Despite living in the San Francisco Bay Area nearly all my life, I had never been to the town of San Leandro before this recent craft beer tasting excursion. I had heard of San Leandro. It was always one of the exits along Highway 880 when I would be en route to or from an Oakland A’s game, or dining in Berkeley or Oakland. San Leandro was always somewhere…around here-ish. At least that’s what a sign on the highway said.
Delving deeper into San Leandro, there isn’t really a “Downtown,” but more the classic commercial stretches here and there, with a mega mall next to the highway. There, as you weave your way around shoppers through the parking lot, then behind the Wal Mart and Sports Authority, you’ll find one of Northern California’s most important and oldest craft breweries. You will get lost at least twice trying to find it. Google Maps is worthless in the final three directions.
Here in the heart of San Leandro resides Drakes Brewery and its Barrel House tap room, now an essential stop on a beer tour of the Bay Area. While Sonoma County might get the headlines from Russian River, Bear Republic, Lagunitas, and co., and San Francisco’s beer history ranges over a century from the classic Anchor to today’s Speakeasy, Magnolia, and numerous nano-breweries.
Roger Lind started the Lind Brewing Company in 1989 at this former construction equipment manufacturing powerhouse in San Leandro. Over time, the name “Drakes” replaced “Lind,” and Lind’s beers soon took on a name motif of buccaneers and pirates (“Jolly Roger” and “Sir Francis Stout” for example). In 1998, Lind pursued a teaching credential and sold his beloved brewery to the Rogers family who operated a next door coffee roasting company. Then in 2008, the Rogers handed the reins over to John Martin and Roy Kirkorian of the Triple Rock- Jupiter Brewery in Berkeley.
By comparison, the 23 year old Drakes is much older than the 16 year old Russian River Brewing Co. Of course, Anchor takes the prize as the veteran of the Bay Area brewing scene, crafting steam beer since 1896.
Today, Drakes is a cult favorite of fervent craft beer drinkers nationwide. Though its regular lineup receives no shortage of attention and accolades, it’s the barrel aged specials, the unique sours, and the IBU maximum defying strong IPAs that have made Drakes such a highly sought after label these days. If a recent visit to the Barrel House on a recent, classic California 60 degree and sunny winter day proves anything about how Drakes is doing right now, business must be as strong as that barrel aged stout. A good time was being had by all, whether two legged imbibers or four legged sunbathers. Not to call Drakes any sort of “minor league,” Russian River, but the two do share a similar blueprint. Nearly each genre of beer is covered by their repertoire, IPAs are at the heart of the operations, with sours now becoming the supporting specialty. Then there are IPAs and there are strong IPAs. For anybody who has experience with Russian River, you know that after sampling the calmer, perfectly fine Russian River IPA or their Blind Pig IPA, then the double IPA Pliny the Elder (and/ or triple IPA Pliny the Younger), you swiftly forget about the now tranquil and less exciting IPAs.
It’s the same story at Drakes.
Strangely, neither of the two conversation halting masterpieces at Drakes were not IPAs.
Drakes’ Hefeweizen is a very faithful rendition of the classic Bavarian blonde wheat beer, leaning more towards clove and ash than banana and orange. The 1500 Pale Ale may be the best known beer and easily the most heavily distributed. Nothing is off, nor is the 1500 something more than its strives for as a refreshing pale ale.
When it comes to IPA, you have a trio of increasingly IBU intense IPA options. It starts with the Drakes IPA, pleasantly full of classic Northwest hop notes, with a slightly creamier than usual mouth feel. The bitterness kicks into gear with the Denogginizer Imperial IPA, then the Hopocalypse Double IPA. These are serious strong IPAs for the “hopheads” who have not tired of brewers shooting for the IBU moon, then giving you vinegar-induced headaches.
If it’s possible to say about strong IPAs, both are refined. They are well-rounded enough to not explode on you, instead providing layers of differing bitterness. First comes a citrus tartness, then the malt arrives, followed by a cloud of hop- forward bitterness. The Hopocalypse differs with an additional two layers. The addition of dry hopping accentuates the bitterness even further before a final delivery of an almost Calvados- evoking spicy cider flourish, bordering on a burn. It’s a hefty beer that doesn’t overwhelm. It’s a smart strong IPA, powerful without dominating the palate.
The Denogginizer weighs in at 9.75% ABV and 90 IBUs. Though it’s lower in alcohol interestingly at 9.3%, the Hopocalypse presents the classic “100+” IBUs. You get the idea. As Drakes’ website calls the Hopocalypse, it’s a “deep orange monster.”
For the record, Drakes crafts a Hopocalypse Black Label Triple IPA for limited relase each February, à la Pliny the Younger without four hour lines.
The Brettamber would never be confused for one of the IPAs, but bitterness certainly exists here too. The unfiltered amber ale mingles with the always fickle addition of brettanomyces wild yeast, the darling for American craft brewers at this precise moment in time. The Brett’s sourness with the malt of the original amber provides an intriguing intersection of various styles, completely made into their own. While sipping this, I kept imagining worm salt on orange slices like what is used in Mexico to drink with Mezcal: sweet, fruit, salt, funk.
My visit came right after a new nature-driven release that sounds more Dogfish Head avant-garde than Drake’s. Tree Beer is, yes, an IPA brewed with branches of Douglas fir trees. It’s a collaboration with one of the Bay Area’s newest nano-breweries, Faction in Alameda.
No, it doesn’t taste like Christmas tree or mouthwash. In fact, it’s a beautiful expression of pine and forest, harmonic with hops from the field. This beer and the classic Clear Creek Distillery Eau de Douglas Fir hopefully have debunked any previous myths of Douglas fir being an overpowering, unpleasant addition to beer and spirits.
When it comes to barrel aged beers, the portfolio is strong, both in ABV and quantity. The Cuvée Drakes is an excellent way to start, blending porter, imperial stout, and barleywine together, and aging them in Bourbon barrels. None of the three beer genres stand out over the Bourbon notes, but you don’t feel like you’re drinking Wild Turkey, either.
The standing ovations, however, went to drastically different beers with equally forceful narratives. Porters are often overlooked, falling into a watery oblivion crying for a sturdy body to stand up to the out-of-balance chocolate and coffee notes battling with each other for attention.
Drakes’ Black Robusto Porter is an exemplary porter, truly robust and virtuous. Coffee’s allure hits you first, then comes the chocolate. This is bitter chocolate souffle though, not ultra-sweet chocolate mousse. Everything sings together, from the creamy head, down to the aftertaste of a carefully crafted Blue Bottle mocha.
What the porter presents in an assertive porter, the Smoked Rye is in terms of aging beer with Rye Whiskey barrels. Drakes ages its Moscow Burning Imperial Stout in the barrels, which lend significant peaty accents to the beer, along with plenty of cardamom and salted caramel. There is no burn here, just a seductive humming that never loses one’s full attention.
You’ll be hearing more about Drakes soon. It’s rare to find such accomplished brewing over such a wide variety of beer styles. And, that’s not even delving into their little, continuously changing projects. Now, this is an exciting brewery.