We were so intrigued with the idea of San Francisco's amazing palace of craft beer the CITY BEER STORE & impressed with Craig Wathen, the founder/owner/manager of said store, that we asked Craig a few questions via email about the store, the craft beer "scene" and so on. Craig (pictured on the right here), busy running the store pretty much on his own & dealing with an ever-burgeoning customer base of rabid beer hounds, was kind enough to sit down and compose some answers. Here's what he had to say:
Hedonist Beer Jive: Tell us a little bit about how the City Beer Store came about.
Craig Wathen: Beer, specifically drinking beer, has been a passion on mine for quite some time. As my pallet matured and my interest grew I spent more time seeking out quality beer experiences. I became frustrated by the lack of original selection and diversity of Bay Area package stores. I tasted many amazing beer in bars such as Toronado but could not find the product on anyone’s shelves. I had many questions but could not find anybody to guide me. Eventually I started to see this disappointment as an opportunity. It took about year of research to convince myself that this could work, and another year of finding the right time and place to open. I still feel that the City Beer Store is still a work in progress.
Hedonist Beer Jive: Obviously you’ve put together a business plan and invested some serious money in this venture – what makes you confident the store will succeed?
Craig Wathen: I have to admit about a week before I opened I was nervous....would anybody else be as into the concept as I was?!? The following weeks have helped to soothe my nerves. Reaction of those visiting the store has been extremely positive. Education and trial seemed to have struck a cord. My confidence comes from fact that people get it. I don’t have to spend time explaining why beer deserves its own store.
Hedonist Beer Jive: Is there anything particularly noteworthy about the San Francisco Bay Area that makes this store more viable than it might be elsewhere?
Craig Wathen: The Bay Area has shown a continued interest in high quality, small producer, creative cuisine...Better Beer is part of that. We in the Bay Area have as much of a claim to that tradition as any other area in the country. City Beer must highlight the artistry and history of Northern California brewing. We are a place to ask questions, try new styles of product and share experiences.
Additionally, San Francisco is a city that draws many tourist. We hope those who pass through San Francisco for business and pleasure will find us a window into the Northwest brewing scene.
Hedonist Beer Jive: What sorts of promotions or unique offerings are you seeking to provide that’s going to make City Beer a destination?
Craig Wathen: Some sort of promotion will always take place on Thursday evenings. They will range from simple/fun to highly informative. Past Thursday nights have included tasting the three styles of Chimay side by side (by side) to pairing cheeses with Hofbrau’s Mailbock. Larger events such as Brewer’s nights will also take place. Current information on these weekly events are distributed via our mailing list, but we hope to have a website up and going by August.
Hedonist Beer Jive: What were some of the liquor-law hurdles you had to overcome to get the store open?
Craig Wathen: When I first approached the ABC about creating a space that could serve both as a bottle shop and tasting bar, they said that it would be impossible. I could only be either a retail outlet or a bar but not both. When I brought up the example of the wine bar, the light went on. The ABC and I worked together to establish guidelines that would satisfy both parties. I agreed to pour only 6oz tastings. They agreed that I could sell packaged goods out the door as well as allow patrons to taste on-premise. We have found that the 6oz limitation is actually working in our favor. Customers can try more types of beers at a lower price while also keeping the alcohol in check. As far as I know we are the first establishment in California to receive this designation from the state of California.
Hedonist Beer Jive: Where do you see craft beer headed in this country? Are there encouraging signs you can point to?
Craig Wathen: Today we find the craft beer segment heathy and growing. Many brands survived the past decade strong and are still independent. Traditional six-pack brewers are now branching out and getting more creative. Anderson Valley has found success with their Brother David’s products. He’Brew and Butte Creek recently produced some truly unique batch beers.
New brewers are also taking more chances. Russian River is a great example of this. Truly artistic, spontaneous and accomplished.
Hedonist Beer Jive: What’s the most extreme or far-traveling move you’ve personally made to taste one particular beer you’ve heard or read about?
Craig Wathen: I once went on a date to Portland to drink beer. My girlfriend (then living in Atlanta) and I flew up to Portland for a long weekend explicitly to experience the beer culture. She passed the test....we got married last month.
Hedonist Beer Jive: Please list your 5 favorite beers – and let us know if you carry them as well, or if you don’t, why not.
Craig Wathen: #1 is clear: Budwar- This is the beer that made me fall in love with beer. I found it in the town of its origin Cesky Budiviche and have not looked back since. Perhaps it only exists in my mind’s eye, but I remember this product as brewing perfection. I can not bring myself to carry the American import "Chechwar" because it is not the same beer that I remember. Would you hang a Picasso in the bathroom? Why place this masterpiece in a green bottle?
2005 Old Stock- This is a beer that has benefited from aging. I appreciate way that the initial sweetness has given away to a drawn out scotch character. Buddha would use this beer as an exercise in patience. Like other vintage beers such as Vertical Ale and Gouldon Carlos Grand Cru I will store and release beers at regular intervals. Not currently available in my store, my remaining '05 Old Stock has been stored in a secret place and will come out until 2007.
Kostriker- When living in Eastern Europe, I recall two choices when entering a pub: dark or light? I routinely went dark. What I found was a flavorful session beer. Dark lagers are lost to American drinkers. Perhaps being stuck behind the Iron Curtain for so long has caused Kostriker to stick to tradition. Even the unique hint of smoke on the finish brings me back to the smell of coal burning furnaces burning on a cold Praha night. We do carry Kostriker in 120z bottles.
Chouffe IPA Tripel- Besides being a damn good beer, this product represents what I hope will be a sign of what is to come....Old World brewers trying New World styles. Too often in the culinary world, Old World producers stick only with their traditional works. My hope is the brewing world doesn’t entirely follow this tract. While it is important to preserve historic styles, experimentation will benefit us all. I do carry Chouffe IPA Tripel and will always support original brewing.
Gouldon Carlous - The Belgium Tripel style fascinates me. A highly transparent style, flaws can not be hidden away with high hops or extreme sweetness. What Het Anker does that puts it above the others is adds whispers of raisin and spice. How can all this flavor hide in such a slight beer without overpowering it? Unfortunately, I have seen this recommendation wasted on those who drink their beer too cold. The complexity of this beer can only be fully appreciated by taking the beer out of the refrigerator and periodically tasting it over 45 minutes to an hour. As the temperature drops the beer opens. Flavors will build and overlap on the pallet. Every experience with this beer is unique. We carry this product in 12oz bottles, as well as the Gouldon Carlous Grand Cru in 750ml bottles.
Pete’s Wicked Ale - Surprised?!? Although bought out and mainstreamed by Gambrinus, Pete’s will always be the brand that gave me the start in the craft beer industry. My first job after college, and my introduction to the beer industry, Pete’s will always have a place in my heart and on my shelf. Never forget your past.
Thanks to Craig for taking the time, and listen - this store is truly something else. If you're in San Francisco, check it out at 1168 Folsom Street, between 7th and 8th. (415) 503-1033.