The Session #137: Where I try to figure out what happened to German Wheat Beers in Northern California

For this month’s Beer Blogging Session, Roger Mueller of Roger’s Beers…and Other Drinks asks us to write about German Wheat Beers in some way or another.  (Don’t know what the Beer Blogging Session is?  Then check out this.) I have to confess not knowing a lot about German Wheat Beers. The last time I was in Germany was in Munich in 2005, where I was travelling on business to the Laser Munich Trade Show, as the Germans are every bit as talented at building lasers as they are brewing beer. That was a couple years before I had any real appreciation for beer, German or otherwise.

I rarely drink German imports, but spent the last couple weeks sampling a limited selection of a few German Hefeweizens found in my local grocery store as “research” for this post. I found it interesting how each different brewery had their own small, but significant riff on the style. Other than that, I really don’t think I can say a lot about authentic German Wheat Beers. While ignorance on a subject is hardly a reason for a blogger not to write about it, I’m going to go in a slightly direction. Since plenty of Northern California brewers release Wheat Beers which they claim are brewed in the German-style, I can drink those Northern California variants and write about them.

SCVB HefeHefeweizens are hard to find around here, and sometimes are a bit underwhelming.  One I like is Alviso Mills Hefeweizen from San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB). On the can, SCVB states it’s brewed in the Bavarian-style. It’s got a tingly carbonation, a dry but substantial malt heft, a little wheat tang, and noticeable banana and clove esters to round out the flavor, hitting the usual Hefeweizen notes. Nice beer.

Of course, if I’m going to talk about German Wheat beers brewed in Northern California, Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen has to be in the conversation.  Gordon Biersch Brewmaster Dan Gordon studied brewing at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan, Germany, so you have to figure he knows a thing or two about German Wheat Beer. As for Gordon’s Hefeweizen, it’s got a light pillow-like mouthfeel with a noticeable tartness from the wheat. It’s medium dry and I found the spicy clove character dominant over the banana. One of those beers that is pretty refreshing if that’s all you’re looking for, but interesting enough if you want to pay closer attention.

Dan Gordon, the Gordon of Gordon Biersch

Briney Melon GoseLet’s move to the Gose style. When Northern California brewers discovered this style a few years ago, each had their delightful play on the yin-yang balance of salt and sourness, with each brewery offering up their interpretation of the style.  But after maybe six months of that, brewers around here grew impatient and couldn’t resist the temptation to “innovate”, breaking out the guava paste or the blood orange concentrate and dumping that in the brew.  The Goses in Northern California no longer became interesting studies of balance, but tired fruit-infused Wheat Beers. A notable exception, in my opinion, is Briny Melon Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing.  I like the deep, pucking sourness matched with a light funk, a little saltiness and coriander spice, with the melon adding depth and bringing everything together.

Finally, there’s North Coast Tart Cherry Berliner Wiesse. It’s more sweet than sour, with a fizzy carbonation and the cherries just take over everything. Frankly, it tastes like a sophisticated alcopop. I get that the Berline Wiesse is usually served with sweet syrup in its homeland and this is an attempt at replicating that. Maybe this beer is true to the way a Berliner Wiesse is served in its homeland. I just don’t think it worked particularly well.NC BW

After sampling these and many other German-style Wheat Beers in Northern California, I’m struck with how poorly the German styles have translated here compared to English-styles (Stouts, Pale Ales, and of course, IPAs). Northern California brewers also seem much more comfortable looking to Belgium for inspiration. German brewing, with it’s focus on tradition and strict technique, just doesn’t seem to fit with the more freewheeling Northern California culture. It’s our loss.



Dan Gordon talks about his new cider venture WILDCIDE

Craft beer is hot. Lately, cider has been even hotter. The Beer Institute reported US cider production more than tripled between 2011 and 2013, from 9.4 to 32 million gallons. In 2014, Nielsen reported off-premise cider sales grew by 71% in 2014. While cider sales among the nation’s largest brands have slowed in 2015, cider has firmly established itself in our nation’s beverage landscape with many new cideries both large and small getting into the action.

So perhaps it’s no surprise the Gordon Biersch stepped into the cider area with their newly released WILDCIDE. Of course, most people aren’t all that interested about a brewery diversifying its beverage portfolio, they just want something good to drink.

On that score, I found WILDCIDE successful. It’s quite refreshingly dry, full of crisp apple flavors with a pleasant residual tartness. WILDCIDE takes fresh pressed juice of four different apples: Fuji, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.  Fuji and Golden Apples create aroma and sweetness, while Red Delicious apples create body.  Granny Smith apples provide the tart tang at the finish.

So exactly how did WILDCIDE come about and what else can we expect from Gordon Biersch’s cider venture? I asked Dan Gordon, Gordon Biersch’s Co-founder and Brewmaster about the genesis and his future plans for WILDCIDE in an e-mail. Here’s what he had to say.

BR: Why did you decide to start producing cider?
DG: I made the decision when the laws changed a couple years ago allowing me to get a winery license. Also, after reading the back labels of the major producers and seeing there wasn’t a 100% all-natural hard cider I could find made from fresh pressed juice without additives.
BR:Take us through the process to blend the different apples to get the flavor you were looking for. How many test batches did it take?
GD:The most important element was using fresh pressed apple juice. That was the key to capturing the aromatic qualities of the apple. By using fresh pressed juice, we were able to achieve a very aromatic flavor profile and fruitiness while keeping it dry with a crisp body. Many of the large producers are using concentrate and nearly everyone uses sulfates. We don’t use either.  
The blend of apples was designed to have the right amount of fermentable sugars, acidity and aroma.It wasn’t rocket science. The magic comes in how we control the fermentation rate and dialing in the residual sugar to 1.15%. That’s the challenge. Selecting the apple formulation was the easiest part.  
BR: What’s the biggest challenge in brewing a consistent high quality cider?  
DG: It is all about controlled fermentation to get it consistent. It is a different approach than beer but equally satisfying.  
BR: Cider doesn’t exactly meet the Reinheitsgebot. Is brewing WILDCIDE a departure from your German traditional brewing roots?
DG: To the contrary, I think we’re applying the spirit of the Reinheitsgebot philospohy to cider. We use one ingredient: just fresh pressed apple juice. Making a great cider as pure as possible is exactly what the Reinheitsgebot is to brewing.  
BR: Did brewing something like WILDCIDE involve a lot of soul searching or was it more a “let’s go for it” thing?
DG: No soul searching was necessary. We needed to broaden our horizons and it has been a blast. I really am a fan of our hard cider and have it on tap at home.
BR: Do you have plans for other cider versions (pear?) or other projects in the works you can talk about?  
DG: We will be doing some flavored ciders but not really flavors you would expect. The philosophy is to make it delicious and not try to make statement with esoteric flavors.  
BR: Anything further you’d like to add?
DG: I am drinking one as I answer all of these questions.  

Dan Gordon talks about 25 years at Gordon Biersch in Edible Silicon Valley

One of the many things I did this summer was interview Dan Gordon for an article published in the current issue of Edible Silicon Valley.   I’m especially appreciative of Dan Gordon’s time in discussing his 25 years at Gordon Biersch and personally showing me around his brewery.   The result is what I think is one of the best things I’ve written in my brief part time writing career.  You can read the article online here.

Dan Gordon Talks About Dunkles Unfiltered Dark Lager 25 Years Ago and Today

Dan Gordon next to a computer console that controls his brewery

When Gordon Biersch first released Dunkles 25 years ago, it was as unique as it is now, but for different reasons.  Back then, Dunkles was a rich, roasty unfiltered black lager amidst a sea of pale, watery yellow ones. Despite 25 years of extraordinary brewing progress in the United States, Dunkles remains unique both here and in its homeland Germany.  “None of the larger German breweries make anything like Dunkles today,” stated Dan Gordon, the day I visited him at his brewery in San Jose’s Japantown to talk about Gordon Biersch’s latest limited release of Dunkles.  “The caramelized malts are too expensive.  A lot of breweries use food coloring.”

Gordon Biersch uses this little gadget
to regulate the pressure during fermentation.

While it’s not unusual to see dark lagers from America’s craft breweries, they tend to source malts that aren’t evenly roasted.  As Gordon explained, “Take a look at the caramelized malt you get in the US and the grains are different colors. Some are dark, others are light.  It doesn’t average out to what a caramelized malt should be.” Gordon gets his highly uniform roasted malt from Germany from a former classmate of his at the Technical University of Munich’s brewing program. Gordon spent five years in the brewing program, becoming its first American graduate in 40 years before teaming with restaurateur Dean Biersch to form Gordon-Biersch in 1988.

Dunkles is brewed using a double decoction technique, a time intensive process few American breweries use. Decoction refers to a process where a portion of the grain mash is removed and placed into boiling water before being added back to the original mash to raise the overall temperature of the mash.  As one might expect, in a double decoction, this process is done twice in the mash phase.  It’s a technique still practiced by many German breweries, but rarely done in the United States.  Deeper malt flavors are created during the boiling portions of the decoction since the malt is subjected to higher temperatures.

Gordon recalls the time back when Dunkles was the first beer brewed and served at the Palo Alto brewpub back in 1988.  Legendary beer writer Michael Jackson happened to be passing through and after hearing what Gordon was up too, decided to stop by the brewpub and see for himself.  Jackson asked for a sample. Gordon explained that it needed another couple weeks in the fermenting tank before it would be ready but let Jackson have a taste anyway.  Gordon remembers seeing Jackson’s face when he took a little swig, smiled, turned to him and said, “If it’s this good now imagine what it will be like in a few weeks”.

When Dunkles was finally ready, it turned out to be a big hit, much to Gordon’s pleasant surprise.  “We thought we were doing something that was going over the edge, but a lot of people liked it.  We blew through it.”  Back in 1988, dark beer to most people was either a completely foreign concept or meant something like Michelob Dark.

I probably don’t have the palate to fully appreciate Dunkles, but can notice the difference in the taste from both the ingredients and the careful brewing process.  The toasty, caramel flavors are cleaner with a lot of depth and complexity.  There are other dark lagers out there, but often one picks up slightly harsh or muddled flavors within. Dunkles is not only a part of our region’s brewing history, it’s a study of how extra care in both the ingredients and the way a beer is brewed can make subtle, but significant differences.

I wasn’t around 25 years ago when Gordon Biersch started but can imagine that back then, beers brewed with traditional German methods were pretty novel and eclectic.  Today in this era of extreme IPA’s, wine barrel aging  and countless beers brewed with ingredients like pluots and hibiscus, Gordon Biersch comes across as a bit stodgy.   But if you’ve been doing things right for decades, stodginess is a good thing.  Dunkles is the proof.