There may be truth in wine, but as most Berkeley denizens know, there is solace and inspiration in beer—to a point, anyway. And of all the local venues for malted elixirs, perhaps the most popular is Triple Rock, conveniently holding down the northwest corner of campus on Shattuck. It’s also, by the evanescent standards of university-town commercial enterprises, positively venerable, having slung its first mug of hand-wrought brew in 1985.
Triple Rock’s fans are legion, and include Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. In a profile on the resolutely centrist pol in the current issue of The New Yorker, Hickenlooper recalls a “life-altering” beer he quaffed at Triple Rock in 1986. So haunted was he by the experience that he opened his own brewpub in 1988, which he ultimately parlayed into a chain of microbreweries-cum-restaurants.
Triple Rock founders and owners John and Reid ’79 Martin have no apparent political ambitions, but they too are empire builders in their own modest fashion. Along with Triple Rock, they also own and operate Twenty Tank Brewery (San Francisco), Big Time Brewery (Seattle), Drake’s Brewing Co. (San Leandro) and Jupiter, which sits at the western entrance to Cal.
But Triple Rock remains the anchor of their business. And business—as you would expect from any place serving superior beer near a large university—is good. On a recent lunch hour, in fact, it seemed positively manic: people bellowing for suds and sustenance as assistant general manager Kurt Caudel orchestrated service while adroitly fielding a phone call.
Caudel attributes Triple Rock’s success to the simple fact that the Martins stuck to essentials. The business remains true to the brothers’ original vision of what a bar—brewpub—whatever—should be.
“We’ve always been a neighborhood hangout, and we’ll stay a neighborhood hangout,” Caudel says. “But we also think we’re a great vehicle for promoting craft beer. Students come in with their parents – they may not know much about this kind of beer-making, and it gives us a chance to educate them.”
Too, size matters with brewpubs. Which is to say, big isn’t better.
“We have a seven barrel (i.e., small) system, and we brew every day,” Caudel says. “Everything we sell is draft. No bottles, no cans. If you want our beer, you have to drink it here.”
Nor does Triple Rock strive to create any of the highly idiosyncratic—some might say, outlandish—decoctions that many brewpubs dote on.
“We don’t make anything like the Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder,” Caudel says, referring to the extremely concentrated, high alcohol, deeply astringent brew that draws slavering fans from around the world to the Santa Rosa brewery.
“Our most popular brew is Ipax, our India Pale Ale,” Caudel says. “It’s what I would call genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, West Coast IPA. It’s nice and bitter, and it’s got a good malt backbone—just a very balanced, delicious brew that’s an IPA benchmark.”
“We have Class A burgers,” Caudel says. “And everybody raves about the chicken wings.”