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Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard
Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Unchain My Hops

It’s been easy to take Gordon Biersch for granted all these years.

As a restaurant, it’s been a solid fixture in the Arena District pretty much since the area was developed, serving up an American-casual menu with a handful of dishes that wink at German cuisine. As a brewery, the national chain is known for brewing true-to-form German lagers, and to be fair, they’ve brewed some exquisite lagers over the years.

Still, the American craft beer drinker just doesn’t get all worked up over German brew. “The German beer market has been shrinking,” said Gordon Biersch’s Columbus brewer, Dan Griffin. “Not just in the U.S., but Germans are even moving away from traditional lagers.”

A few years ago, Gordon Biersch realized that it was time to break from the traditional German brew pub concept and turn the local brewers loose. Griffin surmises that the transition was difficult for the previous brewery team, and the door was opened for him to step in earlier this summer.

The GB brass asked Griffin during his interview if he was going to brew a style previously verboten in the Gordon Biersch world. “They asked me if I would be brewing an IPA,” he explained. “I said, ‘Hell yeah’. They said it was the right answer. I got the job.”

Griffin made good on his promise, crafting an IPA from a stockpile of ingredients that wouldn’t have been his first choice for the style, but the resultant ale (a word that still makes the German-style brewery shudder) was flawless. A hint of sweetness up front, followed by the delightful astringency of the hops, with a nice dry finish. Griffin also brews a blonde ale deftly hopped with citra hops, yielding a clean and crisp session beer with an ABV around 4.5 percent.

But he’s just getting started. On the job since June, it’s taken Griffin some time to get used to a brew house built to German specifications. The 20-barrel system means he has one of the bigger brew houses in the market, but during hockey season, it’s a full-time job keeping up with front-of-house demand. His hope is to expand the selection this winter to include a robust Russian imperial stout, and then follow current craft trends by introducing one of those sneaky, easy drinking double IPAs everybody loves.

It’s proof that Griffin is paying attention to the local landscape, rather than just brewing his own pet projects.

“I like a double IPA, but it’s not my personal favorite. I prefer to drink something where I’m  not drunk on just one,” he laughed.

Griffin also wants to get some beers aging in barrels, though he’s not sure where he can store them. Perhaps in the restaurant area where they can serve as both aging vessels and conversation pieces, further reinforcing the message that this isn’t the Gordon Biersch many once knew.

It’s fitting that the well-traveled Griffin would help put a stamp on one of the city’s most familiar breweries, as his new position has offered a serendipitous homecoming.

Griffin earned an engineering degree from Eastern Michigan University, but realized well before he finished that engineering wasn’t exactly his thing. So he finished his education at Heriot Watt University in Scotland, where he earned a master’s degree in Brewing Science. After that, he spent a year at Long Trail Brewing Company in Vermont. The Gordon Biersch gig came around just as he was looking to get out of Vermont. A few options were on the table, but Columbus was home.

Since coming back, Griffin hooked up with his old friend Craig O’Herron at Sideswipe and brewed a collaboration beer. The India Pale Lager they came up with was delicious, and surprisingly enough, proceeded to develop nicely in the keg. Griffin’s hoping to produce more collaborations—partly because it can help get the message out that Gordon Biersch has turned its brewers loose, but mostly because it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to work with other brewers.

“This is a great time for local breweries,” he said. “For the first time, the larger brewers have seen sales slow, but locally, the smaller brewers are doing great. I think people are realizing how good fresh, local beer is.”

Gordon Biersch is located at 401 N Front St. For more, visit gordonbiersch.com.

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