Bernal Bräu: How the Thomas Brothers Make a Damn Good Beer in Bernal Heights


My brother and I brew beer in Bernal Heights. We do this to carry on the proud Bernal tradition of the North Star Brewery, which operated a century ago on Army Street near today’s South Van Ness.

Also, we like good, local beer. So we make our own.

I don’t know how many other Bernal brewers are out there, but we’re not alone. In fact, I know we’re not even the only ones making homebrew on our block.

Here’s how it’s done:

Thomas Brothers Brewing

My kitchen is all electric, which isn’t ideal. It takes nearly an hour to bring just a couple of gallons of liquid to a boil.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

This ordinary food-grade 5-gallon bucket is our primary fermenter. It needs to be clean and sanitized so bacteria don’t compete with the yeast and turn our beer sour.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

Sean stirs the wort. (That’s what you call beer-in-progress before it’s fermented.)

Thomas Brothers Brewing

Note the use of Hetch Hetchy water for the win.

We steeped this bag of grain in the water as we brought it up to a boil. Now we sparge it — rinse hot water over and through it to extract sugars. Most of the sugar in the wort will come from malt extract, which we’ll see in a minute.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

But first, we pause to take in the sunset.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

Malt extract, made from malted barley, is mostly sugar; it’s the main food for the yeast, which eat sugar and produce alcohol. Professional brewers and some advanced homebrewers do a “mash” to extract the sugars from the malted barley directly.

Using dry malt extract is more expensive, and some might say it’s cheating. But it saves a lot of time and equipment. My electric stove would take forever to get the larger volume of dilute mash runnings up to a boil, so we’d probably have to get a propane burner and do the boil outside.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

Once all the sugar is dissolved and the sweet wort is boiling, it’s time to add the hops.


The hops go in the bag, and the bag goes into the boil:

Hops in the bag
Hops in the boil

We use four different types of hops, added between 60 minutes and 5 minutes before the end of the boil.

After an hour, we take the pot off the heat, and drain and sparge the hop bags. Then we set the covered pot in the sink, which we’ve made into an ice bath for cooling.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

Then, we go out to dinner. Baby Blues barbecue has become the usual spot, and it seems to bring good brewing karma.

Thomas Brothers Brewing

Side Note: As indicated by his t-shirt, Sean’s a Potrero Hill resident now. We shared the Bernal apartment where I still live (and where we now brew) when we first moved to San Francisco. He’s got Anchor Brewing Co. as a Potrero neighbor. Southern Pacific now brews at their brewpub at 19th and Treat, on the middle ground between our hills. We live in a golden age for beer.

Oh, here’s me, still at dinner:


By the time we’re back from dinner, the wort has cooled enough that we can pour it into the primary fermenter, top it up with more Hetch Hetchy water, and add the yeast.

airlock bubble

The beer will sit in the primary fermenter for about a week, until the airlock on top stops bubbling.

Then we siphon it into the secondary fermenter, a glass carboy, and add more hops (called “dry-hopping,” although the hops don’t stay dry). We’ll leave it in the secondary for two weeks, and then either bottle or keg it.

This latest batch will go in the keg, to be ready to drink around February 15. If we’d bottled it, we’d need to wait another week or so for it to get fizzy.

Thomas Brothers beers for June 2012

We used to make pretty labels for the bottles, but they’re a pain to soak off when it’s time to clean the empties for the next batch. Now we just write the style, month, and year on the cap  (eg. “IPA 1/13”) with a stylish Sharpie.

Besides, it’s what’s inside the bottle that’s important. After six years of tinkering with our recipe, Thomas Brothers IPA is a damn good beer if I do say so myself.

I don’t want to jinx anything, but the last two batches of Thomas Brothers IPA were brewed on October 14 and 24 — the days of the first games of the National League Championship Series and World Series, respectively. The Giants went on to win it all.

We brewed this latest batch on Sunday, after the 49ers won the NFC Championship. I plan to cheer on the 49ers at next Sunday’s Super Bowl with a glass of our World Series brew. It is proven. It is tested. We know it works. Knock on wood.

PHOTOS: Joe and Sean Thomas

23 thoughts on “Bernal Bräu: How the Thomas Brothers Make a Damn Good Beer in Bernal Heights

  1. We brew our own beer too, although we’ve really haven’t done so in awhile. This might be the inspiration we need to get back at it. Maybe we can exchange some bottles!

    • Ditto! Wifey and I just moved onto Coleridge a couple months back. I have a Belgian Golden that’s been bottle conditioning for the last 3 weeks…would love to share with other beer lovers in the hood.

      • Save three bottles of that Belgian Golden! We’re doing a competition later this year and that’s one of the categories, along with Saison. Also, in May we’re doing a comp for IPA and Cali Common (Steam beer). Getting objective feedback is a great way to improve your brewing!

  2. We brew on Anderson St. Last was a California Common (Anchor Steam clone) — turned out really well, a bit more fruity and floral than Anchor.

  3. We brew as well in our shop/industrial space on Peralta down by the Alemany Farmer’s/Flea market. We’ve been doing 10 gallon batches using an industrial sized propane burner. Haven’t made a batch in a while, but need to get back on it so we have something to drink this summer.

    • That sounds pretty awesome, we should do a brew day together sometime! Some folks in the SFHG have been looking for spaces to brew in, sounds like you’ve got it made.

  4. Every time I drink something that’s not beer I feel like I am cheating on beer. Well done fellas! Since you have a Speakeasy glass in your first picture you’ll be pleased to know that they are opening a tap room at the brewery in 2 weeks which means we won’t be limited to Friday (and Saturday) happy hours there any more.

  5. Awesome to hear folks are brewing it up in Bernal. I’m right nearby in the breakaway militarized La Lengua Autonomous Zone. There are three homebrewers and a mead maker on my block alone! Like my friend Lisey mentioned above, jump on the SF Homebrewers Guild mailing list if you want to be kept up to date on what’s happening in the SF homebrew community ( I’m Chris, the founder of the SFHG, we’re doing regular monthly meetings and homebrew shares, a combo of fun and educational stuff. If anyone if interested, we’d love to have you!

    • I’ll get signed up for your list. I’ve been brewing on and off for a while, but almost entirely non-beer batches (I’m not a big beer fan, and my fiance has a gluten allergy). I tend to be a bit experimental with that as well, my favorites so far are a pretty strong ginger beer (fully alcoholic, but I’ve made sodas as well) and an apple/plum cider using plums from our backyard tree. I’ve made mead as well, though that was mostly before moving to the west coast where the honey is more than double what I used to pay for it…

  6. Yum! We tried our hand at hard cider using our backyard apple and pear trees this year and are just now enjoying the fruits of our labor. It’s a similar process to beer (maybe even easier if you’re using natural yeast), and delicious in its own champagne-y way. Maybe next fall I’ll document the steps and share here, as lots of yards seem to have these tiny apples that are perfect for this use! Cheers!

    • Perhaps you are interested in converting your wines into stronger spirits, say apple brandy? There is also apparatus for doing such things in Bernal Heights. If you know where to look.

  7. Pingback: Bernal’s Very Own Bourbon: The Making of “Mrs. Brickley’s 1877-Style Old Cherubusco” | Bernalwood

  8. Pingback: Paradigm-Shifting Food Alert: 903 Cortland Makes Very Good Ramen!! | Bernalwood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s