NEIGHBORHOODS // Old World Meets New

Exploring west Oakland’s craft beer transformation

Story by Emily Hutto // Photography by Eric Lo

Ascend the floor (there are no stairs) at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon on the dock of the bay in Oakland, California. During the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the pilings underneath this bar settled into the mud below and left its floor, and therefore bar, forever tilted. The rusty clock on the wall still reads 5:19 a.m., exactly when the earthquake hit.

Built from the timbers of an old whaling ship in what is now Jack London Square, Heinold’s Saloon is the quintessential tavern. From the ceiling of this dark, closet-sized saloon hang a variety of military and nautical hats from travelers all over the world. The original taps and run-off bins are still intact on the dingy wall. On the opposite wall are black and white photos dating back to the saloon’s opening in 1880. It was a resting place for haggard sailors, and the writing place for young Jack London. The bar’s original owner, Johnny Heinold, even loaned London tuition dollars for his first year at the University of California. London went on to tell tales of the first and last chance to get a beer in port in his novel Barleycorn.

Another classic drinking hideaway was the nearby Cox Saloon. Remnants of the venue can be found at Pacific Coast Brewing in the historic buildings circa 1876 on Eighth Street in the oldest surviving neighborhood in town, known as Old Oakland. Brewery owners Steve Wolff and Don Gortemiller acquired the bar and the stained-glass Cox Saloon sign from the Oakland Museum when they opened 23 the brewery years ago. Stashed in the basement alongside their turnkey, or automatic, brewing system, are bottles of one of their early brews, a now sour barley wine nearly as old as the brewery itself.

Just a few blocks north of Jack London Square and deeper into Oakland’s shipyards, lies another strip of historic buildings along Linden Street, where owner and brewer Adam Lamoreaux opened Linden Street Brewery two years ago. When he bought the tattered, brick-lined space, he started experimenting with old-fashioned steam techniques first developed at Anchor Brewing across the bay in San Francisco. (Anchor began using this no-refrigeration-required brew method in the late 19th century, and to this day holds the copyrights on the term “steam beer.”) Lamoreaux uses this method to honor the place in which he makes his beer, “I thought to myself, what would Jack London drink? I wanted to capture the texture and richness of that old world charm.”

And so the Urban People’s Common Lager was born. Like all of the “old California-style lagers” at Linden Street Brewery, the first was unfiltered, naturally carbonated, and had a low ABV. “The point is to stay awhile,” says Lamoreaux. His Burning Oar Black Lager is dark as night, but still mild to taste. “I’m making beers like you would drink in 1890,” he says.

Continuing his beer list of easy drinking brews like they would have made in the good ol’ days, Lamoreaux’s third beer is his “yellow fizzy beer.” It’s a cream ale made with steam yeast, and rings in at 4.5 percent ABV. Lamoreaux happily fuels Oakland’s liquid culture with kegs of the appropriately named Town Lager, but with a catch—he insists that all of the beer be transported via bike. Why? To stay sustainable, and keep the beer local. With a bike equipped to deliver two kegs at a time and a popular brew like the Town Lager, Lamoreaux is quickly establishing himself as Oakland’s town brewer, a designation he’s delighted to own.

Lamoreaux knows everyone who walks in by first name and exchanges brotherly banter with his fellow brewers. Linden Street seems to be an extension of his household. It’s a dimly lit, cozy nook that feels lived in. There’s a shelf of toys on the wall for his kids who call his beers “Daddy Juice.”

“Breweries are just as important as firehouses, and libraries, and churches,” Lamoreaux says. Amen to that.

Located not far from Linden Street and just around the corner from Pacific Coast Brewery, The Trappist Belgian beer bar is another watering hole reminiscent of Oakland circa 1900. Since The Trappist opened in 2007, owners Aaron Porter and Chuck Stilphen have seen their bar transform from a local hideaway to a destination spot with international visitors. The shadowy, Victorian-style bar and back bar make for an intimate drinking experience. Choose from more than 100 Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian, and American craft brews in bottles, 28 rotating taps, all presented by a Cicerone Beer Server Certified-staff in conjunction with a beer-paired menu. At the top of the draft list? Linden Street Brewery Town Lager.

Town Lager is also among the hundreds of selections at Beer Revolution, a specialty bottle shop and tasting room a few blocks away on Third Street that, despite its grand opening in 2009, looks as if it’s been there as long as long as Heinold’s. Well, not quite, but this punk rock beer bar is certainly worn in and has enough old-school beer posters and paraphernalia on the walls to function dually as a museum. With up to 500 bottles of microbrew and 47 taps rotating daily, Beer Revolution could act as a library, too. “There are no set handles, we revolve beers constantly, new beers on everyday,” says Beer Revolution’s co-owner Fraggle (born Mark Martone). “We should change our name to ‘Beer Chaos.’”

“Basically there is a beer revolution these days,” says Fraggle about the bar’s inspiration. “There has been for a while now, and it just keeps growing. [There are] great breweries, great beers, great beer places. People not just drinking the overproduced Wonder Bread swill the big boys had been tossing out—a true revolution.”

Fraggle and his business partner Rebecca Boyles wanted to bring artisan beers to the people in Oakland. Expect to find rare labels such as Barrel Aged Piper Down Scottish Ale, Indra Kunindra Curry Lime Export Stout, Dorado DIPA and Sour Wench, Navigator Dopplebock, and 8 Brother Levonian Saison on tap. Expect beer geek bartenders. Expect loud music and a large, laid-back crowd. Much like Oakland itself, Beer Revolution, says Fraggle, is down-to-earth, unpretentious, punk, and beery. “Beery is an adjective, right?”

Yes, it’s definitely an adjective. And the perfect one to describe west Oakland, the town with beer in its blood, a place humble by nature, expert in craftsmanship and refined in flavor—especially when it comes to the beer.

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