A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to sit down with Dan Gordon, one of the founders of the Gordon Biersch brewing empire. I have to admit, it was a bit of a fanboy moment for me. Dan’s a legend in the brewing world and as a brewer, in my opinion, he’s up there with the best in the US. We don’t hear a lot about Dan as a brewer because he’s not making the most sought after styles. He doesn’t make triple IPAs or blend sour beers. Since the day he founded the brewery he’s made one thing and one thing only: German Lagers.
Dan has a deep love for German beers. The beer world in America has changed dramatically since he started brewing, yet he hasn’t changed his focus.
I’ve stuck to my guns, I didn’t ride the wave by any means. I just did what we do best and followed the philosophy of creating really well balanced and perfectly brewed beers. We don’t brew the flavor of the month and get caught up in the hoopla.
As the rest of the brewing world focused on brewing ales with huge flavors and adding more and more hops to their beers, Dan kept making lagers. We spoke about why so few American breweries have focused strictly on making lager beers.
It’s technically difficult to execute. There’s no room for error. When you’re doing highly hopped beers it’s easy to cover up flavor flaws just by hopping the hell out of it, especially with dry hopping. You don’t have any of that going on with German lagers. If you have an infection, like lactobacillus or pediococcus showing up, or high temperature fermentation off flavors that would appear, yeast is not vital, meaning a lot of the cells are dead and it goes through a sluggish fermentation, all of those things will show up in a lager and you can taste the difference. You don’t have that with ales.
I asked Dan about the current state of craft brewing and the incredible growth the industry has seen. More breweries are opening now than ever in history and the market is being flooded with new beers each month. As a lifelong professional brewer, Dan has his reservations about the quality of beer that is being produced by many of the new breweries opening up.
They’re almost all home brewers doing a lifestyle business that don’t have large scale, scientific backgrounds in brewing. I’m concerned with so many places opening up and causing so much chatter, but not having solid backgrounds and training. I think one of the big issues we have is there is this constant demand from the consumer for the newest new and the next great thing. At some point you’re going to run out of new things. And I believe people are going to go back to what taste great. The novelty factor of all of these beers is sustainable to maintain the type of growth that we’re seeing.
I mentioned that a lot of craft breweries are now finally coming around to adding a lager or two to their core line up of beers. Dan wasn’t shy about expressing his concerns about breweries that focus primarily on making ales jumping into lager brewing.
There aren’t that many ale breweries that do lagers correctly. It’s just not their thing. I’m not trying to speak badly about them, but it’s the truth. This is all we do. There are only a few breweries in America that focus on only brewing lagers. There are a lot of brewers that like to slap a label on things and not really adhere to what is supposed to be going on. You can’t do a pilsner in 10-14 days. That’s not the way it works. I like to call them bandwagon brewers. We still adhere to Riehinsgabot, 4 ingredients, no adjuncts, no chemicals, no junk in our beer. You’d be amazed at how much additional ingredients, chemicals and finings that are being thrown into the bigger name, major and edgier craft brewery’s beers.
It is possible that we may see some new styles and beers from Gordon Biersch in the near future. Although they will always stick to German style lagers, Dan noted that they have made a few ales.
There are a few German ales that are top fermenting like a kolsch which we just did for Summer and an Alt which is something that we’ll look into doing in a little bit. We’ve talked about a Berliner Weisse, but we have to be cautious. When you bring lacobisullous into a brewery it’s never going to leave. I think there are ways to control acidity. We do things called biologically acidification, where we make lactic acid out of lactobacillus and add it to the mash and then we kill it in the boil. We’re planning on brewing something that uses this process and brings out some tartness in the beer. But it’s not going to be an uncontrolled level of lacto.
Dan also noted that the brewery and the restaurants are now separately owned and work independently from each other. He still oversees the quality of the beers from all of the restaurants, but each location’s brewer has some leeway in the beers they brew. Honolulu brewer Jeff Liles joined us and spoke about how he started brewing with Dan 18 years ago and still looks to him for guidance. Most of the GB pub brewers trained under Dan and have a deep respect for his knowledge and incredibly sensitive palate.
Hawaii is a special place for Dan. His parents had lived here just before he was born and when he opened the Aloha Tower restaurant it was the first brewpub in the state.
We were the first brewery restaurant in the state, we’ve been open for 20 years. The developers of Aloha Tower gave us the chance to open up here and we took it. You can’t beat this view. It’s the most scenic spot for a brewery in the world. The water is also perfect in Hawaii for brewing. Our brewery in San Jose, we mimic the water from Honolulu. High silicate a perfect balance of calcium magnesium, it’s unbelievably good here, so pure.
So what beer does a guy who only makes German styles like to drink when he’s not in the brewery?
I don’t really dig IPAs. I like German style beers. I love Hefes, which is an ale. I do like some Belgians that are very well executed. I generally at home have a limited release like our Dunkles and pilsner or blonde bock on tap at home.
Even with the massive success of the San Jose production brewery (they are on track to produce 105,000 barrels this year) I what his biggest challenges were to attracting new drinkers to his type of beers.
Our challenge is educating the novice beer drinker into what makes our beer so special. That is my mission. How do I do it effectively? I think part of it is seeing is believing. You walk into one of our breweries and we’re proud of how it looks, how it is managed and the quality of the product that we produce. Our brewer is meticulously clean and we take pride in our process and that makes a big difference. When people come into our bottling operation in San Jose they are absolutely mesmerized at how spotless it is. They cannot believe the amount of controls we have to make sure our beers are controlled so they are exactly the way we want them to be. Our best weapon is to bring people into the brewery and show them how we brew our beer. Everyone respects quality.
Their newest release is a Golden Export, which is a helles lager and what Dan describes as a perfect session beer. Although it has been brewed in the pubs since 1992, it is only now being released in bottles.
We were waiting for the right moment. We did bottle it 15 years ago in limited quantity, but the pilsner was more popular so we focused on that. But we’re finding more demand towards flavorful sessionable beers. I thought it’d be a great time to do it. This truly is a session beer that you can enjoy in large quantities. It’s what I like to say beer is supposed to taste like when you’re sitting in hot weather and you want to have a really flavorful German lager and not be overwhelmed by bitterness.
And with that, Dan was off to the airport to catch a plane back to San Jose. He did have a massive brewing operation to oversee. My time was brief, but it was refreshing to speak to someone who was so incredibly passionate about what they do, even after so many years of doing it. The intense focus on perfecting one thing was evident. Dan truly follows the German ways of making beer and consistency is paramount.
I live and breathe this. I’ve dedicated my life to mastering this craft and I think you can taste the difference. We’re about authenticity and brewing to style. We want to make beers taste the way they were meant to be.