By Esther MobleyOctober 18, 2016 Updated: October 20, 2016 8:20am. View original article.
For a microbrewery producing just 1,000 barrels of beer every year, Woods Beer sure does have a lot of taprooms.
OK, “a lot of taprooms” is relative — this is no Gordon Biersch — but to have four bars in San Francisco and Oakland, with a fifth coming very soon, seems like a lot of overhead and market saturation for a beer company that only opened its first brick-and-mortar storefront in 2012.
The latest to open, the Woods Island Club, is especially curious.
Billed as a “beer beach,” it’s essentially an airplane hangar turned warehouse, sparsely filled with eight taps, stacks of barrels and a lot of beach chairs folded against a wall. Outside is a rectangle of sand — a kind of oversize sandbox — carved into the middle of a parking lot.
Did I mention it’s on Treasure Island?
In many ways, the Woods Island Club is the quintessential Woods Beer outpost, a perfect expression of its beer style and even its business model: idiosyncratic, compulsively fun and marooned on an island.
The genesis of Woods Beer goes back to owner Jim Woods’ high school days, when he began home brewing “because it was the easiest way to get beer.” He kept up the hobby through college and later as a real estate acquisitions analyst for Deutsche Bank; eventually, still holding that day job, he was selling his beers (contract-brewed at the time) in as many as five states.
But this model started to look unsustainable. Woods had a whim to open Cervecería next to Dolores Park in 2012, and immediately felt that the taproom had done more for the brand than he’d accomplished in his previous five years of peddling to local markets and haggling with distributors. Self-distributing was inefficient, he felt; traditional distribution meant losing control of quality and brand representation. Taproom business, meanwhile, was booming.
“Why am I pounding my head against a wall trying to figure out this distribution thing?” Woods asked himself. “Why don’t I take a different path to market, and continue to open my own establishments?”
Cervecería, an interpretation of an Argentine estancia (ranch), was followed by Woods Bar & Brewery, a beer garden in downtown Oakland; and Woods Polk Station, a “mountain lodge” in Russian Hill. Each is different: Cervecería bumps at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, when Dolores Park begins to chill; the Bar & Brewery gets busy after shows let out at the Fox Theater. A spot at 46th Avenue and Judah in the Outer Sunset is forthcoming.
The space for Woods Island Club was initially secured to provide cold storage and space for barrel fermentations. Treasure Island appealed because of its location, smack-dab in the middle of the Woods Beer nexus, and also because of dirt-cheap rents — a dollar per square foot, Woods claims.
In characteristic fashion, Woods couldn’t resist making his new storage facility into a bar.
“The beach was a no-brainer,” says Woods, though he had to bring in 50 tons of sand to create it. He also got a 35-foot palm tree — a free sidewalk giveaway from elsewhere on the island.
Something about the Woods Island Club feels makeshift, unformed. The sign is hard to spot. The warehouse feels pretty empty. Aside from the aforementioned sand and palm tree, there’s not much in the way of vegetation or other decor to achieve a full beachy effect. You’re acutely aware that you’re kind of sitting in a parking lot. As far as we could tell, there was just one employee working, and he was profoundly good-natured, exuding that combination of geekiness and snarkiness that seems particular to craft brewery employees.
For example, we asked him why they opened a brewery on Treasure Island. His response: “Because we’re pirates.”
Jim Woods’ first great beer, which remains the company’s flagship, is the MateVeza IPA ($6/16 ounces), brewed with yerba mate. A longtime drinker of the bitter, herbal South American tea, Woods had a revelation during college that the bitterness of mate could supplement hops bitterness in a beer.
“In beer, you need to balance the sweetness of the malt, but hops bitterness can be a little bit angular,” Woods says. “So in the IPA we reduce the amount of bittering hops, and the mate is doing some of the lifting, in a softer way.”
Joining the mate chorus now is the Morpho Herbal Ale ($7), which is brewed with mate, bay leaf and hibiscus and includes virtually no hops. So high is its mate content, Woods claims, that it packs as much caffeine as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola or half a cup of coffee. Dark fuchsia in color, it’s weird and delicious, with a Framboise-like quality, lightly sour and sweet with floral berry flavors.
That’s a Woods Beer signature, in fact: embracing funky, offbeat ingredients like these without producing an excessively offbeat-tasting beer.
Its seasonally released Girl Scout Cookie beers are a great example of this. Or take the Golden Spyglass ($8), fermented with the brettanomyces yeast — yet hardly tasting of the typical barnyard but rather of vanilla cream and pungent mint.
Or the Local Honey Pale Ale ($7), inspired by honey produced specifically by the bees on one Woods brewer’s Mission District roof. Those bees pollinated eucalyptus, lavender and yarrow, which now serve as infusions in the ale. (Since honey ferments, it couldn’t have been the flavor additive itself.) Intensely aromatic, the beer wafts a floral perfume, its bitterness manifesting as fennel flavor.
The Island Club has encouraging precedents: A number of wineries already operate successful tasting rooms on Treasure Island. One even has a bocce court, adjacent to Woods’ lot. “We’re all hoping people start to see Treasure Island as more of a destination,” he says.
It doesn’t even have to be a destination. Many San Franciscans may not realize quite how easy it is to get to Treasure Island. There’s plenty of parking. The 25 bus runs every 20 minutes from Transbay Terminal. The city promises that the bike path on the Oakland-Treasure Island portion of the Bay Bridge will be open by the end of the month. I recently took a Lyft there from the Mission and it was just $21, during a 50 percent surge.
Speaking of that Lyft, I filled it with three friends. It would be hard to overstate how much fun we had at Woods Island Club.
The beach-going crowd seemed primarily people in their 30s. We may have been the only group that did not bring either toddlers or dogs, though we certainly enjoyed our proximity to both. We’d brought sandwiches and hummus; surveying our neighbors, we spotted bags from Gott’s Roadside and pizza boxes from Tony’s Slice House. Still, we ended up trying a few of the $5 empanadas at the bar (from El Porteño, which also supplies them to Woods’ sister bars).
I’d managed to convince my most beer-averse friend to come along, luring her to the island with promises of sand and sunshine. It was the first time in years I’ve seen her drink beer, and the first time ever I’ve seen her finish one. (Actually, three.) Balanced but not boring, fun but not funky, they went down easy as we dug our feet into the sand, gazing toward the eastern portion of the Bay Bridge. The water sparkled.
What: MateVeza IPA ($6), Morpho Herbal Ale ($7), Local Honey Pale Ale ($7)
Where: Woods Island Club, 422 Clipper Cove Way, San Francisco (Treasure Island).www.woodsbeer.com/islandclub
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; open selected Thursdays for special events and pop-ups. See website for most up-to-date schedule.