Thirsty Bear: Hops and Happy Times on Howard Street

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Above: Thirsty Bear Owner and Brewmaster Ron Silberstein

“Thirsty Bear Bites Man for Cold Beer.”

That’s the 1991 Soviet newspaper article that intrigued Ron Silberstein so much that he decided he needed to use it for a brewery. Ron, a practicing immigration lawyer, grew tired of the long shifts and billable hours so he decided to take a risk and do a full career 180º.

Little did he know that 30 years later his dream would become the oldest operating brewery-restaurant in San Francisco.

The Start of Something Special

Ron always had a love of good beer, enough that during his undergraduate years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he decided to try brewing for himself. “I really enjoyed discovering older and different styles of beers that were more malt-forward,” he says.

New people find Thirsty Bear each day, but Ron’s been brewing beer since the 80s!

Ron’s passion took a back seat when he decided to go to law school at UC Hastings, but he never stopped brewing. When people across the San Francisco area began opening up brewery-restaurants, Ron decided, “If these people can do it, I can too.”

Ron had a rather unique plan for his business. After undergrad, he lived in Spain for a few years and decided to incorporate the cuisine from his time abroad into his restaurant.

Even though he felt like just about any kind of food was more known than Spanish food, Ron wanted to bring the Spanish love of community and heartfelt cooking to California.

Despite initial hesitation toward his idea of tapas style pub-grub, he says, “We got a tremendous amount of attention. A San Francisco food critic gave us a home run review of our food and that really helped us reach a much larger audience.”

Some of Thirsty Bear’s tapas-style offerings

Inside Thirsty Bear’s Brewing Process 

Ron takes great pride in his ingenuity when making craft beer. Not only does Thirsty Bear have many of the traditional staples such as pilsners, lagers, and IPAs, the brewery also offers a vast range of craft beers that are sure to intrigue even the most adventurous beer enthusiast.

Ron says a few of his favorites are the Howard Street IPA, as well as his cherry-cast sour. There are also special beers that sometimes circulate at the brewery, and Ron notes one occasion saying, “We had a barley wine I’d created around 1996 that we let sit in kegs and pulled it out for our 20th anniversary. That was one of the best barley wines I’d had in my entire life.”

Behind the scenes at Thirsty Bear

That’s not to say the uniqueness of the brewery didn’t come with its own learning curves, though. Ron says, “People took a while to get used to it. I had variations like nitrogen-conditioned ESB and stouts, and no one had really done that before at a pub. I had to educate my customers as to why I wasn’t over-carbonating my beverages and why I was experimenting with my beer instead of doing the traditional things that people already knew. People didn’t know what it was, it wasn’t cold carbonated beer, so I spent time teaching people about it so they could appreciate it. Educating people on beer is part of the craft.”

Thirsty Bear is all about beer – even in the food! One way that the brewery-restaurant works to go beyond typical brew-pub food is by incorporating beer and the ingredients of beer into the menu.

“Beer and its ingredients can be used in cooking in so many ways. Whether you’re reducing the beer into a barbecue glaze, using yeast to ferment food, or using malt to batter and fry chicken or fish. Even hops can be used. We have cured salmon with salt, sugar, and hops to create unique flavors,” Ron explains. 

Not only does Thirsty Bear value the uniqueness of its food and drink, but Ron and the staff also value the quality of the ingredients themselves. Thirsty bear is the only certified green brewery-restaurant in San Francisco, and it makes beer using ingredients grown organically in California. According to Ron, “The experience starts with the service, but it must be upheld by quality ingredients.”

Additionally, in his endless pursuit of high-quality ingredients and reducing his carbon footprint, Ron has worked with many local farmers to use locally harvested Barley in nearly all of Thirsty Bear’s beers.

Thirsty Bear offers customers a wide variety of beer options

Dealing with the Coronavirus 

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Thirsty Bear’s doors are now closed, but that doesn’t mean that the brewing has stopped. Thirsty Bear has transitioned to canning and its beers are currently available for takeout along with a limited menu.

Sadly, it’s still difficult for the business to make a significant profit from canning alone. Ron says, “We can make our beer with the highest-quality ingredients because we are selling them directly to our customers. Our transition to canning is mainly to get us through this difficult time until people can come to the restaurant again.”

Thirsty Bear is looking forward to hopefully opening up its doors again during the next phase of reopening, currently planned for August 13th

A typical day at Thirsty Bear pre-Coronavirus

Ron and the Thirsty Bear family continue to remain optimistic throughout each month of the pandemic. Even though Ron admits that opening up a brewery takes a lot of time and effort, he favors it over past career paths and looks forward to the day when Thirsty Bear can reopen for more hops and happier times.

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