Good Beer Hunting

The Third Place

Mad Personality — Toronado Bouncer Mike Burt

On most nights, Mike Burt sits just to the right of a fabled Dutch door on Haight Street in San Francisco. Usually, Burt—a sturdy man with a wiry, graying beard and a black, custom-spiked Giants baseball cap—isn’t alone. Perched beside him atop a padded barstool is Nubia: a diminutive, nine-year-old black miniature pinscher wrapped in a tiny vest emblazoned with studs and an oversized Slayer patch.

If Nubia likes you, she’ll try to jump into your lap. If she doesn’t, she’s outspoken about it.

“Anyone that’s a tinge off, she’ll let me know,” Burt says. It’s a rare clear night in the Lower Haight, and he’s opted to sit outside. “She stays away, she’ll bark at them, nip at them a lil’ bit, like this is bad juju. She did that with a bunch of lady friends of mine as well, and you know, she chose right.”

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Burt’s been guarding the door at legendary local beer bar Toronado for 13 years, though he’s been in San Francisco for 20, by way of his native Santa Rosa. It wasn’t the beer, or any kind of high-paying employment, that brought him to The City, as is the case for many here. It was the music.

“I’ve been in all kinds of bands—metal bands, punk bands,” he says. “Right now I’m doing rock and roll, just fuckin’ around.”

I went from the bottling line to lead brewer in less than a year.

His most recent project, a band called Hot Toddler, is on hold at the moment—“We need a new drummer; it’s hard to find one who’s not in a band and has his own kit.”—but he’s sustained himself in the interim by collecting jazz records and hitting up metal shows. Speaking of, Burt says he once saw Metallica play at “kind of a drag spot” on Polk Street under the pseudonym The Four Horsemen, back before Robert Trujillo joined the band. That was also before the place, a former rock venue and sometimes gay bar called Kimo’s, closed in 2011.

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The whole city’s in flux. Burt was pushed out of his Mission District apartment, where he lived for 13 years. The landlord bought him and his roommate out (a practice that’s becoming fairly common in gentrifying parts of the city) but a dispute between Burt and the master tenant amounted to Burt walking away without anything to show for the trouble.

“After 13 years of living in the same place, I didn’t get a dime,” he says. “It was a lil’ fucked up. He claims I owe him a bunch of money, but that’s a different story.”

Frank Jaworski, another bouncer at Toronado whose shift ended earlier in the day, pops his head outside to ask Burt if he’s had the “PB&J mead” the bar’s selling. Burt has. He shakes his head. He’d rather not relive it, thanks. He takes a sip anyway.

“It’s just gross,” he says. “Super sweet.”

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Burt took an unusual route into the beer industry. When he moved to San Francisco, he’d taken up screenprinting for small businesses—specifically bars and breweries—to make some extra cash. One day, a co-worker was test-printing a graphic, but erred by using an XXL size, rather than a cheaper, smaller one, for a new Speakeasy Ales & Lagers sweatshirt. The logo was reversed, and he put the back design on the front, but it fit Burt, so he took it.

“I ran into the [Speakeasy] head brewer at a bar and he was like, ‘Where did you get that sweater?’” Burt recalls. “I told him the story and I asked him if he ever needed someone to work in the brewery, even part-time, [to let me know].”

[Nubia] turned her nose up at him, like, ‘I’m staying here.’ And dude was like, ‘Shit, well that’s your dog now.’

Burt, who was a homebrewer and had some work experience in wine cellars around Santa Rosa, says he bugged him for weeks until the brewer gave him a shot.

“I went from the bottling line to lead brewer in less than a year.”

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Burt worked at Speakeasy for around five or six years, but drank for fun at Toronado. He was at the bar so often the crew asked him to help out for special events, like the annual Barleywine Festival and anniversary parties.

Back at Speakeasy, problems began to arise. Burt was “butting heads” with ownership, he says, and felt they wanted to push him out. So he left. He still had Toronado, and eventually, scattered shifts turned into full-time employment.

“It’s a good job, it’s a solid place,” Burt says. “I know I’ll have constant work. I know I’m good at my job, because I’m good with people. The family is great here, the turnover rate is very low. We’re here forever—a bunch of old fucking men working here. A couple women, too. I like working here, it’s decent money. I can still live in SF, an extremely expensive city. I still get to do fun stuff, I’m not just working to live. It’s a good thing.”

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Nubia is also part of the Toronado family. She’s been with Burt for eight years now, though she wasn’t always his. She originally belonged to a friend of his, who bought her from a show-dog breeder before he “fell on hard times,” Burt says.

“His company shut down, he had to move in with his lady,” he says. “They couldn’t have dogs over there so I took over temporary ownership. It was going to be a couple weeks—just me and lil’ puppy Noobs.”

I had to give her a little tough girl thing. She’s got her spike collar. She’s got personality. Mad personality.

But when his friend came back, Nubia “turned her nose up at him, like, ‘I’m staying here.’ And dude was like, ‘Shit, well, that’s your dog now.’ I wasn’t really planning on getting a pet, but she chose me, and she’s so damn cute.”

The jacket she wears now was actually a gift from a bar regular, though Burt customized it for her. “I decked it out, made it a battle vest for her. I put the patches on it; I had to give her a little tough-girl thing. She’s got her spike collar. She’s got personality. Mad personality.”

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On nights like these, Burt works until closing time. And then, while the rest of the city sleeps, he heads to Fisherman’s Wharf, to a 56-foot boat called the Lovely Martha. It’s owned by a father-son pair, and each time he boards, he’s joined by anywhere from eight to 30 other fishermen. Halibut season starts tomorrow, and he’s looking forward to hitting the Bay on Sunday to fish over by the Port of Oakland, where the fish can grow pretty large.

“My escape from reality is being on a boat and fishing,” Burt says. “You get out there at 5 a.m., you jump in the boat, you chug out. It’s just the drum of the engine and waiting for the sun to come out, waiting to get to your fishing grounds and watching the deck hands jump around. It’s pretty amazing.”

Burt says he once caught a halibut that weighed 30 pounds. It was a lucky accomplishment, but having a San Francisco-sized freezer can be limiting when it comes to reeling in big fish. Still, it’s worth it for the battle.

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“Catching them is the best. It’s a fight, it’s a struggle, it’s waiting, it’s a lot of skill. Straight up skill and luck. But once you pull it up, get that fish on deck and you see it, measure it, kill it, fillet it, cook it up—it’s farm to table, or ocean to table. I’ve been—ay, bud!”

A young, blonde man in a Patagonia jacket is attempting to carry his pint glass outside to the street. Burt yells at him. “Take your beer inside! What the fuck you doing!?”

They get angry and they say some snarky-ass shit, so we’ll say some snarky-ass shit back. It just so happens we’re better at it than they are.

The crowd at Toronado seems to get younger and younger every year. Burt shakes his head. The rich tech kids come out on Friday and Saturday nights.

“[They’re] forcing out everybody making less than $100K a year,” Burt says. “They’re hanging out and [regulars] don’t want to come in. They stick around for a couple beers, don’t spend that much, don’t tip as well, and they’re just rude.”

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Luckily, Toronado bartenders are well-versed in dealing with rudeness.

“You gotta get people served,” Burt says of the staff. “If people hold you up, don’t know what they want, or don’t have any cash on them or something like that, it gets annoying, so you go to the next person. And they get angry and they say some snarky-ass shit, so we’ll say some snarky-ass shit back. It just so happens we’re better at it than they are.”

The neighborhood might be changing, but you can count on Burt’s take-no-shit attitude—at least for the foreseeable future. He and Nubia aren’t going anywhere.

“I’m sticking around. I’m not done with San Francisco. I’m so not done. This place is home for me.”

Words, Alyssa Pereira
Photos, Clara Rice