Booze of the World 1: California

In the first instalment of a regular feature I’m oh-so-cleverly calling Booze of the World, here’s a run-down of tremendous tipples and wonderful watering holes from LA to San Francisco.

Californian wine gurus may not want to admit it, but there’s not much they can do that the French haven’t done first.

As a Brit who has holidayed in France, where even a dirt-cheap vin de table can be delicious, it’s going to take something pretty special to measure up to what’s on offer just a short hop across La Manche.

When it comes to beer though, the US can claim to have blazed a trail. The old cliche in the UK is that Americans swig watery Budweiser by the gallon without stopping to taste the stuff, with flavour sacrificed to the greater aim of getting legless. Why else would you drink that swill, right?

But while bearded British ale snobs have been cocking a snook at our American cousins, for the past decade and more they’ve quietly been leading a craft beer revolution. So what’s on offer?

Los Angeles

If we’d stayed longer than three days i’m sure there would have been more bars to tell you about but the casual tourist can’t go wrong with the Venice Ale House, a beachside people-watching venue mentioned in LA: The Debrief.

Still getting used to the novelty of hot sunshine in October, I went for a cooling slow-fermented Alaskan Amber Ale, which proved thirst-quenching and not too hoppy. I instinctively feel like hoppiness is better on rainy cold days, don’t ask me why.

India Pale Ale fan Franki opted for the Stone Ruination, which did the job without being spectacular. To be honest, we were so jet-lagged that our tastebuds weren’t firing on all cylinders just yet.

If you’re in Hollywood, it’s also worth dropping into the Snake Pit Alehouse on Melrose Avenue. It’s fairly short on variety but still stocks some delicious craft beers, albeit nothing that out of the ordinary. On Abbot Kinney Boulevard, pretty much hipster central, there’s a great selection at The Other Room, although i’m always suspicious of any bar so darkly lit that you can’t see your own shoes.

My only regret about drinking in LA (Remember that song? Wasn’t it awful?) is not managing to sip a White Russian at a bowling alley, Big Lebowski style. What can i say Dude, i was out of my element.

San Francisco

This easy-to-love city’s blend of groovy nonchalance and youthful creativity makes for some fine watering holes.

Every bar or pub serves a strong selection of ales and lagers to put the average British pub to shame. I was particularly glad to find plenty of examples of an old favourite of mine from living in Germany – a refreshing Koelsch lager.

Putting beer aside for the moment though (it’s alright, you can pick it up again later) it’s also worth stopping into flavour-of-the-month eatery Nopa. In this ultra-popular spot, a late brunch can be accompanied by some pretty special cocktails.

My poison was a simple and refreshing Montenegro Lime (Amaro montenegro, lime). Franki sipped a Poinsettia (Cranberry juice, Gran Classico, Cava).

Make sure to reserve, or you might find yourself waiting an hour or more for food while sifting through what’s on offer at the bar. Which may not be a bad thing, of course.

Magnolia, on infamous Haight Street, is a pub-brewery-restaurant bearing architectural vestiges of its previous incarnation as a 1920s pharmacy. There are plenty of quality ales here should you need refreshment after wading through the thick cumulo-nimbus clouds of marijuana smoke suffusing original hippie hangout corner Haight-Ashbury. Try the Spud Boy IPA, brewed on site.

By far the highlight of San Francisco (booze-wise) was Monk’s Kettle, the daddy of San Francisco gastroboozers. We happened to visit this spot in the Mission district on the night that San Francisco’s baseball team, the Giants, won the World Series.

We walked straight from a raucous street party (imagine what it would be like if England won the World Cup) into this Mecca for beer-lovers. If such a notion isn’t inherently blasphemous.

The beer menu is so door-stoppingly large it could be serialised in a Sunday newspaper. Browse it here in all its glory.

The Levitation Ale is a smooth-drinking amber that slips down like ambrosia, the crisp Reissdorf Koelsch was a taste of the Rhine-Ruhr, while IPA-lovers should enjoy the Idiot, a well-rounded Double/Imperial offering draft that impresses without trying to do too much in any one aspect.

The knowledgeable waiting staff here are happy to help you choose and tables close to the bar have blackboards and chalk, for tipsy games of hangman. This is where beer lovers who have been extra good go when they die.

Highway 1

We drove from San Francisco back to LA, taking the scenic Highway 1 through beautiful Big Sur, staying in Monterrey, Morro Bay and Santa Barbara.

Special mention should go to The Libertine, a rough-and-ready tavern in the picturesque fishing village of Morro Bay with a wide and rotating selection of rare and local beers. ’48 rotating draft handles’, boasts the website.

But no trip down the Cali coast would be complete without visiting a winery along the way. Perhaps i came across a bit sniffy about Californian wine earlier in this post and that wasn’t fair. Inspired by a bottle of lush, apricotty Viognier from the Victor Hugo Winery (served at the excellent The Galley fish restaurant in Morro Bay), we stopped at the Roblar winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.

We enjoyed a tasting of five wines each, although sadly i was driving in the afternoon and had to donate part of my allocation with heavy heart to Franki. Here’s a picture of me with a heavy heart.

Highlights were a mouth-dominating cherry-noted 2011 Grenache and the 2012 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, which offered rich fruit flavours rather than the minerality i usually dislike about this grape. Both went very well with Roblar’s delicious flatbread pizzas. The winery itself is in a peaceful sunny estate that wouldn’t look out of place in the depths of rural Provence, despite being only a stone’s throw from the freeway.

The wining/dining area itself is rather less rustic but stylishly decorated in the manner of an old farmhouse renovated with modernist flair.

The verdict

In our limited experience, California is something of a tippler’s haven, with beer, wine and cocktails to write home about. It’s also hard to get about without driving though, so make sure you have a designated driver or enough greenbacks for a cab/Uber.

Top tipple: Work your way through those local Californian IPAs but i loved the Reissdorf Koelsch.

Gourmet’s choice: 2011 Grenache (14.9%, $32 a bottle), a blend from Roblar and the Camp 4 estate.

Bubbling under: Irish Coffee was supposedly popularised by the Buena Vista Cafe near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a creamy treat.

What to slur drunkenly: “Hey careful man, there’s a beverage here!” [The Dude, 1998]

Next stop on Booze of the World: Guatemala



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