Dan Gordon: Brewers Are Doers

When Dan Gordon talks about his early years, it’s as though the universe planned on him becoming a brewer from the very start. As a teenager, Gordon traveled to Germany with his parents and drank beer “because no one cared, and you were allowed to go out,” he says. When he was in high school, Gordon spent a summer as an exchange student in Austria. Both neighbors of the family he lived with had breweries, giving him the chance to be immersed in brewing in a big way.

As an undergrad at UC Berkeley Gordon spent a year abroad in Germany, experiencing German culture firsthand while playing trombone in jazz clubs. From Berkeley Gordon went on to attend Technical University of Munich, the most renowned brewing school in the world. “I went there specifically so I could get everything I needed to know to build my own brewery,” Gordon says.

In 1987, Gordon partnered up with Dean Biersch to form the first Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Palo Alto. Since then, several more restaurants have opened across the US and including a location in Taipei. The company has been making and distributing beer out of the Gordon Biersch brewing and bottling facility just outside of Japantown since 1999, distributing their beers across the US. “I probably would’ve been a chef if I hadn’t been a brewer,” Gordon says.

Why do you think that most brewers are good chefs?

I don’t know, it’s just something that, if you look at one commonality, almost every brewer likes to cook, and most brewers are pretty good cooks, too. It’s probably part of a palate mentality.

You don’t actually then own the restaurant breweries?

No, it’s illegal for me to have any restaurant or bar ownership because of the tied house laws in the state of California, which pushed us out of the restaurant business in 1999. It’s very frustrating. Archaic laws.

The law changed in ’84. We opened up in ’88. Dean and I met in ’87 when I was still in grad school, just finishing up. We actually were signing a lease and getting under construction while I was still in school, so there was a time frame there when I was commuting back and forth from Munich. I’m amazed I passed my final exams, to be honest.

Having the business for 25 years, if you were starting over today, what would you do different?

I don’t think I’d do anything different. I like the way it is.

What’s surprised you throughout the process?

I guess the only major surprise is how dynamic the legal aspect is in the state of California. Where one day in 1984, they changed the law to allow brewery restaurants to form, and the breweries are already legal. Then basically, fifteen years later, you have the law change again that says you can’t own this, but you can own this. That kind of stuff, I didn’t really plan on. That was painful.

One of the things that we accomplished that has probably been impactful on society is, besides the beer, the fact that I created the garlic fry.

That was grad school, a midnight snack, because I’d been translating for the garlic professors all day, going back and making garlic fries at night. The inspiration came from that one day out in the field with this professor from the University of Minnesota who was visiting a professor at the Technical University of Munich. I did the translation for them all day long.

Do you have a patent on the garlic fries or something?

Yes, we have a trademark.

You brew your beers according to the Reinsheitsgebot*, so you’re not throwing chocolate in there or anything.

No, nothing that can go into a muffin or cough syrup.

Do you feel that craft brew “revolution” is tapping into your market? Do you feel threatened?

I think there’s a lot of cultural confusion going on in the brewing sector where it’s trying to be cutesy-wootsy and not necessarily…It’s the flavor-of-the-month-type thing, or the brewery of the day. There’s almost that many breweries that are opening up, so it’s something like, 300 or 400 this year. Let’s face it. It’s kind of getting more like a reality TV show as opposed to a well-orchestrated movie.

So your philosophy is sticking with the time-tested, traditional quality?

I think everyone has their niche, and there’s a lot of us that are really quality focused and will never compromise. When I find out the way some of these other beer brands are actually producing their beer, it’s shocking to me. The length of time they’re spending on fermentation, aging, the way they hop it, a lot of elements going on in the production process that are just bad. You don’t do it that way, there’s a reason.

When I played jazz in Germany, it was really interesting to me that the two styles that seemed to be popping up the most, where I got paid to play the most, were either free jazz, or almost like ragtime crap: things that didn’t require a lot of talent to do. You didn’t have a lot of bebop, hard-bopping jazz, a lot of jazz, a lot of precision or anything like that. The two extremes that really anybody could do, because you didn’t know if it was right or wrong. That’s what I see going on a lot in the brewing industry right now is, you have a lot of newcomers that are home brewers that someone told them “Oh man, your beer’s the best.”

They think that they can just scale it up and do it the right way, and they have no science background, no manufacturing background, no hardcore, solid, fundamental brewing background whatsoever. They just wing it. They go to the You Brew on the corner, rent some time, submit a label to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and then they’re up and running. People buy off of that because they think it’s the only beer…“You can’t get this beer.” It’s like a wine that comes from one acre.

A one-acre vineyard. Wow, that’s special. What if it’s not good? Does the emperor have any clothes on? That’s my concern. I paid my dues, and there’s no easy fix for doing that. You have to get experience, and you have to do it the right way.

What about San Jose? This is your hometown, you came back here.

Not really hometown, birth town.

I chose it because of this particular building. It was very difficult finding anything that screamed brewery anywhere around here. Most likely, locations were going to be outside of the South Bay, or even the peninsula. It was where I wanted to be.

What advice would you give to home brewers?

Do it as a hobby, it’s a great hobby. But if they do want to get into brewing, they should work for a real brewery and get some great hands-on experience.

You’re teaching and lecturing at Davis and Stanford. What’s the subject matter? Is it beer?

At Davis, it’s beer. At Stanford, it’s entrepreneurial ventures.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs?

Get hands-on experience before you try to do anything on your own. Don’t expect yourself to come out with an MBA and be God. You have to work from the ground up and know every aspect of the business before you start entertaining any kind of idea about doing it yourself. Because there are so many generalists, is what I call them, that have no experience whatsoever in starting up businesses. It’s absurd, they’re going to fail.

You play trombone?

The most popular instrument, right there with banjo and accordion.

You said if you weren’t doing brewing, you’d probably be a chef? You don’t think you would’ve pursued music?

Music? I don’t like to starve. Chefs don’t starve, musicians do.


Article originally appeared in Issue 5.2 Invent.

Written by Flora Moreno De Thompson
Photography by Daniel Garcia

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