Spotlight On: Drakes Brewing Company

Due to a variety of factors, the depressed economy being a huge factor, the company I work for is being forced to take some actions to keep its doors open. In addition to the tightening of budgets and cutting down of spending, my company is forcing us to take 5 days off before July. Upper management handed down this mandate without much warning so many of us are scrambling to choose which days to take off. I’m not really complaining about this though. The time off gives me time to live life. Work has been stressful and my weekends are more enjoyable now than they’ve ever been. So, instead of bumming around with nothing to do, I’m going to make my days count and go do beer stuffs.

Drakes Brewing Company, 1933 Davis Street #177, San Leandro, CA 94577map

drakes01Drakes is an award-winning brewery that was established in 1989 and claims to have been one of the first microbreweries in the Bay Area. They were recently bought by the same people who own Triple Rock and Jupiter, Reid and John Martin. They have an Amber, a Blonde, a Hefeweizen and an IPA that they brew year-round as well as four seasonal beers and three more specialty beers. You can find more information on their website here.

drakes02I got the idea to visit Drakes when I was monitoring my Twitter feed. I had exchanged a couple of tweets with Drakes every once in a while so I contacted them to see if they’d be able to entertain a blogger on a Friday afternoon. John Martin, who manages the Twitter account, sent me back a DM and we set up the meeting through email. Unfortunately he couldn’t be at the brewery to give me a tour personally as he would be out of town on a camping trip but he gave me the contact information of Jono and assured me that Jono would be taking care of me. Not wanting to waste a brewery tour on myself, I called up my buddy Jason who found the time to accompany me up to San Leandro.

drakes03While the directions we received from Yahoo Maps looked easy enough, finding them was a small adventure into itself. I thought I had entered Jono’s cell phone number into my phone but when the time came for me to ring him up for directions, his number was nowhere to be found. Luckily for me, I remembered what John had tweeted to me prior, “we literally brew right behind a Wal-Mart”. Those words proved to ring true as they did brew right behind a Wal-Mart. Having been there once already, it’s not that hard to find but you really need to drive to the back (well, kinda to the side of) Wal-Mart to find them. Drakes is housed, as with many production breweries, in an industrial building that is very nondescript.

drakes04Upon entering the tasting room, Jason and I were greeted by Jono. Jono then introduced us to assistant brewer Brian Thorson who would be giving us the tour. Brian received his formal brewing education from UC Davis. He has brewed for Trumer Pils and Harpoon Brewing Company as well as spending some time at Coast Range Brewing Company as well. In a past life, he used to be a computer science guy. With a glass of their Double Dry in hand and Brian leading the way, we started the tour.

drakes05Having been on a handful of brewery tours already, once you’ve seen one place you’ve basically seen them all. I still like to go on tours though as it allows me to get a sense of the people who make the beers I like to drink. Plus you never see two breweries that run exactly the same. The “big picture” is always the same but the devil is in the details and I got to see a lot of detail from Drakes. Even though we never really got to ask questions about their bottling process, Drakes happened to be bottling some of their beers when we first arrived. There’s a huge disconnect here in America between the consumer and their food, or drink as the case is. When strolling through BevMo picking up beers, I don’t give it much thought. I figure having your bottles on the shelves means you’re a pretty big brewery but that’s not always the case. Seeing how a microbrewery like Drakes bottles and packages their beers in a two man team really drives home the reality of things.

drakes06As with many tours, it all starts with the grain. Drakes has a smaller than expected grain silo in front of their brewery. It’s one of the distinguishing features in an otherwise undistinguishable neighborhood of businesses. The grain silo leads to their grain mill where, through the various augers, mill and move grain up to their mashtun. I suppose it shouldn’t be too interested but I found it very interesting that their mashtun is located at the highest point in their brewery. I guess this shouldn’t be all that interesting as I suspect that the may have a gravity-fed system (as opposed to pumps) to move the wort to their brew kettle, which happens to be the second highest piece of equipement at Drakes. Drakes has a 15 BBL (barrel=31 U.S. gallons) brew system. By comparison, the Gordon Biersch brewpub in downtown San Jose has a 7 BBL system and Firehouse Brewery in Sunnyvale has a 20 BBL system (I never knew Firehouse has such a huge system, I mean it’s really much, much bigger than their space warrants). After the brew kettle, the beer is “whirlpooled” and is sent to one of their 14 BBL fermentation tanks. During transmission from the brew kettle to the fermentor, Drakes directly injects oxygen into the wort. While not as efficient as using an oxygenation stone, it works for them. Brian explains that they harvest the yeast from a previous batch to use in their new batches and that they only use their yeasts for no more than 15 generations. While there, Jason and I noticed vigorous fermentation activity going on in about 4-5 different tanks. Some buckets were frothing while others were just bubbling away.

drakes07Brian also went on to explain how their filter their beers with DE, or diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is the fossilized remains of an algae called diatoms. In addition to being used as a filtration element, DE (as it’s most commonly known) is also an insecticide and a mild abrasive. I joked that I could use a bucket of DE to get rid of the ants that plague my home but Brian tells me that it can be a dangerous substance, especially when inhaled, which is why they wear masks when dealing with DE. In addition to learning about their filtration practices, Brian took us out back where we got to see the heart of their glycol cooling sytem. All of the fermentors in Drakes (as with most breweries) are jacketed that allow for accurate temperature control. Not many breweries will give you a tour of their glycol systems but we happened to be curious so we took a look at how the pros do it. While out back, Jason and I also saw their huge dumpster filled with their spent grain. Drakes pays a farmer to come by and pick up their spent grains to be used as cattle feed. In addition to feeding cattle, the occasional hippie will come by asking for spent grains as well. Drakes, feeding cattle and hippies since 1989.

drakes08To polish off the tour, Brian allowed us to sample several beers right from the fermentors, some of which included a session-strength Belgian-style ale and an IPA. Drinking a beer right from the fermentor is a totally different experience from the polished product you’ll find in the bottles. Beers drawn right from the fermentors tastes like how the final product would, just very rough and (obviously) unfinished. A filtered beer also tastes much different than an unfiltered one because filtering does strip away some flavor components (yeast). While a beer filtered to brilliant clarity is very pretty to look at, there’s just something about an unfiltered beer that I enjoy.

drakes09Just when I though the tour was over, I asked Brian if they have a wood aging program and his eyes lit up in an, “Oh yeah, I can’t believe I almost forgot about these” sort of way. Of course I could’ve been reading his eyes all wrong and they could’ve instead been saying, “Crap, I thought I was finally done with these two guys but they just had to mention wood-aged beers. I have work to do, c’mon!”. Brian led us through their office space an into the area where they have their barrels. They had far more barrels than I had given them credit for. When I initially asked about their wood-aging program, I totally expected to see a half dozen barrels at the most because I haven’t really heard of their beers being wood-aged before. I am happy as hell to have asked as I am a huge fan of wood-aged beers and this was a real treat.

drakes10Altogether Jason and I were able to sample 4 of their wood aged beers. The base beer in each case was an Imperial Stout but they were all from different different barrels from different years. I noticed some barrels had IPAs in them as well but Brian mentioned that Imperial Stouts seemed to take to the wood very nicely. The first beer we tried was an Imperial Stout aged in a 2006 port barrel. From what I remember, this particular beer was a collaboration between Drakes, Triple Rock and Iron Springs. This beer, by far, was the best one of the day. It has all the characteristics of the base beer, just a bit more mellow, as well as a very noticeable and pleasant wood character (in the aroma and flavor) that had a tart/sour finish. Jason argues that the sourness is more “dill” (as in dill pickle) while I think it’s leans a little more towards the lactic. In any case, this was a mighty fine beer. An interesting thing Brian shared with us about their barrel aged beers is that they will often pull out beer from their various barrels (for special ocassions and festivals) and then top them off with new beer as space becomes available in the barrel. I’m not sure if this is industry standard or not but it’s interesting to hear. The next two beers were from the same batch but aged in different barrels, one in a merlot and it’s sister in a pinot. These two beers had a much more subtle flavor profile than the first, the wood is less, there’s virtually no tartness but they are both very good tasting wood-aged beers but the merlot was more subtle than the pinot. The last barrel was also and Imperial Stout aged in a bourbon barrel. I enjoyed this beer as well because the bourbon character was a background note instead of being the primary flavor. Brian mentioned that he’s had some tasters mention that it didn’t have enough bourbon flavor so they were looking into brewing up another batch with more bourbon flavor. I think that it’s pretty good as it is.

drakes11Jason and I stuck around a little bit longer to play Washoes. I had never played this game before but it’s apparrently a very popular brewery game. Simply put, you’re basically pitching washers into holes. First team to 21 without going over wins. It was at this point I got to meet the rest of the Drakes team, Brad and Josh, as well as throw a few washers around. For the record, I am 1-and-1 in washoes with the last game being an epic battle between veterans and a n00b like me. The last game was notable, at least for me, as the two teams were broken up into brewer/blogger teams. I was teamed with Brian and Marcel (from www.craftondraft.com) was teamed up with Josh (at least I think it was Josh).

drakes12Visiting Drakes was a perfect way to spend my Friday afternoon. The tour was so much fun that I was late for an impromptu wedding reception later on that night. Brian, at the expense of some of his duties, was an excellent host. He broke down their process as well as granted us access that I think few people get when on a brewery tour (let’s hear it for glycol!). For all I know they may treat everyone who asks for a brewery tour this well but I like to think I’m special, in a non-short bus sort of way, of course. I’d also like to thank John for helping to set this up, Jono for pulling Brian off his important tasks to take care of us and for Josh and Brad for their hospitality as well. Look for a Beer in Review featuring the beers from Drakes in the near future!

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