When I took my seat at the bar at Gordon Biersch downtown at 4th Street Live, I was struck by the pure beauty of it. The bright taps, the vibrant colors – not to mention the friendly bar staff who were quick to greet me and ask if it was my first visit.
OK, so Gordon Biersch is a chain; that much we know. As such, my expectations when meeting brewer David Stacy was that he would be buttoned-up and corporate, a man toeing the company line, wearing a bright GB button-down and speaking the corporate lingo. Imagine my surprise when I heard, “Are you Kevin?” and turned to be greeted warmly by a thin man with a graying, medium-length beard, and wearing a baseball cap and overalls.
Turns out, Dave Stacy is just a beer guy like the rest of us. As such, we sat and casually talked about the Louisville beer scene as I sipped on my Gordon Biersch sampler.
To start, GB is a lager house that brews based on German principles using ingredients almost exclusively from Germany. Which is to say, similar to the new Blue Stallion Brewing in Lexington or Hofbrauhaus in Newport, the products tend to be unfiltered, lighter-bodied creations than one normally finds at a smaller brewery. In addition, its 31 locations are all based on the original concept of offering quality food as well as freshly-brewed beer – meaning that the food is just as much the focus as the brews. Not your usual microbrew, in other words.
Nevertheless, while a beer snob may be quick to turn up a nose at GB brews, Stacy makes no apologies. The quality in ingredients and brewing processes is high, regardless of how some might view the concept. He sees that perception as a challenge on one hand, but an advantage on the other.
“Our challenge is how people view us,” he said. “We started as one store, and we just grew beyond that. … I realize we are considered the Starbucks. I know there are guys that look down on me because of what I do. But it’s not because of our production standard.”
He pointed out that while most microbreweries situated in neighborhoods rely on regular customers for a fairly large chunk of their business, being located at 4th Street Live means a lot more walk-in traffic from out of town people, or those who are downtown for reasons other than going to the brewpub. This makes being a lager house an advantage, because a larger percentage of the palates who taste his beer aren’t necessarily looking for high gravity or a hop explosion.
And he’s fine with that.
“I’m from a small German community [in Texas],” he said. “I love the origins and traditions of German style production.”
Not that he doesn’t enjoy a bold-flavored beer. In fact, he praises the Louisville beer scene and always keeps other local beers available in his guest taps. He is particularly fond of Falls City, in part because his grandparents drank it often when he was growing up, but he is also quick to sing the praises of the others and to keep them on tap on a rotating basis.
He went so far as to say that when someone comes in and can’t find anything he or she likes, “I send them to ATG or BBC,” both of which, obviously, are nearby. (In fact, he wishes he had more time to visit other local breweries himself, but long hours and being a dad to a toddler make that difficult.)
But with new breweries opening in the area seemingly every couple of months and more on the way, where is the saturation point?
“If you want to compare it to bourbon, there is no saturation point,” Stacy said. “But beer being the product it is, I think we’re getting close to that. But I think it’s better to keep that door open and have [breweries find] success at what they do.”
And while the recipes and brewing standards are GB-wide and are somewhat constrictive, he also has some latitude and gets to come up with outliers referred to as “Brewer’s Select.” Later this year, he said, he plans to brew a red ale, something big and malty (similar, we discussed, to BBC’s Irish Rover Red). That would really throw off the taste buds of the 4th Street Live dwellers.
Here’s an overview of the beer tasting:
Golden Export (5.0% ABV, 17 IBU) – This is lightest beer available at GB, and is specifically geared toward people who fear anything without the word “light” in the name. Bottom line, if you’re a Bud Light or Miller Lite drinker, and you can’t drink this? There’s something wrong.
Hefeweizen (5.5% ABV, 12 IBU) – This one’s a classic German wheat beer, unfiltered and light orange in color, with lots of banana and clove notes and a smooth texture. Not my thing, but this is a well done version of it, and easy on the palate for people who fear hops and may fancy something fruitier.
Czech Pilsner (5.6% ABV, 36 IBU) – By far the hoppiest of the GB regulars, this one still has only a mild bite. It’s light- to medium-bodied, and made with Saaz hops from the Czech Republic for a tiny bit of spice and a nice tingle at the back of the palate. As a hop guy, this one’s easily my favorite.
Marzen (5.7% ABV, 18 IBU) – At first glance, this could be mistaken for a pale ale with its auburn color, but it’s a Bavarian lager that relies on malts for its flavor. Stacy said this is GB’s top seller, at least here in Louisville.
Schwarzbier (4.3% ABV, 21 IBU) – This is the one that trips people up. Despite a light nutty flavor and light body, the darkness of this lager can be deceiving. This could be why it’s the lowest seller of the regulars. “People confuse it with a porter or stout,” Stacy said. “They see the color and are afraid of it.” It’s unwarranted, but what can you do?
Blonde Bock (7.0% ABV, 26 IBU) – This seasonal is golden and may look light, but has surprising body and flavor. Stacy said it is 90 percent pilsner and is an anniversary celebration beer of sorts for GB. The finish is surprisingly malty, which may belie the kick. “People sometimes forget this is almost equal to two Jack and Cokes for a 20-ounce pint,” Stacy said, smiling.
SummerBrau (4.8% ABV, 25 IBU) – Another annual brew, this is a Kolsch-style beer, and is one of Stacy’s favorites. Truly, while it’s relatively light, it’s crisp and surprisingly flavorful with a blend of pale-malted barley and malted wheat. I enjoyed this one quite a lot myself. “There are subtle characteristics in this beer that I find fascinating,” Stacy said. “I’m very happy how it came out this year.”
Toward the end of our chat, we further discussed the divide in beer people’s preferences, not to mention the resulting beer snobbery that sometimes ensues.
“A lot of times, I think it’s a cluster of people patting themselves on the back,” he said. He then paraphrased a traditional German saying: “Beer is the every-man’s drink, and it’s only done right if every person can enjoy it.”
He continued by astutely noting that “beer is a common denominator,” because we often enjoy it while sharing our lives and emotions with friends and family. If someone prefers a light beer? So be it.
He concluded: “I like a lot of exotic beer, I like a lot of plain beer. I just like beer, period.”