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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 11/22/2010

Beer: Brewpub chains merge, but will it matter?

By Greg Kitsock

Gordon Biersch specializes in German-style lagers. (Ricky Carioti – The Washington Post)

Still another buyout has jolted the craft brewing industry: Investment firm Centerbridge Capital Partners, L.P. has acquired Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom -- the two largest national brewpub chains -- and merged them into a single entity called CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries Inc.

In a Nov. 15 press release, the new owners pledged that they would neither close nor rebrand any of the chains' existing restaurants.

Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom both occupy the upper end of the casual dining spectrum, but their brewing philosophies differ markedly.

Gordon Biersch specializes in German-style lagers, a rarity for brewpubs because of the extra aging time and additional tank space needed to make these beers properly. Each branch offers several year-around styles (Golden Export, Marzen, Hefeweizen, Schwarzbier and sometimes Czech Pils or Blond Bock) plus four rotating seasonals, all of which are laboratory tested quarterly to make sure they're consistent from one site to another. Brewers, however, are given some leeway to make their own "gap beers." Scott Lasater, head brewer at the Gordon Biersch in downtown DC (one of 29 branches nationwide), was contemplating an imperial pilsner once the just-tapped Winter Bock runs out.

Rock Bottom offers mostly ales and allots its brewers a longer leash. Each of the chain's 34 brewpubs has its own unique set of recipes. Management basically asks that brewpubs offer a lighter beer of some style, a pale ale, a red ale and a dark ale. Monthly specialty beers are up to the brewer. Head brewer Geoff Lively of the Bethesda Rock Bottom tapped his Velvet IPA in November, while Dave Warwick, his counterpart at the Arlington Rock Bottom, offered the antithesis of a hoppy IPA: a malty Scotch-style ale called Naughty Scot. Both brewpubs will debut a Belgian-style strong golden ale at their next tapping on Dec. 9: Fallen Angel Triple in Arlington, and the spiced (orange peel and ginger) Anniversary Ale at the Bethesda branch.

Besides the Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom brewpubs, the merger includes Rock Bottom's non-brewing chain of Old Chicago pizzerias and several brewpubs that operate under neither marquee, including the District ChopHouse.

Barrett Lauer, head brewer at the ChopHouse, didn't seem terribly concerned when I encountered him last week at the DC Gordon Biersch a few blocks from his own brewpub, where he was sampling the competition (well, what used to be the competition).
"Maybe they'll make me cut my hair," he joked of the new ownership. "I'm being assimilated!" Lauer's main concern seemed to be his winter lineup, which will include such higher-alcohol styles as black IPA, doppelbock and weizenbock (a strong German-style wheat beer).

Grant Carson, head brewer at the Gordon Biersch in Tyson's Corner, stressed that it was business as usual. "I can tell you that there are no plans to change or close any of the restaurants," he stressed. In fact, the new management is interested in expanding, he added. "They want to open one new restaurant of each brand -- Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom, Old Chicago and ChopHouse -- per year."

Baltimore beer blogger Alexander D. Mitchell IV had this take: "Hey, as long as we don't see a merged KFC/Taco Bell/A&W Root Beer style shack, I'm cool with it."

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | November 22, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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