Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Talking with Brewmaster Steve Donohue about Santa Clara Valley Brewing's First Year

Brewmaster Steve Donohue enjoying a pint at
Little Lou's Barbecue
It’s been a little over a year since Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s (SCVB)  Electric Tower IPA first arrived.  Since then, Electric Tower tap handles started sprouting up all over the South Bay and SCVB's subsequent releases of Peralta Porter and New Almaden Imperial Red have also been successful.  It’s not surprising, given that SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue won four Great American Beer Festival medals in just six years at Fire House Grill and Brewery before starting SCVB with Apple Executive Tom Clark.

I spent some time talking with Steve Donohue about his first year of SCVB and the brewery's plans for the future over a couple New Almaden Imperial Red Ales at Campbell's Little Lou’s Barbecue.    As he sat down, Donohue reminisced,  “We tapped our first keg of Electric Tower First May 10th just last year.  That in and of itself is hard to believe.  It’s gone fast.  It’s been a wild ride so far that has exceeded expectations.”

Looking back at his years at Firehouse, Steve had only positive things to say.  “The six years I had there were great.  I couldn’t have had a more valuable experience and came into my own as a brewer.  I’d reached the pinnacle doing everything I could do for the business.  It was just time to move on.”

So he did.  It happened when Apple executive and long time home brewer Tom Clark was looking to start a brewery in the South Bay.  Clark spoke with some of his contacts in Santa Rosa, and they suggested giving Steve a call.  Together they formed Santa Clara Valley Brewing.

Their first beer was Electric Tower IPA.  Tom and Steve discussed the qualities they wanted their first beer to have, and then Steve put the recipe together.  “Recipes aren’t that hard for me, I guess,” says Steve matter of factly.  “To make what we wanted, I knew certain malts would take me here, “ gesturing with his hands, “these hops would take me here, and the yeast would take me here.  When we tried the first batch, it was pretty much where we wanted to be.”

As for new beers in the works, Steve is working on a barrel-aged wheat beer brewed with 100%  Brettanomyces yeast with sour cherries.  As Steve describes it, “It won’t be a Sour per se, but will have some tartness.  I’ve been tasting it out of the barrels and it’s about where it should be.”  Further pondering his next move, he mused  "I'm thinking about doing a barrel-aged stout.   Then, a lot of people do barrel-aged stouts, so maybe I’ll do an Old Ale instead.  I haven’t decided which one yet.”

The business side of things is starting to grow.  SCVB produced a mere 200 barrels in 2013, but is on target to brew about 800 barrels in 2014.  Tom Clark’s wife Colleen has taken over the bookkeeping duties. Peralta Porter is now pouring at San Jose Giants games and Electric Tower IPA is selling well in San Diego, a fact that’s both surprising and highly encouraging,  given the number of excellent IPA’s brewed in and around San Diego.  SCVB hired their first dedicated sales person last month, Stephanie Santolo.  “She’s just killing it,” enthused Steve about Santolo's performance.  “She just got us into Lunardi’s.  I had begun talking with them, but she closed the deal.  I didn’t even realize she was talking to them until it happened.”   Given Lunardi’s operates eight high-end grocery stores throughout the South Bay and  Peninsula, it’s a big win for a brewery of SCVB’s size.

All of which will be important SCVB’s next step.  Currently, their beer is brewed under contract at Hermitage Brewing but that will change in the not too distant future as SCVB is in the process of building their own brewery.  “We’re still keeping it close to the vest, “ Steve explained.  “We’ve leased a building, but we’re not ready to make a big announcement.  Hopefully, we’ll start construction within the next couple of months.” It took about four months to find the right location for the brewery, which will be located across the street from Southern Lumber just south of downtown San Jose.  As for a time table as when it will open, Steve was reluctant to provide an estimate.

But it’s a good bet that a year from now, the gritty industrial park just south of downtown San Jose full of construction suppliers and auto salvage yards will also be known for beer as at least four craft breweries will call the place home.   There’s Hermitage Brewing, which started it all and opened up a tap room last yearStrike Brewing is set to open their brewery and tap room this summer after brewing under contract for a couple years at Hermitage.  Then there’s Clandestine Brewing, about to reveal itself with a brewery and tasting room this summer.  There’s even talk of a shuttle picking up passengers from the San Jose Cal Train station with stops at the four breweries, and possibly some downtown beer locations as well.

Whether or not San Jose becomes a beer destination, it’s exciting to think about it.  Whatever happens in the South Bay Brewing scene, Santa Clara Valley Brewing is going to be a big part of it.  It figures Santa Clara Valley Brewing's second year is going to be every bit as eventful as their first.

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