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German Born, Philly Raised: Berliner Weisse & Nodding Head Brewery



Gordon Grubb and Curt Decker met with us in Rittenhouse Square to not only talk about the origins of Nodding Head (yes, we ask about their iconic bobblehead), but the Berliner Weiss - a style they've perfected. In a time where sours and wild ales dominate, can this delicate brew stand the test of time? 

CTH: Could you start by introducing one another? 

Gordon Grubb: I'm the brewer and I make the beer.

Curt Decker: I'm Curt Decker and I'm the owner of Nodding Head, and I drink the beer.

CTH: Curt, what does Gordon bring to Nodding Head that no one else does? 

Curt: Well, Gordon's been with Nodding Head almost since the beginning. He worked very closely with my first brewer, Brandon Greenwood who was an extremely talented guy like Gordon. I think Gordon would say he learned a lot from Brandon — the guy's like the Dalai Lama of brewing. He's got an amazing pedigree. Gordon has been head brewer for the last 10 plus years. Gordon is creative; he's quirky, he's talented. He's weird. I see all those as good qualities, as what you want when you're making beer.

CTH: What about Curt? What does he bring to Nodding Head?

Gordon: He's an excellent facilitator. He sets people up for whatever needs to happen. He's very good at finding the right person. He lets me do my thing. Also, we listen to each other complain a lot. Not necessarily even about Nodding Head. "Here are my complaints for the last day or two!"

CTH: A shoulder to lean on?

Both: Yeah!

Curt: I think we trust each other's palate too. There are a lot of people in the business who I don't necessarily trust their palates. I trust mine. I know what I taste when I taste beer. For me it's not always about if it’s a style that I love — but is the beer well made? If it's a well-made beer, then it's something you can be proud of. It looks nice, tastes nice, presents nice.

CTH: How did you two come into craft brewing? How did you end up falling in love beer, to making it your career?

Gordon: That's two answers. I fell in love with beer when I was twenty one and I went to a beer distributor. There were these cases piled up — they clearly had nowhere to put them. I'm looking at them and it says Adamstown, Pennsylvania. They had Stoudts Gold [Lager]. The next morning I was back. 

Getting into it was really an accident. I got a home brewing kit for Christmas. I did that for a couple years. I was looking to change what I was doing. I found the American Brewers Guild; they have a 6-month program online and they hook you up with an internship at the end. That all worked. Once I was into it there was no doing anything else. 

Curt: I was in a corporate job. I got out of it. I started bartending and a guy asked if I'd like to run his pub in Old City. I said, "Sure, but I'm going to need to change some stuff." He said, "Whatever you want" because it was not going well. He let me have the reigns and a little bit of spending money so I took an ‘old man’ bar and put a handful of more draft beers in and changed things around. That was Brownies down on second street in Old City. I let it stay a businessman's bar during the day but I started to sell any American beer that I could get my hands on to a younger crowd that I was getting in at night. I ran that place for ten years, from ’89-’99. Carol Stoudt would come in and try to personally sell beer to me. I saw a lot of people just getting started. A couple doors away the Khyber was doing imports and I thought, “There is a place here for American beer.” I just really got into it and I had the opportunity to do my own thing. It was pretty set that it was going to be a brewpub. The space was there, the equipment was there. I jumped in with a couple partners and did Nodding Head.

CTH: Where did the Bobble Head come from? How did it become part of the brand?

Curt: It was down to the time that we needed a name. Tom Peters [co-owner of Monk’s Cafe] had a reoccurring dream that he was in a car and the car in front of him had a couple of those things [bobble heads] on the back dash. He had the dream several times and Fergie and I looked at each other and said, "We're not having any dreams." If you've had a dream five or six times that's good enough for me. 

We went with Nodding Head. Those things, in 1999, had not had their resurgence. They were a dead thing then. They're silly. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. We like to have fun. You're never going to see us holding up a beer to the light. We still want to make a good looking beer, but you're still supposed to enjoy your beer. It's for drinkin'. But Tom had that dream. Our first IPA was Whiplash. [laughs]

CTH: Why is Berliner Weisse so important to Nodding Head? Could you described the style first? 

Gordon: Berliner is a low alcohol, light bodied tart wheat beer. A little sour, not over the top sour. No funk like Gose would have. Easy drinking, a real gulper. Very refreshing, very thirst quenching.

We were doing it since the very beginning. The Craft Brewers Conference was in March. At that point we were only doing it in the summer, but we did a batch early because we know it's a style brewers geek out about because they can't get it. That was over at the Marriott. Pretty much everybody came through. Amongst everything else, they were drinking Berliner. Some of those nuts went home and said I'm gonna make it — or, I'm going to try to make it. Sometimes it worked. At that point it was known as "the other German wheat beer." Within a couple years, it's got its own category because enough people are doing it.

Curt: We opened Christmas of 1999. We did Berliner Weisse our first summer. The summer of 2000. It took almost the entire summer to sell one batch of the beer by the pint. That's only fourteen half kegs of beer. But we had to spoon-feed it to people. They didn't get it. They didn't understand it. You had to explain it to every person. People liked it. But sours weren't big back then, even though I don't consider that beer a sour. People considered it a sour then. To me it's tart. Now people are Americanizing that beer. They're trying to make it over-the-top sour; it's not meant to be that way. Napoleon's troops called it the champagne of the north. To me it has a lot of notes of champagne and white wine. It should be delicate. Not a hammer-to-the-face of any kind of tartness or sourness.

Gordon: Even in 2005, that year in Denver (JBF, James Beard Foundation), I saw Tomme Arthur. He said, "I had some Berliner, it's tasting great. Is that the same batch we were drinking?" I said, “What, when you were in town in the spring? Yeah! We've gone through five or six batches since then.” Then he said, "You SELL IT?" Even then he couldn't believe we were selling it at that point. Then I said, and it was true back then, it’s not even close now, "We do more Berliner than anybody else in the western hemisphere!"

Curt: This ties right into the spread of the popularity of it. Right before Gordon came to work with Brandon, we had an assistant brewer named Bryan Selders. He left to take a job at Dogfish Head. That was in about 2002. I'd have to look up the date of the debut of Festina Peche, but it was about two years later. That was their Beliner Weisse with peaches. Bryan was responsible for doing the Berliner there. That really gave a national platform for Berliner as a style. All of a sudden we weren’t the largest producer in the western hemisphere anymore! Dogfish, in one batch, would do as much as we do in seven batches, you know. I think other people saw that it was viable style.

Gordon: Before that, the only people who did it were brew pubs. Nobody was putting it in a bottle.

Curt: I think the Goses are springing from the Berliners. I think it's easier to do and get right. Everyone has their theory on how to do it. Eric Rose, now from Hollister Brewing Company, then in Santa Barbara Brewing Company, was so jealous of the success we were having with GABF [Great American Beer Festival] and World Beer Cup Medals with Berliner Weisse he said, “I'm gunning for you next year!" He came at us with a Gose — and he won a medal — and it still might be the best Gose I've had; it was called Tiny Bubbles. It was amazing. He came after us, he targeted us. That's the first time I thought people were going to start doing Goses to spin off of Berliner.  

CTH: What do you think lies at the heart of Nodding Head's brewing philosophy, it's take on beer?

Curt: You're getting us at an interesting time because what we're doing moving forward isn't what we've been doing the last 15 years. Although the Nodding Head brand and those beers I want to actually grow now — we haven't had a chance to grow those. So the stuff we're doing out of Philadelphia Brewing Company, I want to continue that, but that philosophy was often driven by our space and time limitations and the fact that we were a brewpub and we want people to come in and drink two or three pints of beer. You have this amount of tank space, you have this amount of time, and you need to produce this amount of beer for the next however many weeks. We like to do really flavorful beers that weren't necessarily way strong or way over the top because the economies of a brewpub are different. 

Moving forward what we're doing is exactly the opposite. We gotta be very intense, over the top beers, because we're going to have the time and space and the ability to have our Nodding Head beers come in. We'll be able to flush out our rotation of beers with stuff we're not brewing on a small system, but a big system.

CTH: Do you have four or five beers lined up that you're already planning on?

Curt: Yes. 

CTH: Can you talk about those?

[Curt shakes head]

CTH: Not yet?

Curt: Not yet. They'll be the stuff that we nibbled at in the past when we had the time. Once a year, twice a year we would be able to do the bigger beers; the crazy super hoppy beers, the sours. We've always had a very small barrel program. Stuff now will have the luxury of time and space. It'll be nice.

CTH: So, when was Berliner solidified as a style?

Curt: To me, it was one day during a Craft Brewing Contest in Philly when I looked up and down the bar and it was a who's who of American craft brewing. It Fal Allen from Anderson Valley, Dick Cantwell from Elysian, Tomme Arthur, Vinnie [Cilurzo] from Russian River — all these guys are at the bar and they all have Berliners. Matt Brynildson from Firestone (he might not have even been at Firestone just yet). Everybody, these amazing brewers, are all sitting at our pub drinking Berliner Weisse. Fal Allen, who's probably selling more Gose than anyone in the country, is sitting next to Dick, and Fal says to Dick: "I have to brew this beer." Dick says, "Good fucking luck!" That, to me, when I looked at all those brewers, I thought, "This is pretty good man. I think we're in. We're onto something."

For more on Curt, Gordon, and Nodding Head Brewery, follow them on Twitter and Instagram. Be sure to "gulp" some Berliners at our Philly Beer Week 3rd Annual Shakedown Street Beer Festival featuring Nodding Head, Sierra Nevada, Terrapin Beer Co., Captain Lawrence, and Fat Head's. Cheers!