As a teenager, Dan Gordon took a trip to Germany with his family. He could legally drink there and immediately took to German beer culture.
And boy, did it stick.
So much so, in fact, that after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1982, he went back to Germany for Grad school, enrolling in the brewing engineering program at the Technical Institute of Munich. He graduated in 1987, one of very few Americans to do so.
His German education is evident in Gordon Biersch’s core lineup — Marzen, Hefeweizen, Maibock, Blonde Bock (my personal favorite), and Pilsner, among many others.
Of course, all beers are brewed in accordance with Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law which states only four ingredients can be used in brewing — malt, hops, water, and yeast. Not even carbonation can be added. All carbonation in each beer is naturally produced and captured during fermentation.
In 1988, Gordon and business partner Dean Biersch (who currently operates the Hopmonk Tavern chain in the North Bay) opened the first Gordon Biersch (GB) brewery restaurant in Palo Alto. Their concept — to elevate the beer dining experience by pairing German-style beer with upscale cuisine.
And boy, did it stick.
Today, there are 35 GB restaurants across the U.S., although Gordon is no longer involved in that part of the business. In the late 1990s, due to California law at the time, Gordon and Biersch had to sell the restaurants. Today the GB brand is co-owned by Gordon, who runs the brewery operations in San Jose, and CraftWorks, a restaurant group who also runs the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago Pizza chains.
A couple of years ago, CraftWorks was considering closing the original Palo Alto location, which was still running but by then was showing its age. Gordon couldn’t let that stand, and worked out an arrangement to get back into the restaurant business, albeit for this location only.
The restaurant closed in September 2015 for a total remodel, and was reborn the following March as Dan Gordon’s. The focus for this iteration is farm-to-table barbecue, along with an extensive whiskey bar. The brewery, Gordon’s original (purchased while still in Grad school in Germany), was also completely overhauled. In addition to brewing the core beers, it also works as a pilot brewery where different styles are explored. If popular enough, they may eventually make their way into the brewery’s regular lineup.
GB continued their marketing partnership with the San Jose Sharks with the debut of Chum, a dry-hopped Red Ale, introduced as a seasonal brew at the start of hockey season last fall. The beer was available at the Shark Tank as well as local stores, and will be back again when the pucks drop later this year.
I spoke with Gordon in his office at the San Jose brewery. We talked about Dan Gordon’s, Reinheitsgebot, ABI envy, his new line of ciders, and the emerging hipster brewery culture.
The Beerverse: How are things going at the Palo Alto restaurant?
Dan Gordon: Real well, we’re happy. We were just thrilled to be able to bring it back to greatness. It had been lacking some TLC from Craftworks over the last, going on, 16-17 years, and it needed a lot of help. It was the flagship, and it needed to be represented at the level of a flagship.
BV: Is your original brewery still there, from when it started?
DG: Yes, it was the one I bought when I was in Grad school in Germany, same kettle and everything. Although we did spend an enormous amount of money refurbishing it. It was originally a cast-iron kettle and we just went through and redid it in stainless steel.
BV: Original, but improved, then.
DG: Well, the fact that it was cast iron, it had rust, it was wearing thin, it was creating off-flavors, it was terrible. It really needed some extensive work probably 15 years ago, 10 years ago at least.
BV: Do you use that brewery for one-offs and restaurant-only batches?
DG: Right. It enables us to do a 20-barrel test brew and see what what it’s like, to take it out into the trade and get consumer response, and to drink ourselves as well. Right now we have an Altbeer and a Dubbel on tap.
BV: What’s gotten the biggest responses there, so far?
DG: Both of those have gotten really good responses, I’ve been surprised. We were requested to produce a Sour Wheat, that didn’t go over well at all. That was interesting to see. I didn’t really want to do it, it was just a request, so you’ve got to approach it with an open mind. It tasted okay, but not really.
BV: What are the steps involved in deciding to launch a new beer into the marketplace? What kind of decisions are involved?
DG: It’s things that I’ve wanted to do more or less that we haven’t done is what the driving force is in whether to brew a style. The Alt beer and a great style because it’s under-represented. I look in the marketplace to see what isn’t being brewed the majority of brewers. I think light-bodied dark beers are really delicious, and I always loved to go to Dusseldorf and drinking Alt beers.
Getting the right yeast strain is not hard these days. I can call the yeast bank and get it sent over, and we’re brewing Alt like it’s done in Dusseldorf.
To me that’s where you garner inspiration, from your favorites that you’ve had before, and like the Belgian Dubbel, that’s just something I thought, ‘We’ve got to give that a shot, it’s a delicious beer, why not try it out and see what everyone thinks?’ It’s 7.8%, though, so it’s got some kick.
BV: So we’ll be seeing some Gordon Biersch Alt bottles in the future?
DG: Well, I don’t know. We’ve got several different lines now. We just launched our IPA called “Tilt.” Although it’s not really ours, it my brewer’s. So the Tilt line might be the one that’s going into the deep, dark void of under-represented beers. [Laughs]
BV: Your San Jose brewing plant opened in 1997, so it’ll be 20 years this year?
DG: Yes, hard to believe.
BV: How are you in terms of capacity? Any other brewery locations on the horizon?
DG: No. I planned for 50 years of growth here. We have infrastructure for more tanks. The only issue would be warehousing, and we can get to more warehouse space across the parking lot if needed.
BV: Is it better for quality control purposes to keep all brewing in one facility?
DG: Well, that and it isn’t cheap to build another brewery. I don’t think we’re at that level yet. Most of the guys who are doing bicoastal brewing have more demand on the East Coast, and we’re not at that level.
BV: Do all restaurants in the GB chain feature breweries?
DG: Almost every single one does, there’s only one I’m aware of that doesn’t, that’s in Scottsdale, AZ.
BV: Are you still the consultant for all beer recipes? Do they license them from you? How does that work?
DG: We co-own everything, the brand is jointly owned. The flagship brands have to be brewed identically, there’s no vacillating or changing those — Marzen, Pilsener, Blonde Bock, Winter Bock — they all have to be the heritage recipes and formulations that we started with.
It’s more the process than anything else. I kind of take it that it’s the home brewing mentality that’s been translated or upscaled to brew pubs or small brewery operations. When you have a brewer and you have a correct brewhouse that can do everything like graduated-step infusion mashing, decoction mashing for strong beers, those are important for the qualitative aspect of the beer.
[Things like] not reusing yeast 20 times. Here we use them, one-and-done. We have a propagator, we can always grab a harvest. Home brewers and some from other craft breweries where they reuse the yeast 10-15 times, they don’t have the ability to propagate and they by off-the-shelf yeast that doesn’t take off the way it should. It surprises me. If you go to one of these yeast banks, you have to grow it before you can use it. It has to acclimate to your work.
Those are the things that we specify in our brewery restaurant operations that most brewpubs wouldn’t even think of.
BV: So as long as the facilities are set up to your specifications, then…
DG: They’ve got to really be up to snuff, yes.
BV: Do they have any flexibility in…
DG: Not in aging time, or quality of raw materials, or yeast handling, or the brewing process, there’s no flexibility on those.
BV: Can they do their own one-offs and restaurant-only brews?
DG: That they are allowed, yes.
BV: Do you need to sign off on those?
DG: I have a counterpart in the restaurant group that watches over that who’s a great guy, so I don’t have to worry too much about it.
BV: Tell me about your cider line.
DG: It’s called Wild Cide. One ingredient, that’s all we use — fresh-pressed apple juice, that comes from Oregon and Washington overnight via refrigerated tankers. We don’t use sulfides to kill the bacteria, we flash-pasteurize the juice as it comes in. We’re able to get a very clean fermentation because of that.
We use an ale yeast strain, which imparts a fantastic, bright apple aroma. Some yeast metabolizes very rapidly, some of the cider yeasts in particular ingests, retains, and neutralizes some of the positive flavor components, one of which is that bright, fresh apple aroma, which we were able to maintain using an ale yeast.
We tried four different yeast strains, and I didn’t like any of them. I thought the flavor of the cider was terrible. And then we tried it with our ale yeast and thought it was amazing.
BV: Just one variety so far?
DG: We do one cider that’s just a straightforward hard cider that’s dry, crisp, and refreshing. Wild Mule is an offshoot. Instead of doing a traditional flavor extension, like a blackberry-infused cider, or lemon or lemongrass, we tried all that out and thought it wasn’t very good.
We made a ginger cider that was really good, and thought this tasted kind of like ginger beer, except drier. So what if we add lime juice, and back-sweeten it a little with liquid cane sugar? It wound up tasting exactly like a Moscow Mule. So we named it Wild Mule.
When you pour it, just tilt it a little bit to get the sediment from the bottom, because it’s all natural cane juice and lime juice. Over ice it’s unbelievable. It hot weather you’re gonna love it.
BV: I know you’re philosophy is to stick to the purity laws, Reinheitsgebot.
DG: Yes, and you can apply that to ale production, as well, it doesn’t just have to be for German beers. You’d be surprised how many chemicals are added to some of the bigger name, mainstream craft brew brands that are bottled.
BV: What do you think of the prevailing attitudes of experimentation, adding all sort of different ingredients?
DG: My philosophy is nothing that can go into muffins or cough syrup, that’s my preference. I think the Reinheitsgebot is a great law because it says malt-hops-water-yeast. That’s plenty of notes to put on paper, that’s the way I look at it.
BV: At first blush, without knowing too much about the brewing process, one might think that’s fairly restrictive. But you can do a lot with just those ingredients.
DG: I think it’s great that hop growers are putting so much emphasis on developing new strains of hops that are interesting and flavorful. I’m not a super fan of the ultra-bitter hops, because takes away the ability to balance the flavor profile. They keep trying to push the limit [of alpha-acid concentrations], to me that gives you too much of a harsh flavor profile. I’d rather use more hops than fewer. It gives you the ability to balance the flavor and hot have it get too astringent.
BV: What about the prevalence for tropical flavor profiles in hops these days?
BV: I remember reading how you feel it is crucial to have good relationships with hop brokers. How do you feel about how ABI is squeezing everyone else out of the South African hop market since they now own all the farms?
DG: Hops are a world-wide item, and people can just buy them somewhere else. ABI doesn’t control the world-wide market. I doubt ABI is predatory, they just have so much production in South Africa that they need all the hops themselves. That’s just normal if you own all the hop fields and you want to control your own destiny and not worry about supply issues, vertical integration is a great thing. I’m jealous. If I were that big and I could do it, that’s the way to go.
They even have an AB hop farm in the Hallertau, a small one for development. They have a full-time research group up there that’s trying to further brewing in the hop world. I’ve never been there but I’ve driven past it since it’s close to where I went to school.
BV: You were expecting a shakeout in the industry at least a couple of years ago. What are your thoughts now?
DG: I just looked at New Brewer, which is a trade magazine, that said in 2016, in California alone, there were 120 new breweries, not including brewpubs, that were bottling, canning, and kegging. I think there were another 50 or 60 brewpubs. It’s absolutely incredible.
I got a call from a private equity firm, that unlike venture capital firms usually acquires companies instead of starting them from scratch, and they were talking about building a beer brand.
What is going on out there? Why do people with no background think they’re going to succeed?
BV: That’s what was happening in the ‘90s. Venture capital companies were just inventing brands to take advantage of that first boom.
DG: Armageddon is coming, there’s no question in my mind. It’s inevitable.
BV: At least in the Bay Area, the concept of very small, neighborhood breweries with very small distribution seems to be taking hold.
DG: It seems like every urban roll-up garage door deserves to have a brewery behind it. It’s like, ‘oh, there’s another.” I know there’s the element of discovery to it, that people love to try something new, and the hopheads want to have a growler of this one beer that only they can get to bring to a party and talk about it, as their badge for the occasion.
It doesn’t drive quality, it just drives new names.
“Oh look, there’s another 95-IBU IPA, whaddya think?”
“Great, it tastes just like the other 95-IBU IPA that you brought to the last party. And the one before that.”
“But look, this came from this address.” It’s basically an address, it doesn’t really matter. The guy’s got a little 50-gallon kettle…
BV: It’s like a cache to have a tiny, tiny space, and to have to make the pilgrimage to go get it.
DG: It’s like grow a beard, get a tattoo and a piercing, boom, you own a brewery.
BV: Having said that, are there some newcomers, say in the last five years or so, that have impressed you?
DG: Honestly, I haven’t been out there tasting everything that’s popping up, so I can’t speak from an educated standpoint. I’d be making it up. I’m basically focused on what we’re doing, and trying to convert the world into drinking a good pilsner again. That’s my goal. Getting back to basics, getting to the good stuff.