You can call me the Beer Hunter.
As a college kid, I was laboring under the mistaken opinion that beer was a distastefully sour sort of rice water that gave you a headache if you drank more than a glass of it. In time, I learned that such an appraisal is fairly accurate when referring to the awful mass-marketed swill produced by U.S. corporations that load televised sports events with crass and sometimes canny commercials featuring bogus camaraderie between louts looking to get hammered and lacking refined palates.
It took a trip to Germany for me, a callow lad in my 20s, to learn the true greatness of beer, especially the numerous indigenous ales and lagers in all their complexity and magnificence. Imagine what a revelation it was to drink a Luck pilsner from Lübeck — a beer as delicate and creamy as a dessert — after only knowing the brackish flavor of Bud or Miller. And when I got back to San Francisco, imagine my delight at realizing I was at the epicenter of the American Microbrewery Revolution, led by Fritz Maytag at the revived Anchor Brewery on Potrero Hill. At last, beer made in the USA that blew away the feeble fluids found in most six-packs on supermarket shelves.
From Anchor Steam and Porter, it was an easy leap to the hoppy but balanced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale; the malty, fruity Red Tail Ale and the more potent Eye of the Hawk from the Mendocino Brewing Company; and the wonders of my favorite NorCal craft brewers the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, home to Boont Amber (my go-to dinner beer), Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout and the unparalleled, seasonal Winter Solstice Ale. Those breweries — as well as local brew pubs such as Gordon Biersch, Thirsty Bear, Triple Rock, and the now-defunct San Francisco Brewing Company — blazed trails for all that would follow during the past 30 years. These were beers that could measure up to what I had encountered overseas.
Here, I should note that I generally only drink one beer a day. Any more and the fog sets in, which diminishes more than my pleasure and my discerning taste buds. I’ve never been one to overdo anything, but as you might surmise, I’ve become a bit of a beer snob. Wherever I happen to be, I try to find the sorts of bars and restaurants that cater to beer aficionados with wide selections and knowledgeable bartenders; thus, my delight at finding the Brouwerij ‘t IJ in Amsterdam, a phenomenal brewpub next to an old windmill. I recollect trying a glass of their amber ale and an hour later, floating over the canals on my way back to my lodgings.
About three years ago, a friend of mine and I were at the Public House, a noisy beer bar on Vermont in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood. The place boasts an amazing selection of brews on draft with over 50 working taps, and I noticed something new on the list of Belgian ales: Abbaye Des Rocs Grand Cru, a strong, dark brown ale brewed by Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs. The description said it had a smooth, rich flavor with hints of cherries, peaches, and dried apricots, caramel, and finishing notes of chocolate, roasted almonds, and molasses. No kidding. So I ordered one.
It was every bit as advertised, and the most complex, delicious beer I had ever tasted: sweet, spicy, luxurious, and quite potent, as in 9.00 percent ABV. I was blown away — and a little loaded. A week later, I went back to have another, and discovered that they were tapped out. I asked the Public House manager if they would ever get it back, and he said he didn’t know. Kegs of Abbaye Des Rocs Grand Cru were rare in the States, he explained. I checked some high-end liquor stores to no avail.
Over the next few weeks, I went to all of my designated L.A. joints dedicated to fine beers — BoHo (now-closed), Father’s Office (the one in Santa Monica and the one in Culver City) and Stout — and came up empty.
Heading north to San Francisco, I stopped off at my brother’s house in Monterey for the night. We had a few hours free, and, at my insistence, we made the rounds: the Cannery Row Brewing Co., Peter B’s Brew Pub, the Crown and Anchor, and the Mucky Duck with no luck. No one at these otherwise fine establishments had even heard of Abbaye Des Rocs Grand Cru.
The greatest disappointment of all was that none of my usual San Francisco watering holes had it on tap or in the bottle. Some might say that when Toronado on Haight — a true beer Mecca — doesn’t have what “ales” you, you might as well give up. I say, “Give up? Never!”
I’ll continue to search for a goblet of Abbaye Des Rocs Grand Cru, wherever my craving for beer takes me. The Beer Hunter? Maybe I’m more like the Captain Ahab of barley and hops. I’m not seeking the Great White Whale. I’m seeking the Great Brown Ale — and, one day, find it I shall!