First look at Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s new brewery

It’s big news for South San Francisco Bay beer aficionados that Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB) recently completed their brewery in South San Jose and has even started brewing a few batches. I got a chance to check the place out for myself and spent few minutes chatting with Brewmaster Steve Donohue.   As you might expect, Steve doesn’t have a heck of a lot of time to chat with anyone while he’s getting the brewery up and running.  Steve tells me to expect a couple new brews from SCVB, a Pale Ale, and a Session IPA.  For those expecting the Session IPA to be a dialed down version of their popular flagship Electric Tower IPA, Steve enthusiastically assured me the Session IPA would have its own unique character unlike Electric Tower.  The tap room in the front is still under construction and could likely open in as soon as a couple weeks, but the actual date will depend on when the necessary permit approvals and completed. As for getting the whole place up and running, Steve shook his head as he told me “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but it’s been fun so far.”
I’ll leave you with some pictures of the brewery.  The tap room was still under construction so I won’t post pictures of it, but when finished, I think it’s going to look pretty sharp.

The latest excellent release from Santa Clara Valley Brewing is no surprise Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB) calls their latest release, a Double IPA, “Valley Surprise”. The only surprise would be if it sucked.

SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue has long demonstrated his considerable skills with hops well back to his days with Firehouse Brewing. Valley Surprise is the latest in his long list of these examples and a very worthy follow-up to SCVB’s highly successful Electric Tower IPA. Valley Surprise has plenty of strong, punchy tropical hops flavors with a slight resiny finish.  Even better, it’s a very dry Double IPA with virtually no sweetness letting all those great hop flavors come through.  It’s a welcome departure from a lot of sweeter tasting West Coast Double IPA’s, some of which border on tasting like sickening hop syrup.

I picked up at bottle at San Jose’s Royal Liquors and also had some at my neighborhood hang-out Campbell’s Little Lou’s BBQ.  You can find it a plenty of other locations and my guess is you’ll be seeing it around at SF Beer Week.

Talking with Brewmaster Steve Donohue about Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s First Year

Brewmaster Steve Donohue enjoying a pint at
Little Lou’s Barbecue
It’s been a little over a year since Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s (SCVB)  Electric Tower IPA first arrived.  Since then, Electric Tower tap handles started sprouting up all over the South Bay and SCVB’s subsequent releases of Peralta Porter and New Almaden Imperial Red have also been successful.  It’s not surprising, given that SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue won four Great American Beer Festival medals in just six years at Fire House Grill and Brewery before starting SCVB with Apple Executive Tom Clark.
I spent some time talking with Steve Donohue about his first year of SCVB and the brewery’s plans for the future over a couple New Almaden Imperial Red Ales at Campbell’s Little Lou’s Barbecue.    As he sat down, Donohue reminisced,  “We tapped our first keg of Electric Tower First May 10th just last year.  That in and of itself is hard to believe.  It’s gone fast.  It’s been a wild ride so far that has exceeded expectations.”
Looking back at his years at Firehouse, Steve had only positive things to say.  “The six years I had there were great.  I couldn’t have had a more valuable experience and came into my own as a brewer.  I’d reached the pinnacle doing everything I could do for the business.  It was just time to move on.”
So he did.  It happened when Apple executive and long time home brewer Tom Clark was looking to start a brewery in the South Bay.  Clark spoke with some of his contacts in Santa Rosa, and they suggested giving Steve a call.  Together they formed Santa Clara Valley Brewing.
Their first beer was Electric Tower IPA.  Tom and Steve discussed the qualities they wanted their first beer to have, and then Steve put the recipe together.  “Recipes aren’t that hard for me, I guess,” says Steve matter of factly.  “To make what we wanted, I knew certain malts would take me here, “ gesturing with his hands, “these hops would take me here, and the yeast would take me here.  When we tried the first batch, it was pretty much where we wanted to be.”
As for new beers in the works, Steve is working on a barrel-aged wheat beer brewed with 100%  Brettanomyces yeast with sour cherries.  As Steve describes it, “It won’t be a Sour per se, but will have some tartness.  I’ve been tasting it out of the barrels and it’s about where it should be.”  Further pondering his next move, he mused  “I’m thinking about doing a barrel-aged stout.   Then, a lot of people do barrel-aged stouts, so maybe I’ll do an Old Ale instead.  I haven’t decided which one yet.”

The business side of things is starting to grow.  SCVB produced a mere 200 barrels in 2013, but is on target to brew about 800 barrels in 2014.  Tom Clark’s wife Colleen has taken over the bookkeeping duties. Peralta Porter is now pouring at San Jose Giants games and Electric Tower IPA is selling well in San Diego, a fact that’s both surprising and highly encouraging,  given the number of excellent IPA’s brewed in and around San Diego.  SCVB hired their first dedicated sales person last month, Stephanie Santolo.  “She’s just killing it,” enthused Steve about Santolo’s performance.  “She just got us into Lunardi’s.  I had begun talking with them, but she closed the deal.  I didn’t even realize she was talking to them until it happened.”   Given Lunardi’s operates eight high-end grocery stores throughout the South Bay and  Peninsula, it’s a big win for a brewery of SCVB’s size.
All of which will be important SCVB’s next step.  Currently, their beer is brewed under contract at Hermitage Brewing but that will change in the not too distant future as SCVB is in the process of building their own brewery.  “We’re still keeping it close to the vest, “ Steve explained.  “We’ve leased a building, but we’re not ready to make a big announcement.  Hopefully, we’ll start construction within the next couple of months.” It took about four months to find the right location for the brewery, which will be located across the street from Southern Lumber just south of downtown San Jose.  As for a time table as when it will open, Steve was reluctant to provide an estimate.
But it’s a good bet that a year from now, the gritty industrial park just south of downtown San Jose full of construction suppliers and auto salvage yards will also be known for beer as at least four craft breweries will call the place home.   There’s Hermitage Brewing, which started it all and opened up a tap room last yearStrike Brewing is set to open their brewery and tap room this summer after brewing under contract for a couple years at Hermitage.  Then there’s Clandestine Brewing, about to reveal itself with a brewery and tasting room this summer.  There’s even talk of a shuttle picking up passengers from the San Jose Cal Train station with stops at the four breweries, and possibly some downtown beer locations as well.

Whether or not San Jose becomes a beer destination, it’s exciting to think about it.  Whatever happens in the South Bay Brewing scene, Santa Clara Valley Brewing is going to be a big part of it.  It figures Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s second year is going to be every bit as eventful as their first.

Beer of the Month: New Almaden Imperial Red Ale from Santa Clara Valley Brewing

Our Beer of the Month for March comes from a brewery that seems like it’s been around for a couple years, but only started brewing late last spring. It’s from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, formed by multi-GABF award winning brewer Steve Donohue and Apple Executive Tom Clark.  Their Electric Tower IPA drew plenty of raves, including one from yours truly, and Electric Tower tap handles have been popping up all over the South Bay.

Their recently released New Almaden Imperial Red proves Santa Clara Valley Brewing is no one hit wonder.    There’s plenty of malt, giving it a creamy mouth feel and lots of roasty and earthy flavors but hefty additions hops create citrus flavors pushing through all that malt goodness, resulting in a beer with plenty of bold flavors.  For all its strength and assertiveness, it’s also surprisingly smooth.  I hesitate to describe a beer at 10.0% abv as drinkable, but it’s certainly an easy sipper.

The name comes from one of my favorite places to the run in the Bay Area.   Reddish, cinnabar mercury ore was mined at New Almaden just south of South Jose starting in the late 1800’s  primarily for gold extraction to support the gold discoveries east of Sacramento.  You can find ruins of these mines at Almaden Quicksilver Park, which has numerous trails, rugged hills and spectacular view for excellent trail running.  Every Saturday and Sunday morning, plenty of running groups will gather at the MacAbee Road entrance to “do Quicksilver”.  I’ve also taken the family for hikes there many times as it’s a great place to learn our region’s history, enjoy nature, take in excellent views of nearby Mount Unumhum and challenge yourself on the trails if you’re so inclined.

Turns out, I’m not the only South Bay blogger that enjoys New Almaden Imperial Red and Almaden Quicksilver park.  Check out fellow South Bay Beer Blogger Brian Wimsett’s post on True Brew Too-Beer and Friends.

Mount Unumhum as seen from Almaden Quicksilver Park.
(Photo credit)

Beer of the Month: Electric Tower IPA from Santa Clara Valley Brewing

When I finally got a chance to try Electric Tower IPA from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, I was actually afraid to drink it.  Sure, Brew Master Steve Donohue won four Great American Beer Festival medals at Sunnyvale’s Firehouse Grill before leaving to start Santa Clara Valley Brewing with Tom Clark so you figured it was going to be good.  Plenty of people got pretty excited when they announced in March their licensing was complete and they were going to commence brewing, including myself.  I even kept bugging Steve a few times on his Twitter account about when his first beer would come out.  With all that build up, my biggest fear was that no beer could really live up to all these expectations and by the time  I’d finally try it, it would be a let down.

Since you know Electric Tower IPA is Beer of the Month, you can figure out the rest.

Drawing of the Historical San Jose Electric Tower
(Wikipedia Common Image

Yes, Santa Clara Valley Brewing delivers the goods and then some, meeting all the high expectations with their initial release.  I could tell this was going to be a good just by opening the bottle.  Wonderful aromas of pine and mango greeted my noise.  Sipping the beer delivered more of the same, with its smooth and flavorful tropical mango, pineapple and resin-like pine flavors.  There’s a solid, lightly toasty malt foundation to this fairly dry beer as well, but as with any good West Coast IPA, the hops are doing all the talking.  

So what’s this Electric Tower all about anyway?  Back in 1881, a large electric tower was erected in San Jose, used for lighting up the city.  These were common in America cities in the late 1800’s, often called Moonlight Towers, as electrification began to sweep the country. San Jose’s tower was one of the largest ones of this era.  You might say it was the earliest example of Silicon’s Valley technical prowess.

Electric Tower IPA:  Another reason it’s good to live in the South Bay.

Yee-haw! Steve Donohue’s Santa Clara Valley Brewing Coming Online

Steve Donohue would be one of those rockstar brewers if he lived in San Francisco or Santa Rosa after winning all those Great American Beer Festival Medals at Firehouse Grill and Brewery.   Problem, was Firehouse was located in the far less glamorous towns of Sunnyvale and East Palo Alto, places few beer geeks venture to. Firehouse’s management also seemed far more interested in featuring its young, nubile waitresses in short kilts and tight t-shirts to appeal to the sportsbar crowd than being a destination for great beer.  Too bad, since sportsbars with pretty girls are a dime a dozen, while Steve’s beers were pretty special.

So Steve Dononue left Firehouse to start his own brewery and the good news is that he now has his California Alcoholic Beverage Control Type 17 License (Beer and Wine Wholesaler) which he happily Tweeted to the world March 21st, which allows him to get brewing!  How soon can we expect the first beer from Santa Clara Valley Brewing?  A recent comment from Santa Clara Valley Brewing on their Facebook page declares “We still have some work to do before we have beer, but we’re working on it as much as possible. We’re hoping to have beer by early to mid May.”

I found Steve’s beers, like his Hops on Rye,  Hall and Oatmeal Stout, and Pete’s Support, a nifty Belgian IPA, were always flavorful, unique, and distinctive but never strayed too far from traditional brewing styles.  His next beers from Santa Clara Valley Brewing can’t touch my lips fast enough. 

Let’s raise our glasses to the success of yet another great South Bay Brewery.

Steve Donohue happily Tweeted this permit which allows him to commence brewing

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?