Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Corporate Owners Drive Pioneering Downtown Brewpub into Ground

Once-special, Gordon Biersch is shutting down this weekend after 28 years.

After 28 years of operating on San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, Gordon Biersch (GB) will close its doors for good this weekend. Every bartender and former employee that I can remember, at least those within driving distance, will descend upon the establishment for one last blowout on Saturday.

For anyone to appreciate the absurdity of this, I must take you back to an early-'90s version of downtown San Jose, before laptops, cellphones and the World Wide Web, and back when real estate syndicates were scrambling to "revitalize" the neighborhood. Much of the area was still abandoned since the '70s, while other parts of it featured crumbling retail, empty parking lots, stray halfway-house denizens, panhandling transients and fledgling obnoxious jock bars. The light rail had just gone in. Across the street was a not-yet-disastrous attempt to force-cram an upscale open-air shopping mall into the area, the now infamous Pavilion Shops. Downtown had no restaurant scene of any sort, and the entire concept of "good beer" did not exist anywhere. Although GB wasn't San Jose's first microbrewery, it was probably the first one with staying power and a key player in the next phase of downtown's perpetual state of perpetuating. At SJSU, we'd often show up after night classes in the music and art departments, since there was rarely any restaurant food obtainable past 9pm anywhere. And the beers were $3.

Even though GB came across as a privileged upmarket place—at times it was frat boy central—what made it fun was an attitude of providing the regulars with a totally different dimension of experience. As the years unfolded, as soon as any regular was deemed worthy, he or she was given a personalized stein, a half-liter German-style chalice with a pewter lid that you flipped open with your thumb. Each Steinholder had his or her name etched into the lid and also onto the museum-style cabinet in which the steins were kept behind the bar. When the bartender opened the cabinet and pulled my stein from the shelf—a shelf also with my own name—it was like being a member of a secret society. Special events like the tapping parties were initially just for the Steinholders and not for the general public. And no one else understood how to get one. We intentionally kept it a mystery. For someone that already lived in his own head most of the time, this was fantastic.

Which meant, in my case, as a Steinholder, I could walk into GB, dressed like an absolute slob, unshaven, wearing ripped-up jeans and faded t-shirt, with a mop of hair down to my shoulders, all of which elicited horrific looks from all the upmarket people. I almost could read their thoughts: "Ew, what's he doing here?" Stuff like that. Then I'd approach the bar and drink from my own personalized stein of beer, shocking the upmarket clowns all over again. Thanks to the bartenders at GB, I could be a rockstar. I was a man of wealth and taste, like Mick Jagger. Confusing the crowd was the nature of my game. I confounded the mere mortals, the attorneys, the business majors, the frat boys and the suburban nuclear families, none of whom had steins. I would be around for a long, long year, stealing their souls and faiths. It was a great way to get back at the idiots that picked on me in high school.

Then the corporate pricks ruined it all. In retrospect, 2010 is about when GB began to lose its staying power, culture-wise. Many of the longtime bartenders were leaving and, like everything downtown, the food got progressively worse and more expensive. The owners began to dumb down the work culture and the Secret Holy Order of Steinholders was only a shell of its former self. Plus, a whole new generation of craft beer places began to emerge in the neighborhood, with GB, the original pioneer, seeming to lose its way. Even as the comfortable classes always filled up the dining area because they hadn't felt safe anywhere since P.F. Chang's closed, GB was never able to recapture its original vibe. The vulture capitalist owners destroyed the Mick Jagger in all of us.