Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Background: Pacific Coast, when it all began

Note: This ran in NorthWest Brewing News earlier this year. I’m posting it as background on my favorite pub.

By William Brand
OAKLAND _ It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and Washington Street in downtown Oakland is jumping. It’s unusually warm for the San Francisco Bay Area and the shaded patio at Pacific Coast Brewing Co. is crowded with pub-goers winding down after a long week, downing pints of this historic brewpub’s trademark Blue Whale Ale or beer from a guest list that extends from Sonoma County to Belgium.

Down the street a Jamaican-style band cranks up some rasta tunes and the sidewalk tables at cafes along the street are beginning to fill.

Steve Wolff, who, along with brewer Don Gortemiller founded Oakland’s first brewpub  in 1988, likrd the scene. “It’s really nice,” he says. “The neighborhood is finally at the point we thought it would be 20 years ago,” Wolff said.

Don and Steve, both East Bay natives,  met at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s. They were students and loved beer. So on a whim, Steve gave Don a homebrewing kit for Christmas in 1975. Don discovered he loved making his own beer and friends, including Steve, liked the beer he made. It was full-flavored and tasty in an era when most beer available tasted like fizzy dishwater.

“The first beer I made was a stout of some sort and it came out good; then  the second and third beers were OK, then I had a definite spell of beers that didn’t work out so well,” he said.  Later, he figured out that the beer got infected because of the warm weather.  But he kept on brewing.

They watched the microbrewing revolution unfold in front of them,  Fritz Maytag at Anchor in San Francisco, then Jack McAuliffe and New Albion in Sonoma. When Mendocino Brewing opened in Hopland and Buffalo Bill’s in nearby Hayward, they visited both brewpubs. “We really enjoyed the beer,” Steve recalled, “and we said, ‘Gee, this looks like fun.’

Gortemiller also cracks a wry smile. “I thought if  you were going to spend your life in a bar anyway, we might as well make a living at it,” he said.

“Little did we know that we were really getting into the restaurant business, not the beer business. But we decided to go for it, Steve said.  “That was in the fall of 1984, but it took us four years to find  find a location and to raise the money and negotiate the lease,” he said.

Their eyes intent on brewing beer, they stumbled, almost accidently, into a piece of Oakland history. Their location, a block of Broadway, Oakland’s historic main stem and literally in the shadow of the new Oakland Convention Center, is part of an ambitious restoration project called Old Oakland. The building at 906 Washington St. was built in 1876 and is part of several blocks of once-elegant, late Victorian-style houses and office buildings.

The developers, Glenn and  Richard Storek, had ambitious plans to save and restore the fading beauties to their original luster, then attract stores and restaurants and make Old Oakland a mecca. Pacific Coast was the Storeks first tenant. But the Storkes required Gortemiller and Wolfe and a third partner, who left the business years ago, to raise a lot more money and create a much more elaborate pub than they planned.

The rest of the Storeks’ plans fizzled and for too many years,  Pacific Coast was an outpost. Only in the last few years has the area started to bloom.

When Pacific Coast, when it finally opened,  Oct. 18, 1988,  was a pub done-right.  The stained glass front window, the antique bar and beer cooler came from a historic saloon in the neighborhood, courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California. It was cool and inviting inside: There are high ceilings,  dark wood floors, high tables with stools across from the bar and large and small regular tables to the rear.

A green board advertises the 24 beers on tap plus one beer always on handpump. There are always four to 10 Pacific Coast beers that Don and his head brewer Steve Sites produce in their tiny seven barrel, downstairs brewery: Blue Whale, a 7 percent amber; Killer Whale Stout, Gray Whale Ale, a 5 percent pale ale and Columbus IPA, the first IPA in the United States brewed with Columbus hops. Served on a handpump, cask-conditioned, it’s a malty, hoppy treat.

Then, there’s Leviathan Imperial Stout, 10 percent, and Belgian-Style Triple, 10 percent and Code Blue, a 10 percent barleywine.

There’s also a rotating list of  guest beers like Racer 5 from Bear Republic,. Green Flash Triple and Maredsous 8 from Belgium’s Duvel Moortgat.

That little basement brewery is historic and Don Gortemiller’s beers are most unusual. The English-made brewplant came from Palo Alto Brewing, where the first batches of  Pete’s Wicked Ale were made. The fermenters are surplus Grundy’s, the odd-shaped, British tanks used in pubs in England in the 1950s.

Another unusual wrinkle: Don, still a homebrewer at heart,  is an extract brewer. All his beer start with two-row extract, then he adds speciality grains according to the recipe. “With this location in the basement, it makes sense, extract is much more space effective than full grain,” he said.

Pacific Coast also has a full menu, excellent pub food, often with interesting twists, prepared in a kitchen the Steve and Don realize is too small, They explain that their original pub idea had some flaws. Besides the kitchen being too small, which is offset by a total modernization recently, the pub lacks a modern “great room” for live music.

But regular patrons, who fill the pub most days, don’t care. It’s a warm, friendly place with familiar faces, sports always on the TVs. Bartender John Campau has been filling pints for way over a decade. The beer in those pints is excellent.

Steve, who is 56,  and married, and Don, who will be 56 in October and is married with two children, admit it’s been a pretty good life.  The pub has 28 employees and annual sales of about $1.3 million, Steve says.

Right now, Don is figuring out the recipe for their 20th Anniversary beer. He’s not sure what it will be, but anyone who follows Don’s beers knows one thing: It’ll be a big one.