“I remember sitting here on the opening Friday and then the opening Saturday, and throughout that whole week,” said Lester Koga, co-founder of Barebottle Brewing in San Francisco after SF Beer Week 2022 had wrapped up. “It was the first time that you looked around and things looked normal in two years.”
It turns out that nothing makes us appreciate festive local traditions like a multi-year global pandemic.
Honing the Community’s Crystal Balls
The prior SF Beer Week took place on the eve of the North American COVID 19 outbreak in February, 2020. Only a handful of cases had been detected in North America at the time and it would be only a month before Bay Area counties would lockdown, pushing the service industry into radical to-go mode. The festivities at breweries, bars and large festival venues around the Bay Area were well-attended. SF Beer Week 2020 made happy memories for the thousands who enjoyed hundreds of activities and a lucrative one for many local venues.
The following February, following the December hospitalization surge of 2020, large face-to-face gatherings were impossible. The nonprofit Bay Area Brewers Guild paused SF Beer Week and shifted to produce a California-wide virtual appreciation of craft beer.
In the wake of that subdued celebration, as the vaccines rolled out and cases dropped, choices had to be made about 2022. Beer Week is both a cultural tradition and an economic engine. It also requires organizational commitment far in advance.
Koga, who serves on the board of the Bay Area Brewers Guild, remembers making tough choices about SFBW 2022 nine months earlier. “We made the call back in May of last year that there would be no Opening Gala,” he said. “We knew that January-February is a really bad time, based on the recent history of COVID. So we didn’t want to do like a 4,000 person indoor event.”
Because the large indoor space required for the traditional Opening Gala has to be booked and paid for so many months in advance, the possibility of last-minute cancellation was daunting.
“You’d pay all this money and overhead with a lot of risk involved about whether it’s actually happening. We knew we didn’t want to take that risk,” said Koga.
The solution came together with a plan for five smaller localized parties called “Kick Offs,” hosted simultaneously by breweries in the five Bay Area regions that the SF Brewers Guild represents. A full week’s worth of additional events from venues that wanted to host events could be featured on the SFBW website later than usual, as county COVID mandates, staffing levels and customer confidence came into focus.
So San Francisco Beer Week 2022 came back, not exactly with its familiar opening bang, but with a powerful upswell of optimism.
In the City, the Kick Off was held at Harmonic Brewing’s second location on the plaza at the Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors. Co-founder Jon Verna greeted guests at three different ticketed sessions.
For Verna, preparation for hosting the SF Kick Off at his taproom began in earnest just as the Omicron variant surge was soaring in late 2021. He took part in standing weekly conference calls with representatives of the other four Kick Offs.
“I think all of our crystal balls in the industry are pretty honed in these days after almost two years of COVID. Like, alright, December, things are bad. By January, things are still kind of bad. But I think by February, it’s going to be good enough to host responsible parties.” Verna looked around the full tables at his taproom and out across the Bay towards Oakland. “And here we are. I think we pulled it off.”
The Kick Off parties prevented overcrowding and enhanced confidence with strategies such as multiple ticketed sessions, expanded room for outdoor seating in the decidedly cool but not frozen Bay Area evenings and a different approach to the typical festival taster glass experience. At the East Bay Kick Off, 21st Amendment Brewing provided attendees with disposable cups that were tossed after each beer was tasted. Due to the roomy environment of the large San Leandro production facility, the party featured East Bay guest brewers pouring their latest beers, somewhat in the style of the old Opening Gala on a reduced scale. At Kick Offs where space was more limited, the events adapted, with hosts pouring guest kegs. Harmonic did not do refills into guest glasses but instead sent each person home with a new full-sized commemorative glass as they left.
“Instead of doing small samples here, we did half pours,” said Verna. He wanted attendees at the SF Kick Off to savor several beers and chat with friends at one of the tables indoors or out on the plaza. “So it’s still a festive atmosphere. But it’s not as loose as a beer festival with a slamming tasters type of focus and trying maybe 20 different beers in the night. We tried to curate things a little bit more.”
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
The lift that Beer Week gave to local craft beer appreciators was matched by the encouragement that it brought to local beer producers and retailers.
At Barebottle Brewing, a full week of events was scheduled. While the attendance didn’t match the prepandemic numbers of early 2020, it was still the best week in two years.
“Everybody in the Bay Area thinks about beer, top of mind, only one time a year,” explained Koga. “It’s always during Beer Week.”
Each year, Koga notes an uptick of people who come into the taproom and say they have never visited before.
“You just get more exposure to more people every year. So it resets the bar of what a great week is,” Koga said. “Every year there is always a step up. Then it kind of flattens out but it’s bigger than it was before.”
For thousands of craft beer fans and industry people in the Greater Bay Area, one of the last festive memories before COVID was SFBW 2020. And for many, an enduring memory of hope and recovery will include the recent gatherings at SFBW 2022.
“I think it all coincided with this Beer Week. The number of COVID cases were settling down so everyone was feeling more comfortable. Okay, it’s time to start breaking out of our shells of two years! And getting back to normal,” Koga hopes. “Every day was just great. And you couldn’t say that for the rest of the last two years”.
Explore Beer By BART: Use our acclaimed destination list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places and their related transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.
P.S. Feel like being at a “normal” festival? This weekend the Spring Brew Festival returns to Todos Santos square in Concord, walking distance from Concord BART. We’ve been invited to pass along a $5 discount if you use the promo code beerbybart at purchase. https://www.universe.com/events/spring-brews-festival-2022-concord-ca-tickets-concord-MQD2RT