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.

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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.

 

 

Rambling Reviews 10.25.2016: Deschutes’s Hopzeit, Mammoth Brewings Double Nut Brown Porter and Gordon-Biersch’s Chum

Time again to ramble on about a three brews I’ve tried lately.

We’ll start with Hopzeit from Deschutes, which they describe as an Autumn IPA as it’s basically a cross between a Marzen and an IPA.  I first tried this at the original Deschutes brewpub in Bend, OR and was a bit underwhelmed. It came across more as an interesting and not entirely successful brewing experiment. The hops seemed a little harsh, overwhelming the restrained, underlying Marzen, with the flavors clashing more than harmonizing. But I decided to give this one a second chance when I saw a six-pack of it at my local grocery store and that turned out to be a wise decision. Maybe the extra time in the bottle allowed the hops to mellow down to the right level, as the light sweet caramel maltyness and the citrussy orange hops with a touch of resin were far better balanced and harmonizing than the brewpub version. Kudos to Deschutes for crafting an IPA which truly tastes like fall, at least when it’s in the bottle.

Next up, Mammoth Brewing Company Double Nut Brown Porter. The annual family trip to Yosemite National Park is a time when we can all appreciate the surreal beauty John Muir popularized over a century ago and it’s also the time to snag my annual fix of Mammoth brews. Porter is one of my favorite styles that’s becoming an endangered species in the beer world. This one quickly jumped towards the top of my porter list with its complex coffee flavors which yield to more pecan nuttiness as the brew warms.  It’s very roasty, almost but not quite to the point of near ashyness, with virtually no sweetness to let all its great complexity shine through.

Finally, we get a beer with one of the most unappetizing names ever.  I’m talking about CHUM Dry Hopped Red Ale from Gordon Biersch, a tribute of sorts to the San Jose Sharks with which Gordon-Biersch has maintained a long partnership. Thankfully, it tastes a lot better than its name. There’s plenty of the toffee thing going on, with juicy, fruity esters suggesting apricot, and a soft earthy finish. It’s really well done, one of those beers that’s either very drinkable if that’s all you want, or one to ponder deeply into all of it’s flavor complexity if that’s what you in the mood for. A lot more than you’d normally expect from a sports tie-in beer.

But be careful, chum has led people into perilous situations.

Rambling Reviews 6.30.2015: Summer Beers from Anchor, Gordon Biersch and Santa Clara Valley

Summer is now officially upon us, so time to ramble about some of the lighter brews especially great for this time of year.  Good summer beers are underrated, possessing enough complexity and depth to draw you in if you care to, which can be easily ignored if all you want to do is cool off.

First up, Anchor Brewing Summer Wheat.  In the past, I was never a fan of this beer. That’s changed now that Anchor’s tweaked the recipe. The earlier version was a little bland for my taste, a pretty one-note wheat beer with nothing particularly to recommend about it. Anchor’s now jazzed it up with some subtle hop additions, including dry-hopping it with Simcoe. The result is a crisp, dry beer with some tartness from the wheat and citrus, lemony character from the additional hops giving the beer some extra depth. Now I’m a fan.

Next up is Gordon Biersch Sommerbrau, a Kolsch.  Their are plenty of Kolch’s out there, some rather light and ordinary.  As Gordon Biersch brewmaster says in a press release, “Kolsch is such a unique style and is so challenging to brew.” No place to hide any off flavors in a Kolsch.  The surprisingly sturdy underlying malt with some wheat tanginess finishes a little earthy.  Lot’s of subtle things going on here, and I like the little extra malt omph you don’t always see in this style.

Finally, when Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s tap room opened, I high-tailed it down there the first chance I got and tried, among other things, their Little Orchard Saison.  Lot’s of spice gives it some zip with some yeasty undertones for balance.  Not a deep review, but I liked it so much, I was just enjoying it rather than scribbling down a bunch of tasting notes, OK?

Rambling Reviews 5.7.2015: Hermitage 07270 Single Hop IPA, Sierra Nevada’s Idaho 7 Single Hop IPA, and Gordon Biersch Zwickel Pils

Time once more to delve into some new brews, this time the theme is beers brewed with only one or two different hops.

Let’s start with Hermitage Brewing’s  07270 Single Hop IPA.  The beers in the Hermitage single hop IPA series are great way to learn a lot about all the different hops and their flavor characteristics.  But truth be told, after trying a lot of them, I’m left thinking “Hmmm….that’s interesting” instead of “I’ll have another”.  While each beer in the series showcases each unique hop flavor profile, it also proves that brewers are wise to use blends of hops, rather than a single hop, to generate more complex and well rounded flavors.  The beers in Hermitage Single Hop IPAs certainly taste good, but often seem to be lack a certain something, coming across as tasting unbalanced or incomplete, and ultimately seem like well executed brewing experimenst.

That’s absolutely not the case with  Hermitage’s 07270 Single Hop IPA, as the 07270 hop really works well on its own here.  The strong tropical mango flavors that really pop with an earthy, resiny finish. It’s every bit as good as Hermitage’s Citra IPA, the only single hop IPA that’s made it into their year round line-up.

And what’s 07270 hop anyway?   It’s a recently bred hop variety from Hopsteiner, a hop supplier from the Pacific Northwest, which apparently hasn’t given it a more evocative, hop appropriate name like “Calypso” or “Galaxy” yet.  A name like “07270” sounds like a piece of computer equipment but whatever they want to call it, I just hope Hermitage decides to brew this year ’round.

Speaking of single hop IPAs, there’s Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Single Hop IPA – Idaho 7.  Apparently they grow more in Idaho besides potatoes, since as you might have guessed, the hop in this brew is from Idaho. It’s another hop that works pretty well all by itself.  There is a noticeable progression of taste with each sip, as the initial bright grapefruit flavors give way to a fruity apricot character that eventually subsides to a resiny finish. Another great exploration into the seemingly endless hop flavor frontier, but I’m left with the nagging feeling if just seemed if a little extra depth from some other hop was brought into this beer, it would really sing.

And finally, there’s Gorden Biesrch Zwickel Pils, an unfiltered Pilsner made with not one but two hops, Hallertau and Tettnang.  Man, did those two hops work well together.  Beers like this are a reminder that amazing things can be accomplished by “just” using top ingredients coupled technically sound brewing techniques.  This beer is just classic, with a robust clear malt with the slightest bit of sweetness driven with sharp, crisp grassy and slight spicy hops. Makes most other lager style beers seem mediocre and demonstrates a lot of great hop flavors can be achieved at just 30 ibu.

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.

Rambling Recommendations 3.2.2015 from Gordon Biersch, Ninkasi and Strike

Every so often after discovering a few new beers I like, I want to tell the world about them.  Or at least the small part of the world that reads this blog.  So let’s get right to three beers to check out if you get the chance.

First up is Gordon Biersch Maibock.   This beer has an interesting back story in that this traditional German beer played a large role in Dan Gordon co-founding Gordon Biersch.  As Gordon states in a press release, “Maibock was the beer that inspired me to become a brewer. The Einbecker brewery was located fairly close to Göttingen, the town where I was an ungraduate exchange student and I toured the brewery as frequently as possible. In fact, I was enjoying a Maibock in my dorm courtyard when I decided to apply to the graduate program in brewing engineering at the Technical University of Munich with the ultimate goal of becoming a brewmaster.“ 

OK, that’s nice, but how does it taste.  Like all Gordon Biersch beers, it’s not a flavor explosion but a beer meant to be appreciated.  It’s got a little yeastiness, with noticeable fruity esters and apricot flavors. There’s light toastiness from malt, and at 7.3% abv the alcohol is slightly noticeable, but not in a bad way bad way.  A great sipper for a lazy afternoon and yet another example of Gordon Biersch brewing precision.


Next is Ninkasi Brewing’s Dawn of the Red India-Style Red Ale.  I knew this was going to be good as soon as I poured it into the glass and all those great hop aromas started wafting upwards towards my nose.  It’s bursting with very tropical, pineapple hop flavors and the slightly sweet roasted malt gives it both a juiciness, and flavor profile of a caramelized pineapple.  Personally, I find Ninkasi beers to be a hit or miss proposition given their rather aggressive use of bold flavors.  Sometimes, I wish they would dial things back a bit or other times I find their big flavors all clashing with each other.  Here, they’ve really nailed it.

Finally, there’s Strike Brewing Big Wall Imperial Stout, their winter seasonal. I enjoyed it so much at their tap room, I made sure to take a 22 ounce bottle home.  Thankfully, Strike avoids the cloyingly sweet “liquid brownie” direction too many brewers take with Imperial Stouts.   Strike’s version is very rich, very dry, with plenty of depth, lots of coffee flavors, with a very sturdy malt base.  It’s very smooth with no noticeable alcohol present despite checking in at 9% abv.  Given that Strike’s usually goes for sessionable, drinkable direction in their beers, it says a lot about Strike that when they go for it in an Imperial Stout, they brew one of the best ones out there.   

Big Wall Imperial Stout in the
Strike Brewing Taproom


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.