Born to brew
Beer is a blend of art and science for brewmaster Jeff Held of Gordon Biersch Palo Alto
Jeff Held cradled a glass of auburn-colored beer — Gordon Biersch's popular Marzen lager — as massive cylindrical machines hummed beside him. The brewing area in the rear of Gordon Biersch's downtown Palo Alto restaurant sounded akin to a large laundry room on a recent Monday, its machinery churning feverishly. Held was cleaning one of the stainless-steel brew tanks using an organic-eating caustic.
"This equipment was built in Germany in 1965, so it's very old equipment. Oldest in the company and probably some of the oldest in the country," Held said.
The vintage equipment is apropos considering Gordon Biersch's Palo Alto location at 640 Emerson St. was the company's first, opening in July 1988. There are now more than 40 nationwide. Held, brewmaster of Gordon Biersch Palo Alto for nearly a decade, beamed with a youthful enthusiasm while describing the brewing process that is organic at its core despite the heavy mechanical element.
"To make beer you use four ingredients. You use malted barley, hops, water and yeast," Held said.
Brewing in large amounts is a time-consuming and complex undertaking — Held uses roughly 1,000 pounds of malted barley to brew 600 gallons of beer — but Held's appreciation for the craft is apparent. He begins with a "base malt" before adding other malts (for certain brews), water, hops and finally yeast in varying amounts depending on the final product. If he is brewing the lighter Export beer, he will use 100 percent pale malt as his base. The opaque Schwarzbier calls for pale malt plus a small percentage of black malt that "gives the beer that deep rich color," he said.
Of course it's much more involved than it sounds, with boiling, sterilizing, condensing, aging and filtering all part of a process that can take more than a month to get from base malt to beer glass.
"A lot of people say brewing is a combination of art and science, and I'd agree with that," he said.
At 42, Held has an amiable demeanor and somewhat contagious joie de vivre. An appreciation for organics can be traced to Held's roots, as both of his older brothers are now farmers in Cayucos. But Held tapped into his interest in brewing while in college at U.C. Davis, where he met fellow student Jeff Alexander, who was studying fermentation science. After graduating with a degree in economics in 1992, Held went to Sugar Bowl in Tahoe to "be a ski bum for a winter" before figuring out what he wanted to do. That same year, Alexander opened Los Gatos Brewing Company.
"During that time it was the boom of the brew pubs and they were really hopping busy," Held said.
Alexander offered Held a job at Los Gatos Brewing Company where he would bartend for 30 hours a week and spend another 10 learning how to brew.
"I knew I liked beer. I didn't know that much about brewing," Held said.
Held spent a year and a half studying under Alexander while realizing he wanted to make a career as a brewer.
"I found a passion for the brewing and knew I wanted to take that full time, so I interviewed with a bunch of different places so I could be a full-time brewer and ended up getting a job with Sudwerk back in Davis," he said.
Held worked at Sudwerk from 1994 to 1995, learning from brewmaster Dave Sipes, who now works for Boston Beer Company of Samuel Adams fame. In 1995 Held was hired as the head brewer — and the only brewer — at Pacific Brewing Company (later called Willow Street Brewery) in San Rafael. But Held was constantly striving to advance in the profession, so in 1998 he returned to U.C. Davis for an intensive six-month master-brewer program. Ironically, the class was held at Sudwerk.
"Everything's very cyclical at Davis," he said.
Held's return to Sudwerk proved life-changing. A chef he had befriended while working at Sudwerk introduced Held to a manager named Roberta — the woman who would later become his wife. The couple were married in 2001 and have two daughters (Alison, 5, and Caroline, 2), with a son on the way.
Held returned to Willow Street Brewery from 1998 to 2001, leaving to become brewmaster of Gordon Biersch Palo Alto in 2002. He'll celebrate 10 years there next May. The more than 15 years spent brewing both lagers and ales have turned Held into a true connoisseur.
"Different times call for different beers. If I'm sitting on the beach or if I'm at a golf course, I may want to drink the lightest beer and drink a lot of them. Whereas if it's a cold winter night I may want to sit by the fire and have a dark beer," he said.
Held cited Sierra Nevada and Firestone as two brewing companies he has developed an affinity for, aside from the Gordon Biersch selection of beers he has come to know so well.
Held grasped his glass of Marzen, lifted it to his lips and took a long, steady gulp.
"It's been almost 20 years of doing this and I don't see myself going to anything else. I like all aspects of it," he said.