Back before Columbus craft beer exploded, Gordon Biersch was the city’s test tank for a new era of brewers.
Gordon Biersch is unfairly overlooked in most craft beer discussions. This is largely because the “chain” concept flies in the face of craft beer. The ideal craft brewer is fiercely independent, carefully brewing beers that they can take pride in while satisfying the demands of a thirsty public.
In a lot of ways, a truly outstanding craft brewer has to be a counterintuitive businessperson. Where most businesses, like Gordon Biersch, are relentlessly driven by the goal of increasing revenue without shrinking net margins, a craft brewer will squeeze that margin in hopes of bringing forth a beer that truly stands out in a crowded market space.
It’s time for GB to get its due.
There was a time when Gordon Biersch was exciting.
That would be when it first opened in the sparkling new Arena District. Back in 2001, Barley’s and Barley’s Smokehouse were the only brewpubs in town. Columbus Brewing Company was there, but the quality of the product was suffering and there was always a strange, if not strained relationship between the brewery and the eponymous, yet technically unaffiliated, restaurant. Elevator was in the market, but brewing out of Marysville. They purchased the old Clock restaurant, providing a local suds-slinging stronghold in March of 2000.
If we’re being honest, Gordon Biersch brought precision to Columbus. Barley’s and the Smokehouse brewed small batches and offered a wide variety of beers, many of which were brewed but once. GB was all about those German lagers. The selection didn’t change, so things had to be consistent. This, of course was in the early days of craft brewing and if you were taking bets on which brewing model would be most successful, you would have bet on lagers, simply because it’s not as hard to convert people to them.
Gordon Biersch hired a highly qualified brewer to run the show here in Columbus: Eric Bean. Yes, the very same Eric Bean who presides over Columbus Brewing Company. The very same Columbus Brewing Company that was bobbing helplessly in the doldrums of mediocrity when Gordon Biersch first opened.
Bean is a super geek who admits to reading science books for fun. After completing undergraduate work in Biological Anthropology, he enrolled in the Masters of Brewing Science Program at UC Davis. After that he worked at several different breweries in the Northwest and Cleveland before taking the job at Gordon Biersch in Columbus. Despite his pedigree, Bean went through a rigorous training program prior to starting work here in town.
He jokes about wondering if he’s even allowed in the building these days, but after reintroducing himself (with his trucker hat and long beard, Bean looks more like someone slinging merch from the back of a station wagon outside a Slayer show) to a regional manager who happened to be around during his tenure, it’s clear that he’s held in high esteem.
Bean directed the buildout of the brewhouse, and the efficiency of the layout seems universally appreciated by his successors. Even Matt Crema, the fifth and current brewer, seems to notice an intuitive flow to the process.
“I brewed four beers, and only four beers,” Bean joked. “Red, Yellow, Brown and Seasonal.”
Early on, Gordon Biersch did look for a certain visual aesthetic in their beers, as a lot of beer drinkers, particularly those who hadn’t already been converted to craft, had a tendency to let color be their guide. Gordon Biersch probably missed an opportunity to provide a little more education, and explain that the color of a beer actually doesn’t mean that much in terms of flavor, but they were not trying to avoid the cerebral approach most craft brewers had to take in their tap rooms in order to overcome trepidation.
Bean was integral in helping Gordon Biersch work out some issues with their early recipes. They had a large production facility out West, and the recipes were all formulated on that system. The brewers at the individual facilities were responsible for brewing those same beers to the quality assurance standards prescribed at the corporate brewery.
This was not a matter of the local brewers cranking out beer from extracts. Bean had to run the brewhouse as if it was his own, which meant ordering grain, hops, and yeast, and brewing from scratch. “We just couldn’t hit those numbers,” he said of the corporate standards. “So we had to adjust the recipes for the smaller systems.”
Beer is a tricky business. If you’re trying to bake cookies, and you need to increase or decrease the volume, it’s simple math. Beer math tends to act like it’s drunk. If you’re brewing 20 barrels of beer as opposed to 40, you don’t simply divide by two. That’s the challenge Bean and some other brewers faced, but even when they dialed those recipes in, meeting those standards from corporate kept him up at night.
“Quality control was a big deal for them, but I got it. They had to have consistency across the brand.”
After a few years, Bean began formulating a business plan to open a brew pub. Then an opportunity to take over Columbus Brewing Company presented itself and the rest is history. He spent most of 2005 working at both places, trying to get CBC’s house in order. Chris Altmont, a friend of Eric’s from Cleveland, took over as the GB head brewer when he left. Chris later left GB and moved back to the Cleveland Area as Chief of Brewing Operations for Fatheads.
Keith Jackson was the one who took over for Altmont. He studied geology at Ohio University and had a good job, but it was in an office and Jackson had more of a field position in mind when he took that career path. He decided he wanted to be a brewer.
“I just kept bothering Eric, and eventually he hired me,” Keith said of his first job at Columbus Brewing Company.
Jackson worked his way up the ranks at CBC, and when Bean heard that Gordon Biersch was looking for another brewer, he told him to go for it.
“He told me it was great opportunity to move forward in this business,” Jackson said.
By the time Jackson showed up at GB in 2012, the four-week training program had been reduced to shadowing Altmont for a couple weeks—and now, he had the ability to brew his own beers. But there was another stark difference in 2012, too: GB realized that it wasn’t a major player in the craft beer market. People just weren’t connecting with them, despite a lot of effort on the part of GB to be involved.
So, something shifted. And in the years since, GB has become much more of an assist man in the local scene than just competition. They participate in local craft beer events, and their brewers become very engaged in the local craft beer scenes. Gordon Biersch will help other brewers if they’re short on yeast or specialty grains. They are not insular, but there’s just a perception that tends to hold them back.
Crema, the current GB Brewer in Columbus, thinks that part of it is that GB is still afraid to embrace certain modern craft beer traditions, like giving beers off-the-wall names.
“I’d love to give my IPA a name that connects locally, but my boss just wants me to call it an IPA,” he explained.
Jackson found it difficult to be as creative as he would have liked because there were strict budget limitations with regard to acquiring certain ingredients, but he admits that playing by those rules helped him grow as a brewer.
“You’re responsible for that brewhouse,” he said. “If you run out of beer, or you don’t sell a beer, it’s on you.”
The other brewers agree. It’s a challenge, especially in Columbus. Crema faced a dilemma with the Blue Jackets making the playoffs this year. How many people would come in each night? Moreover, how deep were the Jackets going? It takes several weeks to brew a beer, so if you’re not thinking about this well in advance, you’re screwed.
Griffin, who took over the brewery after Jackson left in 2016 mentioned that there are nights where you can watch the serving tanks drain almost as if there was a leak.
Jackson’s experience at GB put opening a brewery on the radar. Prior to that he’d never really given it a lot of thought, but having to manage all of the aspects of running a brewer at GB made it a realistic possibility. Things came together in 2016, and he left in July of that year to open Combustion in Pickerington.
“That was not my plan at first, but it’s really working out,” he said.
Griffin’s opportunity couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He had the feeling he’d worn out his welcome at Long Trail, after interviewing for a job at Boston Beer Company. GB offered a good salary, benefits, and an opportunity to move back home. He earned a degree in product design and development at Eastern Michigan University, and found himself bored as hell working at Honda. So, he went to Heriot Watt University in Scotland and earned his Masters of Brewing Science. Like Eric, he’s also a third degree science geek, and when the two of them talk shop, the conversation quickly rises above most people’s ability to comprehend it. Griffin didn’t really plan on opening a brewery either, but a family friend pitched him an idea and he left Gordon Biersch earlier this year to start work on Outerbelt Brewing Company, which should open in the Lancaster area before the end of the year.
Crema grew up in the Chicago area, and jumped at the opportunity to take over as the brewer at the Columbus location. It seemed like a smart career move, but Matt’s quickly realized that Columbus is probably going to be home for a long time.
“I really love this city,” he said. “It’s so accessible.”
Matt started out as a paramedic, and decided after a few years he wanted to be a brewer. He took a job at Rock Bottom, who acquired GB a few years ago. He started waiting tables and begging to get some time in the brewery.
“I took a few classes at Seibel Institute in Chicago,” he said. “But it was pretty basic, nothing like the detail these guys went into.”
As his predecessors sample his beers it’s clear that Matt’s learned the ropes, and has a handle on how to run the brewery. The beers are on point, but he’s the newbie here, and when these other guys talk, he’s content to drink it all in.
“This is amazing,” he said. “These guys know so much, it’s just awesome to sit back and listen.”
Each one of these brewers has his own story, and a different background. They all share a passion for brewing, and it’s obvious that they all have an appreciation for Gordon Biersch and how their experience here at this now venerable brewhouse helped them become better brewers and develop a stronger understanding for the business.
It wasn’t just a stepping stone on a resume, but a bridge to their futures.
It’s strange that a brewery that can’t seem to emerge from the shadows of the growing craft beer industry has had such a powerful impact on it.