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SaveOnBrew Exclusive Interview: Gordon Biersch Brewmaster Dave Collins

04.23.2013 15:42 PM

Gordon Biersch Brewery offers handcrafted German-style lagers that adhere to Reinheitsgebot, made with just imported Weyermann malt, Hersbrucker hops, and water. These pure, simple brews make the perfect session beers. They range from Golden Export, Hefeweizen, and Czech Pilsner, to Maibock, Marzen and Schwarzbier -- but they are all totally drinkable, which is an achievement in and of itself.

There are a number of brewpubs across America -- mostly attached to shopping malls -- but we recently spoke with Dave Collins, brewmaster of the Syracuse, NY location, who has been making some really neat behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube. He's a guy who can really expound upon the science behind beer with a passion that's infectious.

In this EXCLUSIVE SaveOnBrew interview, you'll learn what a "tongue blaster" is (not what you may think!), what sort of mistakes rookies in brewing school make, and what a typical day working at a brewery is really like (HINT: Multi-tasking!)

SaveOnBrew: What are the most popular beers at Gordon Biersch and why?

Dave Collins:  Our most popular standard beers are the Marzen and the Golden Export.  The Marzen has great malt sweetness with notes of caramel and bready biscuit/graham cracker character and just enough bitterness to clear that residual sugar off of the palate.  The Golden Export is what I call a 'bridge beer'.  It is the lightest in flavor of all the beers we make, but being a beer that is all malt (with no corn or rice adjunct) means it is a more full-flavored beer than the macro-produced beers of this style, and it is also more 'true' to the Golden Export style as prescribed by the BJCP.  If someone likes light beers, it is easy to fit them on an Export.  It is a very easy-drinking, lighter lager.

SOB: We truly believe beer is the new wine and is quickly becoming the drink of choice to pair with food. Do you have any favorite food/beer pairings at Gordon Biersch?

DC:  Beer and food pairings are endless really.  The Hefeweizen is a great beer to drink with any white fish dish.  It has a citrus character that matches up well.  If I’m in the mood for a burger or steak, though, it’s really nice to have a Schwarz beer next to me.  The grilled/smoky/caramelized notes of cooked meat blends great with the slightly smoky/roasted notes of the beer.

SOB: What ingredients or brew processes make a good ‘session’ beer?

DC:   Beer is about balance to me.  Beers like the Marzen have just enough of a malty character and just enough bitterness that it doesn’t over-power your palate.  When a beer has too much bitterness or is just too sweet, it is what I call a 'tongue-blaster.' That does not make it very session-able.  Also, lower alcohol beers are better for an all-day kind of drink.

SOB: Gordon Biersch operates in 20 different states.* Obviously, there must be standard procedures to follow to keep your beers in line with Reinheitsgebot and also to maintain the same taste standards set by the company. Is there room for creativity and the development of new beers in your Syracuse facility?

DC:  The house recipes are standard, but it’s up to the individual brewers to uphold the quality end and to use the right amounts of each ingredient to achieve alcohol contents/the right color/and the right IBU (international bittering unit.)

I am allotted time to do what they call 'Brewer’s Select,' which are beers of my own design.  Recently I did a strong Pale Ale that went over well.  Really, recipe development is where some people struggle, but as long as you know what flavor you can get from a malt variety and what  beer it would go well in, then half the battle is over.

The hops are a different animal, though. Each hop variety has different essential oil. Oil contents break down to 4 large groups (humulene, mycrene, caryophyllyne, farnesene) that encompass break-down components such as:  Citrus/grapefruit/mango/pineapple flavors... or they could taste like pine needle/cedar wood/ spicy/peppery /evergreen... or just earthy/grassy. Some flavors are still being described. That all has to do with where the hops are grown and how their essential oils develop. It’s amazing that one plant can create so many flavors.

Some newer hops being grown in New Zealand have oils that smell and taste like sauvignon blanc grapes or gooseberry and/or herbal teas.  So deciding on hops can be a real fun challenge.  Brewing to the Reinheitsgebot is a fun challenge too. If I want to create a beer that has subtle notes of berries I can try to manipulate the yeast to create certain esters and/or pick the right hops and use them at the right point of the boil. 

SOB: We recently talked about the ‘decline of brewing’ in Germany. One of the theories out there is that Reinheitsgebot has limited the explosion of craft beer in Germany. What’s your view?

DC:  Every beer has a place.  People will always enjoy German styles of beer, but I’m excited that people are branching out and trying new things.  The Reinheitsgebot is no longer law there, but it’s more of a guideline.  I’m sure you know the German people can be kind of stubborn, and the German brewers over there are even more so. Again, I see it as a challenge. If I want to make a pear flavored beer I can try to pick the right hop profile to create a pineapple/citrus note that could blend with a green apple character produced by over-pitching and stressing yeast out to create a beer that tastes like pears with no actual pear added.  If you are not creative, you may not last long in this industry.  So I just have fun with it.

SOB: What advantage can a homebrewer get from attending a Brewmasters School, as you did?

DC:  A. Lot.  I had two years of structured classroom learning/training, along with a Teaching Brewery on the side.  If you are going to make mistakes, that is the place to do it, so everyone can learn.  Believe me, people made mistakes there -- such as dropping a man-way door into a finished fermenter full of about 9 barrels of beer! The chemistry, microbiology, physics, and technology of brewing is important if you are going to be a professional, and all that and more was covered at my school.

SOB: We imagine that being a brewmaster is a bit like being a mad scientist at times. Tell us about the best and worst batches of beer you’ve ever made.

DC:  One of the worst ideas we ever had was right before brew school ever started my brother and I made a pumpkin ale and tried to add flavor by adding pumpkin pieces to the fermenter and pouring the fresh wort (beer is called wort before its fermented, pronounced 'wert') over them.  A week later, we opened the bucket to find white mold growing in our beer… needless to say, we didn’t drink it!  

I’ve made a really nice peanut butter porter with peanut butter powder at home before, and it turned out amazing.  It had a big chocolate flavor then finished with a peanut butter aftertaste.  It was like drinking an alcoholic Reese’s.

SOB: Tell us about the first time you tasted a beer that really knocked your socks off.

DC:  Actually one of the first beers that really snagged me was made by Allagash, but I had it at a bar called House of Beer down in Orlando about 5 years ago.  It was some kind of Belgian style beer that was aged in bourbon oak.  I loved that beer and I think it loved me. Hah!

SOB: Take us through a typical work day. What sort of tasks are you doing from start to finish?

DC:  Wow, haha, depends on the day!  A brew day I guess is the thing everyone thinks about, so I won’t go into filtering, and all that other stuff.  I start by milling about 10-15 bags of grain in different amounts of different types of barley grain for different beer styles. 

It takes about 4 minutes to get a bag milled; so while that’s happening, I heat up the water to the proper mash-in temp. Then I finish cleaning a fermenter, so that it will be ready to receive wort.  

Next, I mash in the grain and do multiple step raises for the grain temps.  

I pump the grain to the Lauter Tun and start the Vorlauf, while I clean out the mash tun/kettle. When the wort that is vorlaufing looks clear, I run it back into the Kettle until I hit the right gravity/volume. 

Then, while that’s coming to a boil, I empty out my Lauter tun and shovel the grain into big bins that I give to a farmer, so he can feed his pigs and cows with the spent grain. 

Then I do my hop additions, whirlpool the protein and hop trub out of solution as best I can, pump the wort through a heat exchanger that I clean / hold with sanitizer that morning. 

It goes into a fermenter, I pitch yeast, and then I clean everything up really well and refill my water tanks for the next brew day.

SOB: If we were in Syracuse for just 24 hours, what would you recommend a beer lover do to experience the best of the city?

DC:  Stop by GB for lunch, try to go to Middle Ages Brewery for a tour, and hit up Empire Brewpub  for dinner… then back to GB for late night beers.  BAM, solid beer day!


*States Where You Can Find A GB Brewpub: AZ, CA, CO, DC, FL, GA, HI, IL, KS, KY, LA, MD, MO, NV, NY, OH, SC, TX, VA, WA

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