At Brotzeit, a new beer garden on Oakland's Embarcadero, the scent of sizzling, fennel-flecked bratwurst wafts across the waterfront as I bite into puffy spaetzle and wipe the Doppelbock from my lips. Ahh, it's good to be civilized.
Up until now, American beer consumption was far from that: frat boys crushing cans on their foreheads, dizzy from keg stands of flavorless macrobrew. But the craft brewery movement that began in the 1990s slowly changed that. Light pilsners. Dark stouts. Sour lambics. Suddenly, beer was like food, made in small batches using fresh ingredients. Practically every town launched an Oktoberfest, and, once a year, you could clink steins with pride.
In the latest phase of this craft beer revolution, beer gardens began popping up across the country, offering the communal tables, appropriate glassware and German eats of their Bavarian brethren. The trend is particularly hot in Northern California, where craft beer is king and San Francisco's Zeitgeist and The Tourist Club, a beer hall nestled in the woods of Mill Valley's Mount Tamalpais, have become cultural landmarks.
Now, a new wave of beer gardens, from Oakland's Brotzeit to San Francisco's Biergarten and Mountain View's Steins, are joining their ranks. While some stick to biergarten tradition, others are embracing a distinctly modern American aesthetic.
What they all share is a love of rare German beers and a desire to foster community.
"In a park or on the street, this is the way people have been eating and drinking and meeting for hundreds of years in Europe," says Aaron Hulme, co-owner of both Suppenkuche and Biergarten, which opened two years ago in San Francisco's Hayes Valley. "It is what we had (in America) before Prohibition, and we are starting to re-engage in that civil dialogue now."
Paulaner, Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, Erdinger -- The multigenerational element of these German beer halls is what stuck with Brotzeit co-owner and executive chef Lev Delany when he spent 2001 cooking and living in Berlin. He wanted to bring that back to Oakland.
"These aren't just for hipsters," Delany says. "There are old people and kids. People eat dinner and linger for two hours talking to the people next to them. There's no pressure to pay the bill and leave."
Delany makes everything in-house, from sausages to sauerkraut. He carves loins from Marin Sun Farms split market hogs to make Wiener schnitzel. For grammel schmaltz, a whipped pork spread richer than bone marrow, he adds garlic, salt, pepper and fresh herbs to rendered pork fat and spreads it on a warm pretzel. He says learning to cook with beer has been a welcome challenge.
"These (Bavarian) beers aren't super hoppy like what Americans are used to," says Delany, who braises whole Rosie's chickens in beer for his Romertopf platter. "They have depth, complexity. That's another thing. I think people are ready for a new style of beer and an experience beyond bars."
It's true. Los Angeles-based Beeroness blogger Jackie Dodd says there has been a "changing of the beer tide" ever since craft beer went from underground movement to mainstream appreciation. As many as 30 craft breweries open every month in the United States, she says.
They need traplines for their "liquid bread," as do German microbreweries, such as Andechs, a Benedictine monastery that has brewed beer since 1455. Andechs just released a few precious kegs to the West Coast for the first time. That's where beer gardens come in.
"More people are understanding why craft beers are important and seeking them out," Dodd says. "At these pub-style restaurants, you can take your family, and sometimes even your dog, have an authentic brew and a cozy experience."
Cozy is the vibe at Steins, a chic, sprawling 350-seater that opened three months ago on Villa Street in Mountain View. Owner and beer aficionado Ted Kim spent 2006 in Munich, Amsterdam and Prague studying beer garden culture before launching the project.
He hired architect Marc Dimalanta (Alexander's Steakhouse) to design a "modern American version" of the classic German beer garden, with sleek, wooden communal tables, vaulted ceilings and outside, a massive California redwood instead of the chestnut trees common in Bavarian biergartens.
Two-thirds of Steins' taps are devoted to West Coast craft breweries, such as North Coast Brewing (Fort Bragg), Two Beers Brewing (Seattle) and Orange County home-brewer-turned-cult-fave The Bruery. They make their own bratwurst corn dogs and pretzels, but the menu is distinctly Californian, with beet salad, seared ahi and a hamburger made from a proprietary house-ground blend of dry-aged short rib, brisket and sirloin.
"We're definitely not beer garden with an I," says executive chef Colby M. Reade. "What we're trying to do is give Silicon Valley a taste of that Bavarian beer garden spirit, but doing it the California way. What's better than appreciating beer outside, especially here, where we have the best weather in the country?"
BAY AREA BEER GARDENS
Biergarten: From the Suppenkuche owners, this traditional Bavarian spot in Hayes Valley features German brews and locally sourced grub. 424 Octavia, S.F. http://biergartensf.com.
Steins: This modern American beer garden was inspired by the traditional biergartens of Prague and Munich. It serves homemade sausages, pretzels and other fare. Two-thirds of the taps are devoted to domestic craft beers; the other third is German and Belgian. 428 Villa St., Mountain View. http://steinsbeergarden.com.
Brotzeit: This boathaus and traditional Bavarian biergarten with communal tables is on the Oakland waterfront. Chef Lev Delany whips up homemade sausages, spaetzle, and Wiener schnitzel to go with rare German beers and a Linden Street-crafted Brotzeit house brew. http://brotzeitbiergarten.com.
The Tourist Club: The San Francisco branch of the worldwide Nature Friends organization opens its Bavarian beer hall to the public the first weekend of every month. Hiking is the preferred method of arrival, since the club is located off the Redwood and Sun trails on Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley. http://touristclubsf.org.
Gourmet Haus Stadt: Numbers say it all: 30 years of business, 11 German beers on tap and an adjacent German grocery store with 100 more German beers. The Haus Stadt also offers a small selection of snacks and bratwurst. 2615 Broadway, Redwood City. www.gourmethausstaudt.com.
Zeitgeist: A San Francisco institution, this Mission District beer-garden-meets-biker-bar focuses its 40 taps on American craft brews with a smattering of German and Belgian offerings. Grab hamburgers, bratwurst and grilled cheese on the backyard patio. 199 Valencia St., S.F. www.zeitgeistsf.com.
Beer Revolution: With 48 draft lines, this beer shop and bar focuses on American craft brews on tap with a front patio with communal tables. 464 Third St., Oakland. www.beer-revolution.com. Walk over to their new spot, The Olde Depot, with 40 beers on tap, plus beer-battered vegan bites. 468 Third Street. www.oldedepot.com.
Telegraph: A funky, graffiti-covered beer garden and cafe with 12 rotating taps and a wide selection of bottled domestic and imported beer, hamburgers and sandwiches. 2318 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510-444-8353. http://telegraphoakland.com.
Moxy Beer Garden: Fourteen taps dedicated to micro-local craft breweries, all within 100 miles or so. This just-opened beer garden offers organic brews, too. Try the vegan buffalo wings. 3136 Sacramento St., Berkeley. http://moxybeergarden.com.
-- Jessica Yadegaran