Profiles in Beer

Feature by | Aug 2007 | Issue #8

Buy these model BeerAdvocates a round, would ya?

Photo by Rachel Carrier

By Michael Brodeur, Lissa Harris, Paul McMorrow and Julia Reischel

It makes sense that craft beer doesn’t go very well with moving or shaking. Beer advocacy, after all, is a bit more intimate than your average promotional juggernaut. There was no triumphant re-branding of decent beer; the thousands caught up in this campaign were converted one sip at a time. And the people behind the movement—the folks with the big ideas, the fearlessness, the passion and, most importantly, the nerve—are the type who would rather school you over a beer than out of a boardroom.

As is the premise of this rag, there’s no “I” in “great beer;” this advocacy thing has got to be a team effort. What follows is a salute to eight of our top players—folks who pretty much live beer. Raise a glass to these badass BAs—just make sure it’s the proper one.

Most Likely to Upturn Your Notions About Beer

Will Meyers
Head Brewer, Cambridge Brewing Company

“I don’t think I do anything that ‘extreme,’” says Cambridge Brewing Company head brewer Will Meyers. “Though, I will accept the term ‘extraordinary.’”

Tucked into the Kendall Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., Meyers’s brewery sits deep in the robotic heart of MIT territory, so it’s no surprise that many of his brews have an aggressively geeky experimental flair—or is it traditional?

“It’s all an extension of my own homebrewing experience from 15 or 16 years ago,” he says. “Whether I was making Witbiers, ales or Barleywines, I always wanted to put my unique twist on it. The CBC vision of brewing is all about intentionally brewing beers that blur the lines between traditional styles. I like to make beers that make people think.”

And that he does. Just before getting on the horn with me, Meyers had been on the phone to a farm in Westport to check on fresh heather for his take on the malty Scottish fraoch, brewed with heather flowers instead of hops and—in Meyer’s version—augmented with lavender and sweet gale.

“It’s beautiful. Floral but not perfumy. An agricultural product in the truest sense, because we can’t make it until the heather is blooming, and that can be anywhere from July to September.”

Also on their list: L’Amour du Jour, a Saison des fleurs brewed with jasmine, lavender and orange blossoms; the Powder Keg Chillipepper Ale, which combines their smooth Amber Ale with smoked ancho and chipotle peppers, somehow resulting in chocolatey hints; and for the end of the summer, Cerise Cassée, a wild ale of sour mash and sour cherries, fermented in French oak Pinot Noir and Chardonnay barrels with Brettanomyces and microflora. Holy whoa.

“The beers always have to maintain drinkability,” Meyers insists. “I don’t mean dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator. I’m game to offend people, that’s fine; but it’s got to be enjoyable beer.”

The neighbors sure seem to like it, as the CBC regularly brims with smarty-pants locals who have a natural penchant for off-kilter adventurism; and after 14 years of Meyers’s creations, they still can’t predict what “little beasts” are around the corner.

“I think all true artists have this little dude in the back of their brain that tells you that people are going to discover you’re a fake and a hack—but I try not to listen to it,” Meyers says, laughing. “It comes down to two words: Trust me.” –Michael Brodeur

 

Photo by Michael T. Regan

Photo by Michael T. Regan

Biggest Rock Star

Sam Calagione
Founder and President, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

“Oh, my goodness,” gasps Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, when told that he’s considered the biggest rock star in the brewing industry. “I don’t know if I can, or want to, live up to that reputation. When people say that, hopefully, it’s a compliment.”

It certainly is. As he has since he founded Dogfish over a decade ago, Calagione spends much of his time on the road, spreading the gospel of beer with an evangelist’s fervor. He barnstorms swank dining rooms across the country, debating the relative merits of beer and wine with renowned sommelier Marnie Old. He once walked into a room full of wine drinkers at the Waldorf, and got them to choose beer. Whether it’s at a beer fest jammed with thousands of drinkers or a small beer dinner at a suburban country club, if there’s an event where Dogfish is being poured, chances are, Calagione will be there, shaking hands, selling new converts on craft beer, and thanking consumers.

“It’s an honor, because the scale of our brewery has already outgrown my wildest dreams, and I realize how lucky I am,” he says. “That’s a huge part of my job, as the president of the company, to educate people on what makes our beer, and craft beer in general, so special and to thank those early missionaries who help us spread the word in a grassroots way.”

Calagione is insanely enthusiastic about his beer, and beer drinkers have responded in kind. Dogfish has earned a rabid following that’s unmatched in the brewing world; fans brave ridiculously long lines at festivals, where the tapping of rare kegs, like 120 Minute IPA, set off riotous celebrations.

As Dogfish has grown, Calagione has succeeded in creating an off-centered culture that extends beyond his adventurous brews. Dogfish has, in many ways, become a lifestyle. It began with Calagione’s crosscountry tours and now extends into books, hip-hop, screenprinting and amateur film.

“It’s our way of promoting our beer without being overbearing, and without all the horseshit and hyperbole that comes with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns,” he says. “We don’t want teaching people about how wonderful beers is to be a pedantic, dry, boring experience. Yeah, beer is a wonderful, cultural, life-enriching thing. But it’s really accessible. Look, we’re not putting on any airs. We’re not some giant company. We’re just like you. We’re beer lovers. So give our stuff a shot.” –Paul McMorrow

 

Most Influential Beer Writer on Earth

Michael Jackson
Author, beer hunter and critic
beerhunter.com

You there, go fix me a sandwich.

Did you do it? Well, of course you didn’t.

That’s because I’m not the most influential beer writer of our time. Michael Jackson is.

No, not that Michael Jackson. This one is known around the world for his seminal World Guide to Beer, a sprawling, globetrotting breakdown of beer styles, beer cultures and beer history, originally published in 1977. Others might recognize him from his public television series The Beer Hunter, which aired in no less than 10 countries and found Jackson exploring, drinking and expounding upon as much beer as the world had to pour. He’s author of several tomes on beer, as well as whiskey; he’s a patron of the Oxford University Beer Appreciation Society; he received the Mercurius Award from Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium; he’s an officer of honor in the Chevalerie de Fourquet; he was the first non-brewer member of the Belgian Confederation of Brewers; and he’s been given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Guild of Beer Writers. So he’s doing all right with the whole beer-writing thing.

“It’d be nice if someone gave me an honorary degree,” Jackson says. “I keep dropping the hints, but no one seems to hear me.”

Of course, if you were reading Jackson’s writing back when he started, at the age of 13, you’d remember him for his piece on rugby league, which he wrote in ancient Latin—and in iambic pentameter. That was his first award, too.

“‘Best Writer in the School,’” he says, as though he were reading it from the very trophy. “I think of myself as a working-class boy. Writing was the only thing I was good at. Oh, by the way, make sure you say ‘rugby league’ and not just ‘rugby.’ It’s an entirely different and very unfashionable sport, one that you shouldn’t admit to liking.”

The kind of careful attention given to the unfashionable or unpopular is at the core of Jackson’s beer writing. His is advocacy at its most earnest and eloquent: simultaneously frank and floral, aglow with an encyclopedic knowledge and emboldened by his utter honesty.

“Clive Barnes, the drama critic, didn’t want to be the butcher of Broadway,” Jackson says. “He loved the theater. But if something was wrong, he said so. Maybe I can move people a bit, just an inch or a centimeter toward trying something new.”

The proof is in the pudding. Jackson’s the best in the business, and the craft beer community has him to thank for a half century of spreading the good word.

“I’ve only been writing for 50 years, you know,” he says. “I’m only just getting the hang of this.” –Michael Brodeur

 

Photo by Ben Ritter

Photo by Ben Ritter

Best Recruiter and Most Likely to Cook us Dinner (We Hope)

Garrett Oliver
Author, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery

All the nuts and bolts and backstage magic behind craft beer mean nothing if nobody’s on board to drink the stuff. Alas, for the beer-challenged, brand habits are hard to break, and tastes take time (and tolerance) to adapt. Fortunately for them, we have BAs like Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver to demonstrate to us that the only thing we have to fear is beer itself. And you like beer!

“I’ve watched people shop for beer,” Oliver tells me from the floor of his brewery. “They’d stand there in front of 200 different labels looking really interested, but eventually, they’d go scuttling out with Heineken, looking really disappointed.” This field study of beleaguered bewilderment showed Oliver that the most important part of a beer drinker’s journey is the starting point.

“No one is telling anyone what they need to know,” Oliver says, with a touch of exasperation. “And what they’re learning, they don’t necessarily want. Very few people care about ABVs and IBU—people I’ve seen find the idea of bitterness units disgusting. We beer geeks make it sound like a chemistry experiment. People want to know what it tastes like and what to do with it.”

In response to this dearth of practical information, Oliver penned The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food. A firm believer in beer’s superior versatility to wine in food-pairing scenarios and a total badass in the kitchen himself (“There aren’t too many people I’d be afraid to cook for”), Oliver’s pragmatic and lively approach to what is uncharted territory for most won the hearts (and guts) of many. He’s broadened this mission by hosting over 500 beer dinners in eight countries—bringing the proof right to the plate.

“I used to say I wouldn’t serve Rauchbier at these things,” he says. “I thought that people wouldn’t get it. But that way of thinking is a function of the ego, telling you that your palate is special and other people can’t appreciate what you appreciate, when in fact, the average person can appreciate anything. It’s not a trained palate, but they know good from bad.”

In his ample spare time (kidding), Oliver still drags hoses at Brooklyn (“I was up on top of the tank an hour before you called”), maintaining the brewery’s own mission to pack a lot of flavor into well-structured, thoughtfully balanced beers, even when “hops are coming out of your ears.” Such unrelenting advocacy is a lot of work, but Oliver knows full well that he’s got what many would call a dream job.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he says, laughing. “When I’m at a party and someone asks what I do, their eyes just open wide. Saying you’re a brewer is like saying you’re an astronaut. One time, I met a fighter pilot at a party, though. He had me. That was pretty good.” –Michael Brodeur

 

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

Most Down with the Consumer

Jim Koch
Founder and brewer, Boston Beer Company

Talk to brewers who grew up on the East Coast, and chances are, they’ll credit Jim Koch for introducing them to craft beer. And Koch’s constant advocacy for better beer has certainly helped open the market to many of today’s craft brewers.

Still, for everything that Koch’s done for his fellow brewers, the beer-drinking public has benefited tenfold. He’s largely responsible for implanting the notion of quality into consumers’ brains, and if he hadn’t, we shudder to think what we’d all be drinking right now.

Back in 1985, when Samuel Adams launched its first radio commercials, Koch knew he couldn’t compete with the macrobreweries’ fleshy, flashy ad campaigns, “so we went the other way,” he says. “The big guys could write funnier jokes and get hotter girls. We just had my boring, ordinary voice telling people things they didn’t know about beer. That’s because our competition was ignorance and apathy. We talked about quality, and at the time, the idea that some beers could be of a higher quality than others was a surprising idea.”

Today, Koch’s print and television advertisements continue to shun images of sunsets or animals doing funny things in favor of discussions about hops, freshness and pairing beer with food. These are familiar themes to beer geeks, but they continue to introduce new customers to craft beer.

Once those customers have been introduced to better beer, Koch absolutely refuses to lose them. He pioneered freshness dating, and was the first to buy stale beer back from wholesalers and retailers. His employees conduct 20,000 draft quality audits per year, and Koch has been known to walk into retailers’ stores, unannounced, and start rotating their stock.

“I’ve always believed that you need to take responsibility for your beer all the way to the customer’s glass,” he says. “It’s not enough to say the beer was great when it left the brewery if the consumer winds up disappointed. And if somebody has a bad Samuel Adams, it’s probably going to be the last craft beer they’re ever going to buy.”

After more than 20 years of brewing, Koch still seems restless. He’s immensely proud of his new beer glass, and is adamant about brewers’ responsibilities not only to brew well, but also to continually remake the face of their industry: “Brewers have to continue to ask themselves, ‘What am I adding to this cathedral of brewing that we’re all building?’ I’m proud that Sam Adams has gotten people excited about beer, but I want to keep pushing the envelope. There’s no reason to stop.” –Paul McMorrow

 

Most Loved and Hated

The Shelton Brothers
Craft beer importers
sheltonbrothers.com

Will and Dan Shelton, the eponymous pair behind the Shelton Brothers craft beer import business, have made themselves famous—and infamous—for their criticism of state regulatory agencies and craft brewers, as well as the usual beer-geek targets of Miller and Bud. They import over 200 beers from tiny breweries in Europe, and sell to customers in 46 states—a job accomplished mainly through lots of strident word of mouth.

“It’s easy to dumb down beer,” Dan Shelton says, “and it’s easy to keep people dumb about beer so that they keep buying it.”

“We can’t sell our beer without telling people, ‘Look, some of this stuff isn’t very good,’” says Will Shelton. “And unfortunately, in the beer world, the attitude is, ‘It’s all good.’ The truth is, it’s not. There’s a lot that’s not good. And if nobody’s out there saying that, how are we supposed to differentiate beer that’s made by small brewers from the mass-produced stuff made in beer factories?”

The Sheltons don’t limit their criticism to beer. They’re also vocal (and litigious) about what they call First Amendment beer issues, like whether or not nudity and profanity should be kept off beer labels. (Is “Santa’s Butt” really so bad?)

“We’re trying to make it easier for people to taste good beer,” says Dan, who was a lawyer in a private practice before he got into the importing business. “We are suing New York right now, arguing that, for various reasons, their label scheme is discriminatory. We’re going to win.”

In their spare time, the brothers manage to brew their own beer, a lower-alcohol brew Will calls “the anti-extreme beer,” which they launched under the label “High and Mighty” last August. (The name is a crack in response to a feisty post from Todd Alström on BeerAdvocate.com—all in good fun, the Sheltons say.)

At heart, the constant loudmouthing is all evangelism for great beer, the brothers insist. “What makes us passionate, and annoying, is that we’re trying to get these people the recognition they deserve,” Dan says. –Julia Reischel

 

Photo by John Schultz

Photo by John Schultz

Most Likely to Keep us From Drinking Wort

Chris White
President, White Labs
whitelabs.com

With all the marketing chatter surrounding the craft beer movement, you don’t hear a lot of hype about yeast.

“It’s just not very sexy,” says Chris White, whose White Labs has been as active in the beer community as the yeast he propagates. “You don’t hear a whole lot of talk about yeast, but you can’t have beer without it.”

Every beer drinker’s favorite microorganism is responsible not just for the alcohol (though major props to you for that, yeast), but for over 500 flavor and aroma compounds, many of which are part and parcel to our favorite styles. “Yeast strains all make different flavors,” White says. “Many of them are heavily guarded. You can’t have certain beer styles be authentic without the right strain.”

White should know; he’s got history with the stuff. He started homebrewing as undergrad in biochemistry at the University of California, Davis. “The beer was awful,” he recalls with a groan. “Too much sugar. Ingredients from some guy’s garage. Just bad. My roommates drank it.”

It was an experience that left a major impression on him. Years later as a graduate student, White found himself in Bartlesville, Okla., for a month studying proteins using a Phillips Petroleum Company-owned strain of yeast that could eat methanol. It was a closer study than his brewing adventures at home had afforded—and the love affair was officially on.

His homebrewing situation picked up, with White brewing up to 15 gallons of better-tasting beer each week. In 1995, he launched the lab—just in time for homebrewing to really take off. Today, White Labs makes about 50 different strains per week and supplies clients around the world. “Wine might be centered in certain areas, but man, beer is everywhere. So the demand for custom yeast is growing.”

And the need for it is real. White recounts an experience he had while visiting São Paolo, Brazil, when a small local brewery debuted their Belgian-style ale with a big production, monk suits and all. When the hullabaloo subsided, White sampled it and made a face. “It didn’t have any of that bold, fruity character,” he recalls, perhaps considering the plummy notes imparted by White Labs’ own Trappist Ale Yeast (WLP500). “I didn’t hear the oohs and aahs I might have heard, had the brewer used the right yeast.”

Though White’s not planning on launching YeastAdvocate anytime soon (I can still freelance, Chris), he does agree that the limitied props given to yeast betray its real importance.

“I think brewers should hype it more. Get people interested. Brewers spend an incredible amount of time on yeast management—it’s a lot of work. Many people just don’t know what to say about it.” Thankfully, White will always have plenty to teach others about yeast—call it his contribution to the culture. (Oof, sorry about that one.) –Michael Brodeur