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."

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