Mike Bernstein hopes his new taproom, Buck Wild Brewing Taproom in Jack London Square, will — first and foremost — become known for its excellent beer and food.
But Bernstein knows that Buck Wild Brewing Taproom is bound to become a favored destination for people with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity because they can enjoy everything on the menu. The taproom is a partnership between Buck Wild, which makes 100% gluten-free beer, and Kitava, a three-year-old restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district that caters to those who are gluten-free, on the Paleo Diet, AIP (Autoimmune Protocol) or GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), or those who just want to avoid common allergens. Having eliminated gluten from his diet in 2007, Bernstein knows what it’s like to go to a restaurant and be constrained by what he can order on the menu.
Still, his ultimate goal would be if beer lovers are drawn to Buck Wild’s brews without even realizing they’re missing gluten.
“There is such a wide spectrum of potential consumers,” said Bernstein. “On the one hand, you have folks who have to be gluten-free, and on the other, you have folks who are just really aware of what they consume.” His aim with Buck Wild, he said, is “appealing to craft beer aficionados, as I think it’s fantastic beer.”
Buck Wild beer entered the market in 2016, selling to about 45 Bay Area restaurants, bars, and liquor stores. Bernstein, who for years, worked in finance, started home-brewing as a hobby around the same time he decided to eliminate gluten from his diet. His beers are made without barley, wheat or rye, uses ingredients like buckwheat, millet and rice instead. Although there are other gluten-free beers on the market, Bernstein said he started his own brewery because he was dissatisfied with the selections he could find.
“I had always been a closet entrepreneur looking for that big idea” he said. “And when I realized there was a void in that category, I thought, ‘Why not fill it myself?’”
Bernstein audited classes in the UC Davis master brewing program. Eventually, he felt confident taking his five-gallon recipes that he brewed for friends and family and upscaling them to make 40 gallons. Only then could he approach commercial breweries about making his private label beer. When Buck Wild Brewing was launched, it was the first beer made in California that was 100% gluten-free (“gluten-reduced” beers were more commonly found then.)
In thinking about his market and who his consumers might be, Bernstein wanted to be sure that his product wouldn’t come into contact with gluten. He knew having his own facility would be necessary to guarantee no cross-contamination, and therefore, to expand.
Finding the space in a historic warehouse formerly occupied by Del Monte Meat Company was a two-year process; Bernstein searched throughout the Bay Area to find the right spot. The Buck Wild facility has enough space for production, a bar and table area (which are, now, of course, spaced out much further than would be in normal times) and a private room on the opposite side of the kitchen, which has a glass walled-board-like room adjacent to it; so in better times, companies can have a meeting there and then adjourn for a happy hour or social event next door. The space totals 10,000 square feet in all. There are also plenty of picnic-style tables outside.
Buck Wild’s brewmaster is Cameron Collier, who came to the brewery via San Francisco’s Fort Point Beer Company and San Jose’s Gordon Biersch. Collier had never brewed gluten-free beer before and was up for the challenge.
“At first, it was like starting from the ground up again,” Collier said. “Initially it felt like going from brewing beer to making wine. But the more you do it, the more you realize that a lot of the process is the same, just with different ingredients.”
The taproom will always have eight taps dedicated to Buck Wild brews (when I visited, there were three IPAs, a pale ale, an amber, a kölsch, a Belgian-style and a porter); one for a guest brewer, and four wines. There are also four-packs of beer ready-to-go, some room temperature and some already chilled in a refrigerator case. For those thirsty for non-alcoholic drinks, there’s kombucha, low-sugar sodas and organic juice.
The opening menu from Kitava is a balance of some of its best-sellers and other dishes that owner Bryan Tublin felt would be an obvious fit for a taproom, like fish and chips (the batter is made with cassava flour) and loaded fries topped with caramelized onions, cumin-spiced beans, scallions, two sauces (chipotle aioli, and a dairy-free cheese sauce made from cashews) and with pasture-raised pork and avocado as optional add-ons.
While neither of these dishes sounds particularly healthy, there are some cleaner options, like Kitava’s Cuban bowl, featuring plantains, avocado, kale slaw, cilantro-garlic mojo sauce, beans, optional pulled pork and either white or cauliflower rice. There are also some small bites, like pan-fried shishito peppers with a non-dairy tahini dill sauce, and crispy Brussels sprouts.
Kitava uses organic, local produce and high-quality cooking oils; and while some of its dishes are indulgent and comforting, Tublin and Bernstein both believe that Buck Wild’s beer and Kitava’s food doesn’t cause the same level of next-day bloat as gluten-filled choices.
As with Bernstein and Buck Wild, Tublin started Kitava because he saw a void in restaurants that are amenable to diners with dietary restrictions and sensitivities. Tublin says he lived with chronic pain until he realized that stress and poor nutrition were the cause of it. In 2017, he left a tech job to open a fast-casual restaurant in a former McDonald’s at 16th and Mission streets. After three years, Tublin was looking to expand Kitava, particularly to the East Bay. When he tasted one of Bernstein’s Buck Wild beers, it sealed the deal for a partnership.
“Of course, there were great business reasons for doing this, but also this is the kind of place I’d want to hang out in,” said Tublin, who recently moved to Oakland from San Francisco. Though, “if the beer wasn’t as good, we wouldn’t have partnered with them.”
Buck Wild Brewing Taproom opens at 4 p.m., Wednesday through Friday; and starting at 11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday. Kitava’s food is also available on DoorDash and Caviar.