A version of this story originally appeared in SF Weekly.
The room pulsates with the drunken chatter of dozens of young San Franciscans. They’re packed in around the counter, two and three deep, at Black Sands Brewery, the latest addition to the Lower Haight.
We arrive a little after nine on opening night, curious to see what had been, well, brewing behind those tall black boards that had blocked out the windows since this time last year. The brewpub — a four-way collaboration among Stefan Roesch and Robert Patterson of Ken Ken Ramen fame along with brewing duo Cole Emde and Andy Gilliland — formally opened its doors in August after more than a year-and-a-half of preparation. For its debut, Black Sands tapped three house beers, presumably brewed up in the shiny silver kettles hulking against the back wall. Looking over the drink menu, I see Black Sands is also featuring three guest beers and eight Hand Crafted Cocktails. Swayed by intriguing names and unfamiliar ingredients — what the hell is “chinato?” — we decide on mixed drinks. Liquor before beer, as they say.
I order a High Chair (spiced rum, Swedish punsch, lime, pineapple, cinnamon) for me, and a For Every Sin (Singani brandy, Americano Bianco, lemon, pluot, rosemary, and rose) for my girlfriend. The bartender returns with two glasses, and says it’ll be “some amount of money.” This gives me pause; the menu’s double-digit price tags set my expectations high, and I can’t tell if he’s making a joke or if he really doesn’t know. My gut deems this a bad sign, but Bacchus calls, so I fork over my credit card and ask which drink is which.
“That one’s the High Chair,” he says, “and that’s … that other one.”
For Every Sin is a cumbersome title, to be sure. (Some Google searches make me think it’s perhaps a play on a Christian hymn of the same name: “For every sin however deep/Thou art sufficient, Lord.”) The drinks are fine, although the subtler flavors, like the rose and the rosemary, are a little lost. Maybe it’s only me, but I prefer my cocktails boozy, real brain-numbers. These taste like juice, and seem insufficient for forgetting old sins, however deep, or excusing new ones.
A pair of friends joins us, and after some calculated lingering, the four of us swoop in on an open table. Our waiter, a young guy in a Canadian tuxedo (i.e. denim on denim), comes by a few minutes later to check in. He takes our order, and, judging by his anxiety, a man who’s likely one of the owners also checks in. Minutes later, a female server checks in on us as well, apparently at the second man’s behest, followed swiftly by our original waiter. The staff would do this all night, coming by all at once only to disappear entirely. Though it becomes slightly maddening, it’s also sort of endearing. They’re like young dancers flush with nerves, crushing our toes and then holding us at arm’s length.
Shortly thereafter, I notice one of the guys in the kitchen sneak in a 12-pack of Modelo from across the street. I can’t help but wonder why they don’t drink Black Sands’ own beer. But our mild buzzes have us feeling good, so we forgive and forget and flag down our waiter. It seems their saison has been tapped dry (either that or it never made it to opening night), leaving only two in-house choices. I opt for the SMASH Nelson IPA, so-named because it’s a single malt and single hop brew. Like the drinks before, it ends up being basically fine: an initial overbite, mouthfeel kind of flat, but a nice floral aftertaste. Not exceptional, but good.
Halfway through our glasses, all thoughts about the place itself mostly slip away as we talk about work, significant others, Trump’s hair … the usual. There’s an energy and an air of potential floating off the young crowd — the bar carries that close-knit neighborhood feel of an Irish pub, but without the stodgy dark interior or the foreign flags. The simple white walls and general lack of distraction are actually making the place work.
With glasses dry, I decide to sample the Son of Man black IPA. It’s almost an obligation at $5 a snifter, and the bar’s only other house beer. A nice blend of hoppy bitterness and malt, the beer is like a stout, but with extra bite. As it rounds out with smooth black coffee notes, I can’t help but sit back in my chair, eyes glistening. It’s one of the best black IPAs I can remember, and far and away the highlight of the night.
And though it couldn’t quite make up for all the evening’s stumbles — it would take over half an hour to get the check, despite a thinning crowd — I walk out to the street feeling content. It takes a moment, as we leave, to recognize that the white mosaic tiles outside their door are in the shape of a skull; time will tell if that’s an omen, too.