The Taste: Beer is Our Soul -- Interview with the Gordon Biersch Brew Master
Oct 08, 2015 09:34AM ● Published by Arden Haley
By Rita Calvert
You know someone is busy when it takes two weeks to get an appointment! That was the challenge to speak with the brew master of the only Annapolis-made beer. James “Jim” Sobczak, orchestrates the tightly aligned brewery “built for one person” at Gordon Biersch of Annapolis Towne Center. Tom Simpson, general manager of the Annapolis restaurant and brewery quipped, “Brew masters are an interesting bunch and Jim’s a trip...with a very dry sense of humor. He’s back there 40 hours a week by himself with his beakers. Part of the process goes according to a recipe and another part is all brew master.” Our regional brew master and brewing genius at the Annapolis location has won awards for his favorite unique creation, Rauchbier, which translates as smoked beer.
From my life’s chapter as a specialty food manufacturer (mainly spicy beer mustard), I learned a great respect for stainless steel, as in the steam-jacketed mixing tanks and “holding” tanks of a food or drink manufacturing plant. As I entered the tightly fitted sparkling-clean stainless brewery to the aroma of yeasty malt with the melodious notes of Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan flute playing in the background, I was back...in familiar territory! This is where all of the product is made and stored in the stainless tanks with rarely a drop on the floor. As I watched, Jim told his well-versed assistant, Adam, it was time to add sugar to the brew.
A bit of the back story: The first Gordon Biersch opened in Palo Alto, California by Dan Gordon with his German background influencing the beer style. In 1999, Gordon Biersch was acquired by Big River Brewing Company. The brewpub/restaurant group operates 35 restaurants in the United States, including Honolulu, Hawaii. There are four Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants in Taiwan. The signature beers can be found on store shelves on our West coast.
I mentioned that Jim is a regional brewmaster which means he oversees the other locations in Washington and Baltimore. Rather than the brewmaster “brew-off competition,” Jim tells me that all of the brewmasters work together as more of a collaboration to help each other with concepts.
I posed a final question to Jim about the Gordon Biersch following in Annapolis. His succinct answer, “Beer is best closest to the source, so we have a cult following.”
Tell us about your job. Most folks would rank being a brewmaster up there with being as one of the greatest jobs of all time. How did you become a brewmaster? Does it take a degree of some kind?I enjoy brewing. It is a lot of hard work but it is worth it. I apprenticed for a German Brewmaster at Baltimore Brewing Company. As fate would have it, I quickly rose to the position of head brewer and ran that brewery for five years. I have learned most of what I know by surrounding myself with good people and doing diligent research and study. While at Baltimore Brewing Company I went to brewing school near Munich. I have a BA in Psychology from Washington College as well. Keeping the brewery immaculate is key. It’s not extremely glamorous but the end product makes it all worth it. Good thing I really like beer!
Beer making is quite a science, and it seems these days we hear a lot about infusing incredibly unique flavors in various beers. I learned of a lobster flavored beer or the addition of grapefruit or fresh herbs. How did the craft beer market come to be?It is kind of cool to be connected to a process that has been happening for thousands of years. Beer has been key part of peoples’ lives. Once science caught up, things got really interesting and complex. While global beer quality improved, distinct brewing traditions developed. Within these cultures delicious styles of beer emerged. Darn tasty styles. Unfortunately, forces in our country lead to beer being consolidated with a few major players. Even worse, they pushed pretty much only one extremely well-made beer style.
“Hey, we want more,” was the spirited attitude that inspired “rebels” to brew at home and eventually lead to the beginning of craft beer. What was old was new again. Good taste, complex character is what matters to craft beer lovers.
I’ve attended some artisan beer fests and they are extremely interesting with even more interesting knowledgeable attendees. Do you participate in local or even global beer festivals?Yes. Beer festivals are fun and a great way to try new flavors and styles of beer. We like local fests the best. The Great American Beer Festival and Brewer’s Association’s World Beer Cup are fun too.
What makes the Gordon Biersch system special?Folks who really know our beers, appreciate our attention to detail even after the beer is made. We use a Glycol System for the entire line from the holding tanks to the taps at the bar. This system has a coolant which retains the proper constant temperature until it gets to the glass. We also have different towers than other brewery systems. Our system also puts an extra head on the beer without allowing it to go flat.
From the menu, many beers are actually used in the food items...even the vinaigrette on the salmon salad. Jim, are you part of the process to create the recipe and decide which beer to use?From the start, Gordon Biersch has been about incredibly well made beer and over the top food, which is nice. It is refreshing to be at a place that cares about the complete experience—beer, ambiance, and food. I work closely with our chef to coordinate the food/beer pairings and then develop a recipe to include that particular beer.
You have beer tours. Describe them. How long are they? Do people need to make reservations?Brewery tours are pretty much always available I’m always happy to show people around when I’m working. It is best to call ahead. The brewery with the large glass window is a fixture, so the tanks are always on display. Someone will be happy to show you around for 10–15 minutes even if I am not in.
Tell us about the craft beers of Gordon Biersch and how you work with your other regional locations.This is an exciting time with so many breweries opening, exploring traditions, and pushing to create new ones. Gordon Biersch has been a player for over twenty years. We started making traditional Bavarian Style Beers according to the Rienheitsgebot [German Beer Purity Law]. Delicious and satisfying, Bavarian beers are the stuff of legend and still the backbone of our line up, but not the only choice. I independently create most of the Annapolis location craft beers. We also carry just a couple of Gordon Biersch standards. Each of our brewers has the opportunity to develop craft beers for their own breweries and guests.
No two Gordon Biersch Breweries will have the same beer line up. It is a lot for me to manage, but so much fun, it barely feels like work—and I get paid in beer! We have new beers coming on tap every couple of weeks or so. At its core, beer is a product of the earth, nurtured by hands into something special, almost as magical as the lilting sounds of the pan flute. In my mind, if I were ever to enjoy a beer with Gheorghe Zamfir, the master of the pan flute, I believe he would say “πρόστιμο μπύρα δεν περιμένει κανέναν άνθρωπο” (translates to “fine beer without waiting for any man”).