Thursday, February 19, 2009

San Francisco Barleywine Festival: How Sweet it is

Entry fees, huge crowds, concerts and vendors hawking wares will not be in the cards for San Francisco's upcoming annual Barleywine Festival.

In its 16th year, the event will pay homage to its namesake alcoholic beverage from the confines of Toronado, an eclectic Lower Haight speakeasy.

Scantly broader than the width of two bowling lanes, it's a place where beer paraphernalia clings to the walls and cash on the barrelhead is the only acceptable means of payment.

The festival begins Feb. 14 and continues until Feb. 20 - or until the barley wine runs out.

"The festival is the most anticipated beer event of the year," said Steve Bruce, general manager of the Toronado.

"It will be pretty crazy here."

Strong ale of 18th century English origin, barleywine has an elevated alcohol content of 10 to 12 percent, according to the Campaign for Real Ale Web site.

From the standpoint of a dollar-to-buzz ratio, this relatively obscure nectar is moderately priced and provides an undeniable bang for your buck in trying economic times.

"More and more craft brewers are producing for this event," said Bruce, who believes that barleywine's popularity is brewing among mainstream beer drinkers.

This year, over 50 varieties will be featured from microbreweries nationwide with names as creative as those bestowed upon racehorses: Mortification, Old Guardian, Three Sheets and Noggin Floggin.

Barleywines will be judged professionally on the first day of the event.

Debate lingers as to whether barleywine is beer or wine.

Despite its potency and long-term storage ability - akin to wine - it is actually beer, owing to its grain-based formula.

Sweetness and bitterness are blended to create a sipping beer often served in wine glasses.

"It is an interesting time at the Toronado because the festival not only draws the regular crowd, but also connoisseurs from around the region who wish to get a once-in-a-year taste from breweries far and wide," said Gianpaolo Perrone, a San Francisco conservation manager and barleywine aficionado who has attended the festival for the last two years.

"Many of the barleywines on tap get their only pour at Toronado during the upcoming week, and there are numerous breweries that will only be showcased during the Barleywine Festival."

Maria Cisneros, a San Francisco waitress who sporadically patronizes the Toronado, smirks and points to a bumper sticker on the wall opposite a row of timeworn pub tables: Corporate Beer Sucks.

"This isn't the sort of place you come for a Miller High Life and pretzels," Cisneros said. "The Toronado's beer selection defies imagination and the barleywine is the best by far."

Barleywine's sweet scent will be interrupted only by the occasional aroma of food, as outside fare is welcome in the Toronado.

Myriad plates - including sausage and wild boar - can be ordered from Rosamunde next door and tamales wrapped in paper towels are sold from a wheeled plastic cooler by a regular street vendor.

During the festival, the Toronado will be open from 11:30 a.m. until 2 a.m. daily.

As has been the case with past festivals, it will be expected for lines to form outside before the doors open and for the bar to be crowded throughout the day.

Those who catch a heavy buzz from the barleywine can let Muni be their designated driver.

Muni trolleybus routes 6 and 22 stop within a block of the Toronado, and the K, L and M metro lines serve the Church Street station, three blocks south.

Note: This story - authored by Christian Goepel - appeared in the Feb. 12, 2009, edition of the Golden Gate [X]Press under the title "Barleywine varietals offer comfort at festival."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fighting Hip, but Formula Retail in the Mission District

The eclectic Mission District – fashionable with San Francisco State University students - is a hipster paradise. Yet some residents and businesspeople hip to American Apparel’s bid to add a store to the neighborhood are voicing opposition.

“Nothing is more important to me than stopping American Apparel from coming into the Mission,” said Stephen Elliott, a writer and neighborhood resident, who formed Stop American Apparel in response to the clothier’s desire to open a location in a vacant narrow storefront at 988 Valencia St.

Since its creation in mid-January, the group has launched a blog, distributed posters and postcards – and, with the assistance of local Pirate Cat Radio – it has assembled a grassroots coalition of individuals and business owners.

The group aims to protect the colorful character of the Mission and save independently owned concerns from closure or relocation due to inflated rents.

“The people that suffer the most are local business owners, I think, because there is no rent control for businesses in California,” said Elliott.

David Marks opened Room 4 down the block last year to peddle vintage clothing and expressed concern about how American Apparel’s presence may alter the economic climate of Valencia Street.

“In the short term it would bring more people down here, but I think in the long term it would really hurt the street because rents are going to go up,” Marks said. “I don’t want them here because I don’t want to go out of business.”

Elliott and Stop American Apparel believe this situation will set a precedent for future development in the neighborhood.

“For Valencia, this is the first time that this has come up since Proposition G passed in 2006, so it’s really a test case,” said Elliott. “It’s not about American Apparel; it’s strictly about formula retail.”

San Franciscans passed Proposition G in 2006, requiring that formula retail companies – those operating 11 or more stores in the U.S. that maintain standardized features - attain a conditional-use permit from the city before starting a business in a designated neighborhood commercial district like Valencia Street. American Apparel’s permit application comes in front of the San Francisco Planning Commission at City Hall on Feb. 5.

California-based American Apparel manages a sweatshop-free factory in Los Angeles, provides employees with healthcare benefits and competitive wages, speaks out politically and showcases controversial advertising. The company has 260 locations in 19 countries and already operates stores in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow, Haight-Ashbury, and Union Square, according to its Web site.

“I believe in San Francisco that it’s not really possible for chain stores to beat out local businesses … the demand for diversity is so great,” said Mark Pauley, a software engineer and occasional American Apparel customer who lives within shouting distance of the proposed store location. “I think that being extremely protectionist and getting a bunch of people out to say that this would be horrible for our neighborhood is a little bit extreme.”

If Elliott has anything to say about it, Stop American Apparel will live up to its name and mission.

“I think there are probably some people that want American Apparel, but they are definitely the minority,” said Elliott.

Nevertheless, plans to open the store are progressing.

“The lease is signed and the reason it has been such a deliberate, methodical process is that we’re trying to get it right,” said American Apparel strategist Ryan Holiday in an e-mail interview. “We’ve been getting feedback from officials, making sure that everything is in compliance, getting a genuine sense of the neighborhood so the store can be a part of it.”

The company informed the community of its intent to enter the neighborhood lightly via a letter posted to the Mission Mission blog on Jan. 26. “Because at the end of the day, if the community doesn’t want us there, we have no intention of forcing our way in,” the letter said.

“A lot of people have asked to speak on behalf of American Apparel, and it looks like a big part of the community is going to recommend that we continue with the plans,” Holiday said.

Stop American Apparel is busying itself by bolstering community support, accumulating petition signatures and hosting events. Twenty individuals assembled in front of 988 Valencia St. to demonstrate on Jan. 31. A rally and session for composing letters to city supervisors and the Planning Commission – on typewriters, no less - will be held at Amnesia Bar on Feb. 2.

This story - authored by Christian Goepel - appeared in the Feb. 5, 2009, edition of the Golden Gate [X]Press.

Update: The San Francisco Planning Commission denied American Apparel's request for a conditional-use permit on Feb. 5.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it ... Wait, What Snow?

Thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, generally low elevation, and favorable weather patterns, the San Francisco Bay Area does not have to busy itself with the harsh winter climate much of the rest of the country endures. But temperatures plunged into the 20s and 30s overnight and many woke to a dusting of snow clinging to prominent mountain peaks in the region. As is typical of such activity, most of the powder melts by midday, but even so, snowfall in the Bay Area is a real novelty for natives and transplants alike. To the chagrin of some, it is rarely substantial enough to make snow angels or supply a snowball fight.

In the photograph above, sea-level Oakland is completely unaffected by the snowfall on Contra Costa County's Mt. Diablo (elevation 3849 feet) just 20 miles to the east.

It is 9 a.m. and the east peak of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County (elevation 2571 feet) exhibits evidence of a light overnight snowfall. The upper reaches of this iconic peak and its fire lookout station will be free of snow by noon.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

San Francisco Bay Area Related Blog Launched

Happy Holidays from the City by the Bay! Please pardon the dust while I assemble this new site dedicated exclusively to the people, places, politics, culture, history, and happenings of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

For starters, I have included San Francisco related content from my companion blog, The Journalist-Citizen ( As it has since its July inception, J-C will continue as a platform for sharing vignettes and images related to my travels, observations, and search for far-flung locales and forgotten heroes across the country.

I remain grateful for the high level of support and interest in both blogspots! And, as always, please feel free to share your comments and suggestions with me via e-mail at

Cheers ... Christian Goepel

Witch Way to San Francisco?

San Francisco, California: October 22, 2008

When an unlucky witch donning snow boots and striped stockings smashes into a utility pole in San Francisco’s Parkside neighborhood, folks take immediate notice, even if Halloween is just around the corner. Motorists slowing for the four-way stop at the intersection of 26th Avenue and Vicente Street pause longer than usual to gawk, amused school children point and smile, and a stroller-pushing mother snickers. An elderly gentleman suggests it is really Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin traveling incognito.

Of this mysterious display, only one thing is for certain. Someone in a festive mood used equal parts humor, creativity, wing of bat, and eye of newt to brighten what might have been an otherwise ho-hum day in a quiet residential district.

San Francisco Tagger Recognizes Financial Crisis

The controversial Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 - passing 74-25 in the Senate and signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 3 - allows the US government to purchase distressed bank assets to the tune of $700 billion. This move will allegedly stabilize the faltering economy and bail out Wall Street in the midst of a lingering financial and subprime mortgage crisis. Some economists believe this downturn represents the largest domestic financial calamity since the Great Depression. Its ill-effects have spread not only to Main Street, but to the global economy as well.

Mere inches above the pigeons, detritus, and homeless encampments scattered along Florida Street in San Francisco’s Mission District is a fresh political message questioning the legitimacy of such action by Washington.

A Treasure Island Medley

San Francisco, California: September 3, 2008

Created to provide real estate for the Golden Gate International Expositions of 1939 and 1940, and later hosting a US Navy base from 1941 until 1997, San Francisco’s manmade Treasure Island presently offers limited public housing and recreational opportunities. Little wonder that developers are fixed on this underutilized decommissioned military property. The views of the skyline, bridges, and San Francisco Bay are unparalleled, a fact not lost on tourists, photographers, and movie makers.

Anchored in choppy San Francisco Bay, the ghostly silhouette of Alcatraz stands against the bucolic hills of Marin County at sunset.

A spiral staircase provides access to the roof of a storage tank at the Treasure Island Water Pollution Control facility. The island remains peppered with utilitarian infrastructure and architecture typical of World War II era military installations.

Artificial Treasure Island connects to natural Yerba Buena Island, through which the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge burrows. The iconic double-deck suspension span has connected East Bay communities with San Francisco for nearly 72 years and provides the sole vehicular access to Treasure Island.