Chain restaurants are a mixed bag. The stock in trade of franchises like McDonalds, Starbucks and others is to create a feeling of comforting reassurance in a familiar setting. Whether you’re in Honolulu, Atlanta or San Francisco, you can be sure that your Quarter Pounder or Mocha Latte will be the same in an almost cookie-cutter environment.
But since chains by definition appeal to a broad audience, they typically engineer their products so that they don’t offend anyone. So while you can usually count on a predictable experience, it will seldom be extraordinary.
Gordon Biersch is the Starbucks of brewpubs. Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch opened GB in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1988 to combine “exceptional beer and delicious food.” GB was acquired by Big River Brewing Company in 1999 and the company is now based in Chattanooga, Tenn. GB has 27 locations across the U.S. and in several American airports, and has opened its first restaurant internationally, in Taiwan.
Gordon Biersch’s brew pub on the Embarcadero in San Francisco is typical of the company’s operations, with the added attraction of being on the waterfront under the Bay Bridge. As with any Gordon Biersch, you immediately know exactly where you are, down to the layout, the menu and the taps. The interior design has by now almost become a brew-pub cliché: bare brick walls, high ceilings and an almost industrial ambience. Stainless steel tanks are in the background. TVs showing sports are everywhere. Although the beer is German, the menu screams American pub food like burgers, calamari, sliders, chicken wings and GB’s signature garlic fries. (Who decided that burgers have to cost $13 in a brewpub?)
GB brews lagers in the tradition of the 500-year-old German purity law called Reinheitsgebot, which required that only water, yeast, barley and hops be used to make beer. Reinheitsgebot was updated in 1993 by the Provisional German Beer Law, which allows components prohibited in the Reinheitsgebot, such as wheat malt and cane sugar, but which no longer allows unmalted barley. Gordon Biersch has five regular beers on tap – a Czech-style pilsner; a dark lager Schwarzbier; a hefeweizen wheat beer; a Golden export Dortmunder-style lager; and a Marzen oktoberfest – along with one seasonal beer, which on this occasion turned out to be Winter Bock, a strong, dark weizbier. Except for the Winter Bock, the beers are all under 6% in alcohol, so having one in the middle of the day with lunch, as local office workers do, shouldn’t be a problem. However, as the bartender suggested, the 7.2% abv Winter Bock might best be reserved for the end of a long, bad day.
The problem with Gordon Biersch’s beers isn’t that they’re bad; it’s that they’re meh: there’s just not that much to them. While GB’s lagers are true to style, they are a bit too safe. While they are tastier than American macro beer, they could be so much better. For instance, Gordon Biersch’s Czech pilsner lacks the hoppy aftertaste that makes Victory Prima Pils and Moonlight's Reality Czech so outstanding.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if Gordon Biersch gave its brewers more leeway to push the limits of their lager beer styles, but that doesn't seem likely as long as its customers are happy settling for middle of the road beer.
Gordon Biersch San Francisco
2 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Sun-Thurs: 11:30 AM - Midnight
Fri-Sat: 11:30 AM - 2:00 AM