Foaming at the Mouth
If the microbrewery-restaurant phenomenon is something of a runaway train lately (witness the recent openings of Thirsty Bear and the Beach Chalet), one reason must be the beer. It's better. And that's largely because it's fresher, says Vincent Grande, a brewer at Gordon Biersch, the 9-year-old granddaddy of the city's microbrewery restaurants.
"Our beer is often only 2 to 6 weeks old," he says, "while beer from a big commercial producer might have been sitting in a can for four months or more. Also, microbrewery beer is more full-bodied and has more flavor, and there's the mystique of having the beer handcrafted right on the premises."
"Mystique" is definitely the word, because the microbrews aren't fundamentally all that different from their mass-produced relations at Miller and Anheuser-Busch.
"Our brewing process is straightforward and not really different from a big commercial brewer's," Grande says. "And the ingredients are for the most part the same."
But the microbrews' variety is greater. Biersch, for instance, produces a wheat beer for the summer months. "It's a traditional Summerfest beer," Grande says. "We substitute some malted wheat for malted barley, and we use an ale yeast instead of the lager yeast we use for the rest of our beers. The combination produces esters that are distinctly fruity -- like bananas or cloves."
The notion of pairing beer to high-quality food, as has been done with wine -- of associating beer with gastronomy instead of with simply getting pasted -- has helped drive the popularity of microbrewery restaurants like Biersch. It's also a social phenomenon, beer having "more of a social connection," Grande says, than wine, "which is more formal."
All the same, he thinks there are "too many microbreweries," and says "there will be a fallout" when the craze dies down. Even at Gordon Biersch, "the business has tailed off to a certain extent," he says.
But the brewer isn't waiting for the bottom to fall out of the notoriously fickle restaurant business. Biersch is building a brewery in San Jose whose capacity is six times greater than that of its San Francisco facility. The plan, Grande says, is to get Biersch into retail outlets throughout the Bay Area and eventually the West -- to make Biersch essentially a high-end regional brewer like Sierra Nevada and Red Hook.
"The big national brewers are never going to be damaged by the microbreweries," he says. "Budweiser alone has 44 percent of the national market. But we think we can move 50,000 barrels a year to start, and go from there."