The Session #97: Yes, the Silicon Valley is an up and coming beer destination

There was a time in the United States one had to travel great distances to find good beer. Thankfully, those days seem to be behind us.  I’ve found plenty of examples of local and regional brewing excellence in places like Logan, UT, Modesto, CA, Las Cruces, NM, and Fort Myers, FL. None of these places would be one anyone’s list of beer destinations. Yet, the beers at these places all have their unique identity, whether brewed with local ingredients or with some unique twist.

So when Our Tasty Travels asks us to list our up-and-coming beer destinations, I’m tempted to answer by jumping up and screaming “EVERYWHERE!”  Instead, I hope you’ll forgive me as I talk up the place where I live, the Silicon Valley, as a beer destination you should check out.

It’s not as if there haven’t been any good breweries here. Places like the Tied House, Faultline Brewing, Los Gatos Brewing Company, and El Toro have all been cranking out good stuff for over a couple decades.  Gordon-Biersch, the ubiquitous  chain of brew pubs and beer originated Palo Alto in 1988, the same place Hewlett Parkard started from a garage in the 1930’s.   The Gordon-Biersch production brewery is located smack dab in the middle of San Jose. Other breweries like Rock Bottom Brewery, Campbell Brewing, Firehouse Grill & Brewery joined the fray a years later winning awards and a few Great American Beer Festival (GABF) medals along the way.

Still, the Silicon Valley long suffered comparisons to the thriving San Francisco and Oakland area brewing scenes.  Even as little a seven years ago, the place to go for the best beer selection in the Silicon Valley was arguably a wine bar called “Wine Affairs”.

But that’s changing.  In just the past few years plenty of bars and restaurants have emerged to serve a wide variety of brews to meet eclectic tastes.  I’m talking about places like Original Gravity, Harry’s Hofbrau, Good Karma, Liquid Bread, and Spread which have either recently emerged, or transformed themselves into places to go to find great beer. I’m sure I’ve left out a few other places.

However, the most encouraging trend is that by mid-2015, four new Silicon Valley breweries will have opened tap rooms in the last two years in the same gritty industrial section just south of downtown San Jose. All four of those breweries has it’s own to tie to the Silicon Valley’s unique culture.

Hermitage Brewing’s Tap Room

The first to build and brewery and tap room was Hermitage Brewing, a production brewing venture of Mountain View’s Tied House in the summer of 2013.  In addition to producing many fine brews of their own, Hermitage stealthily brews beers for several breweries under contract.  You might say Hermitage is the Flextronics of Northern California brewing, the contract manufacturer that builds many of the world’s fancy electronic gadgets. The most interesting Hermitage brews, at least to me, are in their single-hop IPA series.  Every two or three months, Hermitage releases a single-hop IPA, often brewed with some hard to find varietal of hops.  Each beer is brewed the same way, the only thing that changes is that hops.  It’s a great way to directly taste all the latest innovations in hop cultivation.

Strike Brewmaster Drew Erhlich and CEO Jenny Lewis

Then in early 2014, next brewery to settle in the area was Strike Brewing with their no-frills, yet well executed
brews.  Strike goes for the sessionability and drinkable side of the brewing spectrum, yet they still won awards with their Imperial Red and do a dynamite Imperial Stout.   You will not find a more ambitious business person in Silicon Valley than Strike CEO Jenny Lewis who has clear expansion plans well beyond Northern California.  Yet, Strike constantly supports the local community in various fundraisers.

Next up was Clandestine Brewing, which opened a tap room last May.   It’s always fun to see what they have on their 12 taps, because it always changes and there’s always something new. You’d expect that from a brewery founded by four homebrewers who brew only on the weekends.  That’s because their weekdays are spent writing code for various Silicon Valley software companies.

Rob Conticello and Colin Kelly of Clandestine Brewing

And in the middle of this year, Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB) will open their own brewery and tap room.  Everybody knows SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue, who won four GABF medals during his time at Firehouse Grill and Brewery.  When Firehouse made a curious business decision de-emphasize its beer and transform itself into a Hooter’s knock-off, featuring nubile waitresses scantily dressed in tight t-shirts and short kilts for the sports bar crowd, Steve decided to leave after a couple years of that.   Soon after, he formed SCVB with Apple Computer executive Tom Clark.   SCVB quickly established their tropical Electric Tower IPA as their flagship beer, and Electric Tower tap handles started popping up all over the San Francisco Bay Area.

SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue

One thing the Silicon Valley is not, is San Francisco.  San Francisco is a beer destination which needs no introduction with it’s undeniable vibrant brewing culture.  Just don’t go there if you want a simple wheat beer or brown ale.  The must be some law that states any wheat beer in San Francisco must have some unusual fruit like guava or olallieberry in it. Any brewer up there who can be bothered to brew a brown ale can’t resist adding Peruvian cocoa nibs to it.  Thermo-nuclear IPA’s and Belgian-style alcohol bombs take up 85% of any given tap list.  But then, San Francisco has never been about restraint.

The Silicon Valley has long been about execution, collaboration, and innovation driven by logic. You’ll find that in our beer.

Beer of the Month: Campbell Brewing’s Porter

A Pint of Campbell Brewing’s Porter at the upstairs
patio of the Sonoma Chicken Coop, where more light for this
photo would have really been helpful

For the first time in my life since I moved last fall, there’s a brewery within short walk from my home.  It’s Campbell Brewing, which brews up beers for the Sonoma Chicken Coop restaurant, a major fixture in Campbell’s lively downtown scene.  While I’ve enjoyed many solid Campbell Brewing beers such as their Bitter, Scottish Ale and IPA, none of them caused the “slap-me-upside-the-head-and-make-me-say-Wow!” reaction required for Beer of the Month status.

That all changed last week when I tried Campbell Brewing’s Porter, a beer not usually found in their regular rotation.  The humble Porter is one of my favorite styles, and this one ranks up there with the best I’ve had.  It was smooth, flavorful, smokey with bitter chocolate flavors that all really popped.   It was a little on the thin side for the style, with no noticeable hop presence to speak of.  But if you ask me, these attributes actually worked to the advantage of this brew, which was all easy drinking roasty goodness. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, South Bay breweries are underrated.  And thankfully, one of those South Bay breweries making some great beer is a short walk from my new home.

Where have I been lately?

Bear Lake, UT in the early morning.  Couldn’t run by it since
my arm was in a sling at the time, but was invigorated
by the early morning walk to its banks.

No doubt most of you are losing sleep, staying up all night, wondering what’s happened to me as the posts here have slowed to a trickle.  OK, even though you haven’t, plenty has been going on in my world lately.  In the past nine days I have:

  • Undergone shoulder surgery on my left shoulder to rid it of it’s nasty habit of popping out of its socket at inconvenient times.
  • Gone to Bear Lake, UT for three days on a job related meeting.  My boss has a rather dim view of me blogging on all hands meetings.  Go figure!
  • With my wife, packed up all our stuff, loaded it on a van, and moved from Belmont, CA on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula to the South Bay’s Campbell, CA.

Needless to say, I haven’t had much time for blogging, and my left arm hanging in a sling isn’t the greatest situation for writing blog posts.

Not to worry, there’s several projects in the works you’ll see here in the coming weeks..  As for beer and running, the blog is going to take a decidedly South Bay turn.  I’m writing this sitting no further than a mile from the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and a fifteen minute walk from the Sonoma Chicken Coop, and their brewing alter ego Campbell Brewing Company.   Across the street from the Sonoma Chicken Coop is this new, nifty Belgium cafe I just discovered called Byr of Belgium featuring a very solid line-up of Belgium beers.   And our front door is literally a stone’s throw from Fermentation Solutions, a home brew supply store I shopped at many times.  So while family and work matter largely drove the move to Campbell, the beer and running side of the equation unexpectedly fell into place quite nicely.

I think I’m going to like it here.