Features & Columns

Silicon Valley Beer Week -
Local Beer Experts

Local beer experts discuss the growth of craft brew and what they're drinking
Local Beer Experts Photograph by Jennifer Anderson

Silicon Valley Beer Week (SVBW) celebrates the region's rapidly growing craft brew scene. With daily events featuring specialty beers and food pairings, South Bay beer lovers finally have a week devoted to good taste, camaraderie and enjoying warm California evenings with a tasty brew.

Brewers are constantly inventing, re-imagining and refining recipes, which can make the craft beer landscape a little daunting. Luckily, there are people who can help, and we've solicited some advice from a few of the local craft brew cognoscenti.

The panel ranged from brewers to retail owners to high-volume beer buyers, and we asked them relevant questions to help readers enjoy SVBW. They understand, first hand, the flavor profiles that distinguish one style from another. As in the world of high fashion, literature, music and other fields that rely on taste and style, beer experts are knowledgeable, opinionated and passionate.

Gathering the five experts at a secret location a few weeks prior to SVBW, so began the most intense and informative roundtable discussion in SVBW history.

The brew crew (in no particular order):

Ryan Summers (Good Karma)—Since opening Good Karma on First Street in downtown San Jose, Ryan has been dedicated to bringing craft brew to his customers. His revolving selection keeps ahead of the curve.

Laddie (Dee) Singh Chatha (Bobby's Liquors)—Dee has turned a neighborhood liquor store into one of the most respected bottle shops in the South Bay. Often referenced as the go-to guy, Dee stocks rare brews you won't find anywhere else.

Dan Satterthwaite (Gordon Biersch)—A brewer at Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, Dan was educated in Germany, understands the art first hand and is passionate about growing the community. As the executive director of the Bay Brewers Guild, Dan's scope goes beyond connoisseur and includes the behind-the-scenes experience most craft brew lovers want to know about.

Peter Estaniel (Hermitage Brewery, Better Beer Blog)—As brand manager for San Jose's Hermitage Brewery, Peter understands the ebb and flow of craft brew trends. He also runs the Better Beer Blog, and is considered an authority on the local craft brew scene.

Dan Barrera (Whole Foods)—Dan's passion for craft beers has elevated him to the Specialties Department Associate Team Leader at Whole Foods Los Gatos. He's responsible for managing the fine selection of beers at a large retail location, which blends good taste and good business on a large scale.

When did you all get into craft brews?

Ryan: Summer of 1996 when a trip to Fort Bragg introduced me to North Coast's Pranqster.

Dee: A few years back, Cognac & Champagne was becoming a normal thing, and a switch to something different was evident.

Dan S: College, 1993, drinking Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve.

Peter: I got started over 10 years ago through home brewing. At the time, I didn't really think what I was doing was "craft beer"," I just considered what I was doing a fun hobby. The actual concept of "craft beer" didn't really sink in until a couple of years later.

Dan B: I can't remember the beer that changed my life, but working at Whole Foods, specifically transferring into the specialties department just as a regular team member, exposed me to the culture of beer and wine.

What was your favorite beer five years ago?

Ryan: I don't know about my favorite, but I felt the most exciting beers I was finding were Dogfish Head Palo Santo, Pliny and Duchesse de Bourgogne.

Dee: I wasn't drinking much beer back then, mostly drinking spirits and champagne.

Dan S: The only beer I could say was a favorite of mine was Guinness, however, nowadays the beer in my hand is my favorite!

Dan B: Probably Boont Amber Ale, as I progressed away from Fat Tire. I had an awful experience with Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale and jello shots upon turning 21; so, I almost didn't make it in the hops game, like so many full grown adults struggling to get over the fact that not all pale ales taste the same.

What's the biggest challenge of being involved in craft brews?

Dee: Like any other industry, being involved in a higher level than just the consumer level, in a relatively small market.

Dan S: There are many challenges. As a brewer, making sure that the beers I produce are consistent and clean are my daily challenges. As the director of the Bay Brewers Guild, the building of a loyal customer base and maintaining the integrity of the brewers I represent are my challenges. As a craft brew drinker, the ability to choose wisely in the growing selection of craft beers is the biggest challenge. Well, that last one is not really a challenge but more of a pursuit of happiness!

Peter: Working for Hermitage Brewing Company allows me to see the challenges of the craft brewing industry from a different perspective than some of the other people on the panel. For us, the biggest challenge is perception/reputation. There are overall challenges that the craft brewing industry faces that range from snobbery/elitism, to education, to supply/demand issues, through authenticity.

How do you see the evolution of craft beers in the Bay Area?

Ryan: The craft beer industry in general has been absolutely explosive. In the Bay Area, places like Toronado, City Beer in S.F. and The Trappist in Oakland have paved the way for years. Beer Rev, Monks Kettle and other 'second wave' craft beer bars have really rounded out the selection with authority. In the South Bay, Brien Celestre and Dan Barrera have stocked our local Whole Foods with some of the finest beer available when it was unheard of, and Bobby's Liquors in Santa Clara was the only independent choice in town.

Peter: This is a tough question to answer as I'm not sure what you mean by evolution. There are several trends that I'm seeing at the moment, the paramount [one] is the rise of craft breweries throughout the region. I'm seeing the most growth in the East Bay, followed by Santa Cruz (and several coastal communities), all the way through Monterey. It is very exciting to see new players on the board and see how they're supporting their local communities. Tied into the rise of craft breweries is the growing trend of segmentation. Craft brewing is already a niche industry; within that, entire breweries are being started whose entire focus is on niche segments within craft brewing. Freewheel Brewing Company out of Redwood City brews nothing but cask-conditioned ales. Of course, San Francisco's Almanac Brewing Company makes it a huge point to brew beers featuring seasonal ingredients sourced from local farms. All of these can be smaller programs in a typical brewery but these few examples have made these techniques their cornerstones.

What's your favorite style of craft brew?

Ryan: Beer is beer—what makes it craft are the lone, creative souls that want more out of the experience. When Goose Island put beer in Bourbon barrels and was disqualified from GABF was when people really started to scratch their heads. When people were tired of stale, bitter, out-of-date I'PAs, brewers responded with more care, craft and accountability regarding the freshness and boldness of the beer customers were served.

Dee: Barrel-aged old ales and Imperial stouts, wild/lambic style, India Pale Ales, farmhouse saisons with wild yeast.

Dan S: Personally, I truly enjoy a finely crafted European lager. Northern German pilsners, East German schwarzbiers, Viennese lagers, and Bavarian weizenstarkbiers are among my favorite.

Top five brews, and why.

Dee (deciding to focus more on the elements that make a great brew, Dee listed these in no particular order):

1. Perfect mouth feel.

2. Smooth finish.

3. On-style flavors being correct—hops, malts, oak, sourness, etc. for the given styles.

4. Crispness.

5. Harsh alcohol flavors hidden.

6. High-quality ingredients.

Peter: I find myself at a disadvantage for this question. Working for a brewery, many of the beers I've been drinking lately are from the brewery I work for. So I haven't had a chance to really get out there and try new beers, or even revisit old mainstays. I'll do my best to answer.

1. Santa Clara Valley Brewing Electric Tower IPA—It's your quintessential IPA; it's hop-forward with a resiny and citrusy character indicative of the style. Plus, I'm friends with brewmaster/owner Steve Donohue and I'll support his beers through and through. Regardless of the relationship, it's a mighty fine IPA.

2. Pale 31 from Firestone Walker Brewing Company—This is a fantastic pale ale. It is ridiculously easy drinking and has great balance for the style.

3. Pilsner from Los Gatos Brewing Company—I thought LGBC gets overlooked often. Their brewmaster, Kent Wheat, is fantastic. His pilsner has great, clean, malt flavor balanced out by a straightforward hop character. It's easy drinking, crisp on the palate and smooth.

4. Galaxy single hop IPA from Hermitage Brewing—As I said, I've been drinking a lot of the beers we produce, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our brewery. Outside of my professional connections to this particular beer, this was downright fantastic. The Galaxy hop varietal brings to the table a wonderful grapefruit-like citrus quality upfront, but if allowed to warm up a little, fantastic tropical fruit notes open up. I hope we brew this one again.

5. Mole Milk Stout, personal homebrew—When making my own beers, I am often inspired by dishes I've eaten. In this particular case, it was Oaxacan mole sauce. The final beer tasted more of Mexican milk chocolate than mole but it was still very good. On a tangent, I often get asked if homebrewed beer tastes good. I always answer that my homebrews are some of the best beers I've had, simply because I brew my beers for my own inclinations and palate. So yes, why wouldn't I mention my own beer?