Steep Brew Opens at Whole Foods Potrero Hill, Meet Manager Wesley Anderson

Wesley Anderson / Photos © Brian Stechschulte

It’s official San Franciscans, you can finally relax with a pint of liquid courage before playing bumper cars in the grocery store aisles at Whole Foods in Potrero Hill. On March 9th the beer taps started flowing at Steep Brew, a bar and cafe run by the grocery store chain at the corner of Rhode Island and 17th Street.

Inside you’ll find 16 rotating beer taps, wine, coffee and a seasonal menu of small plates geared towards beer, such as charcuterie, and large items like burgers and salads. Customers can also drink bottles found inside the store for a nominal corkage fee, but you can’t shop while tipping back a beer due to licensing, which is probably for the best.

The atmosphere is part bar and quaint cafe. A TV is mounted above the bar or you can find a little privacy near the kitchen in a booth. Tons of natural light pours through the wall of glass windows, filling the two story venue, which is open daily from 11am to 10pm. Happy hour is from 5pm to 6pm Monday through Friday and be on the lookout for a steady stream of special events. The grand opening happy hour celebration is March 30 from 5pm to 7pm.

The man in charge of this multifaceted operation is Wesley Anderson, who’s been stacking beer on shelves at Whole Foods for several years before moving into his new position. Anderson can be regularly found at beer events across the Bay Area and has developed a small following on Twitter, which he uses to drive sales at the store with in-stock updates and news about new releases.

Now seemed like the perfect time to learn a little about his background, his experience at Whole Foods, how he uses social media to sell craft beer and what he sees on the beery horizon.

How did you become interested in craft beer and get started at Whole Foods?

I’ve always respected craft beer, brewers and breweries. I love how creative it is and how much love goes into it. Craft brewing is an art in my opinion.  I started buying beer over 6 years ago at a mom and pop grocery store for two years and then I came to Whole Foods where I’ve been doing it for the past 4 plus years and couldn’t be happier.

Do you remember your first craft beer?

Yeah, I remember my first craft beer and it was Anchor Steam. I grew up in the East Bay and I’ve always been drawn to local and Californian, but to be honest, the first beer that I considered craft, or at least much different than the norm, was New Castle Brown Ale. It’s what my friends were drinking and I was just pretty much going with the flow up until I got that beer and it changed my life and love for beer. I became the guy showing up with Anchor six packs and not drinking the other beer that took up room in the fridge.

You’re pretty well know on Twitter locally for using it as a tool to announce new products, tell me how that got started and what it’s been like communicating with customers over social media? Do you find it to be successful?

Twitter actually started as a joke. I was telling my girlfriend one day that I was going to create a Twitter account just so I can talk about beer and food, which is mostly what I do on it, but I never went through with it. It came to life because I had a customer looking for a certain beer and I told him it would be coming in soon and he asked me how he would know. At that time all I could say to them was call the store, but he asked me if I had a mailing list. I didn’t and also told him that a mailing list could be hard, but Twitter would be super easy, and well it is. And yes its very successful and helpful not only for me, but the customer and beer fan. I have customers telling me all the time they follow me on Twitter and that makes me happy cause I know it’s working.

As helpful as Twitter can be, I’m sure it can also stir up so much excitement that a beer sells out very quickly, disappointing late customers. Doesn’t that risk make you a little nervous?

I do worry about disappointing customers who follow me on Twitter when it comes to special beers and it selling out before they get a chance to get it. I want everyone to get their hands on these special beers. I actually stopped posting about special beers that I feel will fly out of the store after I post it. I still use Twitter to tell people about new beers, but if I only get one or two cases of something I either leave it off Twitter or leave it up to luck, or I post on Twitter how limited it may be. That’s all I can do really.

What part of Steep Brew’s operation excites you the most?

The part of Steep Brew that excites me the most, besides the obvious of running a beer bar, is working with local smaller breweries such as Pac Brew Labs, Magnolia Pub & Brewery, Almanac Beer and Dying Vines. I’m also looking forward to working with breweries that I’ve always loved like Anchor, Lagunitas, and Speakeasy. I’ll be able to do events like tap take over’s, meet the brewers, bottle release parties etc. That and Steep Brew is a working restaurant and coffee bar. We got a whole new lunch and dinner menu that complements beer, which Potrero’s awesome prepared food team came up with.

If there was one thing you wish customers understood about how your section of the store operates or how the craft beer industry works, what would that be?

Craft beer is special and it wouldn’t be if it were massed produced and so occasionally some beer will be out of stock or in limited supply. But, that’s why I’m here to help customers. I can maybe point them towards a beer like what they’re looking for or show them something new.

Since you have first hand knowledge of what’s moving off the shelf, what beers or styles seem to be the most popular and do you see any upcoming trends on the horizon?

I’m sure we all know the most popular style of beer right now is the IPA and all the forms it comes in, Double India Pale Ale, Black India Pale, Wet Hop IPA, etc. The IPA in the craft beer world, especially in California, is the king of craft beer right now. I also see a growing love and appreciation for Belgian sours and also see Schwarzbier, one of my favorite beer styles, on the rise.

Hoppy Ending & Barely Legal Coming to Whole Foods

For those out there who have tried and enjoyed Palo Alto Brewing Company’s signature beers the Hoppy Ending Pale Ale and the Barely Legal Coconut Porter, they will soon be available in the bottle at Whole Foods Markets.

According to Kasim Syed, the brewer, sales representative, delivery guy, for the company, which is owned by his parents, all the approvals have gone through. Within a couple of weeks, he believes people will be able to find the company’s brews in several Whole Foods stores in the Peninsula including Palo Alto, San Jose, and Santa Rosa.

However, that doesn’t mean fans of the beers have to wait a couple of weeks to grab a six-pack. The company’s distinctive labels have made into about 30 stores in the past two months Syed said including Mollie Stone’s markets, Piazza’s Fine Foods, City Beer Store and the East Bay’s Beer Revolution.

Back in February Palo Alto Brewing Co. hit a milestone in its year-long effort to expand beyond the confines of its two to three regular taps at Palo Alto’s local beer pub the Rose and Crown when it received its license to sell its beers by the bottle at retail stores.

Syed, who owns and manages the Rose and Crown said, “We sell so much here; they’re in our top-sellers, and people started to ask where else they can get it.”

Despite the relative success the company has had at smaller craft stores, getting the beers into larger more mainstream outlets has proven more difficult.

“If you’re not talking to a craft beer place then they want to keep with the same stuff they’ve always had,” Syed said.

Getting the beers into Whole Foods, for example, Syed said, meant talking to about seven to eight beer buyers in different stores throughout the region, and convincing them to say to the regional beer manager that they want to stock the product.

Another obstacle, besides jumping through larger corporate hoops with the big chains, has been a moderate amount of balking by mainstream stores, most notably BevMo, at the beers’ edgy labels and names. The Hoppy Ending features a long-haired buxom cartoon woman massaging a very content looking cartoon hop, and the Barely Legal Coconut Porter cartoon girl mirrors the Britney spears Catholic school girl look- bare-midriff, cleavage, pigtails, and all.

Syed isn’t too concerned though. “Our target age is 21 and over,” he said with a little chuckle, “We like to have a sense of humor.” One concession the company has had to make recently, however, was agreeing to change the name of the Barely Legal to the “Barley Legal” Coconut Porter.

Palo Alto Brewing Co. also has an IPA, a bourbon barrel aged version of its coconut porter, and a barley wine, but for now only the Hoppy Ending and the original Coconut Porter will be sold in bottles. That way, Syed said, they can keep brewing in small batches and make sure that the bottled beer stays fresh. The rest of the beers will be available from time to time in the Rose and Crown and possibly on tap at other specialty brew pubs.