Clandestine Brewing Sneaks Back into San Jose

When Clandestine Brewing opened the spring of 2014, it quickly established itself as one of the Bay Area’s quirkiest breweries. It was really more of a home brewing collective of four brewers selling a sprawling selection of brews out a small, cramped tap room in a   small industrial space in South San Jose. It was always packed. Problem was, there was some weird rift they had with their landlord and  finally a year and a half later, they had to close down, always vowing to reopen. It took about a year, but Clandestine’s second act started last fall, just south of downtown San Jose in a bigger and more comfortable space. I’ve been itching to return to the reborn Clandestine and finally got the chance this past weekend.

Good news, the beer is arguably better than before. I always felt that at the old Clandestine with their rapid tap list turn-over that maybe 50% of their beer was good to great, 30% of it OK, and the remaining 20% were clunkers with noticeably flaws or flavors that just didn’t work. That never bothered me too much, since they were always doing something unique. Even tasting a couple failures, all I could think of was “Well, that was  interesting.” But then, not everyone would be so forgiving if handed  a pint of some hot phenolic mess so I always told people to taste a lot of brews at Clandestine to find something you like.

It’s always a little risky judging a brewery on a single visit but it seems like they’ve really upped their brewing game. Everything I sampled was good to great, and thankfully, the crew hasn’t lost their playful, anything goes attitude, which never degenerates into silly gimmicks or weird homebrewing experiments.

Hands down, my wife and my favorite Clandestine brew that afternoon was their “Roger St. Peppers“, a smoked Pale Ale with Jalapeno. Chile beers are dangerous, but Clandestine found the absolute perfect level of heat, and the Jalapeno slowly picking up steam to become slightly noticeable at the end of each sip. It’s just a lot of fun to drink. I also loved the “Choco-Conaught“, a dark Lager, with liquid chocolate and toasted coconut. That could turn into like some big horrible disaster, but all the flavors were well balanced and worked together well in a wintery Lager. Other notable beers I tried were “M-Rations” IPA, “Hopothetical Idaho 007” Pale Ale, and their popular “Milky Way” Stout that I was always a big fan of.

Clandestine is back, better than ever, and looks like they’re here to stay for a long time.

Clandestine Brewing in Edible Silicon Valley

Clandestine Brewing

posed one of the more challenging breweries to write about. Most breweries have just one brewmaster, a standard line-up of maybe 5-6 beers, and it’s own history.  Clandestine has four brewers, numerous beers in a constantly changing line-up, and it’s own intriguing history. Add that all four brewers bring their unique stamp to the place and that Clandenstine is part of the recently developing South Bay Brewing scene and it was particularly difficult to parse all that rich material into something under 1,000 words.  The result, which I’m proud of, but doesn’t due the brewery justice, is in the current print version of Edible Silicon Valley, and here is a link to the online version. 

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.

Fleeting Images of Clandestine Brewing

Before sharing a few pictures I took at Clandestine Brewing, I want to thank them all for their time and cooperation for an article I wrote on the past, present and future of the new brewery to be included in the next issue of Edible Silicon Valley. I spent some on Saturday morning with dWiGhT Mulcahy (yes, that’s how he capitalizes his first name) as he brewed a Kolsch, and then the next day on Sunday with Rob Conticello and Colin Kelly as they brewed a Belgian Wit. They provided a lot of great material to tell the story of one the Bay Area brewing scene’s most intriguing and unique new breweries.

Beer of the Month: Dead Drop from Clandestine Brewing

Our Beer of the Month comes from a relative newcomer to the Bay Area craft brewing scene, San Jose’s Clandestine Brewing.  Clandestine is really more of a home brewing collective with a tap room that a commercial brewery, part of the larger trend of nanobrewing within the craft beer revolution. Perhaps my favorite thing about Clandestine Brewing is that unlike other nanobreweries, their tap list isn’t dominated with a bunch of wild and crazy thermo-nuclear IPA’s. Instead it contains a lot of traditional styles although they Clandestine does make their fair share of interesting experiments. Sure it’s great tasting something made with lots of hops, but thankfully, Clandestine hasn’t forgotten you can be just as innovative with yeast and malt as you can with hops.  The result is that going to Clandestine is always fun, because you’ll find both the familiar and the novel, and there’s a lot more to their idea of innovation than just hitting you over the head with a bunch of hops.

A good example of this is their Dead Drop Munich Dunkel, a traditional German style.  A Dunkel is best described as a dark lager, and Dead Drop has a nice drinkable depth to it.  It’s got a little caramel, a little bitter chocolate and a nice crispness.  It’s one of those beers like Anchor Steam, where you can either simply drink it to quench a thirst on a hot day, or contemplate all its subtle complexities.

Clandestine Brewing Exposed!

A new kind of brewery has emerged in San Jose.

Breweries used to be these massive factories pumping out millions of gallons of beer that was all the same and shipped hundreds or thousands miles away. In the last two or three decades of America’s brewing revolution, smaller breweries evolved. They were still factories designed produce in volume, but brewing a wider variety of styles and tended to serve more local markets. Then there are breweries like San Jose’s newest brewery, Clandestine Brewing, that’s one of those so called nanobreweries.   Clandestine is more like a tight home brewing collective with a license to sell beer at it’s tap room to the local community. They have no flagship beers and they like it that way. Instead, there are eleven beers on tap with all sorts of different ones going in and out of rotation.  Going to Clandestine Brewing for beer like going to down to the bakery to fresh made bread rather than picking up of a mass produced loaf at the supermarket.

Clandestine has only been open for business about a month and I finally got to check the place out last Saturday. Despite being located in a small industrial park in the middle of San Jose, the place has an informal, neighborhood feel.   One of the brewers will even give you a brewery tour which lasts about 5-10 minutes as the walk you through the various stages of the brewing process in a space the size of a large garage.

You might think their small operation would be stretched thin producing so many different beers, but most of their brews are pretty tasty. And to me, the best thing about their tap list is that it isn’t chock full of a bunch of wild and crazy IPA’s with maybe an Imperial Stout or Pale Ale thrown in for good measure.  There’s a real respect for brewing traditions and a genuine diversity of beer styles, flavors and brewing techniques in Clandestine’s beers.

What you see here is all the equipment currently used to
brew Clandestine’s beers

So let’s get to the highlights from last Saturday afternoon when my wife and I stopped by the place and took in a sampler flight. Adrian, one of Clandenstine’s four brewers, was behind the counter that afternoon. and gave us a friendly tour through the various offerings as we tried them.

dOrt – Brewed in the Dortmunder style, this light, crisp beer had a refreshing tartness and light hints of lemon.

BND – I find Hefeweizens in the United States to be a hit or miss proposition, with some of them being rather tasteless and uninteresting.  This one works well with a nice light bubble gum-like esters.

Gratzer – Described as a “Smoked Beer” this light, tart beer had (surprise!) a nice smokey aftertaste.

Brush Pass – This is a Roggenbier, a traditional style rarely found today.  Adrian explained was Roggenbier is, but I was enjoying the beer so much, I forgot to write it down.  It’s brewed with rye, giving the dark brew some peppery-ness, with some woody notes.  It’s one of those beers where you can focus either on its complexities, or simply ignore than as they provide a great background to whatever else you’re doing.

Van Dam Hoppy – A Belgian IPA brewed with Amarillo, Columbus and Warrior hops. The result is a classic citrus and floral West Coast IPA with some aromatics from the Belgian yeast for good measure.

Adamatium – The name is a play on the beer “Hair of the Dog Adam”.  The style is an Adambier, another old traditional German strong ale.  Adambier’s are typically sour, but this one wasn’t. Instead, it was brewed with smoked and dark malts giving it a smokey savory character with some sweetness, tasting almost like barbecue in a glass.

There’s plenty of more Clandestine beer to explore….

Hopothetical: Azacca Hop – Part of Clandestine’s single hop Pale Ale series which highlights individual hops, this was both my wife and my favorite of the afternoon.  The  light crisp, dry malt and Azacca hops combined to give a unique and pleasantly unexpected Jasmine flavor to the brew.  Apparently, Clandestine has all sorts of specialty hops stashed away for upcoming Hopothetical brews, so there are plenty of novel hop flavors from Clandestine to look forward to.

Clandestine’s tap room is open Friday afternoons from 4pm-9pm, and Saturday’s from 2 pm to 9 pm.  The brew on Sundays.  They rotate plenty of beers in and out of their rotation.   It’s a place to check out a new type of brewery innovating with beers both traditional and contemporary.