Once a year the whole world of craft brewers, and I do mean the whole world, gathers together for four days of catching up, digesting new ideas, staying up way too late, and, of course, tasting beer in limitless varieties. We call it the Craft Brewers Conference, this year held in Washington, DC.
The All About Beer Magazine team started the week hosting a rotating panel of most of today’s legends in the beer industry at RFD’s Lupulast. We ended the week hosting a get-together of many of the young guns in our recent cover story: 30 Under 30.
Dinners, tastings, festivals, seminars, gatherings of all sorts. It’s that time of year, folks, when every weekend and most weekdays there is an “event of beer” within driving distance of you. People coming together over beer. It’s why I like this job: people, beer and events.
I go to bars with great draft systems, where the beers are well cared for and served correctly; to festivals where other beer lovers congregate; or dinners that bring food and beer to the same table, seasoned by good fellowship. I suspect it is a genetic disorder, because my father and I use to frequent a couple of bars in Maine and sit, leaning over the table, with our hands around a craft beer, grinning and talking.
I believe this is unique to modern beer culture. I’ve tried a couple of wine events and didn’t find them as much fun. The pretension was palpable. I know that’s a cliché, but I’ve been there and watched it. I can’t speak about whiskey events, but I can imagine there’s some nosing going on, with quips about legs—oaky this or butterscotch that. To be honest, I really don’t hit bars where either wine or spirits are de rigueur and, therefore, don’t speak with any depth of experience with the non-beer drinks event culture.
Before the explosion of craft brewing, beer gatherings had more of a tone of desperation. Keggers, where speed and volume were the critical concerns. Measuring pleasure by consumption. Playing games that could bring an empty can sharply to the forehead.
But the rediscovery of craft beer styles has given us the chance to reinvent old occasions. As the nights start lengthening and a snap gets in the air, the beer world shifts and, come fall, the real beer events kick into high gear. Conventional wisdom suggests it’s all the legacy of a 19th century German wedding in a field outside of Munich. But the gusto of the beer event season seems to go way beyond the singularity of Oktoberfest. There’s a delicious pairing of the season, specialty beers, and that yummy feeling that all’s well with the world.
Fall is a transition season, a passage from one state of being to another: that alone seems a good reason to celebrate. For mysterious reasons, the beer holidays of spring, the other transition season, seem to have largely languished: the maypole is a thing of the past, the Hallmark Bunny is all that remains of Easter’s pagan roots, and St. Patrick’s Day has become an embarrassment to anyone of authentic Irish ancestry.
But as the harvest ends and preparations for the winter begin, people gather around tables and share the joy of the human spirit. Symbolizing this notion of a transition season, our beer event season concludes with a noble observation of thanksgiving. We’re particularly proud of that one here in the United States. However, it turns out the holiday goes back to the Greeks. It’s an event that celebrates passages, transience, variety and abundance. The emergence of the new beer culture seems to have redefined the beer event culture to reflect these ancient sentiments.
The craft beer revolution, here and abroad, has tricked out the world of beer with an exciting array of flavors, stories and heritages. From Belgian cafés, English pubs and German biergartens come an older aesthetic, more compatible with this new world of exotic, seasonal beers. The confluence is delicious. A fall afternoon sampling a range of IPA interpretations with a few friends on a ball field, with some food from local eateries, is a far cry from the rush to oblivion that was formerly the hallmark of a beer-based event.
In short, this shoulder season conspires perfectly with the specialty beer world, which bridges old brewing traditions and new brewers’ imaginations. Both wrap around those special feelings of friendship, camaraderie and humor. It makes a gathering of good beer lovers a cut above anything else you’ll find during this fleeting season.
This editorial originally appeared in the January 2010, Vol. 30, No. 6 issue.
With apologizes to Star Trek fans and professional philosophers, herein lies my version of the One vs. the Many moral dilemma. Do I stick close to home with Old Faithful or do I prowl the ranks of the many trying out whatever, whomever, whenever?
Every day after the labors of work, family, relationships and recreation have been laid to rest, turned off or ignored, you can find me staring into a refrigerator chock full of beers, or leaning on a bar rail gazing at a magnificent line-up of ready taps, or wandering aisles and aisles crowded with fetching bottled beers. The one or the many. Comfort or adventure. Safety or risk.
People constantly ask me what my favorite beer is and I’ve got a lot of snappy, quick answers. The closest. The last one. The cheapest. The next one. However, the fact remains I do have favorites. I get into jags or love affairs that can go on for months or even years. Then one inexplicable day arrives when I no longer crave that flavor. Was it something said? An evening out of sorts? Who knows, but the relationship starts floundering. The pleasure has waned.
Of course, there are those careening days when any beer could be a good date. Caution thrown, choices become random, behavior patterns flounder. The adventure is in full swing as choices are made almost cavalierly. Leaping from bitter to sweet, from light to heavy, from yellow to black. Selection takes on a capricious quality, with the full spectrum of beers available.
One of the advantages of having a stable group of friends and a couple of pretty consistent local beer bars is the ability to reflect on years’ worth of behavior. There are certainly enough people around here who have expressed opinions on my beer habits. Apparently, I have undergone, during the past three years, a sea change in my preferences. I have moved from a selection largely dominated by malty, roasty beers to one favoring the tang of hops. My relationships, the steady undercurrent, have shifted from styles like stouts and porters to IPAs and other hoppy ales. I’ve even been told I’m now evidencing slight tendencies towards lighter, subtler beers in yet another impending tectonic shift. Is sour in my future?
Not too long ago, our customer survey reveled that our readers drink between eight and nine different brands a month. However, nearly half of their expenditures go to just one brand. In other words, they are, in fact, brand loyal, just not so much as their parents or grandparents probably were. Married, but still fooling around. What I would like to have asked is how stable was that brand loyalty month after month?
Welcome to the mystery of the craft beer category. Marketers pull their hair out trying to fathom us. We don’t settle down forever, and we drift in and out of broad flavor profiles with a lot of experimentation on the side. Therein lies the excitement of this brave new world, where we can boldly go wherever we damn well please.
This editorial originally appeared in our March 2010, Vol. 31, No. 1 issue.
On my first trip to the British Isles, approximately 1 BB (that would be one year Before Beer), I set out to find an example of the legendary English pub. I’d grown up outside of Boston and had a romantic notion of a good public house, something not found at that time in my home state of Colorado. After settling in at a former girlfriend’s flat (yet another reason to cross the Atlantic), I followed her directions to the “local,” the Lamb & Flag in nearby Covent Gardens.
Remember this was 1980 or 1981.
On crossing the threshold, I felt a chill, augmented by the sudden decrease in conversation throughout the small room. I stepped up to the bar and stumbled my way through my order, stymied by my inability to follow “English.” Unsure what to order, I deferred to the publican, all this while many pairs of eyes were fixed on me.
You might say this was a pre-tourist moment for this joint.
I watched with utter incomprehension as the publican pull a pint using a handpump. The sound as the ale splashed into the glass still pulls at my heartstrings. The publican handed across a brilliantly clear, copper-colored pint of Courage and, basically, one stage of my life ended and the next began. There was a hush as I brought the pint to my mouth, which was followed by muted cheers (England, remember) and a back slap or two when the locals saw realization creep over my face.
I had tasted my first cask-conditioned beer.
I instantly understood one of the fissures that separate Americans and the English. The American conception of English beer as “warm and flat” is off the mark. Cask ale is neither: it is served at cellar temperatures, not warm, but not cold either, bringing out layers of flavor. Also, it is naturally carbonated and vented, giving it a softer texture. The English, however, are right about us: American lagers are cold and fizzy, without a doubt.
There have been many trips back over the past three decades, including days lost at the Great British Beer Festival. I’ve whiled away hours at pubs from Edinburgh to Dorset. The late Michael Jackson hosted me at his favorites haunts. I joined Roger Protz for a presentation of CAMRA’s Pub of the Year prize to the Bricklayer’s Arms in London, during which they were serving maybe a dozen cask ales from Yorkshire. Brewery reps from Fuller’s to Scottish and Newcastle dragged my butt from one classic watering hole to another. I always looked for an opportunity to enjoy “real ale” on its native soil.
At some point a few years ago, the longing for cask ale closer to home prompted me to drop the coin on a couple of pins, a handpump, a spare fridge and a temperature control. A little light industrial work and I have a set up worthy of the cask IPA that English brewer (and CAMRA award winner!) John Withey brews at Top of the Hill.
Now, after getting home, I can wander out to my shop and pull a pint of exquisite cask ale any damn time I please. And every pint takes me back, just for a moment, to that first sip many years ago, as fresh as bread right out of a bakery.
This editorial originally appeared in May 2010, Vol. 31, No. 2
After nearly four decades of leading the craft brewing industry, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewery is stepping off the stage. Far from the end of an era, this sale of Anchor feels more like the next chapter, with a couple of industry talents stepping in with plans for a “Center of Excellence” to further support the culture and heritage of craft beer and spirits.
The craft beer industry is replete with giants, but none has achieved the stature and reverence of Fritz Maytag. The story of his rescue of the foundering San Francisco brewery during the 1970s is well-known. However, it overshadows the broader impact that he has had on craft beer.
In the face of industry skepticism, Fritz clearly set his sail to a different wind than his confreres of 40 years ago. Ever the romantic, he saw brewing as one of civilization’s noble crafts. Not only did he commit his company to brewing beers unlike any others, he believed customers should—and would—pay what the beers were worth. After all, it was beer, the ancient beverage, and not a commodity like toothpaste.
Turning his back on the reigning style of the day, light lager, Fritz searched brewing history for style progenitors. While the preservation of steam beer is an oft-told tale, few know of the first American IPA, Anchor’s Liberty Ale. Fritz brought back traditional porter, revived the tradition of a spiced holiday beer, created the first American barley wine, and brewed the first American wheat beer since Prohibition. Furthermore, Anchor might have been the first American brewery to embrace the magnum as a viable package, changing the presentation of fine beer.
A lesser-known story concerns the first ever archaeological beer, Ninkasi, in 1989. Yes, others have built businesses around historical recipes, but none took it to the lengths that Fritz did. Picture a room full of brewers all sipping Fritz’s recreation of a 4,000 year-old Sumerian brew through long straws from communal vessels. While never a commercial success, Ninkasi broke new ground.
Finally, there is Anchor Brewery, itself. In an age of high-speed bottling lines, computerized brewhouses and stainless steel tank farms, Fritz crafted Anchor into something resembling an Old World institution. Wood, ceramic and glass are everywhere. Fritz’s office sat right between the copper onion domes and the open squares on one side, and the tasting room on the other.
I have yet to meet the team that will lead Anchor Brewery. However, they have roots in the industry, including a strong relationship with Scottish tyro BrewDog. Although Fritz has always been passionate about the craft of beer, the commerce of beer was far from his way of life. The new owners seem well-equipped for that arena. Furthermore, as the scion of a legendary American dynasty, with roots in the agrarian Midwest, I believe Fritz is not walking away from his work of art. The proposed Center for Excellence has his vision all over it.
The spirit that Fritz breathed into Anchor could be institutionalized in this Center, radiating out to other breweries. The commercial side of the brewery could also get a shot in the arm. It might actually result in greater access to Anchor’s beers. Liberty Ale on draft in North Carolina? Now that’s cause for salivating.
This editorial originally appeared in July 2010 issue, Vol. 31, No. 3
I found myself scrolling through a blog based on the goal of drinking 100 different beers in a month, an odd variation of the theme behind Julie and Julia. Put me in mind of the old drinking song: Read More…
For many decades I’ve loved the vibrancy of beer community. Kibitzing on a conversation about beer flavors at a World Beer Festival, buying a round of the newest at Tyler’s Taproom, leaning across a rough wooden table at Bull McCabe’s armed with a Fuller’s London Porter and a lot of opinions, standing up against the wood at the Fed with a pint and friends: I just relish the social fabric created around good beer.
But these are isolated moments in space and time. What about a whole damn town? Now that’s a beer community and one just happens to reside a few hours west of my hometown. Welcome to Asheville, NC, Beer City, U.S.A.
One of my favorite get away locations, Asheville has a vibe that won’t be found many other places. It reminds me somewhat of my former home, Boulder, CO, and another favorite getaway, Portland—Maine or Oregon, take your pick.
The vibe plays right into the heart and soul of good beer culture. Bring together a bunch of artists, toss in some bohemian culture, add in a healthy dose of outdoor recreation, a dash of university life, mix in some good bars and restaurants, and you’ve got the basic dish to pair with craft beer.
At every good beer joint, brewery, brewpub, beer bar, or beer store, the noise is loud. Lexington Avenue Brewery: nice beers, nice food and loud. Craggie Brewing Co.: kinky location, captivating beers, and loud. Bruisin’ Ales: walls of major beers and loud. Every single place I went, the noise was awesome.
And it’s loud on the streets, too. People were walking everywhere. If I asked for directions to a brewery I’d also get a recommendation for a beer to try and a reminder of another brewery not to overlook. And don’t forget the brewery bus tours. I stepped into one offloading at the Asheville Brewing Co. and, man, were those “beer tourers” talking up a beer storm.
That admixture of creativity, bohemia, academics and outdoors speaks directly to craft beer, which is nothing if not artistic and iconoclast. Scratch a backpacker or a painter and you’re likely to find passion for Old World-style ales or New World extreme beers. Characteristics, personality, tradition, heritage, and serious, in your face, originality in every single glass of beer.
What is that all about, and what’s with Asheville? Marketing phrases come to mind: old school “Go for the gusto,” and new buzz phrases like “creative class” and “tipping point.” However, when I’m asked about the vitality of the craft beer industry, I have to think of Asheville and Boulder and Portland (both) and Durham and dozens of others. All the outposts that launched a revolution now taken up by Middle America.
These beers and their town embody the romantic, creative individuality of that edge that everyone is looking for today.
This editorial originally appeared in the November 2010 issue, Vol. 31, No. 5.
When we were making plans for this themed issue focused on the people of the craft beer business, we came to an interesting conclusion.
It would be too easy turn this into a celebrity-watcher issue, especially given all the “rock stars” now in our craft brewing industry. Some are so popular they get mobbed at festivals. But, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, there’s not much scandal surrounding our luminaries: they’re just pretty good at getting us great beer.
Furthermore, it would also be too easy for us to claim, like many industries, that “we are a people business” and gloss over the whole idea. After all, most industries require suppliers, wholesalers, retailers and customers—i.e., people. Public relations wizzes love to say their company is in the people business. All true, very true.
Yet the beer industry can, without arrogance, claim to truly be the People Industry for three very simple reasons: camaraderie, community and creativity. I have written often about the first two. There is something about pints of beer that bring people together and, when together, they tend to stay together and act together. Offering to buy someone a beer begins, enhances and extends a relationship.
However, the third leg of the stool, creativity, gets short shrift compared to the relationship elements. In this issue we celebrate the creativity of the people business.
Not too long ago, the American beer business was monolithic. The beers had similar profiles. The companies produced and went to market in a similar format. The focus was on efficiencies, economies of scale, moving boxes and keeping prices down. Creativity rarely strayed beyond the marketing department.
With the 1970s, all of that started falling apart. Enter the creativity of the people business. Just look at the shelves of a well-stocked beer store, crowded with the depth and variety of the brewers’ art.
What the craft brewing community has spawned is a craft culture around craft beer. Amazing numbers of people have stepped up, expanding the dimensions of the craft brewing industry into an elaborate, complex and largely decentralized craft culture, all founded on creativity around craft beer.
They simply take their passion for craft beer and marry it with an activity equally as interesting, transforming it into something creative and special. From beer books to beer dinners, from beer websites to beer travel, from beer reviews to beer gadgets, not a day goes by when we don’t see something innovative, exciting and creative coming from a beer lover.
Where once beer creativity was left to advertising slogans and point of sale, we have now entered the age when creativity joins camaraderie and community as the foundations of our own craft beer culture.
This editorial originally ran in the January 2011 Vol. 31., No. 6 issue.
A few years into my job working for Charlie Papazian, I had become a convert to the complexity, beauty, variety and excitement of beer. My predisposition towards crusading defined my career choices going forward. For nearly three decades I’ve been an advocate of better beer, craft beer, specialty beer—whatever you want to call our oldest beverage. Read More…
Craft beer lovers are constantly faced with the world of wine. From aesthetics to bragging rights, we, in some fashion or another, have to come to grips with the other beverage’s role in the universe. It even goes gender with a pretty fun book pitting a celebrated brewer against a wine activist: He Said Beer, She Said Wine. However, I had never really considered the simple possibility of convergence.
This thought was triggered as I sat at one of my favorite bars nursing a Foothills Sexual Chocolate and stared at the chalk board on the back bar. I was trying to figure out what was odd about the board. It listed beers and wines, all in the same color chalk, same handwriting. I kept going back and forth from wine to beer, beer to wine. Shooting Star Chardonnay—Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA. Silver Palm Cab Sauvignon—Highland Gaelic Ale. McWilliams Shiraz—Lost Coast 8 Ball Stout. The lists sounded so alike!
Two days later, as I hosted a Superbowl party, I sat next to a couple of female friends who spent a large part of the third quarter in a hefty debate over the relative merits of the Founder’s Double Trouble that I was serving and their favorite Two Hearted Ale. They even digressed into some comments on Centennial hops vs. Cascade hops. What was startling was that I’ve been to dinner with each of them and their husbands, and both women were pretty passionate about wine. Here they were dissecting the Double Trouble like they would an enjoyable glass of wine.
At my office the next week, as I was considering the possibility of convergence, I got a very interesting package from Matthias Neidhart at B. United containing a bottle of Bracia by Thornbridge Hall. Although I haven’t tasted the beer yet, I look at it several times a day. In an industry known for its traditional, hip, kitschy, and/or outlandish labels, this one is simply riveting for its understated elegance. It looks like a bottle of wine. The paper has amber to purple hues with rich burgundy lettering and a nice stepped back graphic. The back label reads like a well-written beer review, combining aesthetic and technical information.
While I was formulating my thoughts about the possible convergence of aesthetics around quality beverages that promise a rewarding experience I caught a glimpse of a George Clooney movie—ironically, while cutting through an airport lobby. With a slight come-on tilt of the head, Clooney’s character, himself just back from a trip, casually invites the woman next door to stay for a glass of wine. The promise of intimacy is transparent. I wonder what the promise would have been if he’d said beer instead of wine? Backslapping camaraderie?
Can there be a limit for convergence? I don’t think I’ll ever be free of the corner tavern romance of beer. Sitting at a white tablecloth dinner, while eyeing each other through candlelight over a nice double IPA? Done it and loved it, which is the ineffable beauty of beer, its breadth of occasions. I just don’t get that breadth from my wine-loving friends. But, hey, what do I know? I’m in
This editorial originally appeared in May 2011 Issue No. 32, Vol. 2