SF BEER WEEK: The Hardest Working Bartenders Anywhere Pour Thousands of Glasses of Barleywines

Notes from Gail:  Barleywine Fest at Toronado is almost always a highlight for us on the beer calendar, except for those years when we are not quite up for the intensity of it.  Last year we opted out of the first day madness, and had some of the more pedestrian also-ran beers a few days later.  It’s not the same, and you miss your friends.

This year the Toronado Barleywine Festival was slated for the final Saturday of SF BEER WEEK.  For whatever reason, no other San Francisco events were scheduled opposite it. After a week of amazing activities with great word of mouth, here was Saturday and there was only Toronado, a good sized bar with the back room opened up, but always packed for this event, even without the amazing SF BEER WEEK anarchic buzz.  There was no getting around it.

We were there early to meet our friends and find a place in the crush.  The line down the street was full of people who’d made similar preparations.  Slept overnight in their car to get in line early. Brought bread, water, cheeses, empty sixpack carriers to hold little glasses, even Barleywine reference materials.

Barleywine is a perfect traditional English name for a strong, rich, malty amber to copper colored beer that can have flavors such as caramel, honey, toffee, citrus, sherry and more.  Some are semisweet, some relatively dry but usually very flavorful.  The American versions can have a lot of hop flavors, aromas and a bitter punctuation to all that malt.  They often have at least twice the alcohol of a typical lager, and are meant for sipping. You can can buy Barleywine this time of year in the bottle or on tap here and there, but it is still a relatively unknown style to the general public.

Barleywine Fest Line

So there we were, standing on rain-drenched Haight Street waiting for 11:00 am so we could go in and order little glasses of potent beer.  In our case to share sips and talk about Barleywine flavors with beer blogging friends. The bartenders of the Toronado would be proud of the conversation: people near us were briefing one another on how to order effectively, no chatting up the bartenders, say the size and the numbers of the Barleywine taps clearly and loudly. Have cash ready, tip respectfully.  Respect.

All this prep got me discombobulated enough that I managed to drop or leave my wallet after ordering the first flight, standing attentively at the bar with Jessica Jones. Thanks to the beer community and fabulous Toronado bartenders, it was returned to me unscathed in a SF BEER WEEK miracle within the hour, in another corner of the packed premises.  But we already admire the Toronado team for dealing with the almost impossible demand for this festival. Hey, thanks!

We had a great time, and saw a lot of happy friends.  Peter and Sam Estaniel shared a table with JJ and other friends as planned.

Peter Estaniel of Better Beer Blog and pal at Toronado Barleywine Festival, SF Beer Week

With water and shared tastes, we were doing fine and discussed a lot of excellent beers, as well as identifying some flaws here and there.  It was a great tasting experience for our table.

Not everybody takes that approach of course and we saw others who were thoroughly smashed by noon.  These are strong drinks, as we all know, and everybody works on a strategy to approach them effectively.  This urban drinking survival still life from the bathroom made us laugh too:

Evidence of Biological Warfare-It's About Survival

(The Beano and the Immodium were not exactly trash — they were not empty, and looked like an attempt to share resources, appease the gods, or else to create an art installation.  And there’s science behind this artwork.  Barleywine typically has a trace of sweetness and lot of body,  both caused by large residual malt molecules that the yeast can’t digest into the combo of alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. We humans are able to further digest those stray large malt-sugars and produce a little gas that the ale yeast could not. The natural Beano enzyme gets to them before our internal enzymes have a chance, and breaks them down without creating gasses. For some reason I find all this beer science interesting, even the part that happens after the beer is poured.)

Hereby nominated for first place award in the category Art and Science installation in a Haight Street bar bathroom, 2009.

As we left, Steve got into yet another conversation, with all the friendly people around.  I stood on sidewalk for a while waiting for him to emerge and enjoying the air. First timers, the people we all wanted to see SF BEER WEEK bring in, were walking up to the door and then leaving because it was too packed already. I heard a couple ask “where else do we go for the beer?”

My 2009 SF BEER WEEK feedback, part one:

Schedule something opposite Barleywine fest, someplace in the city, with a different beer style entirely. Perhaps just a Satuday neighborhood passport like that done in a NY Brewfest Festival, so that each of several other bars could have one or two special taps on, and people could walk the circuit to nearby  places when they couldn’t get into Toronado.   Create other things to go to, since this event has been brutally popular for a decade at least.

Normally I’d say charge us something to get in the door, which addresses some of the happy stampede mentality, and is common among festivals, but the demand for this event is even stronger than the beers, so it wouldn’t help here.


This festival makes a lot of people happy, and was the first place I critically compared great beers side by side, years ago. Thanks for making this impossible event work, Toronado crew members, and “big daddy” Dave Keene.

P.S. — more pictures from participants are up at http://www.flickr.com/groups/sfbeerweek/

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