ThirstyBear owner Ron Silberstein’s beer-brewing habit grew out of his college household in Massachusetts some forty years ago. It stuck with him through the decades as he moved to Spain after graduation, then to California, where he’d become a lawyer, and ultimately “ditch billable hours and ride the wave of brewpub openings,” as he writes on the company’s website.
When Silberstein first opened ThirstyBear in 1996, San Francisco’s brew-restaurant scene was still nascent compared to its older and more established relative, the brew-pub. ThirstyBear was relatively early to the San Francisco microbrewery scene, which was much more isolated then, and remained so until recent years. Today, festivals like the on-going SF Beer Week, now in its fourth year, are healthy signs of a growing microbrew community. Dozens of breweries and fine drinking establishments around the Bay Area —including Press Club and Ducca, located here in the Yerba Buena district— are participating in this year’s Beer Week (February 10-19), with events taking place from San Jose to Santa Rosa. (Click on this link for more schedule details.)
“Ron’s angle was, ‘I don’t want to just offer burgers and nachos and chicken wings, I want to do something unique,’” says Tim Mullins, who’s been the general manager at ThirstyBear since 2005.
Past a tall glass door and a smiling hostess, the brew-restaurant’s brown and orange hues, wooden furniture, and exposed brick walls instantly thaw you from the chilly and grey weather outside. The vast warehouse space—decked with the unlikely assortment of local art, flat-screen TVs, a full bar, and a menu of contemporary Spanish cuisine—suggests it can please customers of every kind.
But at its core, ThirstyBear adheres loyally to its beer-crafting roots. Behind the bar, wide glass panels showcase a small atrium housing two stainless-steel kettles and six fermenters, run each morning by two master brewers and their interns. Beneath the dining room and bar lies a winding hall leading from the prep kitchen to a tiny office that opens into the brewing station and another small room where the beer is kegged, poured into half-gallon growlers (which you can buy and take home), or sent to the tap. Around noon, the office’s pungent sour smell rises from puddles of washed out beer and stings your nostrils.
Foodies, too, will be pleased by the absence of standard pub fare and the abundance of paellas and tapas, made with ingredients sourced mostly from farms within California. The gourmet cheese platters each come paired with a carefully selected (not wine but) organic draught beer, ThirstyBear being the only certified organic brewery in the city. Those mini-burgers tacked on to the end of the menu? They would come close to the pub standard were it not for the local pork, lamb, and wagyu beef patties, plated alongside a hard-boiled egg, caper aioli, and a fingerling potato salad.
Along a staircase in the back, between framed accolades from the Association of Brewers and a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Magazine spread about the city’s bourgeoning flamenco scene (which finds a stage and spectators inside ThirstyBear every Sunday night), hangs a blown-up cut-out of the newspaper story that started it all: “A Thirsty Bear Bites Man for Cold Beer.”
Also, check out this beer week event just outside the neighborhood – Brew Truc: 2nd annual SMALL BATCH / BIG THIRST! – at the City Park Lot @ 5th and Brannan.