In a back room of Hayes Valley wine bar Noir Lounge (581 Hayes), The Blind Tiger Taproom burns bright. Hidden from view and advertised sparingly, the bar within a bar is as close as it comes to a contemporary speakeasy.
It's then fittingly named for the quasi-legal establishments of the prohibition era that would charge admission to customers to see an animal like a pig or a tiger while furnishing complimentary drinks.
"Back in the speakeasy days," says Blind Tiger "beer guru" Christian Spybrook, "you couldn't buy a drink, but you could see an animal, pay an admission fee, and drink for free. The two most famous pseudonyms were blind pig and blind tiger."
Spybrook, who provided the name, also buys the beer. He used to do that at the famous Lower Haight beer bar Toronado, where he worked for a decade.
"I have a lot of experience with the brewers and the distributors and the seasonals and the rare beers: all that sort of stuff," says Spybrook.
But isn't Noir Lounge, with its jazz age and gothic flourishes, for wine drinkers only?
"We definitely get a good cross section of beer drinkers," he says, "even if it does say 'wine bar' on the door."
By now, Spybrook has beer selection down to a formula: 8 beers up at the front bar, mostly flagship offerings from local breweries, plus 5 beers of his choice at the Tiger, the illuminated marble back bar.
"You'll have your Anchor Liberty up there, but more craft stuff here," says Spybrook, who at any given time aims to offer one big and hoppy beer, one light colored and strong, one dark colored and strong, one sour beer, and "some sort of very 'out there' beer — whether that be a fruit beer or a beer aged in some strange barrel, or now, the Dogfish Head Noble Rot, which is made with a type of mold that grows on grapes at the end of the season."
The Tiger seeks out all who wander into Noir Lounge: "I go up front every couple hours or so," says Spybrook, "and if there's a few people drinking and I know what kind of beers they have at the table, I'll say 'here’s the five others we have in the back.'"
At the moment, beers like the Bruery Trade Winds Tripel and Ubinta's Labyrinth Imperial Porter are worth a try at $9 and $11 respectively. Come back for changes in the menu: after all, says Spybrook, "I know what I want, and I want to keep tapping something different."