Mikkeller Bar San Francisco, Younger Days in Sonoma County, and Los Angeles
The Week of February 5th, 2016
From the interstate to arterial corridors to the mixed-use neighborhood streets of San Francisco, through the car window I took in the massive rolling hills and the projected moving picture show of twinkling firefly lights from homes set sky-high in the night time silhouetted mountains. The air was clean and clear with distant views simply breathtaking.
I hopped out of my astonishingly expensive Uber ride from the arrival terminal to Mission District, which I opted for instead of taking Bay Area Rapid Transit – which was free. In a foreshadowing experience, my lack of planning would come around to play out in full inefficiency. This would soon garner change in the way all of my future trips would be planned, for this was my first solo beer adventure anywhere of consequence, and I had decided to foolishly wing it.
Wheeling my suitcase up the sidewalks which were pitched so heavily they’d all be majorly failing ADA compliance by Chicago standards, I wondered how anyone in a wheelchair could physically survive there without being regularly launched through the air like a broken roller coaster.
For my first Airbnb experience of all time, I landed myself in the Mission among some sort of small commune. Naked strangers of all features, sexes and genders, body types and cleanliness levels roamed about, inviting me to tea and what not. I wasn’t specifically bothered by the nudity of random humans. Clothed or otherwise, I really just wanted to be alone wherever I was staying. Lesson two might have been to actually read the app before booking a bed. I might have steered my search away from “nudist cult”. Anyway, I found myself coming home very late every night, waking, showering and leaving extremely early every morning.
That initial eve, I walked a few blocks off Mission Street for a Mission-Style Burrito, and then randomly ended up at a remarkable cocktail bar called The Royal Cuckoo Organ Lounge in Bernal Heights. My visit felt like a climb-up into grandma’s cluttered attic where she keeps all the knickknacks. Toys, tinsel, and taxidermy. Sixties Psych Rock records crammed on to old shelving and vintage fire-hazard Christmas bulbs strung about with glee. All was aglow in red-tinted flushes of light reminding me of the warmth and familiarity of places back home like The California Clipper. When my eyes adjusted enough, I noticed lounge tables sporting wooden church pews of old.
As I sipped an impeccably crafted Manhattan called Antica, built on Basil Haden and Apple Jack soaked cherries, I listened to a man wail away on a Hammond organ. By my second drink I noticed the guy was most likely blind, and his magical organ was built right in to the bar. Jazz, Blues and Soul songs filled the air while I savored the beautiful creations the barkeep with a joke at the ready, continued to concoct and slide my way.
I kept a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises tucked in my pocket, so I could pretend to be Hemingway or some sort of expat when I’d read on a random stoop or park bench to smoke cigars. Every sun rise of my stay in Mission District I would start my day hiking up and down the sidewalk to a local café called Cup, where I’d sit with my coffee, my book and a scone, reading the novel sprees of decadence of the Lost Generation trying to forget the Great War.
Nothing mass-transit screams 1970s retrofuturism to me more than the BART system in San Francisco. My time with the adorable space-coaster projected me to rides at Showbiz Pizza when I was little. The Pizza Time Theatre helicopter was just a little bit janky and worn but very simple to operate. Angled and smooth like a science fiction rail conveyance but with only one functional button and a lot of blinking lights. Maybe a coin slot or a worn Atari joystick attached for that weary sense of rattle-y fun. I didn’t ride the Transway Tube which plunges underwater and goes for three miles, only to resurface in Oakland. Next time.
As a coffee devotee, Blue Bottle in SoMa was a pilgrimage destination. This of course was a few years before the all-around bummer of a 500 million dollar buyout from Nestle. I walked in to witness my surroundings and zap off a message to my friend group chat. I got a response that one of my friends was currently at Sump Coffee in St Louis at the exact same moment I was at Blue Bottle. At that very second a flock of pink, translucent doves ascended to the cotton candy sky as two friends were linked in a wormhole vortex from one small batch coffee destination to the next.
I swung by the iconic Tanner Family home on Broderick Street. You’re right…this is the very same abode where Stephanie drove Uncle Joey’s car right through the damn kitchen, AND the exact same house where DJ met her romantic interest Viper, you know, from Uncle Jesse’s second band Hot Daddy and the Monkey Puppets? Have mercy!
As a roaming hermit I traversed land and sea to reach the top of Twin Peaks and with the fog to the west facing slopes of Eureka and Noe, I got to witness the stunning view from the highest height. From the geographic center of the city, I grabbed the below photo, which does nothing by way of justice to the actual spellbinding view of the North-East area of the San Francisco Peninsula and Twin Peaks Boulevard.
With boat shoes on, a helmsman couriered me beneath The Golden Gate Bridge, through Golden Gate, from the Bay in to the Pacific and back. There’s a reason the International Orange, Art Deco marvel is considered one of the Wonders of the Modern World. A suspension bridge fashioned to suspend disbelief. Truss arches engineered by poet and mathematician, built during the height of the Great Depression, and retrofit for seismic shifts and jitters from the San Andreas Fault. My visit predated the suicide nets installed to catch jumpers. Fifteen-hundred deaths by impact or ocean-chilled hypothermia.
To add to that darkness, Alcatraz Island is right there. Tending the mast, the captain tilted me around the haunted Rock of tortured, murderous souls. Straightjackets and salt water spray. I saw the shell of the mansion, which used to stand luxurious in glittering contrast next to the rugged penitentiary of American Gangsters and grit. The house now in shambles due to arson, the IOAT and Red Power movement taking the island in 1969. A lighthouse beacon of isolation, death, fire and confinement.
On a cuter note, there is sea lion colony! They decided to take up residence at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 for an unknown reason. At some point in 1989, before Dave Stewart and the Bash Brothers took the Battle of the Bay over Will Clark and the Giants at Candlestick, the sea lions made their way…and there they have stayed.
Roaming the fog of the downtown San Francisco streets once again, dodging the manually operated cable cars I ventured my way to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, origin and epicenter of hippie counterculture philosophy. Respiratory intake is still equal parts weed smoke and weed smoke in the Hunter S. Thompson dubbed “Hashbury”. I walked the entirety of Haight Street trying to channel the Beat writers and Ginsberg’s American poetry avant-garde Renaissance.
I got in contact with a Haight-Ashbury friend named Sam who I had previously met at Sportsmans Club back home in Chicago. Sportsmans Club being the linker of people and the life-changing facilitator of stories and hugs, I trusted the connection not to fail. I told her that for the window of time I had with her I was searching for three things: Thai food, legitimate cocktails, and a pristine coffee experience (because that Philz shit was not making the grade). Living for bold flavor and circumstances alike, she started me out at Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine back in Mission for green curry with eggplant, chilies, lime, and copious milk from coconuts.
As a field guide to single origin expression immaculate and pure, Sam pointed me toward Sightglass Coffee on 20th Street, where they displayed intuition on attaining a perfect roast from freshly harvested fruit lots and meticulous sourcing from specific growing altitudes, climate, soil type and farm condition.
Taking their name from the tiny viewing window on their vintage roaster, which exposes the complex process of a dialed-in roast, they had a lively collab with a farm in Huila, Columbia called Finca Alcatraz, which, to come full circle was named after the Nicholas Cage vehicle The Rock. Lychee, panna cotta and deep blackberry juiciness filled my mug.
Directly next door to Sightglass sits Trick Dog, a whimsically ingenious cocktail establishment that changes its trope and marvelously innovative drink menu every six months. At the time of my visit, the menu was based on files from a top-secret agency called the Bureau of Advanced Research and Conspiracies (B.A.R.C.). The drink list included mixology varietals from the tune of Sasquatch to the song of crop circles. I’ve read that the menu profiles over the years have varied all the way from a hippie survivalist catalogue to a Dr Seuss-inspired rhyme book.
Trick Dog’s venue is semi-industrial and mainly for standing, unless you enter in broad daylight like we did – then you can somewhat easily grab one of the multi-colored barstools. There’s a tiny balcony for diners – mezzanine seating which overhangs to a witness of the zestful magic show the bartenders present as they tumult illusion over highball and stemware, cocktails adorned with tiny PB&J sandwiches or infused with seaweed.
Back on the solo tip, I made the trip to Tenderloin to visit the first of many Mikkeller Bar taprooms I would end up exploring over the years. O.G. gypsy Mikkel Bjergsø’s Scandimodern fun room at the lower end of Mason Street, sits in a vintage Victorian building, interior stripped down to existing brick with neon and Nordic touches. Antique streetlight fixtures pulled originally from Copenhagen and steel beams dating back to 1907, which frame the four-sided bar in rustic form. The walls, of course, are scattered with artwork by Keith Shore as prominent décor bringing me mysteriously familiar vibes.
I sat down to scan the forty-beer tap list, not including two cask handles – a Murderer’s Row. My heart did palpitate to the ’27 Yankees roster of sours and wild ales from far away lands. I witnessed collaborative beers with Three Floyds I had never even heard of. In accord with mystique, they provided War Pigs. At that point in time (over five years prior to this writing), War Pigs brews were a distant echoing and mystic rumor to me and could only be found in Denmark.
The smoked meat options are coplanar and congruent with the aggressive tap list. I chatted with new friends I met at the bar, outlasting every one of them until it was just the Cicerone-certified bartenders and I during those quiet windows of reflection.
I reveled in the savory madness of brisket and smoked spaetzle, offset and accentuated by a barrel aged Beer Geek Breakfast Vanilla Shake stout – vanilla beans in a French press, I was all boozed up over some roasty chocolate malt. Things got a little blurry as I commented on some fella’s neck-tat. It’s amazing how similar a tattoo of the State of California and the shape of Chicago look after an indulgent array of Lambic, and imperial stout.
The Tenderloin Series – four beers exclusive to the San Francisco taproom, as well as everything else on tap, are controlled by a contraption they call the Flux Capacitor, which regulates temperature, carbon dioxide and/or nitrogen levels for each individual keg. Colder pours for a bright pale ale and a warmer cascade for a barleywine.
Mikkeller Bar SF has a cellar called Tivoli Sour Room name after the world’s oldest amusement park located in the middle of downtown Copenhagen. Due, once again, to my reckless and stupid lack of planning, I did not know it existed when I was there, sitting for hours – directly above it. Wild gems – Lambic and gueuze from all over the world including Cantillon and Mikkeller’s own Baghaven barrelhouse, aged lovingly and poured with finesse…I would have to imagine.
I only learned about Tivoli Sour Room after the fact, and I’ve added it to my cumulative list of inefficiency for this particular trip. I’ve since made up for this by visiting the actual Tivoli amusement park, but until I get back to San Francisco there will be a 750ml regretful void in my spirit.
Late that night I ended up sitting on a hill in Delores Park, east of Twin Peaks in the warm microclimate of Mission District, talking for hours to a girl I had gone on two dates with back home – my future wife.
I wheeled my suitcase out of my filthy commune Airbnb the next day and took my time getting over to the rent-a-car place. Early morning coffee antics of pastry and park bench, Habano and Hemingway. The plan was to drive to Santa Rosa and attend Younger Days at Russian River Brewing.
Santa Rosa sits in Sonoma County wine country. If you head over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the woods, pass Petaluma, about an hour north of San Francisco you will land in Russian River Valley. Frequent intrusion of cooling fog from the coast, flowing through the Petaluma Wind Gap and the channel, cut by the river helps to yield very distinct appellation for grapes. Fifteen-thousand acres planted to wine grapes. But my goal for that weekend wasn’t the grape so much as the hop. More specifically, boatloads of hops.
Younger Days is Russian River Brewing’s yearly non-ticketed event for the release of Pliny the Younger, a draught-only Triple IPA. Well, since Covid-19 took the romanticism out of most things, I should say up until 2020 it was exclusively draught-only. No cans, bottles or even growler fills to takeaway for about fifteen years straight.
The beer was available on tap only at the Santa Rosa brewpub, only on a show-up basis, and only available until the final keg kicked, spraying celestial, effervescent foam all over the last Younger Days customer at the bar. Beer fans congregate in droves outside the tiny location placed in a plaza, in the middle of the small downtown area, hoping and waiting.
I checked in to Hotel La Rose. Cobbled together by Italian stonemasons in the early 1900s, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square, my place of crashing for the night was an ideal five-minute walk from my brewpub of destination.
As I approached the venue, the horizon gave way to an infinite line of other white males with beards, tee shirts and paunch winding about and zagging between buildings through alleyways. My saunter slowed to a halt at the beginning of the line. I stood there for about an hour chatting with fellow geekstrangers and nerdbombers, as the novelty of what was going on began to diminish.
As the minutes ticked on in the west coast heat, things came in to focus for me that a reality might come to pass where I don’t get inside of Russian River at all.
I witnessed three guys in dad jeans get booted the fuck out for buying bottles of Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig to stash in their car, and then attempting to go back inside. Furrowed brows, bafflement and white New Balances stomping pavement, I thought it would come to fisticuffs. Security was not messing around with these gentlemen and these particular dads didn’t get to enjoy any Pliny the Younger. That’s it, Skippy. Pack your shit. You’ve got to know the etiquette with these types of things before just brazenly flaunting the rules, man. We’ve all seen the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld.
Getting in to that taproom was my only plan for that entire day, and the mooks who got yanked might have bought me a solid twenty minutes. But that line was just not moving quickly enough.
The math was present: the number of people in line, divided by the max number of bodies allowed inside per California fire code, less the minutes every party would spend inside added together, equals the amount of minutes remaining that the place was actually open for, before Semisonic begins playing on the stereo. I did not need a measuring tape to see how long that line was. What I needed was something to defy these physics.
Decidedly, what I needed was a beeracle.
Now, the one thing I knew for sure about standing in lines is that you never walk away from one. Never give up. The reinforcement of this idea came to pass in due time as it always does for the dedicated. The precise moment where I established that I may very well be standing there alone all night, was the exact second a Russian River employee stepped off of a hovering silver-lined cloud to a chorus of cherubim and harpsichord, arms open; ready for embrace, asking if anyone in the line was there alone.
They had an open seat at the bar – for one.
I was swiftly ushered by golden chariot, passing up a blurry line of one million people who had all arrived before I had. I was elegantly guided to the taproom doors, which opened magically on their own amongst a swirling gust of stardust. I was gingerly shepherded directly toward the brewpub bar and the one, open, glimmering throne of glory.
For the next few hours, I ate pizza and imbibed at an altar of adoration and imagination modern and old-world both. I was seated next to a pale apparition of Pliny the Elder himself, the Roman Magistrate and influential naturalist who was there to celebrate. He didn’t say much. We were busy facing a display of tap handles unlike anything we’d ever seen. Pure prose coinciding with the ancient gruit harvesters’ lunar calendar where microfloric spores are at their peak and incantations yield bubbling formulas mysterious.
Pliney the Younger is definitely the most storied Triple IPA to come to market, and for important reason. You don’t want to mix emotions up with beer like that. You’ll lose the taste. The twelfth edition was golden ambrosia to fill my vessel and grant me immortality as a penitent man who had faith and who made it through the gauntlet.
Given the allotment of pours I could receive based on my wristband, I stayed at that bar with the old, ghostly man as long as I possibly could.
I picked up coffee, lit a cigar and left Santa Rosa by 9 AM in my rental car (there is a risk calculation involved with smoking in rental cars, and somehow with correction factors involved, it is worth it every single time). I had full intention of hitting Downtown Los Angeles by 3 or 4 PM to spend that afternoon and night hanging out with my friend Dave. I thought it would be cool to drive down Pacific Highway Route 1 the entire stretch – and it was. But just to chalk up another ill-conceived, not-very-well-thought-out idea, I did not realize it would actually take me fourteen hours to get there on this twisted, scenic path.
Big Basin Red Woods State Park, Pomponio Beach, Pacifica, Montara, McNee Ranch State Park, Big Sur. Inches from the Pacific Ocean and imminent death if it weren’t for the longevity granted from Pliny himself. Zero cellphone signal and both hands, sweaty-palmed, clutching the steering wheel white-knuckled for the entire ride, constantly and relentlessly maneuvering non-stop hairpin curves of pure demise. Violently looping back and forth, this would have been the most beautiful scenery of all my life if I had one second to take my focus off the impending doom California considers a roadway. For reasons obvious, one might notice there are no pictures of this insanity included in this piece.
Guardrails are pointless when the path is only seven feet wide. You edge off the road, you’re not being retained by some tiny attenuator. No, you’re flying four hundred feet off the goddamn map into a barrel-rolling, cartoonish oblivion only to be sliced up by razor-jagged rock shards and subsequently swallowed by the monstrous emerald sea. Blood mixed with E-85 may shoot up in an ocean spray spritzer for a few seconds, witnessed by seagulls and crabs, but no one would ever actually find your corpse because you’ll then be dismembered and digested by sharks.
So my plan for arrival was postponed by the unexpected continuous braking and 180 degree turnabouts, squiggling my way with tumbling boulders aloft.
By the time I got to Los Angeles, comically, it was almost midnight. I met Dave and his friend Dan at Perch, a French-inspired rooftop bistro, located atop the Pershing Square Building. I got acquainted with Dan amongst bottled drinks under an unobstructed 360-degree view of DTLA. Along the floating nighttime skyline we made a blood pact to reunite in a Chicago future and become the best of pals.
Dave showed us a beercade called EightyTwo near Skid Row, where I was keen on a shaker pint of Angel City IPA while playing Burger Time and Ms. Pac Man before switching over to annihilate some poor schmuck in Street Fighter 2. I don’t care who you are – you try to fuck with me as Guile, I’m having someone hold my beer while steady servin’ jabbz 2 your jaw. Sonic boom. Down for the count.
This was my first time in LA I was simply perplexed by the fact that everyone out there drives, for one, and two, between that window of 2 and 4 AM, we seemed to be having a really tough time finding a bar that was open. We tried to go to Viper Room but it was closed for the evening.
Those last few hours of drunken, beclouded murk escape me a bit but I recall riding shotgun to “There, There” which meant a lot to me. Dave was playing it on CD for me. Right before he moved to California, we had just recently reconnected after a four-year stint of not speaking to one another, and he put on the track knowing it was my favorite Radiohead song. Cruising around Arts District and Little Tokyo taking it all in, we hit two more dive bars under nebulous memories of people squawking karaoke notes to “This Must be the Place” from Wall Street, and “The Man Who Sold the World”. The latter made me gloomy since David Bowie had just recently passed away at the time.
Dave dropped me at my rental car and gave me his address because, of course under my ill-defined “plan”, I didn’t even think to get a hotel room. I drove to the address Dave gave me and knocked. No one responded. I called him a few times, but there was no answer. I didn’t want to ring the doorbell, because come on. If someone isn’t answering his or her phone then that’s it. Call it quits.
As it began to get chilly, I crawled exhausted and hammered, in to the back seat of the Hertz and fell asleep like a junkie out of Requiem for a Dream or some shit. Curled up like a cat, trying to use my own body to warm my own body, I’m here to tell you, even a Mediterranean, subtropical climate like Los Angeles gets cold at 4 AM in February. Not Chicago-February-cold, but definitely “wake up the next morning with a wretchedly sore throat” cold. I started to doze off feeling like the odds of Dave being curled up in a warm bed at that moment were actually pretty low. Lying in that vehicle that night, I had to wonder if Dave had a home at all.
With my lack of Californian itinerary this is where my trip had led me – falling asleep with no blanket to regrets of my inefficiency in planning. The craziest part being I still was to drive back to San Francisco with one more day and night there before flying home!
Perhaps a tangent universe exists with an alternate timeline where I put together and utilize a well-researched agenda beforehand. Maybe…just maybe in this world I begin my trip in Santa Rosa, then drive south and continue on, ending my trip in an actual hotel and flying home from Los Angeles. Anything would have been better logistically than what I was doing. Maybe this variant of my reality utilized efficiency in order to maximize my travel experience. Maybe it takes me to Toronado, which I dumbly walked right by on Haight Street. Maybe the Art museum in SoMa, or Whitechapel. The list continues. I do believe this reality exists somewhere in space-time, and as I shivered into rickety slumber in the back of a car I did not own, I felt maybe one day I could touch that unfettered plane.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
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