Brewer Spotlight: Steve Donohue at Firehouse Brewery in Sunnyvale

The South Bay doesn’t get a fair shake when it comes to craft beer in the region. Maybe there aren’t enough breweries consistently stirring the pot of innovation? On the other hand, maybe people need to take a closer look and set preconceptions aside? In spite of the debate, high quality beer can be found at breweries and bars in the shadow of Silicon Valley if you take the time to explore.

One brewer who consistently garners attention and respect from the beer obsessed is Steve Donohue at Firehouse Brewery in Sunnyvale. He’s won a string of Great American Beer Festival (GABF) awards and his fan favorite, Hops On Rye, is starting to take on cult status. His success is proof once again, that you don’t need to be big to make waves in the craft beer world.

I spent the afternoon with Donohue last December to get some insight into his past and where he’s headed. We talked about his origins in homebrewing, his goals, approach to brewing, how he’s dealt with success and the why the South Bay’s reputation lags behind.

When and where did you start brewing?

Professionally I started in 1996 down at Coast Range Brewing in Gilroy. I basically worked there for free for a couple years and then went to Lost Coast brewing company for another two years. I then came to Stoddard’s, which is the current location of Firehouse, and brewed here for almost five years until they went under. When that happened I went back to Gilroy for another year. When Firehouse opened I came back here and I’ve been brewing here for almost five and half to six years now.

Did you start out homebrewing?

I did. A buddy of mine in college got bored one day at three or four an the afternoon and was like “What do you want to do? I don’t know? What do you want to do? Let’s make some beer. Alright.” We went to the homebrew shop and bought everything we needed to make beer. I thought it was awesome. It was fun and the first product was drinkable. I wouldn’t say it was good. Like most people I’m sure. For the first batch we had a little extract can and it had a list of instructions that we didn’t deviate from.

The second batch we were like “screw that,” let’s just put in some extra hops and just play with it, and that’s when I found out that you don’t necessarily need to follow the instructions, you can just do what you want to do. At that point I was hooked. My dad and I had a cigar store in San Jose and one of my customers was from Coast Range. When we sold the store they told me to come down and work for them. That was the beginning.

So did you just pick up brewing knowledge as you went along?

After about two years of brewing I did end up going to the American Brewers Guild for their correspondence course, just for my own education. I knew what was going on, but I just wanted to know why? It’s been almost sixteen years now, which is hard to believe.

What are your goals for the beer coming out of Firehouse?

I basically want to challenge the people that come here. I want to make them think there is other stuff out there. Hence the motivation for brewing Hops on Rye, a Barleywine, Imperial Red or even the Cluster Fuggle, which people are shocked to learn is less then 4% alcohol. It’s not an extreme beer. It’s fun-brewing beers like that. It’s a challenge to brew a beer with limited ingredients and get that much flavor.

I tend to lean towards brewing huge beers sometimes like Imperial Stouts and I’ll be doing a Barleywine in a few months, which I haven’t done in 5 years. I’m motivated to push people here towards other things you can taste and try and hopefully they’ll think about having it again.

I should also point out that this brewery’s kind of annoying at times because I only have four serving tanks. So I’m very limited at what I can have on tap. I’ll occasionally read reviews of the place and get absolutely ripped on for my lack of beer selection and it’s just a function of the brew house. There’s really not a lot I can do about that. In 1993 when this place opened as Stoddard’s, having four house beers was huge. There was no one around here doing that. There was Los Gatos and Gordon Biersch of course. Fast-forward to 2012 and people are like why do you only have four beers? I don’t really have room for a lot of kegs. I have Hops On Rye on tap right now in kegs and they’re clogging up my space big time. Hefe and Pale are always on tap here. They’re the crowd pleasers, Hefe especially. During the summer time I’ll go through twenty barrels of that in a week, week and half. It’s crazy how much we sell of that. The other two or three beers I serve depend on what I feel like brewing.

With fewer brite tanks and a smaller system is their extra pressure when you do experiment to get it right?

No, I use to kind of freak out, but I don’t really care about it anymore. I care if it sells obviously. I’m going to throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. If it doesn’t stick, then I’ll move on and do something else next time. I tried that with the Barleywine I did five years ago and I was expecting that thing to sit here and it sold well. The first batch of Belgian IPA I did sold out in three weeks during the summer time. It was 90 degrees and 9% alcohol and people were just throwing it back. You just never know? If I come up with something new I don’t brew small batches of it first. I do twenty barrels of it. So that’s does kind of stop me from doing something really funky. I would love to have a brewery that’s half the size and twice the number of serving tanks, but I don’t.

How would you characterize your approach to brewing?

That’s a good question. I don’t know.  I’m a traditionalist to a point, but I also get board with tradition, kind of. I will never brew a fruit beer here unless it’s in a barrel or something like that because I don’t really like the traditional fruit beers, not traditional, I mean the new fangled fruit beers like wheat beer with raspberry. So I’m traditional in a sense that I just use the core ingredients except when I do a Belgian styles I’ll throw candy sugar in their and my Imperial Red has brown sugar. Experimentation is fun. So my approach to brewing is basically making sure stuff sells, but I also want to brew stuff that challenges people. Sometimes I’ll get an idea and just say screw it, I’m going to brew it I don’t care.

The Barleywine I’m going to brew is something I’ve never done before. It’s going to be a one percent two row mash that’s very light in color. It will be typical brew day mash in, do my thing, send it to the kettle, clean the mash tun out and set the kettle at about 195 degrees to 200 degrees and go home and just let the burner click on and off all night long and caramelize. I’ll come in the next morning, fire it back up again, boil it for another four hours, and hop it as needed. I want all the color and the vast majority of the flavor to come from kettle carmelization rather then crystal or any other malt. That’s the plan.

Have you heard of anyone else doing that?

I’ve heard that’s how Thomas Hardy does it, but I don’t know that for a fact, but I figured why not give it a shot? You can get into the routine of brewing and get bored doing Pale Ale and Hefe constantly. You’ve got to keep yourself interested, entertained and excited. Coming up with new styles of beer that I’ve never done before, that’s when it’s fun again. I have a great time trying it out of the fermentor occasionally to see how it’s coming along. With the Hefe I don’t really do that. I know what it’s going to be like.

When did you win your first GABF medal?

My Porter won silver in 2008. Then my Baltic Porter won a bronze in 2009 and Firehouse Porter won a bronze in 2010 and that won silver again this year.

You’ve had a steady stream of awards.

It’s been shocking. I don’t know how the hell it’s been happening. Its cool and it’s awesome, no question about it, but its still kind of humbles you every time you get one.

So when you won your first GABF award what was the reaction around here and how did it affect your psyche?

It was completely unexpected. I was insanely hung over that morning. Just out of it. I walked in with a giant bottle of Gatorade. That award pretty much took care of the hangover. Then Bill Brand came over. I still miss that guy. He was awesome. He came over and took some pictures and the San Jose Mercury news did this big article on us. They put me for whatever reason on the section cover and my phone was ringing off the hook with people telling me I’m in the paper. It’s going to frighten people away! All the regular customers I have here who are friends were absolutely fired up.

It was nice and unexpected. It’s unexpected every year. Getting validation from my peers was also nice. From a marketing standpoint it’s obviously good for Firehouse. That’s not how my brain works. My brain works like wow, I made a beer that people like. My main motivation is brewing beer for people in the restaurant that they can enjoy. Winning awards is awesome no question about it, but seeing people face to face every day, drinking and enjoying it, that’s what its about it for me.

How much added pressure comes with success?

Well everyone thinks we’re Firestone Walker. “Can I have a double Jack? Yeah we don’t make that here.”

Really? You’ve had that many people come in and ask?

Yeah. Even at GABF I was right next to them the last few years. People would ask for a Union Jack and I would say, “That’s them.” Then occasionally people would walk up to Firestone Walker and say I’ve heard I have to try your Hops On Rye, and they’re like that’s this guy next to us. Yeah I don’t know if there’s any added pressure. It’s still stressful the morning of GABF medal day. I shouldn’t say you couldn’t take it too seriously, because its obviously very serious and nice to win, but I try not to put any pressure on myself. If I win something that’s awesome, it’s great. If I don’t, you know, I’m still making beer.

You’ve been around the South Bay beer scene your whole career, how has it changed? Have you seen more of a reception to craft beer?

Yeah, definitely. People think of the South Bay as a complete beer wasteland and to a certain extent their right. All the breweries down here are doing really good stuff, but not a lot of them are pushing the envelope. They have their niche and they’re filling it. People are enjoying it and if it gets people away from drinking Stella and Bud thinking this beer has flavor, then maybe it’s a stepping-stone to trying more new beer? So they’re all doing really good work, but there are no craft beer bars, like Beer Revolution or City Beer Store that have a wide selections of beers. They simply don’t exist around here. Now I’m hearing people talk about opening some, which would be great, but the only problem with the South Bay and I think one of the reasons that contributes to it’s reputation is geography for starters.

San Francisco is easy to get around. Oakland’s got BART, but down here we have no public transportation. Caltrain is very limited. There’s no easy way of getting from place to place after drinking. You can rent a limo or try and take the buses, but if I went to Faultline from here it would take an hour plus. That’s not fun. That’s the main reason the South Bay is the way it is. You have to drive and it’s not cool to have a few beers and get behind the wheel. That’s the main thing working against it. Demographics are a little different down here too. There are a lot of high tech people from other countries who don’t drink.

So it’s a cultural thing?

To an extent. I’m not trying to pigeonhole this whole area but there are parts of it where a lot of people don’t drink. It’s a cultural thing, but I think its mostly geography,

That’s the first time I’ve heard that reasoning.

Well another thing is there’s not a lot of downtown. Sunnyvale is block long. Santa Clara doesn’t have a downtown. Cupertino doesn’t have a downtown. Los Gatos has a nice downtown, but it already has a brewery. It’s a lot of strip malls that don’t necessarily draw a lot of people. Real Estate is just as expensive as anywhere in the Bay Area. It’s a combination of all those things I think. It will change, I hope, because I want to go places more often and try other people’s beer. I’m tired of drinking my own beer. You know?

Other then the Barleywine, what else are you interested in brewing down the road?

Well, I’ve got Scotch Ale already brewed and chilling that should be on tap in two to three weeks. I’ve always wanted to do a Weizenbock and I’ve never done one. So that’s on the agenda at some point. I just don’t know exactly when. I’ll probably try some other Belgian styles. It would be kind of fun to do a Berliner Weisse or a Gose, just something completely out of the norm down here. Nothing is off limits.

Last question, what’s your desert island beer?

There are so many damn good beers. I don’t know. It would have to be something pretty hoppy. I’d say Hops On Rye, but I drink that all the damn time. I would want something different.

How about a particular style?

Probably an IPA or something that’s relatively thirst quenching and flavorful. A nice balanced IPA. There are just so many damn good beers out there. I don’t have a favorite beer. If you went into my cellar or my fridge there are so many different styles of beer from a bunch of different breweries. I guess if I had to pick any beer that’s always in my fridge this time of year its Celebration Ale. I’ve always loved that beer along with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which is such classic pale ale that is so damn good after thirty years.