Tapped Into the Craft Beer Boom
Hermitage Brewery and its brewmaster Peter Licht are turning an industrial neighborhood into a craft beer destination.
The Hermitage Brewing Company is a little bit difficult to find. Located just outside downtown San Jose in a warehouse district near Spartan Stadium, the brewery and taproom are nestled in the back of a lot adjacent to a recycling yard and a roofing company.
“This used to be a bakery,” Hermitage brewmaster Peter Licht says, pointing out that the area was once an agricultural center back when San Jose was full of orchards. He’s seated in his taproom at a wooden barrel that’s been converted into a table, in the shadow of several towers of other barrels which are aging beers by Hermitage and other local brewers. The bar opened to the public last July, and despite the out-of-the-way location and limited hours (Thursday-Saturday), they see a steady flow of customers and beer lovers. “We’re small, so it doesn’t take a big crowd to be successful in here.”
Licht and Hermitage have deep roots in the South Bay brewing scene. A native New Yorker, Licht had been enthralled with beer from the time he was a kid. “I still remember taking a sip of my dad’s beer when I was like five. I loved it! Then in 4th grade, we got to write a report on whatever we wanted, so I wrote it on beer. I went to kind of an experimental school,” he adds.
After graduating from Columbia University, Licht found his way to Oakland in 1989 and was thrilled by the booming beer culture he encountered. “You’d see all these local breweries and brewpubs, things I hadn’t ever really imagined as a beer lover.” His excitement inspired him to first try home brewing, then enroll in the Master Brewers program at UC Davis. After graduating, he took a job as brewmaster at Coast Range Brewing Company in Gilroy. “I didn’t want to move all the way to Gilroy,” he explains. “So I moved to San Jose. It’s a big city, but also like a small town. I like it.”
Still, Licht found the beer scene in the South Bay lacking. When he took over as brewmaster at Tied House in downtown San Jose in 2007, what he found was a quality local brewpub struggling to fill seats. The restaurant had been open nearly 20 years, but unless there was a Sharks game, it was almost deserted. After about a year there, Licht says, “We decided to close it down.”
He moved the fermenters and production equipment to their current location and set up Hermitage as a place where he and his team could experiment, and where other “gypsy” brewers could use the facilities to craft their own products. Partners have included Strike Brewing, Almanac, and others. Hermitage remains “in the Tied House family”—many of the beers are available at the Mountain View location, and Tied House options are poured in the Hermitage taproom.
Meanwhile, since the move, craft beer in San Jose has finally begun to blossom. And Hermitage has helped lead the way, developing several award-winning beers, including Ale of the Imp and their Single Hop series. They also host an annual “Meet the Brewers” event, bringing in dozens of local brewers to talk beer and give tastes of their latest offerings. Last year, the gathering drew close to 800 people, with even more expected at this February’s event.
Craft beer has been so big that “the main challenge has been trying to grow fast enough to meet the demand,” Licht says. As an example, he describes the increase in demand for hops, as growers develop new varieties rich in flavors and aromas that craft brewers are drawn to. Although still a relatively small percentage of the overall beer market, craft beers often use 10, 20, or even 100 times the hops per barrel as some large production breweries. “Sometimes it’s hard to get hops,” Licht shrugs.
Too much demand is a good problem to have in any industry; Hermitage has responded by taking over two warehouse spaces next door to their original one. More fermenters, more barrels, and even a comfy new office are all in the process of being installed. And in this formerly bleak neighborhood of agricultural plants and warehouses, several other local brewers—including Strike, Clandestine Brewing, and Santa Clara Valley Brewing—are all starting up production. Couple that with some art spaces popping up in the vicinity and the need for nearby pre- and post-game celebration spots for San Jose State sporting events and San Jose Giants games, and people just might have a good reason to visit the Spartan-Keyes neighborhood in the immediate future.
What does Licht see as the next step in moving the beer scene in the South Bay to be in line with the more attention-grabbing San Francisco and East Bay? “In those areas, there’s much more synergy between food and beer and food and wine. If that comes together with craft beer, better food, more independent restaurants, more mom-and-pops—I’d love to be a part of that, supplying beer to those places.”
Written by Nathan Zanon
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 6.0 “Discover”