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Brew Interview
An Interview with Dean Biersch
On December 11, 2007, I interviewed beer industry veteran Dean Biersch amid the construction rubble of his new venture, Hopmonk Tavern, in Sebastopol, Calif. We talked about his history in the industry and his plans for the new venture, and we shared some reminiscences about the late Michael Jackson.

Tom Dalldorf: Dean, it’s been a long road for you. I remember the days when you were going to school on Bill Owens and Judy Ashworth, and learning the industry in the early ’80s, and saying “Wow, there’s something going on in beer.” Where did that feeling for beer come from for you?

Dean Biersch: Well, really, it started at the Hopland Brewery in Mendocino. I had a girlfriend in the early ’80s who had a ranch up there. The irony is, here I sit now in Sonoma County. I live here in the town of Sonoma. And Jack McAuliffe built his first little brewery there out on East 8th Street. That brewery — I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was looking at it in Mendocino — was Jack’s original brewery. This was ’83 or ’84. And here it is, 20 years later, and I’m really still part of this whole progression of beer making in Sonoma County. That’s where the excitement is for me. It’s still fresh and evolving.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal had an article about the influence of small brewers on their distributors and getting their product out there. And we’re the fastest-growing segment in the beverage industry right now, after all these years. So there’s a lot to be excited about with small beers. And then, if you overlay that with being in the heart of the wine country and all the rest of it — I feel like this project is going to be so great because it’s going to keep some roots here.

TD: Well, you certainly have experience. Look at the companies that you were involved in and the successes they’ve had and the expansions that we we're talking about. Starting out in Palo Alto was just brilliant, because that’s such a great community. Going to San Jose, San Francisco, Honolulu, Pasadena —

DB: Seattle, San Diego.

TD: Turning the company over, bringing in management. I think your strengths have always been in management, hiring good people, having a vision and negotiating real estate and tenant improvements — things like that.

DB: Yeah.

TD: So now you’re back to a small place where you have to do it all by yourself.

DB: The interesting thing for me is that the basic tenets of success in a hospitality project don’t change that much. You need to deliver. You need to do it with the right attitude, and you need to have a plan. And you need to have a leader. You need to have somebody who says, “We’re all part of this, but let’s agree that we’re going to do these things this way.” And then you get out of the way, and you let your people come in and be themselves.

So, if I had some strengths, what I’ve always gotten off on and found a lot of pleasure in, in business, is taking and creating things. Taking and putting things together in such a way that they’re fresh and interesting. There’s so much with beer, to start with, that I plain got lucky. I mean, it’s great that it’s the American beverage. It’s great that Prohibition, on one level, came in and put the brakes on and allowed us, a bunch of guys, to kind of reinvent an industry. Who knows where it would have been without Prohibition. There are a lot of dynamic things that have happened with beer that make it great.

TD: I never heard anybody do a positive spin on Prohibition.

DB: [Laughs] There was no opportunity for the little guy [pre-Prohibition]. OK? Because what’s happening with all these little guys? They are getting bigger and creating more and more interesting products out there. That’s where all the fun comes in for me. Plus, beer, by definition, is fun and relaxed and not fussy and pretentious. While it’s every bit as sophisticated a beverage in terms of production and methodology as wine or anything else, beer is fun. For me, that’s what makes the restaurant thing something that I want to do. Most people would say, “Why do you want to run it? All the moving parts! Why would you want to get involved?” It’s because the sum of the parts, with beer as a backdrop, is different and fun.

TD: You’re looking at the organic nature of the totality.

DB: Pushing tables together. Sharing food. Listening to music. Hanging out.

TD: You’ve had some time off now after a huge success with Gordon Biersch and all of that. And something made you want to get involved again. Why Sebastopol? Why this place?

DB: Well, I’ve had this idea in the back of my head for a long time to do a smaller project. I was just in Cabo San Lucas last weekend, and I had helped some guys open the first brewpub in San Jose del Cabo, Baja Brewing Company. And I thought when I was down there, “This is so cool, because there’s no fresh beer on the peninsula.” Everything that gets there is compromised by transportation and heat and light and everything, right? So a brewpub makes total sense in that market right now. And there’s room for several more maybe.

TD: I did a story on Pepe's and Joe in Mazatlan when it first opened. This sounds similar.

DB: In Mazatlan! Rohelio [the brewer] is a friend of mine, and I brought him into this project in Cabo. He’s a wonderful guy. One of the sweetest guys ever. Davis trained, American wife. So, ¿Por qué no? [Laughs] So the cool thing about that is, it reminded me very much of us sitting around with Bill Owens when I would say, “Yeah, I’m going to do Palo Alto, and you’re going to do this, and the Martin brothers are going into Berkeley,” and we were all kind of watching what everybody was doing. The difference now in the States, 20 years later, is that there is a brewpub almost everywhere that you go. And it’s great that everybody has their styles of beer making.

But, for me, another story, the one I’m interested in now, involves all the beer quality that we now have across the board, not only with brewpubs, but micros and regional breweries and everybody else. So, for me, the next step is not so much opening the next brewpub as opening the next place where beer really becomes the life of the party: where we talk about the bock beers in the winter, the whole range of wheat beer styles in the summer, the story of wheat beer and what the Widmer brothers did in Portland. So that keeps it fresh for me, and that’s why I’m doing it.

TD: And you seem to want to do something more ecumenical in the sense of, it’s not a German place, it’s not an Irish place, it’s not an English tavern. It’s not, strictly speaking, an America brewpub. But it is comprehensive.

DB: It’s kind of a California attitude about business. I think, for me, when I looked at Gordon Biersch and the things that we did there, I’ve always felt that a lot of things were not regional. I never had a problem trying to re-create those products on the West Coast and make them fresh, basically by using yeast from Weihenstephan and using the Hallertauer hops. But, at the end of the day, we’re in California.

And another camp is Vinnie [Cilurzo] over here at Russian River, who’s just pushing it. And you know what? This is California, so there’s room for everything. And I think there’s a recognition on my part that there’s this wider range.

And the interesting thing was, when I was in Austin [for the CBC] — when I saw you, I think, the last time — I ended up hanging out with four or five guys from the Netherlands. I can’t remember the name of their brewery, but they’re out here touring the West Coast to really get their arms around the West Coast style — they were talking a lot about IPAs and wet-hopping and different things — to take it back home to Europe. And that’s a whole new trip.

TD: Michael Jackson called the United States beer scene the most progressive, the most interesting, the most exciting in the world. And that was 10 years ago.

DB: Right. And, of course, he was light-years ahead of all of us, including me. I do not consider myself some astutely aware beer consumer. I know beer-heads; I’ve been around them. My role is to create the place, and then I try to get out of the way. I really mean that. I don’t know everything there is to know about beer. I don’t know everything there is to know about food. I know enough to know that there’s a really great world out there. And it’s fun for people to get kind of turned on to it, if it’s done in the right way, without a lot of fuss, muss and pretension. So, to me, the question is: How do you convey that message? How do you get it across? How do you make it easy?

TD: And you must have seen something in this location, this building, that said “This has real possibilities and potential.”

DB: Yeah, no doubt. The other thing, Tom, is that I had this idea. Probably a natural place for me to do a first one would have been San Francisco or Palo Alto, where everybody knows me. And I made a personal choice. I’m raising my kids, and I’m a single dad. And I really wanted to see if I could find a way to keep that at home. So that drove half of it. And then I basically realized that there aren’t a lot of restaurant opportunities up here. There are great properties. So I was going to have to start knocking on the doors, and that’s what I did. I started going around to properties that I liked and saying, you know, “Are you happy?” [Chuckles] “How do you like your lease?” “Do you want to sell your building?” And this one kind of came up, and I loved the building from the start. I didn’t think it was big enough. It took me a couple of visits.

TD: Is this a historic landmark?

DB: Yes, it’s a historic landmark, one of only two in town.

TD: There’s not a whole lot you can do to the exterior.

DB: You can’t really mess with it. But, you know, I came out here once. I kind of had the bug a little bit. And then I brought a buddy out. We came out during the apple blossom festival last spring, and the place was just, you know, 600 people, two bands. [Chuckles] I kept saying to my friend, “This is not what it always looks like out here.” But the more I thought about it, with the music venue that’s been established and my interest in music and developing a really great stage, I think I could get enough of a regional pull. I think, conceptually, I have the right idea. I know that the concept of a tavern really meets the market in the right place. If I have one rap on Sonoma, just in very general terms, it’s that it’s either white tablecloth or pizza. [Laughs] There isn’t a whole lot in between.

And ever since I’ve lived up here, for seven or eight years, I’ve said, “Beer garden in the wine country. I’m going to do it.” But I never found the spot. And then I walked out here, and I could not build a better scenario in terms of the light that comes over; the blockage from the traffic; the separation and yet its inclusion in the commercial core; the ability to do live music and not piss off any neighbors. It’s footprint-established as a music place already. People will drop in. Everybody wants to play here. And so, as I started to think about it, it’s a great fit for the community. And really, on another level, I don’t want to fuck it up. And, like I said, a couple of people have thought that this will be something like a big project I’ve done in Las Vegas or something like that. It just won’t be, and they’ll see that.

TD: So where did the name “Hopmonk” originate?

DB: “Hopmonk” is just a little thing I pulled out of my head. I’m always thinking of how I build something from the ground up. So while I’ll say I’m just building this project, this could lead to other things. So I’m trying to be thoughtful about how I lay out the whole thing. Hops are the seminal ingredient in 98 percent of the beer styles out there. And people know what they are, generally. And what a brewer does with hops is a big part of the artistic story, or the craft part, to my mind. And then, the monks were sort of foremost in bringing the science and production methodology to beer making. And so, for me, “Hopmonk” combines the art and science, and it’s something that I think people can relate to.

TD: It’s not just Belgian; it can be German. And we had the friars in California who were monks who brought not only agriculture and education, but also wine and the mission grapes.

DB: Absolutely, and all kinds of sustenance and breads.

TD: The hospitality was inviting.

DB: And the first rooms really go back to taverns, with those abbeys and missions. So I kind of put that in a little ball, and that’s what it is. And I’ve always said that I like something like that that isn’t completely definitive, so that we can kind of fill it in as we go, in terms of what this will become as a company or as a brand.

TD: And you were talking about having 16 taps rotating, and possibly a cask, and then making some of your own on-site.

DB: We’ll make ale on-site, for sure. And we will have a seven-barrel brewery.

TD: Seven-barrel? Oh, that’s a pretty good size.

DB: It’s a pretty good size. I’m reluctant to [Laughs] spill the beans on how I’m going to do all this. But we are going to do it. And by my partner’s standards, this is one vessel on the back of a loading dock behind the vessel he cares about. [Laughs] So I get all the irony there. But the lager beer, our house beer, will be an unfiltered pils. [Phone rings] That’s our first phone call you’re hearing, for the record!

TD: So that pils would probably be made at Gordon Biersch?

DB: That’ll be made by GB [San Jose], but it’ll be a proprietary product. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever distribute it, but the idea is just to have a great house beer that I’ll sell at a lower price point to really try to move people into what is arguably one of the great styles, if not the international style. It’s just a great food beer, and I still don’t tire of it. I still just love my pilsner.

TD: And you’re fully involved now with construction, and all the licensing is in place?

DB: Yeah, we’re headstrong into all the licensing. [Laughs] And I think I’m hanging by a hair, but until the TTB says the hair is pulled, I’m still hanging.

TD: [Laughs]

DB: So I’m learning the art of how far and how hard do you push, or do you lay back. I saw Dan [Gordon] at the Gordon Biersch Christmas party this weekend, and I happened to mention, “Well, you know, I’ve hit a couple of speed bumps.” [Chuckles] And he was like, “I’m just so glad you’re doing that!” [Laughs] Because I know I didn’t hear half the stories [from GB expansions]. We’ve gone through all this stuff for years, but I got kind of removed from it on the restaurant side. So I’m going through that. The good news is that I’m getting to learn all about putting a music venue together, and we’re doing that in what we think is a serious way. And I would love it to be on par with a Sweetwater-type room, and I think it will be.

TD: I think this is already bigger than Sweetwater. [Chuckles]

DB: Yeah, it is. It is a little bigger, and I know the sound system is really special. We’re doing theatrical lighting.

TD: You could get Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo back up here and —

DB: You want to help me do that?

TD: [Laughs]

DB: I know a couple of guys, and I know you! But really, part of the marketing effort for me is, I realize I’m six miles off Highway 101. I’m eight or nine miles if you started down there. We’re out here a little bit. So we’ve got to be a regional player, and I think the music will help us and the group business will help us, because we can use that room and really unify it with the outdoor beer garden.

TD: What’s the menu going to be like?

DB: It’s going to be what I would call a tavern menu. We’ll start in the middle with your standard burger and sandwich. You know, the best-quality breads, all local ingredients, local products. Bodega Bay is 11 miles away; we’re going to have fresh seafood. We’re going to have clambakes. We’re going to do whatever we can find in the market. And if you can’t find it here, you’re not looking very hard.

My goal is just to keep it small. If you remember, when I opened Gordon Biersch, we did it with 22 items, and we put the weight on the finger foods and the small plates. And I still have a similar attitude: I think a great place with frequency of visit can have a smaller menu with a fair amount of specials, one or two per day. We will focus on bar snacks. We want to develop “what goes with beer,” what are the great little snack foods with beer, and then small plates. We’re going to have probably 15 or more appetizer-type shared plates. I’m not doing pizzas yet. I’ve thought about it, but I’m sort of deliberately leaving that out to kind of force us to do some more interesting stuff.

TD: Wood-fired at all? Or open-rotisserie? Are you doing any of that kind of stuff?

DB: No. It’s a very difficult thing to do now when you go through a reconstruction like I am. It didn’t exist. There’s a restaurant over here, Steve Singer in west county. I don’t know if you know it. But they bought that place basically because it had two wood-burning pizza ovens. And it’s kind of a hot issue; you can’t build new construction of that. And gas, arguably, a lot of people will tell you that it’s come a long way. But you never get the flavor of the wood and coals.

TD: What are we looking at for an opening?

DB: March.

TD: March?! Really? Wow.

DB: Yes. So things will start in earnest here in January. I think we’ve got about 40 to 45 days of construction. Not as much as you’d think. We’re going to re-skim the floors in here. We’re going to paint the ceilings and all that kind of stuff. New bars — two new bars. The brewhouse will go in. I’m putting an office in over here at the venue. And then outside, we’re going to take out all that concrete and build this big beer garden.

TD: That should be spectacular.

DB: It really should, yeah.

TD: Congratulations. It’s been a long road, but it looks like there’s a long way to go, too. [Chuckles]

DB: Oh, yeah. I think we’re just getting started. I mean, really, that’s the way I feel.

TD: It has been a pleasure watching you for 23 years or whatever it’s been! [Laughs]

DB: It’s been great to be a part of it. And I know you’re in it for all the right reasons also.

TD: I get to drink a lot.

DB: You get to drink a lot, but we all know what great people are attracted to the business on both sides of the table — the operators as well as the consumers. It’s a different thing. And we think back to Judy’s place [Lyon's Brewery Depot in Sunol, Calif.] before it burned down. I mean, that place will always be in my mind whenever I look around. You always have a reference point, right?

TD: Right. And she was so impressed with you, she told me later, because you asked all the right questions and you had the passion for beer. And you weren’t one of the money hustlers who was just looking to say, “How can I scam this deal and make some money off her idea?”

DB: Right. Well, that’s interesting.

TD: It’s about the beer. It’s about the people. Yeah, Judy has a lot of respect for you.

DB: She’s a very deep, wonderful person. But there’s so many. Michael. I saw him last year in Austin [at the CBC]. I didn’t know he was going to be there. And I stood in line to get a book signed. And I knew that he had Parkinson’s, and it was a long line, but he was very respectful of everybody. When I finally got up there — I’m sure it was over an hour — he recognized me right away: “How is Dan?” But his mind was — the words weren’t coming out, and he was kind of pausing. And then it would just come out.

My favorite [Michael Jackson] story was when he came to our first brewery before we opened. He found us. I’m trying to think; he might have come with you. I don’t remember. But it was Palo Alto before we opened, and we had an unfiltered dunkles in the tank, an unfiltered dark beer. And we tapped it right out of the tank, and he was so articulate and just so kind to us. Obviously, we hadn’t opened yet and we were just a couple of nervous punks. [Chuckles] And he was so great. And then he wrote something very nice about it a month later. I reminded him of that in Austin, and he said, “That was the first dark Bavarian lager beer I ever had on the West Coast. It was delicious."

TD: [Laughs]

DB: And then he went on from there. I told him about Hopmonk. And he was kind enough — I was showing people the other day that he signed my book, so he was aware of this project before he died. And it was just so cool to see him. He would struggle with speaking, and he would kind of — you’ve seen this — he would kind of drift away. And then he would just come back and write the most articulate notes.

TD: Right.

DB: Like he always did. It was just processing a little differently. And then I read some of these great obituaries that came out. There was a wonderful one in the L.A. Times about how his mother was, I think, an English professor — she was the one who really made him focus on words. And she said, “Never waste a word.” And as soon as I read that, I thought, “Yeah, that’s Michael.”

TD: He left school and started as a working journalist at age 16.

DB: Wow. And he was the preeminent authority on, not only beer, but whiskies and what else? A little bit of everything. You probably got to spend quite a bit of time with him. I had moments here and there.

TD: I was honored, yes.

DB: I have one other story I’ll tell you, since we’re just bullshitting here.

TD: [Laughs]

DB: The woman who had the ranch by Hopland Brewery: She and I broke up, and her brother and I stayed good friends. And in ’85 or whatever, a year later, I called him. I said, “I’m going to Portland for the” — I think it was the second or third — “microbrewers conference. Do you want to go?” And he said, “Hell, yeah!” We jumped in the car, and we drove all the way to Portland. And I paid my $700 or whatever it was for the four days. And we were going to Portland Brewing. The Widmer brothers were in their garage with their dad. You were probably there. Columbia River. I think that was it. Those three — oh, and the McMenamins.

TD: Right. You included BridgePort, didn’t you?

DB: And BridgePort, yeah. And it was the funniest thing. We’d go to all these parties and Bill, my friend — we called him “Wild Bill,” because he could just open up any party anywhere. Go anywhere, do anything. And so, it’s commencement night, Sunday night, the grand ballroom at the Hyatt or wherever we were. You know, white tablecloths. Michael Jackson is wrapping up his speech, and my buddy Bill, the only guy in the room who hasn’t paid a dime to be there, stands up on his chair and says, “I just want to toast the brotherhood of brewing!”

TD: [Laughs]

DB: He just waxed on and got this huge applause. And by then, everybody knew him, you know? But I called him the day before, and he did it all on the fly.

TD: [Laughs] A quick learner. And one other quick Michael Jackson story. I was on the road with him for two weeks doing all of the breweries in California.

DB: Wow.

TD: And you were kind enough to host a group around the Pasadena area. And that’s where two or three other breweries would come in and pour their beer for him, and he would sit there and interview the brewers and take these amazing notes. Well, you put us up at the DoubleTree Hotel, and they served fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to new arrivals. He was out of his mind!

DB: [Laughs]

TD: He said, “We must go to the DoubleTree again.”

DB: [Laughs]

TD: You were forever in his heart because you put him up at a place that served fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. [Laughs]

DB: Wow. And you would put this guy up anywhere, because Michael Jackson was coming to your place. It was like, “Wow! Wipe the glasses!” [Laughs] Well, the number of books that he wrote on just about every subject — I go back and read them, and they’re great. Even better the second time, you know? [Chuckles]

TD: The way to really understand Michael as a writer is to go to the same place he went, taste the same beers he tasted and talk to the same people he talked to. Then later, you read what he wrote about it, and it’s like you were never there. You go, “Wow! All that? Where did he get all that?!”

DB: That’s what I’m talking about. That’s how I feel with chefs and certain people that have these incredible noses for wine. I just don’t get it on that level. [Laughs] It’s remarkable. It’s a talent.

TD: It’s great to have you back in this industry.

DB: It’s awesome.

TD: I know you never really left! [Laughs]

DB: Yeah, I never really left. But, you know, divorce will do that to you for a few years.

TD: Thanks for the interview.




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