With its railroad tracks and the prevailing sound of rush hour on nearby I-880, this industrial San Leandro neighborhood seemed like somewhere a brewery would like to live, but where was Drake’s?
A lesser soul might have given in and called, but alas, the cell phone was busted. Looming ahead of Food Fetish was one of those big San Leandro malls, with a Sportmart and a Wal-Mart and probably some other Marts as well. And in the parking lot, big black Ford trucks with the Raiders mascot guy painted on the hoods.
Everybody knows that the thing to do when you’re totally lost and frustrated is to smoke a cigarette. But if you’ve quit the evil things, damn it, the next best thing is to wolf down a piece of chocolate. Or several.
As luck would have it, the familiar black-and-white awning of a See’s candy store beckoned in the distance. Which brings us to the third best thing you can do when you’re running late and desperately trying to hook up with the makers of Drake’s IPA, the best damn beer in the East Bay: ask for directions.
Would the friendly See’s counter lady know where the brewery was? Miraculously, yes, and she nodded her hairnetted head vigorously. “I’ve been working here for ten years, and I never knew there was a brewery here until just recently,” she says. “It’s over there behind the Wal-Mart.”
Sometimes the best places in the world are right behind a Wal-Mart. Such is the case with Drake’s Brewery, which is surprisingly small for an operation that cranks out three thousand barrels a year, give or take. Even next to, say, San Francisco’s Anchor Steam, Drake’s is tiny. You’d perhaps expect hordes of white-aproned workers toiling silently on an assembly line — or at the very least a receptionist. Instead, there are just Josh Miner, Rodger Davis, and Chris Baker, Drake’s brewers and sales department respectively.
In 1989 the Rogers Family Company, which is one of the largest coffee wholesalers in the Bay Area, bought Drake’s from Lim Brewing. RFC brought in new brewmasters from UC Davis, whose world-renowned viticulture department pumps out bushels of well-trained fermenters. The new Drake’s soon began making different kinds of beer, which began to win awards. In 2002, the company’s IPA won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.
So, um, how does one become a brewmaster anyway?
“The term gets thrown around way too much,” says sales guy Chris, who was one of the company’s original brewers. “In Europe, you’re called a ‘brewmaster’ by the time you’re 45 and you’ve done every beer in the world and you know what you’re doing. In America, we say ‘brewmaster’ for whoever brews the beer.”
Could the average home brewer segue into a career as a professional brewer? Rodger looks doubtful. “You can, but I don’t know how long you’ll last,” he says. “As you get bigger and bigger, it really helps to have a background in science; biophysics and chemistry.”
The typical amateur doesn’t have such knowledge, Chris says, and it shows in the product. “When the microbrew revolution started about fifteen to twenty years ago,” he says, “most people were just home brewers and they came in and started breweries. The beers were real inconsistent back in the day.”
This led to an inevitable filtering process within the burgeoning microbrew market. “The consumer always wants consistency, and they want to know that the IPA tastes like the IPA the last time they had it,” Rodger says. “It kind of weeded out the people who were serious about it and the people who weren’t. The people who were went to school, and the breweries started hiring those people, as we did.”
While talking about beer, we were sampling it as well. Rodger brought in generous glasses of the company’s delicious amber.
Drake’s other brewer, Josh, who learned how to make beer while a student at UC Davis, recounts the tale of his very first batch of home brew. It, well … it sucked. “I took a sip and I had my friends take a sip with me,” he recalls. “They spit it out and I dumped it right down the drain.”
But he didn’t give up. And now Josh and his colleagues play a key role in developing new beers for the company. “We have four beers that we carry regularly: the blonde, the Hefeweizen, the IPA, and the amber. Those recipes are fairly set, but we vary them a little bit depending on our ingredients and things. But then we have a lot of seasonal beers. Our Jolly Roger changes every year. Last year we did a double IPA; this year we did a Scotch Ale.”
The Jolly Roger is one of the specialty, limited-release beers the boys make. Rich and dark, it is available only in November and December and then only in kegs. You can pick it up at BevMo or at the brewery itself, or sample it at Cato’s Ale House, Ben and Nick’s, or Quinn’s Lighthouse. (Quinn’s pirate-esque motto, “A pint a day keeps scurvy away,” actually belonged to Drake’s until the brewery sold it to Quinn’s.)
The dark ages of brew ended about fifteen years ago. Before then, it seemed the only choices were cheap and weak. There were Bud, Miller, Hamm’s, Blatz, Pabst, Schlitz, and the favorite of dads everywhere, good old Olympia. Oh, and let’s not forget your Mickey’s or Olde English or St. Ides, of the malt liquor genus. Our premium beers, Heineken and Moosehead, were the respective Budweisers of Europe and Canada. The superior-tasting microbrews had yet to take over the world, and the wide variety of domestic swill was a boon mostly to underage kids and smelly old lushes.
Still, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for Schaefer and Colt 45, and Lucky, what with its confounded little puzzles under the caps, not to mention bizarre generic beer.
Nowadays, the shelves at local liquor stores are packed with artisan beers, most of whose labels incorporate such things as Oregon lighthouses, rugged coastlines, sea creatures, and birds. Keeping with the pioneering spirit of microbrewers, Drake’s is named for British explorer Sir Francis Drake, and its labels feature a schooner.
But now we’re so spoiled in the beer department that it sometimes seems everything that could possibly be done with beer has been done. Are all the great ideas used up? “There’s always a way to create a challenge,” Rodger says. “Right now, we’re doing a lot of barrel fermenting to see how those beers come out.”
And what beers do the brewmasters, with their refined tastes, prefer?
“I drank King Cobra all through college,” Josh says. “There’s a lot of beers out there. I went to Belgium over the summer, and I know that there’s a big trend in Belgium beers. They’re easy to find, easy to try.”
Rodger ponders the question. “Well, besides Meister Brau?” he asks, perhaps jokingly. “The things that got me into brewing were pretty much Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada. If I go into a bar, I’ll order one of those.”
Both brewers also like and admire the Speakeasy beers such as Prohibition Ale (Speakeasy is a San Francisco microbrewery), the sublime Chimay White, Anderson Valley, and Sierra Harvest.
Drake’s offers tours on Friday afternoons from four to seven. If only the bored husbands and wives being dragged to Wal-Mart by their respective spouses knew there was a brewery right around the corner, a lot of marriages might be saved.
“It’s eight bucks and you get to keep the glass,” Chris says. “And you get four tastings. And if you bring back the glass, it’s only five dollars.” Not a bad deal.
More glasses are poured — some of the thirst-quenching blonde, more of the amber, a glass of the fabulous IPA, and some of Drake’s special beers, including the Jolly Roger. There’s some debate about which of the brewery’s lovely Bavarian beers (infused with berries) is best, and an all-important debate on whether the city of Piedmont has a mayor. [Editor’s note: It does.]
The barley wine is then brought out and enjoyed, followed by the company’s award-winning “port” beer, which has been aged in port barrels. Things are getting hazy. Iggy Pop croons in the background. Life is great. Home seems but a distant memory. This must be precisely how Sir Francis himself must have felt back in 1579 as he harbored The Golden Hind along the Pacific coast.
Well, all except for Iggy, anyway.