Exploration. Experimentation. Adventure. The ever-present, never-ending search for the new. That is what defines so much of American craft beer culture today. It drives insane growth, change and development. And there is greatness in it.
But your roots, the early days of your beer awakening, should never be abandoned. Revisiting the original sources of your passion provides a rare and valuable opportunity for reflection, introspection and self-examination. It allows you to inquire: ‘How did I get here?’ ‘Is this where I want to be?’ and ‘Where should I go next?’
My own beer exploration started with a Samuel Adams Boston Lager shared with my dad on a trip to Washington DC while I was not yet legally allowed to drink. At the time, I hated it and almost all beer. I developed an interest in flavorful ale after sipping my first Guinness Stout, a gateway beer for countless beer lovers. That spurred an exploration of other Stouts at a brewpub that opened in my college town, followed by visits to breweries and beer bars in different cities and eventually, different countries.
But it is the early places that remain most special in the development of my beer experience. Americans have always had a challenging relationship with nostalgia. We love vintage clothes, retro themed television shows and throwback brands, but we also demand forward progress and a full embrace of the future. When it comes to craft beer drinkers, nostalgia is almost perceived as a sign of palate weakness. A desire to revisit formerly favored brands and styles is practically grounds for revoking your membership in the Cool Kid Beer Nerd Club.
Take the much maligned and neglected Brown Ale for example. Once a staple of brewery and brewpub menus across America, today it’s the RC Cola of beer—outdated, passé, and something embarrassing to even mention. But you know what? If you’re over the age of 30, it’s likely you got your baby beer geek teeth on this style. Same goes for red and amber beer, whether American or Irish, ale or lager. Today, they get no respect.
A recent return visit to Madison, Wis.—a place I visited many times during my formative beer drinking years—reminded me of the utility of revisiting the sites of beers past. A long way from the hop obsessed poles of the East and West Coasts, the Midwest offers the rare opportunity to check out styles that have fallen out of favor. I’ve wanted to revisit the styles I loved when I first got into beer, and Madison presented a perfect chance. Lady Luck Red Ale from the crazy popular Karben4 is a complex and beautiful mix of hops and malt, a throwback only slightly modernized. For a relative newcomer, Squirrel Chaser Brown Ale from Next Door Brewing Company swept me back to why I fell for beer in the first place.
Of course not everything from our youth stays golden. I have long expressed love for Capital Brewery in these pages. Recently, I had heard rumors of a decline in quality following the departure of their longtime brewer, but I remained hopeful. With its dedication to high quality and flavorful lagers, and its truly original quartet of seasonal Doppelbocks, Capital holds a special place in my heart. But the beers I tried suffered from serious deficits—a sad point for sure.
Not all memories stand the test of time, yet I learned a great deal and remembered even more about how my passion for beer developed. I’d recommend doing the same in the New Year. ■