It was an unorthodox approach, but it helped Gordon Biersch survive and thrive. When Gordon began brewing Gordon Biersch's beers 25 years ago, Northern California's brewing community consisted primarily of Fritz Maytag's Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, Sierra Nevada in Chico, Mendocino Brewing in Ukiah and Buffalo Bill's in Hayward. Maytag has since sold Anchor, Sierra Nevada has expanded to North Carolina, Mendocino has been sold to India's United Beverages Group and Buffalo Bill's remains a primarily local affair.
Gordon Biersch thrives on the name recognition its restaurants have achieved and the basic German and Czech beer recipes that have come back into vogue among beer geeks as the beer pendulum swings away from fizzy light lagers and brutally bitter India Pale Ales toward a refined center. We spoke with Gordon about that rediscovered love of classic styles, how those styles have served him well over the years and how that mix of explosive growth, eccentric investors and signature fries became as important to Gordon Biersch as the beer itself:
First off, congratulations on 25 years. We've been talking to a bunch of brewers about their anniversaries this year, but Gordon Biersch has a better story than most. Can you tell us what beer in the Bay Area and the valley was like in the earliest days. Was it basically you, Dean and Fritz against the big guys?
Gordon: I don't think it ever was an us vs. them, but rather a lack of diversity that opened the door for everyone.
There was an amazing amount of excitement and anticipation when a brewery would open up. My favorite "beer moment" was a couple of weeks before we opened, Bill Owens brought beer writer Michael Jackson ever to visit and he tasted our beer and gave it accolades. It was our Dunkles, which we bottled for the first time 25 years later.
Keep on mind that I basically had read his coffee table beer book 100 times. [It] was what really had significant impact on my wanting to be a brewer. That and drinking a lot of Fritz's beer growing up.
You brought back Dunkles as an anniversary beer at a time small brewers are swinging back to the traditional styles from more experimental beers. What made Gordon Biersch decide to stay the course with traditional styles, and how did changing beer tastes affect your business along the way?
Gordon: I want to always be authentic and true to style, which is highly influenced from my brewing education at Weihenstephan at the Technical University of Munich. My philosophy is to brew without regard to cost regarding malt and hops and never compromise on how we brew.
In Spinal Tap-ese our brewery goes to 11 and does things most brewers don't even know about. We produce our own lactic acid from wort and use it for pH balancing our mash and wort, always naturally carbonated and aging for six weeks.
Alphabet beer was tempting from a financial standpoint but we held firm in our beliefs of brewing the finesse styles that require a lot of brewing science and execution.