasted coffee flavor.
Pacific Coast is quaint, friendly and a beer fan's paradise, always with a unique seasonal brew or two.
In Hayward, about 15 miles south of Oakland, is California's original brewpub. Buffalo Bill's Brew Pub was founded by the aforementioned Bill Owens in 1983. New owners took over about 1994 and have really cleaned the place up. The food, especially, has benefited from the change. And the beer is just as good as ol' Bill made years ago.
White Buffalo and Buffalo Brew, two beginners brews, start the line up, followed by the hopped and honey-ed Buffalo Special Brew. Pumpkin Ale, an original Owens' creation, is brewed under contract. Bellehop Porter opens with strong roasted malt taste. Its thin body leaves a sweet aftertaste. Tasmanian Devil, called a strong ale, is close to an IPA. And the red-gold Moonlight Toast is malty, with a sweet-sour effect. Not only is Buffalo Bill's part of America's and California's brewing history, but it's a cool place to waste a few hours away.
Don't overlook the East Bay when visiting San Francisco.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush