A Pint Will Do
After a hard day’s work, often the best tonic is a pint of beer. No matter the season, a glass, mug or a flagon handed across a sturdy countertop by a familiar bartender is what many Napa residents prefer. Specializing in handcrafted beers, brewed on the premises at Main Street, Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant has been a favorite of locals for almost twenty years.
The Bay Area is renowned for its craft brewing tradition. The craft beer movement began with passionate craftsmen in their basements, garages or spare rooms. In 1979, however, retail and wholesale distribution of handcrafted beers saw its recognized fruition when Fritz Maytag took over operation of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco. The trend spread quickly, and the do-it-yourself culture still thrives among the brewers of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, Lagunitas in Petaluma, Bear Republic in Healdsburg and in a myriad of brewpubs throughout California, including the multiple-award winning Downtown Joe’s in Napa. Of the most popular contributions to our national culture, microbreweries must surely be near the top of any culinary list.
Nowadays, most California breweries become famous for their India Pale Ales (IPAs) with notoriously high alcohol content. Traditional IPAs originated from the tea and spice trade between England and India in the 1840s, whereby brewers would add extra hops to the kegs in order to preserve the beer for those long voyages across three oceans.
Developed about 150 years later, California IPAs are clean and crisp, refreshing and astringent (think tannic qualities similar to a cabernet red), with a background of citric fruit and moderate to high bitterness. “India Pale Ales are hot right now,” confirms Downtown Joe’s long tenured bartender, John Herkins. “They’re hoppy and acidic.” What distinguishes California IPAs (besides the high ABV), however, is the balancing of the acidic and bitter qualities of the large amount of hops that find their way into the fermenting tank with a traditional English-style malty sweetness.
Downtown Joe’s offers two IPAs on the regular beer list—the Tantric India Pale Ale and the Double Secret Prohibition IPA. The later of the brews (besides playing on the “Animal House” allusion) culls from the special creation of California IPAs, the Double IPA, harmonizing copious amounts of hops with jars of malt syrup to obscene levels.
While half-gallon (66.5 fluid ounces) growlers are available to those who wish take a part of Downtown Joe’s home, no bottles are for sale—anywhere. “If you want it, you gotta come and get it here,” smirks Herkins.
By selling all his beers in-house, Brewmaster Colin Kaminski (who assumed his duties in 2002) can keep batches small and still keep up with the demand. The small consignment also allows Kaminski the flexibility to brew several different styles of beer, including pale ales, IPAs, stouts, wheats and various seasonal brews.
The various styles are concocted to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of Kaminski. Also on the list is what has become Downtown Joe’s most fortuitous accident, the Golden Thistle Very Bitter Ale. “The Golden Thistle is an acquired ‘happy hour’ taste. A lot of the locals live off of that during happy hour,” says Herkins. “It’s malty but still has some hoppiness.” A little darker in color than the copper of most ales, the Golden Thistle blends the best of an IPA and a pale ale. The bitterness can be an acquired taste for sure, but it is a primary quality of beer. A skilled brewer can exploit the bitterness of beer, or balance it with acidity, sweetness, hoppiness or mystical flavors (like coriander seeds or cherry). In the heart of Wine Country, Kaminski approaches his craft with similar skill and technical abilities. “Colin used to build guitars for a living,” says Herkins. “He’s a very intelligent and hands-on, crafty sort of guy.”
The eponymous owner of Downtown Joe’s, Joe Peatman, has soaring words of praise for his brewmaster. “Every year, Colin dedicates one whole year to learning about one aspect of brewing. He’s sort of apprenticing himself, in a way.” This year Kaminski is focusing on yeast, having previously concentrating on water, hops and fermentation. All his hard work is paying off. “He is steadily becoming amongst the brewing experts in the United States,” Peatman says. “He is honing in on his craft. We are proud of him and everything he’s become.”
Kaminski purifies all the water on site, but goes a step further. He will research the mineral and pH levels of regional breweries that serve as the primary source for world-famous brews. “If Colin wants to make a Dublin-style stout, he will go online and find out what they have in their water. Then he’ll make the same thing happen with the water he uses for his stout here,” praises Peatman. Kaminski adds gypsum and other minerals to create that balance he finds necessary for that perfectly crafted concoction. “It creates consistent beer,” assures Peatman.
Water is one of the main ingredients of beer, of course, so if water quality is off then it can be perilous to the final outcome. “The Napa water supply changes daily,” says Peatman. “Colin started to wonder why the water would taste different.” It turned out that the City of Napa sources water from local reservoirs like Barker Slough in the Sacramento Delta via the North Bay Aqueduct, Lake Hennessey and Lake Milliken, but also reaches out to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and buys from the greater State of California water system so that citizens will never go without healthy water. This variety of sources allows the supply to remain constant, but keeps with the green movement and preserves the environment by limiting the output of energy in bringing water to Napa.
Downtown Joe’s is open to all (even dogs are welcome), and is one of the few places in town open past midnight. “We get about half tourists and half locals,” says Herkins. “It means that we get to know our customers. But we also get to meet new people everyday, which is exciting in its own way.”
Certainly, tourist dollars are great, but locals can make or break any business. Seeing familiar faces gives employees an opportunity to really hone their hospitality as they can build upon previous experiences and better the impression they present. It is the essence of great customer service. “About half the people I see, I already know what they want—which is what the locals come here for,” confirms Herkins.
Do not forget about the full menu of classic American food fare. While Downtown Joe’s does offer classic pub-style food, they pride themselves on offering meals on par with even the pricier eateries in Napa. “We’re a step above ‘pub grub’, but we have that too,” says Herkins. Sliders, clam chowder, steak sandwiches and fish & chips are all on the menu, but elevated by utilizing higher quality ingredients like bleu cheese, cabernet barbecue sauce and handcrafted beer-infused batters. Look for the excellent seafood entrées (including swordfish and salmon), but many also recommend the restaurant’s own version of the classic Bay Area seafood stew cioppino, brimming with chunks of fresh fish and shellfish, served with garlic toast.
Peatman relies on old connections from previous restaurants he’s owned in San Francisco, allowing him to proudly proclaim that Downtown Joe’s serves an all-natural, sustainable menu with a wide selection of locally harvested, wild caught and farmed seafood, meats and poultry. Protein ingredients are also free of added hormones and antibiotics, and are fed a vegetarian diet from pesticide-free farms.
The building that Downtown Joe’s occupies was originally built in 1894 as the Oberon Drugstore. An original menu from the drugstore still hangs on the wall, bringing a wry smile to one’s face when he sees the twenty-five cent banana split, a ten cent hamburger or a ten cent draught beer. There are also pictures of old town Napa all over the walls, including the original post office, Napa State Hospital and CB Hester Automobiles.
Typical of an establishment dedicated to locally sourced ingredients, Downtown Joe’s is keen on cultivating a familial atmosphere. Come in and see for yourself. Happy Hour is from 3-6 p.m. daily with food and drink specials.
And, the World Champion San Francisco Giants will certainly be featured on one or all of Downtown Joe’s’ numerous televisions this season. “The energy was so good and positive during the World Series,” says Herkins. “They were a lot of fun.” Hopefully, we will all get to see a repeat this year. Downtown Joe’s will be accommodating should you decide to join them.
The World Champs on TV and a cold pint, what a relief.
James Hritz grew up in the Wine Country, but has written for various publications across the country. He is happy to be writing and working in his home again.