Friday, May 2, 2014

The Session #87 : Modern History in the Making at Silicon Valley's Hermitage Brewing

I'm going to start with an editorial comment for this month's Session, which comes across as a home work assignment from Rueben Gray, who asks us to write about local brewing history, where any brewery within an eight hour drive home is fair game.  What bothers me is his other stipulation:

"The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don't pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There's not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years."

I appreciate our host's desire to exclude breweries that, in his opinion, have little established history as well as what seems to be good intentions to nudge us out of our comfort zones. Generally, I would not consider a 2-3 year brewery "historic" either but don't agree with the arbitrary time cut-off.  Would anyone seriously suggest the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, the "Arab Spring", or the emergence of the Internet as global communication medium are not events worthy for a discussion of world history simply because they occurred less than twenty years ago?

I'll point out that here in Northern California, this twenty year cut-off means breweries clearly influential to the history and trajectory of craft beer both in Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States like Bear Republic, Russian River Brewing, and 21st Amendment are effectively deemed "not historical enough" and excluded from the discussion.  In addition, Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head, both integral to craft brewing's short history are also excluded, as they were founded in 1996 and 1995, respectively   In their place are plenty of brewpubs and regional breweries that have made fine beer and done enough things right to hang around for 20 years.   But with all due respect, many of these brewery's histories are rather ordinary, and no more remarkable than the story of some hot shot homebrewer deciding to turn pro and starting a brewery within the last couple years.  Age does not necessarily correlate to historical relevance.
Some of the equipment inside San Jose's Hermitage Brewing

I'm a firm believer about going into the distant past to understand the present and future, but also believe more is learned from the extraordinary rather than ordinary. What makes brewing's present so unique and exciting in beer's 6,000 year history is the beverage continues to redefine itself. Arguably beer is being transformed more than in any time during its history, bringing fascinating economic forces into play, as small breweries challenge larger, more established breweries, which are using economies of scale to consolidate  remain profitable.

So I've figured work-around for this month's Session. I'm going to talk about San Jose's Hermitage Brewing, founded in 2009, which was established by Tied House Brewing.   Tied House was one of the earliest breweries in the Bay Area, founded in 1988 by Lou Jemison and Ron Manabe in Mountain View, CA.  For years, they brewed a number of fine beers and opened up a second location about 20 miles east in downtown San Jose, CA.  Unfortunately, the last United State recession hit the San Jose location hard and it closed down in May 2009.

Another view inside Hermitage

That's when the fun at Hermitage began.  Tied House moved the brewing equipment from their failed San Jose location into a dusty, gritty industrial park south of downtown San Jose and established Hermitage Brewing.  Hermitage brews beer for Tied House brewpub as well as their own line of beers for packaged retail sale.    In one of their early experiments, Hermitage brewed a single hop IPA using Columbus hops.  It didn't sell very well.  Then they tried an IPA using just Amarillo hops.  Again, it sold poorly.  Undaunted, Hermitage tried again with an IPA brewed with nothing but Citra hops.   The third time proved to be a charm as it became a big hit and Citra Hop IPA is now a fixture in Hermitage's year 'round line-up.

Many breweries brew a single hop IPA.  Due to their success with Citra Hop IPA, Hermitage is perhaps the only brewery to a have a regular series of single hop IPA releases.  It's an innovative series where hops typically used for bittering, such as Magnum are brewed into an IPA.  Or sometimes, Hermitage uses a hop grown at only a couple farms in the entire world, like El Dorado.  Despite sounding like an ongoing experiment only a home brewing geek could love, their single hop IPA series has become a popular line of beers for Hermitage.  

But it's not their fine beers which makes Hermitage notable.  It's Hermitage's thriving contract brewing business.  Only about 15% of Hermitage's capacity is devoted to their own beers.   It sells as much as the remaining capacity it can to several small, newly formed breweries that cannot afford the substantial capital investments to bring their beers to fruition.  I count at least nine Northern California breweries that quietly call Hermitage their home.  Most of these breweries are not known to the general drinking public, and these breweries often claim a Bay Area locality other than San Jose.  I don't want to betray any confidences by naming them all here, but I'd like to briefly mention two.

The first is San Francisco's Almanac Beer, founded only three years ago by Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagen.  Almanac Brewing sells their beer is rustic looking bottles touting a "Farm to Bottle" ethic.   Almanac highlights so many heirloom organic ingredients and slow barrel aging, you'd think their beers were brewed in some barn in Sonoma County.  I find it rather ironic that most of their beer is instead brewed in an urban industrial park.  Since there's always a big stack of boxes of Almanac Beer sitting around the Hermitage tap room for everyone to see, I have to think this is no longer a big secret.

Then there's Strike Brewing, which has brewed their beer at Hermitage for all 2 1/2 years of their existence. That's about to change as Strike is about to open their own brewery, about a half mile away from Hermitage's Brewery.  With Hermitage's tap room and Strike's soon to be completed tap room within a ten minute walk, it's enough to speculate as to whether San Jose, long considered a barren wasteland in the San Francisco Bay Area brewing scene, could possibly transform into a beer destination. 

With so many brewers coming and going at Hermitage, it's become a brewing incubator for small, up and coming Bay Area breweries.  It's not uncommon to find brewers from supposed "rival" companies chatting away over a pint, bouncing off ideas and sharing experiences within the chummy brewing fraternity.  It's not unlike the Silicon Valley start-up community, where smart young entrepreneurs swap ideas and established CEO's somehow find the time to mentor them.   

What's happening at Hermitage reflects the culture of Silicon Valley that's created long time tech business stalwarts Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and Intel, as well as a few other companies formed in the last twenty years you may have heard about, like Google, eBay, and Facebook.  That's why Hermitage is making Silicon Valley brewing history. 

Most of the beer aging in these barrels belongs to a
brewery other than Hermitage


  1. The single hop idea is terrific. During this IPA craze the US is currently experiencing, I hope that more microbreweries continue to deconstruct beers to display their building blocks.

  2. I love to see the deconstruction that Hermitage is conducting.