The real King of Beer
Dean Biersch brings HopMonk to Sonoma. (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
In love with Hefeweizen, Dean Biersch in his element.
I have a Wine Country confession: I'm a beer drinker.
Big deal, you say? Everybody drinks beer. It's the most popular adult beverage in the world. It outsells wine four to one.
OK, but here in Wine Country the grape rules. Beer? It's the homely stepsister. Wine goes to the ball. Beer stays home for family barbecues.
Don't get me wrong, I love wine. I also love Brad Pitt, Gucci and Ferragamo. But when I get home at the end of the day, what I really want is a cold one, maybe a frothy, chilled hefeweizen.
My beer consciousness came suddenly on a warm Wisconsin night. I fell in love with a Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss, a Midwestern pale lager that exploded on my palate like nothing I had never experienced. Of course, at that point my beer horizons had been defined by Budweiser and PBR, sucked out of red plastic cups at frat parties. The Leinenkugel (locals call them Leinies) was something else entirely and it reshaped my relationship with beer.
I told this story to Dean Biersch, half of the San Jose-based Gordon Biersch Brewing Company which produces-besides 3,150,000 gallons of beer annually-the popular Gordon Biersch Brewery restaurants. He said, "Oh, I know John and Jake Leinenkugel. They're great b rewers."
Biersch, who is about to open a Sonoma version of his wildly successful HopMonk Tavern, is nothing if not affable, and he knows almost everyone in a business that includes more than 1,500 craft brewers. He knows who they are, exactly what they're doing and where they're doing it. It would not be a stretch to call him an anthropologist of brew, because he has studied the culture of beer and beer-making in intimate and loving detail. But he's no ordinary anthropologist-at 53 he's cool, brilliant and, thanks in part to his adventures through the jungles of yeast and barley and hops, bears more than a passing likeness in looks and persona to Indiana Jones.
Biersch has spent years understanding the nuances of beers and revels in sharing his knowledge, explaining the nuanced differences between German lagers, English ales and Belgium sour brews, all of which he serves at the Sebastopol site of his original HopMonk.
"We're all about the beer," he says, standing behind the bar on a crowded Wednesday night as waitresses zip by him bearing trays stacked with various shades of sudsy amber ale. "We start with beer and we add the food and we add the music and we add the atmosphere. But it all begins with the beer."
Even the name of his popular pub pays homage to the history of beer. "Hop," is about hops, an ingredient found in 98 percent of all beers that also grows in delicate vines along the back garden of HopMonk. "Monk" celebrates the cloistered Benedictine monks who perfected the techniques of modern-day beer-making in centuries past.
"They figured out how to control it, they brought the science to the methodology," he explains. "So HopMonk encompasses the art and the science of beer."
But how did a kid from Chico become the master of beer? Like so many, he just wanted to do something he loved.
Biersch remembers the first time the idea struck him. Sitting in an English pub sipping a fresh draft ale he was smitten with the pub environment. Everything appealed to him-from the dark wooden finishes to the vast array of beers on tap-everything except the food. It was, after all, England, where bar food consisted largely of bangers and hard-boiled eggs.
"I just started thinking if you put good food to it, it's a great idea and it's gonna get big," he said.
Back in the States, he stumbled onto a brewpub in Hopland while on vacation with a girlfriend-the first brewpub on the West Coast, operated by the Mendocino Brewing Company. "We'd go up there and drink Red Tail Ale," he recalls. "It was the only place to get really good beer."
It was just a matter of time before he and brewing pal Dan Gordon decided to make beer their business. Dan attended the famed Weihenstephan brewing school at the Technical University of Munich-basically the MIT of beer.
"It all started there, they have the oldest brew factories in Germany, from the 15th century. That's where the lager roots are," Biersch says. "They graduate about 75 people a year, and it's a daunting program. It's about five years for their brewmaster and brewing engineering program. And it's all in German, of course."
Dean and Dan shared the same passion for the traditional beer-making style, and while Dan got busy as the brewer, Dean was the visionary behind the look and feel of the Gordon Biersch brewpub and the architect of a menu that now includes the most habit-forming garlic fries you'll ever eat.
As for the Gordon Biersch beer menu: "These are very, very typical German-style beers-no hybrid methodology is used in any way. They're meant to be produced as they are, as they always have been," Dean says. "These are generally 400- to 500-year-old recipes, and we're making it fresh."
Soon after opening their first location in Palo Alto in 1988, Biersch and Gordon were opening brewpubs all over the state and eventually all over the country.
When they sold their rights to the restaurant side of the business in 1999, Biersch looked to his next project, which he wanted to keep close to home in Sonoma County. He took over the historic railroad station in Sebastopol almost three years ago and created HopMonk Tavern. His second HopMonk is scheduled to open in Sonoma sometime before Thanksgiving in another location with history. The building has morphed from a former funeral home to an elegant restaurant to a funky and now-defunct spaghetti shack. Among the classic Biersch design touches will be a bar made from the bleachers of a Midwestern high school.
Like his first HopMonk, HopMonk Sonoma features 16 fresh, often locally brewed, seasonal beers on tap, alongside a selection of more than 100 bottled beers. A limited selection of wines, all locally produced, complement the suds. There is even a beer that tastes like wine, called "Rodenbach."
The menu features hearty classics dressed up with some Wine Country flair, like burgers with tomato chutney, lemon aioli and crispy shallots, or grilled cheese with cheddar, Gruyère and ham on parmesan-crusted sourdough. Added to that are some specialized Sonoma County tastes, like quinoa salad with oranges and green olives and Indian samosas with cilantro dipping sauce. And let's not forget the signature Gordon Biersch garlic fries that are as addictive as movie popcorn.
There's also a full menu of music, with both an indoor stage and a smaller outdoor stage in the back garden. "Music is necessary to complete the atmosphere," Biersch says, fondly recalling the time in junior high when he shoplifted a Leon Russell album. "And now he plays at my place. I can't believe it sometimes."
Clearly, Dean Biersch has the golden touch or, perhaps more fittingly, the amber touch, when it comes to combining unique beer, guilty-pleasure good food and an atmosphere to linger in. But he's a perfectionist, too, attentive to every detail. Even sitting at HopMonk's back patio on a warm summer night as the sun dips toward the western hills, a delicate pink shading the evening sky, Dean can focus only on removing the bits of a straw wrapper someone shoved between the seams of the table.
"I can be obnoxious to dine with because I get distracted by the smallest flaws," he says with a laugh. In my head, I say, Wrong-there's no place for "obnoxious" in Biersch's kind of cool.
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)