Is the South Bay Beer Scene Shedding its Inferiority Complex?

Maybe the South Bay is no longer the beer desert it once was

One event I made sure to attend during SF Beer Week was the Hermitage Brewing Beer Dinner at Scott’s Seafood in Mountain View. When I finished the dinner, pushing aside my dessert plate I sat there struggling to figure out just what I should write about it.  Writing about beer dinners seems like an almost pointless task to me.  I just sort of wing it when it comes to food criticism and since few, if any of my readers attended, and the dinner was over, never to be repeated.  The food was good, the Hermitage Beer was definitely good, and my wife and I enjoyed it.  What more is there to say?

Hermitage’s Ale of the 2 Tun Imperial Stout and
Scott’s Seafood’s Molten Lava Cake 

That didn’t stop me from thinking.  Clearly San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing, the featured brewery of the night is putting out plenty of strong beers on the strong side of the ale spectrum after only three years in existence.  The smooth, malty complexity of their Maltopia, the bright tropical flavors of their single hop  Galaxy IPA, and their dry, bitter chocolate bomb of 2 Tun Imperial Stout are as good as any beers you’ll find from the Bay Area.

And Hermitage isn’t the only notable brewery to emerge from the South Bay recently.  While Hermitage strives to make the big beers, Strike Brewing, barely over a year old has gone in the opposite direction with their excellent Session Series.   And of course, in recent years, Steve Donohue won no less than four GABF medals at Sunnyvale’s Firehouse Brewing before leaving late last year to start his own brewery, Santa Clara Valley Brewing which hopefully will come on line before the end of the year. 

With these South Bay breweries come a number of great new venues to enjoy craft beer.  There are gastropubs Liquid Bread in Campbell and Original Gravity in Downtown San Jose, both less than a year old.  In the last three years, California Cafe at both its Palo Alto and Los Gatos locations has established their brewmaster’s dinner series, featuring inspired pairings of food with beer from some of of the finest breweries in California.  Harry’s Hofbrau in San Jose, an old school German buffet restaurant is an unlikely place to find a great tap selection and it has been hosting a number special events devoted to craft breweries, a development that’s started there about a year ago.  The Yardhouse the opened a couple years ago in San Jose’s swanky Santana Row Mall, and yes, it’s slick and corporate, but you can get some mighty fine beer there.  And we even have an honest to goodness independent bottle shop now with Jane’s Beer Store in Downtown Mountain that opened last summer.  There’s probably some new place I’m forgetting.

The South Bay has long been consider a weak sister to the nearby craft brewing epicenters of San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and the East Bay, but has anyone noticed this recent acceleration of craft beer culture in the South Bay? 

Well maybe. Five years ago, the  general buzz amidst beer geekdom was “The South Bay Beer Scene sucks”.  None other than the late Bay Area beer writer Bill Brand regretfully declared the South Bay “a beer desert” shortly before he passed away.    Then a couple years ago, you could find grudging admissions that a couple of good beers could be found down here. 

And today?  Maybe it’s just me but you hardly hear anyone complaining about the beer scene in the South Bay anymore. Instead, people are just enjoying it.  Isn’t that the way it should be?

Brewmaster’s Dinner featuring Stone Brewing at California Cafe in Palo Alto

There’s a great looking beer dinner featuring Stone Brewing coming up at the California Cafe in Palo Alto this Thursday.  They always put on a great dinner and usually the brewmaster is on hand to talk about end beer.  Seeing Greg Koch there may be a little too much to ask, but expect a knowledgeable rep from Stone Brewing being there.  I have my reservation and expect they’ll fill up fast.  Hope to see you there.   (The details and menu below were shamelessly swiped from The BetterBeerBlog.)

Who: California Café in Palo Alto
What: Brewmaster’s Dinner featuring Stone Brewing Company
Where: California Café, 700 Welsh Road, Palo Alto, CA map
When: Thursday, October 27, 2011 @ 6pm – 9pm
Cost: $45 per person, exclusive of gratuity. Call 650-325-2233 , or email to make your reservations today!


First Course

Food: Grilled Portobello Mushroom, chic pea fries, foie gras croutons, goat cheese
Beer: Arrogant Bastard

Second Course

Food: House cured pork belly, crispy pancetta, smoked bacon butter
Beer: Ruination IPA

Third Course

Food: Braised beef short ribs, parsnip puree, crispy onion strings
Beer: Imperial Russian Stout, Vintage ’08

Fourth Course

Food: Carrot cake, tipsy raisins, carrot gel
Beer: Old Guardian barley wine, Vintage ’09

Advice to California Brewers: Get Your Beer into a California Cafe Beer Dinner

Anyone who’s tasted my homebrews lately knows I have little advice to give to California Brewers, so I just have one thing to say them: Give California Cafe in Palo Alto a call. They’ll further elevate your beer by creating a great dinner out of it. Last nights beer dinner featuring Drake’s Brewing was yet another hit in their recent series of dinners.

I’ve been to other beer dinners held at California Cafe, but just haven’t written much about them. I rarely write about beer from a culinary angle since I generally don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Of course, ignorance rarely stops most people from talking authoritatively about things and that’s not going to stop me here either. So here’s a brief recap of last night’s event.

As in the usual format, California Cafe’s Executive Chef Mark Pettyjohn created a four course menu with a dessert, each course pairing with one of Drake’s Beers for about 35 of us that evening. Dow Tunis, Drake’s Sales Manager and twenty-five year veteran of the Bay Area craft brewing scene, talked about each beer, drifting around to each table over the course of the evening to chat, answer questions and hear what we all had to say about his beers. Turns out Dale used to hang out at one of my favorite watering holes on the Peninsula, Marvin Gardens, an unassuming little shack next to the train tracks in the industrial part of Belmont that always has a nifty little tap list.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Since I saw Peter Estaniel of the BetterBeerBlog across the room furiously scribbling down notes and taking a bunch of pictures with his phone, it’s a good bet a full deconstruction and in-depth analysis of the evening on his blog is imminent, so if you want to get the culinary low-down from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, check out his blog.

I’ll just rave a little about the lively course of Pan Seared Alaskan Cod, pancetta and fingerling potato ragout, and a sweet corn-port sauce served with the unlikely pairing of Drake’s super intense Denogginizer Double IPA.
I expected the Double IPA to totally blow away a light fish like cod. Somehow, that didn’t happen. Instead, the sweetness from creamy corn-port sauce, the saltiness from the pancetta, and the hoppy bitterness from the Denogginizer all were highlighted by the mildness of the cod, creating an energetic mix where each bite tasted differently and all the different flavors found a way to get along.

The following course took a completely opposite approach. A House Cured and Smoked Pork Loin with coffee risotto and spiced cherry sauce was full of smokey, earthy flavors, and blended seamlessly with the roasty coffee flavors of Drake’s Drakonic Imperial Stout. What a great warm and cozy course this turned out to be.
True to the name of California Cafe, only breweries from California are celebrated in this dinner series. Next up is 21st Amendment on August 25th. I’ll see you there.