Beer Maverick

Gordon Biersch, Mission Valley [CLOSED]

Gordon Biersch could be considered the grand-daddy of brew pubs. Its German-inspired beers have helped it grow an national and even international presence.

[This brewery and restaurant closed in July 2019. Head Brewer Doug Hasker will keep working there once Puesto Cerveceria opens in the same location along with Puesto Mexican Kitchen in early 2020.]

Gordon Biersch could be considered the grand-daddy of brew pubs. The original location opened in 1988 in Palo Alto, very early in the rise of craft beer in California. 

Some might complain that with 35 US locations (plus 4 in Taiwan), it has become a corporate chain and therefore doesn’t belong in the craft beer category anymore. I can see that point but in this case I think GB’s “corporateness” (if that is a word) is actually a benefit. The Mission Valley location is impeccably designed, it is huge, and it has a delightful tree-lined and awning-covered patio. Parking is easy (it is in a strip mall with stores like West Elm). The kitchen is good. Service is very good.

What is less to my personal liking is the focus on German beers, which I tend to find uninteresting. Don’t get me wrong, the beer is solid–well-made and consistent. And clearly they are doing something very right since they have lasted so long and grown so much. They offer eight house taps, brewed locally at each location. The beer is brewed for the masses (or so it seems to me) and mostly follows the German purity laws. That means that are limited to relatively simple–and generally quite drinkable–beers. Don’t expect anything here to be unusual or truly exceptional and then you won’t be disappointed.

Golden Export 5.0% ABV). Reminds me of the Molson Golden and Molson Export of my misspent Canadian youth. Given the name I’m guessing the flavor connection isn’t a coincidence. This beer is a light, clean, malty, golden lager. Perfect for a hot afternoon by the lake. At least, that’s how we used to drink it. 3.75/5

Gordon Biersch’s focus on “simplicity, purity and precision” extends to the kitchen as well. The general model of quality food and beer in a quality setting clearly works: BJ’s and other chains have copied it almost exactly.

Blonde Bock (7.0%ABV). Light amber in color with a bit of sharpness from the ABV, plus the typical sweetness and maltiness of a bock. It is well-executed, just not my favorite style. 3/5

The décor in this location is impressive yet comfortable. The room is large, but feels friendly and is divided into sections with partial walls to create cozier spaces. The outdoor patio is very pleasant. I happened to sit next to a guy at the bar who was visiting from out of town, and he worked at this location for two years shortly after it opened (about 15 years ago). By his account the place is basically the same as it was back then, which I guess means they are doing a great job maintaining it.

Märzen (5.7% ABV). Slightly fruity malt with toffee sweetness and a full smooth mouthfeel. Deep Amber in color. A solid version, well balanced. 3.75/5

The place was filling up at 3 pm as I sat at the bar. From the gear nearly everyone was wearing, I deduced that a San Diego Chargers game was about to start. It turns out that they offer a shuttle bus from this location to the games at Qualcomm Stadium, which might be useful to those of you with tickets.

From where I was sitting I had a clear view of a burly, bearded guy in full Charger’s swag nervously awaiting his date. He kept fidgeting with the cheap bouquet he had bought her and was looking around constantly, rubbing his face, sighing and getting redder by the minute.  I hope it works out for him!

Festbier (5.3% ABV). There’s just a touch of a Belgian yeast flavor, but overall it’s a decent Oktoberfest beer. Nice malt, drinkable.  3.25/5

For my late lunch I had a steak and spinach salad with my flight of beer; it was good but the steak was more or less raw instead of the medium rare I had ordered. That was doubly disappointing since they had to slice it to put it on top of the salad so they should have seen that it was under-cooked. My guess is that the chef threw it on the grill straight out of the fridge. I had recently learned (thank you, Internet) that you are supposed to let steaks come to room temperature before flash grilling them and then moving them to a cooler part of the grill to finish; finally, you let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. Armed with this new knowledge, I was able to feel superior for detecting the chef’s “rookie” mistake. (Surely chefs have read the internet, at least, right?)  The salad as a whole was well constructed, though, and they let me substitute goat cheese for the gorgonzola listed on the menu.  (In the same way that I don’t particularly like Belgian yeasts, I don’t like bleu cheeses.)

Four Hop IPA (6.0% ABV). Compared to the first few beers I tried here, which all comply with the Bavarian purity laws and German brewing traditions, this American IPA comes on strong and hoppy with nice citrus and pine undertones. It is a fine though unremarkable example of the IPA movement. Interestingly, in order to make beers like this one possible, corporate Gordon Biersch had to relax their long-standing adherence to the German purity rules that allow only water, barley, hops and yeast. These rules have been shackles to German brewers, too, and are finally being removed even there. There’s something romantic about having just four standard ingredients, but the practical upshot is that the kinds of beers possible within those limits are not the most exciting ones. 2016 is the 500th anniversary of the first formulation of the German beer purity law, originally designed to prevent competition with bakers for wheat and rye. Maybe it is time to retire the law.  3.75/5

IPAs are one of my favorite styles, though as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog I disagree with the trend of trying to make them punishing. That said, I’m clearly trying a lot of different styles on this quest, and that raises questions that seem important to me as a beer drinker and a philosopher: Is it right to try beers in styles you don’t usually like, and is it wise to drink beers that you know are not as good as others. This is something I’m going to struggle with a lot during my quest. I know what kinds of beer I like. From my own experience and others’ reviews, I can reliably find beers that I know will be good in those kinds. Why am I not just drinking those? Why am I not simply finding a beer I love and sticking to it, or maybe a stable of a select few? After all, most people in my parents’ generation (and many people now) drink only one brand of beer, and there is something to that. It is an interesting aspect of craft brew culture that openness to new experience, experimentation, ecclecticism, even what might be termed inconstancy, are values. These values–in contrast to values like familiarity, loyalty, tribalism, constancy, even localism (in the sense of the old local British pub)–make it possible for people to try new beers and new breweries, and to keep trying them even when those products haven’t reached the level of “good”. That’s surely good for a young and growing industry. Surely brewers need time, maybe a long time, to really work out their craft and reach the level of consistent quality we see in the very old breweries of Europe. If we judged them to quickly or too harshly, new craft brewers would go out of business before they had the opportunity to hone their art. But that’s an argument from a desire to support a fledgling industry. Maybe we past the fledgling stage of the craft brewing industry, at least in places like Colorado and California, and maybe in the US in general. Shouldn’t our highest value simply be drink good beer? My answer so far is, “Yes, but….” The situation actually reminds me of the visual arts. We value the very best in drawing, painting and sculpture. We are sometimes pained (or bored, or dismissive) of “bad” art. But we need a huge flock of artists learning, practicing, sticking with it for ages with little success or reward, in order for those few Michelangelos and Rothkos to bubble up to the surface.

Hefeweizen (5.3% ABV). I was told that this one was brewed with bananas. My first thought was, “Why?” Something citrus might have been better. It comes off a little flat, with nothing to balance the sharpness/sourness of the yeast. It has the cloudy yellow color it is supposed to. This is my least favorite style of beer so my rating should be taken accordingly.  2.5/5

Dry Irish Stout (4.4% ABV). A solid toasty stout.  Not as full as it should be. 3.5/5

If you are looking for a selection of well-made German beers and some decent food in a good atmosphere, Gordon Biersch is your place.     5010 Mission Center Rd, San Diego, CA 92108

Don’t Just Take My Word For It (Links to Related Beer Writing):

San Diego Brew Review’s review of Gordon Biersh.

San Diego Magazine’s Brewery Guide entry on Gordon Biersch.