Photo By: Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Craft beer is flowing in Mountain View these days – a shop opened last year, Jane’s Beer Store, sources unusual bottles from around the world, and SteakOut has been serving up burgers and draft beer at the intersection of Castro and California streets for the past year and a half. Aiming even bigger, a new locale opened two weeks ago in a sprawling space just down the street as an expansive American spin on the European beer garden.
General manager Ted Kim dreamed up Steins Beer Garden at 895 Villa St. as something of a temple to good beer. He experienced European beer culture as having a leisurely, amiable spirit that values the setting, and the story, behind the drink.
“There’s an appreciation for beer history and styles – we need to get some of that over in the United States,” was his conclusion.
“Something about this practically makes you sit next to people,” said Kim, gesturing to the long wooden tables ranged around his new beer garden. “There’s something about sitting next to strangers – you start talking, you form bonds, people just have a better time.”
Kim aims to self-consciously create something new rather than repeating what he loved when visiting Bavaria. He’s stocking beers from around the world but with an emphasis on American food, local brewers and design.
“Instead of a chestnut tree, we have a big California redwood,” he said.
Within the 12,000 square feet of interior – it formerly housed a Chinese seafood buffet – Steins includes a main dining room, a bar with additional seating and two ancillary spaces that can be used for special events. The exterior beer garden includes a heated trellis roof and space for private gatherings.
All about the beer
The bar uses a direct draft system to draw from 31 kegs cooling just inches away, on the other side of the wall in a keg room built for showing off, with salvaged-wood paneling and big windows. The gleaming stacks of kegs typically hidden behind the scenes are showcased as Steins’ centerpiece.
A little glass on each diner’s table holds a ticket, and hostesses circle the room, balancing trays loaded with 10-ounce pours of new beers to try. Just as in the Prague beer halls upon which the system is modeled, a scrawl on your ticket tallies up your emptying glasses.
“It’s a lot less expensive, quick and immediate,” Kim said of the petite glasses.
In a departure from the Prague halls of yore, Steins actively encourages dabbling in many smaller tastes. In the Czech Republic, giant glasses of just a few classic lagers dominate the menu. Curious for a taste of that, too? The Cerne Dark beer on tap now from Krusovice, a Czech brewer, is a Schwarzbier, a dark brew low-alcohol enough for leisurely sipping in some quantity.
The menu puts together tasting flights of fellow beers on tap, paired to introduce beer lovers to new things but “keeping the beginner beer taster in mind,” Kim said. For those who have no idea that “IPA” stands for “India Pale Ale,” a tasting flight can be a low-commitment way to test multiple variations on the theme.
Local innovation on tap
Kim is working with seven distributors that range from large international beer traders to a tiny outfit operating out of Oakland, Linden Street Brewery. Its common lager is now on tap at Steins. On first trying it, Kim said he felt happy incredulity.
“This is in our backyard. How come no one in the South Bay has had this so far?” he asked. “It’s just a great lager. It’s got all the great characteristics like breadiness, biscuit flavors, it’s super drinkable – very light and refreshing.”
Kim said he wants to spotlight the creativity and experimentation that leads to beers like the Belgium Tramp, the collaboration among eight Bay Area brewers that riffs on, but is not beholden to, the style of a Belgian Quadrupel.
Every employee tastes every beer, learning about flavor profiles and beer-producing regions.
“There’s lots of hopheads out here, but I wanted to open it up to the everyday person,” Kim said. “We knew there were going to be more than just the beer aficionados and beer enthusiasts coming here, so part of the challenge was to have an offering that wouldn’t scare people off, but was broad enough that we could introduce people to beer in a whole new light.”
Beer loving 101
He calls two of the Belgian fruit beers, Früli and Floris, “conversion beers” that will win over skeptics. Their sweet, fruity flavor certainly hides any hint of bitter hops, and they have a Belgian pedigree (and a legitimate brewing process) to promote them away from wine coolers and into more elevated company. But fairly extreme beers, such as the Odin’s Tipple from Norway, get world-class ratings from connoisseurs and can draw faces of alarm from first-time tasters.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to like everything – people definitely have preferences,” said Kim, adding that the inky, earthy brew is as strong as wine. “This is the one beer I told all my bartenders and barbacks, if you see no foam on this beer, it’s OK – it’s got a dark coffee quality to it, there’s so much going on. I think the beer geeks and the beer nerds are going to be the most appreciative of this beer.”
Asked about the white whale of beer bars, Russian River Brewing Company’s famed, seasonal release of the Pliny the Younger double IPA, Kim shook his head ruefully. The distributor gets a hundred kegs, a hundred accounts receive their allotments and newcomers have to queue up and patiently wait for an opening. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to the arrival of another gigantic hop bomb, Rogue Ales XS Imperial IPA.
Steins, of course, is cooking up food to soak up all the beer. Kim says he sees the menu as “modern American gourmet comfort food,” hearty dishes meant to pair well with beer and show off chef Colby Reade’s in-house pickling, bread baking and meat curing. Look for decadent items like a pork belly poutine, which pairs Kennebec potato fries with crumbled cheese, gravy and chopped herbs. The smoked “pork and beans,” a pork loin with cider-smoked onions and stewed white beans, features a bourbon apple glaze. And the caramel apple crisp dessert involves bourbon caramel, candied pecans, apples and whipped cream. The bar includes more than 30 variations on bourbon and scotch, as well as cocktails like the Bourbon Baked Apple, made with Maker’s Mark bourbon, apple juice, lemon juice, spiced syrup and ginger beer.
Kim said they’re planning to add a weekend brunch by summer featuring Sightglass coffee, mimosas and, of course, beer.
For more information, visit www.steinsbeergarden.com.
Facing a tap list 30-beers deep at Mountain View’s new Steins Beer Garden, narrow down your first sip by picking the style for which you’re in the mood – Dark? Rich? Sweet? Local?
A Bay Area brew for summer
• Urban People’s Common Lager (California Lager, Linden Street Brewery, $7)
• Floris Apple Ale and Früli Strawberry (fruit beer, Brouwerij Huyghe, $9)
Fruit beer for grownups (despite the name)
• Dog Ate My Homework (blackberry saison, Brouwerij West, $8)
• Belgium Tramp (Belgium quad, Gang of Gypsies Collaboration, $8)
• Raison D’Etre (Belgium strong dark ale, Dogfish Head, $8)
Beer with a booze injection
• Curieux (bourbon-barrel-aged Tripel,
Dark, rich, intense
• Campfire Stout (High Water Brewing Co., promised to be reminiscent of s’mores, $9)
• Old Rasputin (imperial stout on nitro tap, North Coast, $8)
• Odin’s Tipple (imperial stout, Haandbryggeriet, $10)