Saturday, November 6, 2010

RAM-Biersch-Rock Bottom: comparing three chain brewers

  I wanted to compare three national or regional brewpub chains with locations in Seattle that share the characteristic of building glitzy new premises in malls or the like (unlike McMenamins). An additional tidbit of interest is that Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom have quite recently merged or somehow come under common corporate ownership. 
   First, the Ram Brewery and Restaurant. They started out as a restaurant in Lakewood, Wash. in 1971, more than a decade before microbrewing started taking off. Their site indicates that they have eight locations here in Wash., two each in Idaho, Oregon, and Indiana, and three in Illinois. Having stopped by their pubs in Lacey and Northgate Mall in Seattle, and judging by pictures of the others, it is easy to see that the mall is their preferred environment. In Northgate, they are on the outer edge of the mall, next to a Barnes and Noble.
   Inside, they have a restaurant that holds a couple hundred people and some big screens for watching sports. The taps dispense their standard brews; notably the 71 Pale Ale (named for the year the business began; the coasters have a lot of fun 1971 trivia on the back), Total Disorder Porter, and Buttface Amber.The ABV and OG values are listed for each, along with the grains and hops used. These recipes are used at all RAM breweries; however, they leave two or three taps for seasonals, where the head brewer on site may sometimes try his own thing.  The Northgate brewer had made Pumpkin Ale for a nitro keg and something called Locavore when I was there.  ABVs, OGs and ingredients were not printed for these.  I had a cobb salad and a cup of chowder off the pub fare menu, washed down with a pint of Buttface. 
   I seldom go to our malls in Bellingham or Burlington, but when I have to, I would think the experience would be better if they had a brewpub like this.  (Visited 11/5/10).
   Second, the Gordon Biersch brewpub downtown.  They are in Pacific Place, one of those downtown mall concepts; four stories of shops, restaurants, and a cineplex, across the street from the Norstrom mother store.  They started out in Palo Alto in 1988 and have quickly grown coast-to-coast.  The brewpub is on the top floor next to the cineplex. The entrance, seen from the atrium:
Their credo is to stick to the classic German recipes; hence no IPAs, porters, or other British innovations. It would appear that these eight beers (four permanent and four seasonal) are brewed the same way in every location, so a Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen in Florida should taste the same as it does in Seattle.
  The restaurant area is huge, seating for 500, and the large capacity kettles are used just to brew for consumption on the premises. The site indicates that they do bottle and distribute bottled beer in a number of states, but not in Washington.  (Visited 10/24/10).
  Third, the Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant is on the third floor of the Rainier Bank Tower, a skyscraper that lists as a 40-story building. (Visited 2/14/10, 11/5/10)  Their parent company, out of Louisville, KY, operates 43 brewpubs around the country, mostly under the Rock Bottom name, and 102 Old Chicago restaurants.
They have two in Washington, one in Bellevue and this one downtown, two blocks from the Biersch site.
  What's distinctive at Rock Bottom is that the brewmaster at each site has the discretion to experiment within the basic beer category to develop a distinctive taste and name. Thus, here brewer Josh Dalton makes Rain City Red, Peashooter Pale, and Flying Salmon Stout.  Across the lake in Bellevue, brewer Brian Young does Lumberjacks Red, Humpback Pale, and Liquid Sun Pilsner. Hop Bomb IPA, for which Brian has won a bunch of GABF and WBC medals, is the name at both bars here.  Notice the Northwest flavor of the names. Contrast them with the Rock Bottom in Scottsdale, AZ: Desert Trail Pale, Roadrunner Brown, Saguaro Stout, and El Jefe Hefeweizen.
   Plainly, there are some real differences in the approach to brewing at Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom. How this shakes out in a merger will be interesting to watch.

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