It was the Feb. 2011 second annual Meet the Brewers beer festival held at San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing Company that provided me more than just a memorable beer experience. Truth be told, my wife and I had originally gone mainly for the food trucks, but when in Rome…
I tried a refreshing Tied House Brewery wheat beer which served as a prelude to the Campbell Brewing hefeweizen with its pleasant combination of sweetness and bitterness. My wife, who is from Bavaria, heartily approved.
After talking with the pourers – many of whom were the actual brewers – about their beers, I opted for unfamiliar-to-me beer styles next.
The Uncommon Brewers organic brown ale had a flavor profile of roasted nuts and a slight bitterness. Seabright Brewery’s oatmeal stout poured black and smooth with hints of dark chocolate. Finally, there was the Faultine Brewery porter, a dark beer that smelled and tasted of roasted coffee beans.
The beers were tasty; they also paired well with our Korean tacos and burritos that we got from one of the aforementioned food trucks.
We left relatively early and did not sample any more beers from the other breweries, but thanks in large part to this beer festival, I gained a new hobby – to learn more about beer and the wide range of beer styles while checking out the local beer scene.
We began complementing our already existing wine rituals with beer exploration. I’d go online and learn about solid examples of various beer styles and match that information with the selections at nearby stores that sold craft beer.
I stayed up-to-date with Peter Estaniel’s BetterBeerBlog to see if there was anything new going on in the South Bay.
In April 2011, the first KraftBrew Beer Fest – organized by Naglee Park Garage – took place at the historic San Jose Woman’s Club, and we tried a larger selection of different styles of domestic and international beers.
Some beer styles we enjoyed from the first sip (IPA for my wife), while others we grew to appreciate over time (IPA for me).
Events like the Meet the Brewers beer festival and the KraftBrew Beer Fest not only provided opportunities to discover the wide variety of beer styles, but they also showed that there are plenty of folks in the area interested in good beer.
For the next year-and-a-half, our appreciation for beer and the local beer scene would continue to grow, and for me in particular become a passion as I started blogging and writing about the local beer scene.
Local Craft Beer Boom
As recently as late 2008, William Brand wrote that the South Bay was a craft beer desert, but from our ventures out to local beer spots, stores and events, we learned that Brand’s observation was surely evolving.
Beer enthusiasts no longer had to routinely drive at least 45 minutes to try the latest touted, hard-to-get beer. There were establishments that made and carried great beer right here, from Morgan Hill through San Jose to Palo Alto.
We observed first hand the growing demand for – and distribution of – good beer, a relatively recent development according to a number of longer-term South Bay beer fans. The various, possible reasons for why the South Bay was such a latecomer continue to be discussed (and might perhaps be a topic in a future write-up).
Fortunately, such discussions these days often end on a positive note; many beer drinkers throughout the South Bay are enjoying the current craft beer boom and imagining the potential for the local area.
Craft Beer Movement and the South Bay
“Craft beer” – as defined by the Brewers Association – refers to beer made by a “small, independent, and traditional” brewing company. Such definitions illustrate the contrast between local and regional craft beer brewing companies and the giant, macro brewing companies that still dominate the overall beer market.
But according to recent numbers released by the Brewers Association in March, overall beer volume sales are down while the U.S. craft brewing industry continues to grow in volume and dollar sales. More beer drinkers are trying craft beer and learning about the various aspects that make craft beer more compelling compared to macro beer.
This nationwide growth within the craft beer segment reflects the growing interest and demand for craft beer here locally. A number of recent developments highlight the increasing popularity of craft beer within our region – from the popular and successful beer festivals to the growth of local brewing companies like Hermitage and Strike, as well as a new San Jose brewery that is in the works.
The Bay Brewers Guild, a collective of brewers representing the South Bay and nearby Santa Cruz and Monterey areas, continues to take shape, while the spotlight on the beers made at our local brewpubs – and the brewers who make them – grows bigger and brighter.
More establishments are offering craft beer in the South Bay and taking care to ensure that their staff are knowledgeable enough about beer to be able to make just the right recommendation to both beer enthusiasts and newbies alike.
Restaurant James Randall in Los Gatos has joined California Café (both the Palo Alto and Los Gatos locations) in hosting a growing number of beer-and-food-pairing events.
With craft beer’s growing popularity, it’s no surprise that more folks are interested in homebrewing and joining homebrew clubs. “We receive several inquiries a month from new homebrewers… where even just a year ago inquiries were much more infrequent,” says Derek Wolfgram, president of the homebrew club Silicon Valley Sudzers.
And there is a growing list of craft beer-centric businesses that have just opened or are set to open this year.
In downtown San Jose, the list includes craft beer bars Original Gravity Public House and ISO: Beers, and restaurant Blackbird Tavern.
In Campbell, there is Liquid Bread beer bar. In Mountain View, there are Jane’s Beer Store, South Bay’s first specialty beer store, and Steins Beer Garden + Restaurant.
History and Emergence of the South Bay Beer Scene: Breweries
Even hardcore South Bay beer fans might be surprised to learn that the valley had its share of early breweries, as cited in the 1992 book The Bars of Santa Clara County: A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Silicon Valley co-written by Bay Area beer scribe Jay Brooks and Karen Knezevich.
These breweries produced predominantly German-style beers and included Eagle Brewery (San Jose, 1853), Fredericksburg Brewery (San Jose, 1856), and other San Jose breweries opening between 1875 and 1905, including San Jose Brewery, Louis Krumb’s Brewery, and the St. Claire Brewing Company. After breweries such as these closed, there were no local South Bay breweries until the mid-1980s.
Breweries like Winchester Brewery and Palo Alto Brewing Company would come and go, but not before making their impact.
In 1986, Pete Slosberg launched Pete’s Wicked Ales in Mountain View thanks to Palo Alto Brewing Company and Bob Stoddard, of whom Slosberg refers to as “one of the first, true pioneers” in craft brewing.
Stoddard would later open his eponymous Brewhouse & Eatery in Sunnyvale in 1993 (now FireHouse Grill & Brewery) and in Campbell in 2002 (now Campbell Brewing Company/Sonoma Chicken Coop).
Mountain View’s Tied House Brewery opened in 1988, and later in the same year Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch opened the first Gordon Biersch brewery restaurant in Palo Alto.
The second Gordon Biersch opened in downtown San Jose in 1990, replacing a brewpub that had closed in four months, proving in part that South Bay native Gordon – “Born in San Jose. Grew up in Los Altos,” he shares – had a strong case of South Bay pride. Gordon would go on to open a brewery and bottling facility in San Jose in 1997.
Los Gatos Brewing Company opened in 1991 with their downtown San Jose location opening in 2010.
El Toro Brewing Company started in 1992 with the opening of their Morgan Hill brewpub in 2006.
Additional breweries and restaurants would open, including Sunnyvale’s Faultline Brewing Company in 1994.
“We have breweries here in the South Bay that have been around for a while, and it’s nice to see people appreciating beer more,” states Campbell Brewing’s brewmaster Jim Turturici.
Steve Donohue, currently brewing at Hermitage while working on the initial stages of opening Santa Clara Valley Brewing Company in San Jose, asks that people give South Bay breweries a chance and says, “I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
Craft Beer Bars and More
Moving along the local craft beer landscape, every beer region has its share of go-to hangouts for good beer. Since last year, Harry’s Hofbrau in San Jose has become a destination for the South Bay craft beer community. General manager Kevin Olcese has earned a solid reputation for his beer knowledge and passion, for bringing in hard-to-get beers on tap, and for informing customers via Facebook of the latest beer arrivals.
Olcese, however, is quick to give credit to Palo Alto’s Rose & Crown Pub and San Jose’s Wine Affairs – “They’re huge,” he simply says – for helping to pave the way in the beer scene, contributing greatly to the American and micro/craft beer knowledge base among local beer drinkers.
Kasim Syed took over the Rose & Crown in 2006 with an immediate goal to bring better quality beers along with beers that other places didn’t have. His second goal was to get people to try these different beers and get his customers to change their tastes. On a moment’s notice, he would drive to Santa Rosa to pick up a single keg of the latest Russian River Brewing Company offering – all to get more people to try different styles of beer.
As for the growing number of local beer spots, Syed says, “It’s not a competition. It’s about giving people choices; there’s more fun with more choices. These are happy times right now.”
Owner Diane Chang-Laurent remembers opening Wine Affairs in November 2007 with only five Belgian beers in bottles. But the customers, including mostly homebrewers at the beginning, would constantly request various beers from particular breweries. The beer focus really took shape in 2009.
Chang-Laurent says, “All the credit goes to the customers. They pushed me, and I listened.” As for the growing number of beer spots opening up in the South Bay, she says, “The more, the better. Plus, competition is always good.”
In downtown San Jose, Ryan Summers opened Good Karma Vegan Café in 2006 and has worked quietly yet diligently on bringing and maintaining a quality rotating craft beer selection – currently 15 beers on tap – for Good Karma’s loyal following. The new beer-centric establishments will “create a draw for everybody and help us take the customer experience even further as each of us continues to think about how to stand out.”
The craft beer focus began in 2008 for Bobby’s Liquors in Santa Clara thanks to Sukhjeev Singh, better known as Dee to his customers. Among the varied bottled craft beers in stock, Bobby’s offers a well-regarded collection of hard-to-get bottled sour ales.
Look for Dee and his wife to open ISO: Beers in downtown San Jose later this fall, which he says is “a beer bar and tasting lounge that will offer about 2,000 refrigerated, bottled craft beers and feature 50 to 60 craft beers on tap starting out.”
San Jose’s Naglee Park Garage and Jack’s Bar & Lounge, while providing respectable craft beer offerings, are coordinating large-scale South Bay beer events, like the Garage’s upcoming Summer KraftBrew Beer Fest (their third KraftBrew installment), taking place in downtown San Jose on Saturday, July 21. Event goers will get to enjoy a variety of beer styles along with great food and music in a festive atmosphere.
The next South Bay Beerwalk hosted by Jack’s (their third beerwalk) takes place in Campbell on Saturday, August 11, providing the opportunity to check out downtown Campbell while sampling beers from Northern California.
South Bay Craft Beer Scene Going Forward
Having been born and raised in San Jose (and still living here), I have seen various communities spring up over the years, communities bonded by a myriad of cultural facets, like art, music, food, sports and technology. We can now include craft beer; co-owner Dan Phan of Original Gravity Public House notes, “Beer is the universal beverage that has been bringing people together on common ground for thousands of years.”
Indeed, the late esteemed English writer and journalist Michael Jackson wrote in his 1997 book The New World Guide to Beer, “The world always knew that beer was a noble and complex drink, but, for a moment in history, that was forgotten. Now it is being remembered.”
Many folks, including Dan Gordon, have felt the momentum for good beer building in the South Bay ever since the 80s and 90s. Fast forward to today, and there is no doubt about that momentum. Notable Bay Area beer editor and writer Mike Pitsker agrees that the South Bay beer scene is on the up-and-up. And brewer Steve Donohue adds the capstone comment, “We’re just scratching the surface.”
[An abridged version of this post – also without the pictures – was shared as the cover story in the annual beer issue for Metro Silicon Valley.]