Food & Wine

Saying a fond farewell to Santa Clara Valley Brewing Co.


Courtesy of Derek Wolfgram
Santa Clara Valley Brewing Co. brewmaster Steve Donohue, left, and Derek Wolfgram – with Chico Mayor Randall Stone in the background – enjoy the brewery’s Resilience event in December 2018.

Santa Clara Valley Brewing Co., one of the premier Bay Area breweries, closed its doors in December after seven years.

From the initial release of Electric Tower IPA in mid-2013 to the Saved By the Helles collaboration with Clandestine Brewing released just a week before the brewery’s closure, brewmaster Steve Donohue and his business partner Tom Clark never strayed from their commitment to well-crafted beers brewed in traditional styles. They always had a knack for pushing the boundaries, though: New Almaden Red Ale’s 10% alcohol by volume was one of the strongest – and best – imperial red ales I’ve tasted.

Donohue’s history in Bay Area brewing goes back 20 years, to the opening of Stoddard’s Brewhouse and Eatery in Sunnyvale in 2000. After Stoddard’s closed, he was the brewmaster at Sunnyvale’s Firehouse Grill and Brewery, where his beers won medals at the Great American Beer Festival every year from 2008 to 2011. He continued winning GABF medals at Santa Clara Valley Brewing, earning a silver for Alviso Mills Hefeweizen in 2018 and a bronze for Dry Creek Blonde Ale in the German-style Kolsch category in 2019.

The names of Santa Clara Valley’s beers consistently reflected the history and geography of the region, often paying homage to the area’s agricultural roots. When Peralta Porter was released in fall 2013, the release party was held steps away from the namesake Peralta Adobe in downtown San Jose, with former Mayor Tom McEnery providing a history lesson to accompany the chocolaty goodness of the brew.

The combination of excellent beer and deep civic-mindedness was part of the Santa Clara Valley ethos for its entire run.

Beyond beer

After the Camp Fire devastated Butte County in fall 2018 and Sierra Nevada Brewery announced its Resilience IPA initiative to buy ingredients for breweries that agreed to brew the beer and donate the proceeds to fire relief, Santa Clara Valley was among the first of 1,400 breweries to sign up to participate.

But in honor of his roots at Chico State, Donohue went above and beyond brewing a beer. He also hosted a daylong festival with shirts, food vendors and even dog treats sold to raise funds to support the fire victims. Chico Mayor Randall Stone put in an appearance, as did Gigante, mascot of the San Jose Giants. And of course, Santa Clara Valley’s version of Resilience was the best of the dozen or so versions I tasted.

In recognition of the brewery’s closure, I pulled a 2016 bottle of St. Isidore Belgian Dark Strong Ale out of the cellar. The beer poured a vibrant orange-red color, with a dense, rocky khaki head. The aroma featured rich, dried fruit notes of cherries, prunes and figs from the combination of dark malts, sugars and yeast esters. On the palate, noticeable alcohol joined the flavorful, complex malt and dark fruit character, with hops present only to provide a sense of balance. After three and a half years, the beer was mildly oxidized, but the sherry notes of oxidation nicely complemented the Belgian character. With brisk carbonation, and a malty, semi-dry finish, St. Isidore was everything a Belgian Strong Dark Ale should be.

Many fans, including local brewers, shared their well wishes on the brewery’s Facebook page, including Daniel Satterthwaite, co-founder and brewmaster of Santa Cruz’s New Bohemia Brewing Co., who summarized things nicely: “SCVB is the real-deal craft brewery. Real beer brewed with passion and a never-ending pursuit for that great pint. My hats off to you.”

Mountain View’s Tied House Brewery, often regarded as the Bay Area’s first microbrewery, also closed up shop in December after over three decades in business. The closure reportedly resulted from the time and expense needed to remediate trace chemicals remaining from a dry cleaner that formerly occupied the site.

Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.

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