Ask me almost anything about beer and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll know the answer. “What’s the difference between dry hopping and continuous hopping?” I know that. “Does chocolate malt really contain chocolate?” I know that too, and – no, it doesn’t. “What’s Fritz Maytag’s claim to brewing fame?” Yeah, I know that and it doesn’t have anything to do with inventing a combination Maytag dishwasher/brew kettle. “Who brews Pliny the Elder Ale and what styles of beer pair well with Thai food or Texas BBQ? Yes, I can tackle those as well. The list goes on and has gone on at beer tastings and other events for a while now. I’ve been a proud bearer of the beer geek tag for a good 8 years. I’ve hosted countless beer tastings, reviewed hundreds of beers, sampled hundreds more, brewed my own beer, given purchasing advice to a handful of owners, buyers and beer managers at local liquor stores and designed flights for some local craft beer bars but one question has evaded even a poor answer despite many attempts: “when did you become a beer geek (or beer nut as the question is usually posed)?” For far too long, the best and most honest answer I could come up with has been, “I don’t really know.” Absurd, how could I not even know enough to take a weak stab at such a basic and obvious question? Well, never one to be comfortable with not knowing the answer (especially to something so seemingly simple), I sat down with a contemplative pint or two of Great Divide Yeti Oak Aged Imperial Stout and determined to come up with something better than “I don’t really know.”
When it came to beer in the first place I was late to the tap handle, not having my first one until midway through my second semester of sophomore year at Syracuse University. A self-imposed goodie two shoes I can honestly say that I never had a drink at a high school party and I didn’t even thought about sneaking a little something from my parents bar. Throughout Freshman Year I never uncapped one of the Haffenreffer’s my future roommate, John Chawner, and his future wife, Cathy, were so quizzically partial to. When I did start to accompany my college buddies to the bars adjacent to campus I tended to stay away from beer completely – just hated the taste of it and couldn’t understand why anyone would drink it. Embarrassingly, I would usually be caught with a vodka Collins in those days but that’s another story.
It’s not as though beer wasn’t available and available almost anywhere. When I attended Syracuse the drinking age in New York was only 18 and as far as I could determine there either weren’t any restrictions against alcohol in the dorms or the restrictions were uniformly, blatantly and successfully ignored. Regardless, there were Dinkel-Acker mini kegs in practically every other dorm room and Genny Cream Ale beer balls were a weekend fixture in the 7th floor lobby of Sadler Hall. Between those choices and the ubiquitous Coors and Miller Genuine Draft cans as standard issue, it was a dangerous time for beer drinkers – dangerous because all of it tasted awful. Even the “good beer” was anything but. Heineken and Lowenbrau were the default “classy beers” of choice for many upperclassmen and while they had, to their credit, more flavor than the industrial domestic drek, that flavor was merely just another version of awful – still is today. Even the boutique selection, Grolsch, with its fancy ceramic swing clamp cap was nearly unpalatable (though I must admit to having thought that it was very good for about a week).
Grolsch did provide an important lesson which still holds true today: don’t get confused by fancy bottles and sporty labels – the brew inside may not be (and often isn’t) any better than the Old Milwaukee or Natty Light that the guy in the grease stained wife-beater swears by. So I learned that important lesson and I also learned that I wasn’t a beer geek – at least not yet. After all, I didn’t even like the stuff – or so I thought.
Fast forward to junior year and a world away from boring and forgettable beers, almost literally. Thursday nights were “Oldies/Import Night” at Maggie’s Courtyard, a popular bar upstairs in the Marshall Street Mall, a small retail complex just off of Syracuse’s infamous “M Street” adjacent to campus. I would join my friends every Thursday almost religiously and arrive just in time to add my “drummer’s voice” to American Pie, Don’t Pull Your Love and Little Louie Won’t Go Home. The real attraction, though, was the import beers and Maggie’s had a few dozen as best as I can recall and they were only a dollar a bottle – particularly appealing on a college student’s budget. I was more interested in globe hopping than cold hopping those days and with entry and exit visa fees of only a buck a country my beer passport collected a fair handful of stamps rather quickly. While Don McLean’s good ‘ole boys were sipping whisky and rye, my friends and I were sipping Singha, St. Pauli Girl (yes, I remember my first girl), Dos Equis, Harp, Kirin, Bass, Tsing Tao, Becks, Corona, Newcastle and a few varieties of universally forgettable Molson. Now everyone in the bar was joining in on the chorus of Playground in My Mind and for not much more than Mikey’s nickel, I was earning an introductory degree in International Beer Styles. Of course, these studies were really all about getting together with my buddies and tossing out pick up lines that were summarily rejected because they were far too creative and cerebral (another lesson learned). In the end Oldies/Import Night was a lot of fun but I wasn’t there for the beer. I still didn’t really like it. Or did I?
When I sat down to start this article I thought back to the first time I made conscious decisions to try a variety of beers and Thursdays at Maggie’s was all that came to mind. Three or four hours once a week partially dedicated to sampling a variety of beers seemed about right for someone who wasn’t even a fan. Aside from the occasional Michelob or Labatts at a party, you’d rarely see me with anything other than a Finlandia and cranberry. So Thursday night’s aside, the latent beer geek in me was very much dormant. Then I remembered the weekly grocery store trips my roommate and I took to the venerable Peter’s Is For People “supermarket” just a mile or so from our campus apartment. We had quite a few rituals for those trips starting with a visit to the glass bottle refund counter which occasionally resulted in a bounty exceeding $3.50. Considering the fact that John and I would compete to see who could spend the least amount on their weekly groceries and where the winning tally rarely threatened $20, a $3.50 credit from the bottle return counter was a veritable heist. What’s interesting about that otherwise irrelevant anecdote isn’t the fact that we actually recycled way before Woody Harrelson pulled his first tap handle but that we recycled beer bottles! What were they doing in our apartment? I had little use for them and John really was a rocket scientist (or would be soon and was studying to be one) so he wasn’t exactly throwing back a six pack every other night.
Six packs were; however, frequent guests in our shopping cart along with tubes of Pillsbury crescent rolls for my infamous “Plate-O-Buns” and frozen ground meat (which we never did learn to thaw before trying to fry meatballs). Make a hard left beyond the bottle returns counter and follow along to the corner of isle 1 and you would come to gold (a.k.a. golden lager) at the end of a faint beer rainbow. New York allowed beer sales in grocery stores back then and more weeks than not, John and I would pick something up before moving on to toss a package of Dome Dogs into the cart. Our selection criteria was pretty basic (but then again, so were the vast majority of available choices): we simply picked something we hadn’t tried before. Eureka! I became a beer geek in September of 1982 in the southwest corner of Peter’s is For People! Mystery settled. Article finished.
Not so fast. That revelation was important in the grand scheme of my coming hobby and keen interest in beer but I was a long way from being a beer geek. After all, I couldn’t even tell you what styles of beer we were buying. Though in retrospect, I’m reasonably sure that most of them were one variation or another of pale lager. So there you have it. I may have been consciously trying to buy different types of beer but in reality I was only buying different labels. Was there really any difference between Christian Schmidt’s Golden Classic and Schaeffer? No, of course not. Wait – yes, Golden Classic was sold in eight packs. Very different. In reality though, packaging, labeling and advertising aside there was virtually no difference between most of the “different” beers we purchased. With no notable – or memorable – exceptions they all fit very squarely into the category of extremely bland and ingloriously boring. To be sure, I had to take some of the blame for making poor choices because, after all, I still had no idea what I was buying. My oft poor choices were; however, forced to great extent by poor selection. I didn’t know it at the time but there was no craft brewing industry to speak of in the early eighties. The beer isles were completely dominated by the big three domestic goliaths and a handful of regional players who were merely trying to compete by brewing their own bland lagers. Aside from some of the imported offerings I could walk out the door with a different beer almost every week and I would have been hard pressed to describe any real differences in their flavors. Looking back, maybe that was another example of an improving beer palette – I couldn’t taste much of a difference between most of the available brews because there wasn’t much of a difference. I was beginning to see through the labels. Perhaps I was a beer geek before my time – a Yoko Ono of sorts but with arguable better hair. I wanted to find better, more interesting and more original beer but the landscape was barren. The tap handles weren’t ready for a beer geek so if I was one by the time I graduated college even I didn’t know it.
A BAR EXAM WHILE EXAMINING BARS
(Steaming my way through law school)
July 31, 1984. Cyndi Lauper was on her way to winning the Grammy for Best New Artist and Madonna was extolling the virtues of virginity with the help of Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood and the rest of the VJs on the honest to goodness MTV – back in the days when the ‘M’ stood for music and the network wasn’t afraid to air music videos. I sat behind the wheel of my grey Honda Accord LX hatchback surrounded by my carefully packed stereo and boxes and bags of not too carefully packed clothing. Armed with about 50 cassette tapes and guided by an ancient predecessor of today’s navigation systems, a custom designed AAA Trip Tik; I left New Jersey on a cross country trip to law school in Southern California. Like Madonna, I was still a virgin of sorts when it came to beer, beer styles, brewing. I’m sure I couldn’t tell you the difference between a maibock and a porter as I grabbed a ticket at the toll plaza for the west bound Pennsylvania Turnpike that day but when I paid my toll after the return trip at that same plaza about 4 years later I was well on my way answering that and many other questions.
First stop, Pittsburgh, and a few days with a friend on the campus at Carnegie Mellon. I don’t recall whether or not I had any of that city’s iconic Iron City brew during that stay but having sampled it much more recently I understand why I may not remember. It is an entirely forgettable beer. My route to beer geekdom had already taken many paths to forgettable and uninteresting beers and there would be many, many more to come. For the time being; however, I was more focused on my mildly serpentine cross country route to Malibu. With the Steel City in the rear view mirror I headed to Chicago for a few days with another friend followed by the solitary portion of the trip with stays in Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, San Francisco, Santa Maria and finally, Santa Monica. Aside from a likely beer or two in Chicago I’m certain I didn’t sample anything the rest of the way. Of course, I couldn’t have known it at the time but I wouldn’t have come across anything worthy of pouring back then because that tour was still a good ten to fifteen years before most of the craft breweries installed their first brew kettles.
Fortunately, one particular craft brewery was already up and brewing. I had spent a night in its city and within a month of arriving in California I would be introduced to it and to my future as a beer geek. That future would have to wait just another few minutes or so because my first order of business upon arriving at the hotel in Santa Monica was to toss my bags on the bed then walk the three blocks from Pico Boulevard to catch some of the Olympic men’s marathon, the final event of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. As I watched the runners pass southbound along Ocean Avenue beer was one of many things that was definitely not on my mind but thinking back to that day I know now that I had yet to start my craft beer marathon. At best, I had completed some very basic training but the race and the real “work” had yet to commence. Little did I know that I would be sitting at the starting line in just a few short weeks.
There is a reason – quite a few reasons – why so many movies and commercials are filmed in Malibu and why so many entertainment and business A List personalities live there. Striking beauty, idyllic weather, progressive spirit and constant interaction with hugely successful people from many walks of life – those are some of the reasons why people with the means to choose to live in the $10 plus million dollar homes and estates that dot the bluffs above the Pacific or sit perched along the breakwater of Santa Monica Bay. I was there for a different reason – a reason that I hoped would eventually earn me the keys to the front door of one of those homes. My reason for venturing to Malibu was to attend law school and while that education hasn’t opened the door to one of the school’s neighboring estates, the experiences I had and the friendships I made opened many more and eventually lead me to looking forward to opening the door to the beer fridge every evening.
Despite what you may have heard about law students and the rigorous academic demands requiring round the clock studies seven days a week, the truly successful and certainly rational ones make it out to the local bar, tavern, pub or club often enough to maintain some semblance of sanity. I was one of those rational ones – in a sense, anyway. In that regard, living in one of the world’s most desirable locations had its advantages because the stretch of coastline from Malibu south into Pacific Palisades contained several institutions where an adult beverage could be enjoyed, not to mention the plethora of world-class clubs in Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, Hollywood and the rest of the greater Los Angeles Basin only thirty minutes away. While we took advantage of the many and varied offerings in and around Los Angeles from time to time, more often than not we didn’t stray far from home. It was law school after all and on more nights than I care to recall, our home was the law school library. Fortunately, not only was the school perched high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific but it was within a mile or two of a handful of places perfectly suited to hosting late night study groups.
One venue that we frequented on occasion was the Baja Cantina, an upscale but still casual restaurant in the Spanish Mediterranean theme ever popular in Southern California. The Baja Cantina had a large patio centered around a wide-ledged long rectangular fire pit seemingly designed with the posteriors of 20-something year old students in mind. There was a welcoming party of sorts on that patio the first Friday after classes began and for reasons which eluded me until I started writing this article it stood out in my memory because just about everybody was drinking Corona . I had a few of them during the globetrotting sessions at Maggie’s and thought they tasted awful. Now here they are again and in force! OK, I get it. Mexican beer in a Mexican-themed restaurant relatively close to Mexico in a part of the country that used to be Mexico. That all makes sense but my sense of taste was telling me that I wouldn’t be mounting up and riding south to join up with Poncho Villa anytime soon. And what’s with the limes? Admittedly, Corona fit this place and this environment much better than it fit a windowless bar on the second floor of a small shopping mall in Syracuse but a better fit didn’t mean better beer.
The popularity of Corona in mid 1980s Southern California had little, if anything, to do with the quality or the flavor of the product (after all, how hard is it to make funky limeade?). It had everything to do with image. Andre Agassi hadn’t yet let us in that secret but the advertising and marketing wizards on Madison Avenue made their livings harnessing its mesmerizing powers. In this case, they paired Corona with the images of idyllic tropical beaches, relaxation and an absence of worries. Never mind the absence of palatable flavor. To borrow from another brewer’s ad campaign, Corona’s image model is BRILLIANT! In a real sense, this lesson was an extension of the Grolsch fancy ceramic swing top cap lesson I learned a couple years earlier, though even more powerful. My beer geek defenses to otherwise well crafted advertising campaigns were becoming more formidable but for the record, their Holiday Season spot with lights on the saguaro cactus is excellent.
Maybe beer really was exactly what I thought it was in the first place – bland at best and unpalatable at worst. Even gorgeous surroundings and a spectacular marketing campaign didn’t make it taste particularly good or remotely interesting. Well, I hadn’t travelled 3,500 miles from everyone and everything I knew for a tasty beer so I wasn’t losing much sleep at the prospect of having not found one. I was losing sleep over the Doctrine of Percolating Waters, the Rule in Bailey’s Case, Pfalsgraff and that unwieldy scale and, of course, the dreaded Rule Against Perpetuities. With issues like those to debate, digest and decipher it was imperative that we find another outlet for our study sessions. The Baja Cantina was well and good but we couldn’t risk having our casebooks immolated in a conflagration should they fall into that snazzy fire pit. Besides, we didn’t want to be blamed for triggering another Malibu brush fire. We did, after all, bring our books with us to all of those after hours study sessions.
THE SUGGESTION THAT LAUNCHED AN OBSESSION
Tom Abbott and Laura Farrell were among the first people I met at Pepperdine. They both went on to become very good friends and Laura and I would become roommates in a condo we shared throughout our second and third years of school. They were both Southern California born and bred – somewhat of a rarity, Laura was a quintessential Orange County girl and Tom was raised in Pasadena. They were both already familiar with Malibu and one day they suggested that we meet up later on at Carlos & Pepe’s (no doubt to dissect one or two of those pesky cases that had become too much a part of our waking lives). While the name suggests yet another Mexican-themed restaurant, it was a bit misleading. Carlos & Pepe’s was located along the Pacific Coast Highway and built right on the beach. No real Mexican or Spanish Mediterranean architecture to be found inside or out. What was inside was a calmly lit and casual restaurant with plenty of deep-cushioned chairs, polished brass and well-oiled woods. A large and wide rectangular bar was set just beyond the hostess stand and beyond that ran a long bank of tables along the rear of the restaurant framed by huge side by side picture windows that ran the length of the building. That section was set a couple of steps below the main floor providing a slightly more intimate setting for viewing the occasional displays of photoluminescence from abundant plankton as waves crashed just beyond and below the windows. Good timing and a better tip usually assured us of a seat at one of the corner tables above the waves.
This particular night, Tom and Laura had already secured the prized corner table before I arrived. When I sat down I noticed that Tom was drinking a beer I hadn’t seen before. It had an anchor on the label and some odd lettering. He said was an Anchor Steam from San Francisco and was one of his favorite beers.
“You should try one.” When it comes to beer and, more particularly, to my somewhat fanatical obsession with high quality craft beer, Tom’s suggestion that I try an Anchor Steam is perhaps the best and single most important suggestion I’ve ever gotten. Thankfully, though perhaps not for many of you who have read this far, I took him up on it. Those first few sips changed the way I thought about beer and would forever think about beer. I didn’t have an educated beer palette (nor did I even know enough not to drink it from the bottle) but I knew it was very different from every other beer I had had. It was delicious. I simply never imagined that beer could taste that good or could have character. No need to shove a perfectly good lime down the neck of this masterpiece. As near as I can tell, my broken path to the beer geek title has been marked by three epiphanies: that Anchor Steam at Carlos & Pepe’s was the first and I’ll always credit my old friend Tom with firmly setting my feet on that path – for showing me that there was a path at all. It would be up to me to find my footing and the right direction, tasks which I’ve accomplished with often times questionable consistency, but at least I was given a good start – a very good start.
Fortunately for my future employers and clients, I did manage to remain sufficiently focused upon school and case law as opposed to bar stools and beer cases. There would be more study sessions at Carlos & Pepe’s and occasional Tuesday Beer & Burgers nights at the Malibu Inn but the quest for the next great beer remained a low priority in those days. Anyway, I finally had “my beer” and I would often enjoy one on the deck at Gladstone’s (perhaps at the same table where some years later the Menendez brothers would plot the murder of their parents – my mischief was generally far more restrained). To this day I look forward to an Anchor Steam even though the craft beer landscape has evolved to a point where many other brews boast bolder, more complex and more interesting experiences.
California may not have yielded any more amazing brews (how times have changed) but it did introduce me to the concept of pairing beer with food, for I learned to appreciate the subtleties of certain English bitters and brown ales alongside the famous and famously authentic fish n’ chips at Ye Olde Kings Head in Santa Monica. If there’s a better plate of Fish N’ Chips anywhere on this side of the pond I haven’t found it and if there’s a better accompanying brew than London Pride or Boddingtons’s please let me know.
Today, I host modestly structured but still casual beer tasting parties with carefully researched, selected and organized brews complete with tasting notes and flight menus. The flights are even presented in actual tasting glasses from various breweries around the country (Stone, Alaskan & Rogue). The Alemonger moniker stems from those beer tastings and my obsession with harvesting as many of the best and freshest beers of different styles as I could find. Looking back, I now recognize that I started hosting tasting parties, albeit very rudimentary ones, while I was still in law school – I just didn’t know what I was doing. Every New Years Eve I would host a party at my parent’s condominium in Brigantine, NJ, a small barrier island adjacent to Atlantic City. Virtually all of my friends attended graduate or professional school of one sort or another in far flung reaches of the country and these parties provided the only opportunity for most of us to see one another. It also provided me with the opportunity to introduce them to my growing passion for good and different beer. I just couldn’t serve my best friends inferior beer. After all, I wasn’t exactly laying out bologna sandwiches so why force them to drink a beer equivalent like Bud, Coors or even Michelob? Anchor Steam wasn’t readily available in New Jersey in those days so I substituted for it by serving Bass Ale and at least one other and less well known beer. One particular year I recall picking up a case of Brand beer from Holland. It was unique in that it came in opaque white bottles. I no longer have any idea what it tasted like or if my friends thought me a dolt for serving it but none of those opaque bottles were directed at my head during the course of the party so perhaps it was pretty good (or good enough that their aim suffered). In any event, I was taking another branch along the beer geek path – a branch focused on the enlightenment of others. L. Ron Hubbard I wasn’t but my disciples didn’t have to drive home from the 7th ring of Saturn after an evening of sampling some beers. If nothing else, my friends were introduced to something new and interstellar travel was safe from drunk drivers. By the time I left California I had had my first true beer epiphany and I had begun, in a manner, to prophesize on the virtues of well-crafted, flavorful beer. I was much closer to being a real beer geek but both I and the landscape still had a long way to go – a very long way and a very long time.
My second beer epiphany wouldn’t strike for 17 more years. Like I said, that path Tom put me on wasn’t traversed with great consistency – or efficiency. After moving back to New Jersey I continued to enjoy much better beer. Anchor Steam was now generally available as was its California companion, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Those were my beers of choice and for the most part, I didn’t feel compelled to search the liquor store isles for anything else. Had I done so, I would likely have been frustrated by what was still a weak but slowly improving selection. While the store isles may still have been, with noted exceptions, barren of real quality brews, that wasn’t the case at the Tun Tavern Brewpub in Atlantic City. The “Tun”, as it is known to locals, is adjacent to the lower lobby of the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center about four blocks from the Boardwalk. The view out the floor to ceiling front windows is quintessential New Jersey: a parking lot. This view is no Carlos & Pepe’s in Malibu but the featured view at the Tun isn’t outside at all. The featured view here is the featured brew. A bank of shiny stainless steel and copper brew kettles and fermenting tanks is encased within glass walls suspended above the island bar and along a side wall. They brew and pour about a half dozen or so styles on a given day and it was at the Tun that I truly started to take notice of various beer styles and began to appreciate the importance of fresh beer. I’m fairly certain that I had my first IPA there – the style that would eventually become my favorite – but I’m absolutely certain that I didn’t know anything about the style itself except that the numbers on the blackboard said it was a little stronger than the other varieties. I like to think that I went back for more because of the taste and not because it had more of a kick. The beer style and freshness lessons I learned at the Tun were important and certainly enjoyable but not really an epiphany. I’m fairly confident that the epiphany rulebooks all state that they can’t be experienced in a hotel bar within view of a parking lot – especially in New Jersey. For true epiphany number two I would have to head back west.
NEW AGE SEDONA AND A NEW AGE FOR BEER
We learn early on when first introduced to the rules of tag that we can protect ourselves from the game’s perils, whether they be in the form of Bradley’s outstretched hands or that red-headed girl’s uncanny quickness, by going to the designated safe spot or object – usually the otherwise unassuming dogwood tree near the patio. Nobody can get you there. You’re safe. As life’s perils and stressors increase by many orders of magnitude the game, itself, doesn’t change. We all have a designated safe spot, a place to which we return from time to time for protection against outstretched hands far more threatening than the ones attached to that 6 year old from down the street. From the topic of this article one might, not without justification, conclude that my safe place is the corner stool at any bar that serves one of my favorite ales and while such spots do provide an occasional, though fleeting, sense of solace, I run to the Desert Southwest – to Scottsdale & Sedona, Arizona – for sanctuary from the perils of the grown-up version of tag. It’s not just the price of our toys – it’s also the location of our dogwood trees.
I wasn’t attracted to Arizona by the prospect of good beer. Like so many others, I was attracted by the promise of spectacular scenery, fabulous weather and unique, world-class golf courses. Scottsdale delivered on all three counts and has continued to deliver over the years. When I first visited Arizona I didn’t have plans to go to Sedona and I don’t even think I knew anything about it. Thanks to an area local’s recommendation, I made the two hour drive north from Scottsdale through what was then almost entirely undeveloped desert and my first glimpse of the red rock formations as I neared Sedona is one that I’ll never forget. I’ve been back to Arizona several times since that first trip and while a disturbingly large amount of the once pristine desert landscape between Scottsdale and Sedona has been marred with offensive structures and neon, the first view of the red rocks during that last few miles into Sedona still provides the same sense of thrill and awe that it did when I first experienced it. Words, certainly mine, can never do justice to the sights, spirit or energy of Sedona but on one of my early visits I found a beer that does.
My second beer epiphany came to me on a crisp, clear mid-October afternoon on a restaurant deck in uptown Sedona. My fiancé and I had spent the early part of the day hiking Bell Rock and we had just climbed out of one of Sedona’s ubiquitous Pink Jeeps having survived the Broken Arrow Trail. We made our way past and through a number of the many galleries and souvenir shops that line the main street through the uptown district until we came to a small two story plaza which also housed art galleries, clothiers and souvenir shops. After perusing and picking up a couple Red Dirt Shirts in one of the downstairs venues, we headed up the central stairway which entered onto a large landing with a bar at the rear. At first glance we thought the bar was closed because all of the barstools were empty then we realized that they were empty because of the view that was laid out beyond the bar itself. While the view through the expansive glass wall behind the bar was beyond spectacular, no self respecting patron would enjoy it from there because it could be more completely experienced from the otherwise unassuming large adjacent deck.
The view from our table was so mesmerizing that it must have taken me 30 minutes to realize that there was no table service and that the barren space in front of me meant that I didn’t have a beer. I’m sure that I really didn’t care a great deal but we weren’t sitting at a bar’s deck by accident so I managed to walk back inside to grab drinks from the bar. I recognized all but one of the tap handles and asked the bartender about the unfamiliar one – the one with a bicycle. “Fat Tire, it’s made in Colorado and very popular around here”. No description of the beer itself or the style but just hearing that it was very popular out there in this new found paradise was good enough for me. It also had something else going for it – the simple fact that I hadn’t heard of it. I doubt I even thought about it at the time but I must have intuitively known that if it was poured under the radar it almost had to be superior to Fat Tire’s industrially brewed and mass marketed Colorado neighbor. With filled pint glasses in hand I returned to the deck to be mesmerized once more.
This time; however, the focus of my attention wasn’t on the striated Permian Era glowing reddish orange Supai sandstone deposits that make up Sedona’s famous red rock formations but on the far younger mildly effervescent flowing reddish orange beer that filled up my glass. Almost seventeen years to the day from that first Anchor Steam I was experiencing my second beer epiphany and for the second time in as many epiphanies I was being blown away by a beer I had never heard of. Could there be more amazing brews and brewers out there like New Belgium? By the end of that first pint glass, Fat Tire made the case that the answer must be a big fat yes. The landscape had changed a great deal since the days that John and I tossed unknown and mostly unremarkable beers into the shopping cart at Peter’s and within weeks of my Lowas’ hiking and challenging Bell Rock, they would be hiking the beer isles of my local liquor stores. Granted, the scenery between the cases and six-packs didn’t compare to the red rocks and crystal blue skies but making good selections often provided an interesting challenge.
I may not have returned from Arizona as a full-fledged beer geek but I definitely returned as a beer seeker. Before then my adult beverage of choice was generally single malt scotch but I would enjoy an Anchor Steam, Liberty Ale or Sierra Nevada not too infrequently. Now I made it a point to look for Fat Tire whenever I went to a bar or liquor store but each time I asked I got the same response: “never heard of it”, not “we don’t have any” or “we’re all out”. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all I hadn’t heard of it before that last trip but I was still confounded by the fact that the relevant retail community – the very people who made their living selling beer – had no idea that this superior product even existed. Then I dusted off the lessons of the past (Grolsch & Corona in particular) and I realized that beer retailers hadn’t heard of Fat Tire because didn’t care to – didn’t need to. They weren’t selling beer; they were “reselling” beer advertising. They knew all too well that people generally wanted little, if nothing, more than what the multi-billion dollar ad campaigns told them they wanted. “Give me what those talking horses drink”. Either that or they simply lined up to buy whatever their parents bought without even considering the possibility of using their own independent judgment – just too radical a concept. Flavor? Texture? My daddy got by without those newfangled things so why do I want them in my beer? Given such overwhelming proclivities towards a market for taste numbing sub-mediocrity it’s no wonder that so few truly well-crafted and exciting beers were widely available even as the millennium turned. Despite the occasional frustrations in finding new and interesting beers, there were still more choices available in 2001 than there were in 1984 so, armed only with taste buds, a wallet and a voice, I donned my Don Quixote Beer Ad Glare Reducing sunglasses and ventured forth to do battle with the mass market macro-brew giants of the day.
BACK TO SCHOOL
New Belgium remained impossible to find in New Jersey (still is) and most of the other Colorado and western microbrews were equally elusive but the isles were becoming populated with some very respectable offerings from up and down the northeastern corridor. Smuttynose, Victory, Brooklyn, Harpoon and Otter Creek were generally available and every now and then a Boston Beer variety other than Sam Adams Boston Lager appeared on the shelves. Over the course of the next couple of years I tried as many of those beers as I could find and thus began a formal education in various beer styles. The differences between stouts and porters no longer mystified me and ESB and IPA were no longer monograms. Soon I began to appreciate the more subtle distinctions between different brewers’ interpretations of the same style and began to take notice of seasonal brews. Tasty lessons indeed but as with any serious course of study, it takes a challenging professor to truly ignite a student’s passion. Thankfully, in early 2002 I was able to register – at a cash register of course – for a course taught by a Professor Calgione.
I didn’t know who Sam Calgione was in 2002 and I didn’t know that he was, in a very real sense, teaching a course of study in extreme brewing. All I did know was that I purchased a six pack or Dogfish Head Raisin D’être because I thought the concept of beer brewed with raisins was interesting. Didn’t know if I would like it but I felt compelled to try it. And so began an ongoing love-hate relationship with Dogfish Head. Since then, I’ve had about 30 of their beers, some I’ve enjoyed and some have left me resoundingly perplexed. Au Courant? Suffice it to say that I knew from one glimpse at this glass of chartreuse beer that it would be anything but pedestrian. I was right. Within minutes I also knew that I wanted it anywhere but in my house so I slapped some bubble wrap around the remaining vessels and dispatched them to friends hither and yon. I doubt they’ve forgiven me. The lasting lesson of Sam Calgione’s teachings is that boundaries need not be absolute limits. He pushes the envelope further than many beer drinkers’ comfort level but in doing so he has expanded the market for more creative brewers and has in many ways expanded the craft beer market itself. I’ve long said that you taste what you pay for and Professor Calgione is a vocal supporter of that philosophy. He, along with Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, is a champion for the concept of the pairing craft beer with food (and not hot dogs with stale lager, either) and his book, Brewing up a Business, is a must read for craft beer fans and budding entrepreneurs alike. I’m continually challenged by his classes in extreme brewing to this day. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of everything that comes out of his brewery but every craft beer lover out there should be a fan of his because of the room he’s made in the industry for others to brew more exciting and inventive beers. It’s not a stretch to call Sam Calgione the Fritz Maytag of the new generation of craft brewers.
By the spring of 2004 I had earned a degree of some sort in beer appreciation. I could make my way around a beer list reasonably well and I was comfortable with the occasional outrageous brew. Advertising, marketing and snappy slogans had no effect on my ability to pick a well-crafted beer out of the white noise of pretenders. I could not be goaded into ordering a beer by a scantily-clad spokes model, hysterically funny Super Bowl commercial or attractive label. None of that worked on me. Calling a beer “Arrogant Bastard” on the other hand is another story entirely, another story which brings me near the end of this story and brought me to my third and most profound beer epiphany.
GETTING LEGALLY STONED
When you think of the vibrant craft beer brewing regions of the country, there is little argument about the best locations: the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, Mountain West, Upper Midwest and to a lesser degree, New England. Central Pennsylvania would not make that list under any circumstances and no beer lover, beer writer or industry expert would ever mistake Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania for Portland, Oregon. So it was that when I walked into an otherwise unassuming but comfortable bar in Bloomsburg I wasn’t expecting to find any particularly interesting brews but when I saw a stand of about a dozen taps half-way down the bar I felt reasonably confident that I wouldn’t have to settle for the ubiquitous Yuengling. As I perused the offerings from left to right my hopes began to sink and then I came upon a tall black rectangular tap handle with white gothic lettering which spelled out “Arrogant Bastard Ale.” I ordered one of those after dismissing the remainder of the selections and watched as it poured from the tap.
As the beer was placed in front of me I had no idea what to expect. I had never heard of it before and had no expectations – didn’t even know what this beer’s style was. All I knew was that it had a most intriguing name.
The first hint that there might be more than an intriguing name in front was me was an aroma that was practically an olfactory siren’s song beckoning me closer, enticing me to lift the glass. Within those first few sips it was clear that this was the best beer I had ever tasted. Epiphany beers 1 and 2, Anchor Steam & Fat Tire, were and are tremendous beers but this one was better by orders of magnitude that I couldn’t have imagined. Another sip or two later I asked the bartender who brewed it, where it was brewed and where I could get more. To my surprise, he didn’t have a clue who made it or where it came from (but he reminded me that I could get another from his side of the bar when my first one was empty). A little while later he came back to tell me he checked the keg and the brewer was Stone. If I still wanted more information I was on my own. Not a problem, after all, Al Gore’s internet was humming along and Google was my friend so I knew that I’d have my answers as soon as I fired up my computer back home.
A click or two after signing onto the Stone Brewing website I saw they were from “North County San Diego” and read their history and brew lineup. Impressive on all counts. I had only tried one of their beers but I was already a fan until I clicked to read the back of the Arrogant Bastard bottle (which I didn’t have the chance to do at the bar). “You’re not worthy…… it’s quite doubtful you have the taste or sophistication to enjoy a beer of this depth and magnitude……..perhaps you’re mouthing the words as you read this”. No, I wasn’t mouthing the words. I wasn’t mouthing anything because I was speechless! This wasn’t marketing or advertising. It was insulting. These guys were actually abusing their customers by telling them flat out that they were idiots for drinking the fizzy yellow stuff they usually buy. Or were they? I soon realized that they weren’t insulting anyone, they were merely challenging everyone to pay attention to what they were drinking and to demand more. With decidedly refreshing bluntness they were saying exactly what I had been saying for years about not settling for mediocrity and about not lining up like mindless sheep to buy the same cheap, tasteless, ad-driven beer. What was in the bottle made me a fan but what was on the bottle made me a devoté.
Within days I had concluded that Stone brews were completely unavailable in New Jersey (reason enough to be the butt of late night comedians’ jokes) and I began a jihad of sorts (incessant and annoying e-mails to the brewery imploring them to grace us with their beer). Fortunately, I was able to get a few Stone brews, including Ruination, at a small but well-known bottle shop in Philadelphia, the Foodery. I made a pilgrimage across the river every two or three months in search of new and hard to find brews that I couldn’t get at home. I rarely came back disappointed (and I never came back empty-handed). During one of those trips it donned on me that if it weren’t for the craft beer loving community, I would never have found this place, for that matter, the Foodery wouldn’t exist at all. Then I took a step back and realized that there was a craft beer loving community – something that practically didn’t exist and couldn’t have thrived just a handful of years before – and I was comfortably a part of it! The landscape was finally ready for a craft beer geek and few would argue that I didn’t wear the tag reasonably well and undeniably proudly.
Long gone are the days of hit or miss (more often than not, miss) purchases of mostly forgettable beers at Peter’s. Finding the next great beer is now somewhat of a grail quest. I spent almost three years in search of Alaskan Smoked Porter after watching an episode of the Thirsty Traveler on Fine Living Network only to realize that my mythical prey was but a few mouse clicks away all along. Soon after logging on to LiquidSolutions.com I swore I heard a voice whispering through the speakers…”if you click it they will come…” My recent quests for the holy ales have also included chalices as well. A brief perusal of the beer glassware in our home pub/toddler media room reveals that my obsession with great beer has also expanded to proper beer glassware. Vessels fit for about a dozen styles share the mantel with brewery logoed pint and tasting glasses (though the workhorse of my tasting session parties – a restaurateur’s case of Libby 5oz juice glasses – resides in a small work room which is also the future sight of my home brewery).
Genesee Cream Ale. In all likelihood that was my first beer in college and with greater likelihood I was with John when I had it some twenty-seven years ago. We graduated twenty-four years ago and have lived half a country away from one another since then but we’ve gotten together every now and then to celebrate happy events and to remind ourselves of the fools we once were and hope to be again. We had one of those rare reunions this past weekend and after I took him on a brief historical and gastronomical tour of Philadelphia which included the Liberty Bell and Pat’s Steaks, we found ourselves having a few beers – first at the Eulogy Belgian Tavern and finally at National Mechanics. Sadly for John, they weren’t serving Haffenreffer and they weren’t pouring Genny Cream Ale either but after reviewing the available selections I picked out a couple more beers for another round of “remember when”, our final round of the day, and probably our last round together for the next several years. Lagunitas Lumpy Gravy for John (which he’ll perhaps learn to like in time) and an Anchor Steam draft for me, quite possibly the most appropriate beer of all under the circumstances. That Anchor Steam tasted as good as the first one I had with a long-lost friend in law school and as John and I reminded one another of the some of the deeds, misdeeds and outright stupid things we’d done and said over the near thirty years that we’ve been friends it occurred to me that I didn’t travel alone on my path to becoming a craft beer geek. The barstools next to mine were never empty and I’ve always had someone with whom to share my latest find. If, during that last round, john had asked me when I became a beer geek I would have said: “bad question, it’s not about the beer.”
It was never about the beer.