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BadAss BeerAdvocates

Feature by | Oct 2010 | Issue #45

We all—hopefully—strive to be Beer Advocates in our own way. Then there are those who put the “badass” in “BA.” We’re talking about industry folk who literally change the way we think about beer by being pioneers, saying “hell no!” to the norm, pushing boundaries and simply being awesome at what they do. Join us for our annual nod to these badasses as we raise our pints in their general direction, honoring them for their contributions to the beer industry and for giving beer the respect it deserves. Cheers!

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø
The Godfather of Gypsy Brewing
by Simon Johnson

He’s a part-time chemistry teacher who travels the world for beer inspiration. He has brewed some of the world’s highest-regarded beers and collaborated with brewing legends. And he doesn’t even own a brewery. Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is the very definition of a BadAss BeerAdvocate.

Like many brewers before him, Bjergsø started out at his kitchen sink. Homebrewing was his way of getting to drink exciting beer in the styles he loved, which were seldom seen around Denmark. When those nascent brews were put on sale at his brother’s shop, Ølbutikken in Copenhagen, the public went nuts for his assertive, challenging beers. So he made the decision to brew more—but not to invest in a brewery.

Instead, he kept his job as a teacher whilst renting brewery time throughout Europe. In breweries such as Belgium’s De Proef and Nøgne Ø in Norway, Bjergsø began to brew uncompromising beers of assured quality. Innovative brews such as Monk’s Brew and Beer Geek Breakfast soon captured the imagination (and palates) of drinkers worldwide, and collaborations with US brewers followed. And so, the “gypsy brewer” legend was born.

Bjergsø isn’t driven by sales or volume. Far more important to him is the freedom to brew beers without compromise, to take inspiration from his travels and revel in the endless possibilities that quality craft brewing can offer.

So what does he think of being named a BadAss BeerAdvocate? “It’s really awesome,” he tells us. “It shows that Mikkeller has gained respect in the US and that people like my beers. It also shows that the whole gypsy thing is being respected now—which was not the case a few years back when I started up brewing.”

For his refusal to do the obvious, for his incessant experimentation and collaboration, for his unstinting approach to no-compromise brewing, Bjergsø is bad-ass through and through. But don’t just take our word for it. James Watt, from Scottish new-wave brewers BrewDog, is full of praise for Bjergsø’s approach to brewing. “He is a rock-star gypsy brewer,” Watt explains, “with killer beers, great innovation and breathtaking concepts always expertly executed.”

We’ll leave the last word to another of Bjergsø’s collaborators, Nick Floyd from Three Floyds: “Who wouldn’t want to brew with a White Castle hamburger-loving Viking who happens to construct amazing beers without a brewery and is a humble school teacher during the day?”

John & Greg Hall
Chicago’s Beer Pioneers
by Andy Crouch

Despite its name, the Goose Island Beer Company’s headquarters and main production brewery is not located on the miniscule, 160-acre artificial island splitting the Chicago River. Instead, the brewery’s near-West Side industrial location acts as a fitting tribute to the bare-knuckled nature of the city’s beer trade and to the dedicated family behind it.

Founder John Hall, of the paper-packaging trade, opened Goose Island’s first brewpub on Clybourn Street in 1988, where the flagship Honker’s Ale eventually led to the opening of the Fulton Street production brewery and a Wrigleyville pub. Greg Hall, then a college student studying creative writing, joined his father’s team as a lowly brewer’s assistant, doing grunt work before attending the Siebel brewing school and eventually becoming the brewmaster.

Together, the pioneering Halls make a formidable pair, balancing business acumen and a love of flavorful beer. Far removed from the days of Hex Nut Brown Ale, Goose Island now produces some of the most flavor-forward craft beers available in America. The brewery also runs one of the nation’s largest barrel-aging programs, which sprawls out through warehouses on both sides of Fulton Street. In these wooden vessels sleeps Bourbon County Stout and other rare treats.

Beyond building a solid portfolio of core brands, including President Obama’s favored 312, the Halls have focused much of their recent efforts on developing an eclectic lineup of Belgian-style ales. Devoted proponents of the joys of bringing beer and food back to their rightful place at the table, Goose Island hosts frequent beer dinners and cheese tastings, and has even brewed a beer for one of celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ restaurants.

Despite all of Goose Island’s successes, the city’s notoriously competitive distribution challenges in part led to the brewery’s decision in 2006 to enter into an equity agreement with the Widmer Brothers Brewery and the Craft Brewers Alliance, which has ties with A-B InBev. With their decision quickly came harsh words from self-appointed craft beer purists. Greg Hall quickly dismisses the criticism by noting that the big guys give them better access to market but “zero direction whatsoever” when it comes to the beer. For others, he jokes, “Can’t you taste the beechwood in there? Don’t you think it makes it taste better?” Simply put, “The beer is coming on a different truck now, but it’s the same beer from the same brewery and people.”

With such an enviable and bold lineup of top-notch beers, good luck convincing the happy patrons at the brewery’s pubs that they aren’t drinking craft beer. You’d get a better response rooting for the White Sox on the corner of Clark and Addison.

Harry Schuhmacher
The King of Beer News on the Interwebs
by Andy Crouch

Born the son of a Lone Star distributor in Houston, Harry Schuhmacher was surrounded by beer from his earliest days. Following the leads of the generations of beer distributors before him, Schuhmacher dutifully did his part, ringing plastic six-pack holders over cans, cleaning up bottle breakage and driving a forklift at the disturbing yet enviable age of 5. And things may have continued this way had his father not up and sold the beer distributorship.

In an almost soap-operatic turn, the son went from the top of the glass pile to the dusty city streets, forced to make it on his own with few marketable skills. Well, actually, Schuhmacher had plenty of skills, chief among them an insider’s knowledge of the beer industry. So 15 years ago, he made the fateful decision to start a daily email bulletin for the beer industry. “It was just when the intertubes were getting popular, and I thought beer distributors and brewers needed a daily email covering the inside-baseball stuff that they can’t get anywhere else—gossip, sales trends, who’s screwing whom—that sort of thing,” he says.

Far from a beer blogger, Schuhmacher runs a serious business dedicated to providing the industry with inside information and breaking news, a point reflected in his publication’s scorching $480 annual price tag. For the first decade, Schuhmacher focused much of his Beer Business Daily on the big brewers and distributors, but things have changed. He now dedicates half of his coverage to craft and regional breweries. “We’ve grown as the craft brewers have grown,” he says. “It has given me a renewal on my career, because covering the big guys exclusively was starting to be a drag.”

Schuhmacher has always treated the world of craft brewing with respect and interest, and perhaps a mild and understandable skepticism about its future. In his line of work, one so focused on the bigger brewers, such esteem wasn’t always a given. Just a few years earlier, one of Schuhmacher’s main competitors condescendingly wrote in the American Brewer of “the fantasy of the craft brewing revolution.” The competitor helpfully added, “Face facts folks: Wheat beer is not likely to be the next big thing!”

Fast forward a few years, and Wheat Ale is now the best-selling craft beer in the United States, a point often reflected in Schuhmacher’s redoubled efforts to cover the craft brewing scene. A bit folksy at times and with a self-deprecating humor that disarms even his angriest big-brewery targets, Schuhmacher is helping the industry at large take craft brewers more seriously, something we can all raise a pint to.

Full disclosure: Having shared beers a few times and traveled together, I count Harry as a friend.

Dave Blanchard
The Beer Mayor of Decatur
by Owen Ogletree

Remarking on how opening the Brick Store Pub back in 1997 constituted a gamble and outlandish thinking for the times, co-owner Dave Blanchard says, “Opening a pub 13 years ago in an area that was still an ‘iffy’ part of town, without televisions, pitchers of light beer or any standard domestic beer at all was pretty ballsy, but I felt it was a niche ready to be filled and was absolutely positive it would work.”

Brick Store is now considered the Southeast’s preeminent craft beer bar, and Blanchard’s plucky move set the gentrifying tone for a remarkable reweaving of the once somewhat threadbare Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Ga. This attractive, personable pub, which focuses on conversation, community and craft beer, ignited interest and energy in the town of Decatur and the craft beer scene in the entire state. Not bad for a guy who got his start a few years earlier bartending in the small college town of Athens, Ga.

“My next big gamble was screwing with the pub when we expanded and added our popular Belgian-themed bar upstairs and to the right,” says Blanchard. “Basically, I’ve always made decisions regarding Brick Store from the gut and from a love of great beer. At times, my decisions might not make a lot of financial sense, but I think each one has paid off for the pub.”

Humble to the end, Blanchard adds, “It’s odd that I was picked to be a BadAss BeerAdvocate, but you bet I’m honored! I love BeerAdvocate, and the magazine and website are a huge resource for the Brick Store on a daily basis—the website is the forum that keeps the real-time pulse of what’s going on in this craft beer world I live in.”

While sipping vintage ales on a beer trip in Belgium a few years back, Blanchard had the epiphany of leasing the basement of the old bank building next door to Brick Store for the purpose of cellaring a selection of strong ales. “The latest jewel to adorn Brick Store is our beer cellar’s vintage list we are getting ready to unleash,” explains Blanchard. “Five-hundred aged beers will be displayed in our new walk-in beer showcase ‘upstairs to the right,’ and I’m shooting for over 1,000 different beers on the vintage list over time. We’ve invested years and way too much money in our vintage program, but we hope it will generate a lot of buzz throughout the entire beer community.”

Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Sean Lawson
The New Kid on the Block
by Susie Felber

When people talk about Vermont-based brewer Sean Lawson and his Lawson’s Finest Liquids, the first thing you want to do is run out and get your greedy paws on it. But that is maddeningly hard to do.

Sold for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day 2008, Lawson’s Finest is one of the hottest newcomers to the small-batch beer scene. Even though his Maple Tripple ale—a signature brew that uses real maple sap—earned him a coveted bronze at the 2010 World Beer Cup, this former environmental studies major and founder of Mad River Glen’s naturalist program still runs a one-barrel brewery, cranking out “tiny batches” that are “only available in the heart of the Green Mountains.”

This folksy, hyper-local stuff is no marketing ploy. Five bars surrounding his sugarhouse have it on draft, and it’s solely available in bottles at his store in Warren, Vt., where there is a four-bottle limit, as there’s a run on his deliveries every Friday. Tweets give new-media proof of the brew’s scarcity and its groupies. One recent tweet read: “Lawson brings his batch of liquids to Warren store // Gotta be fast he left 5 cases at 9:00am, was gone at 2:00pm.”

On being named a BadAss BeerAdvocate, Lawson says, “It’s awesome. I’m honored and a little surprised. … I didn’t think I’m much on the radar of the wider BeerAdvocate community.”

Lawson has built an impressively vast menu for a young operation because he “loves to experiment.” He puts out beers ranging from an IPA, to a German wheat to a Stout, but he also enjoys the freedom to produce one-offs. And although his distribution is slim by design, Lawson has noticed buzz building online via people who have it shipped via trading, which he finds “pretty neat.”

Asked what he’d do if we pulled up outside his door with a truck full of money, Lawson laughs and says, “When my dad heard Starbucks was doing beer, he said, ‘That’s what you need to do, get in with Starbucks and 5,000 locations.’ But that’s not really my vision, or what we are trying to do.”

Going local to learn more, we asked Galen Jones, co-owner of Crowley Cheese in Healdville, Vt., what he thought of Lawson’s. “All he cares about is the product,” Jones says. “He just wants to make an absolutely perfect product.”

“I’m not after perfection, because it’s never perfect,” Lawson says. “It’s about putting out a beer that will hopefully ‘wow’ people.” Consider us wowed.

Matt Brynildson
Student of the Art
by Drew Beechum

It takes a badass to make beer lovers sit up and take notice of an underappreciated brewery. Fortunately for the folks at Firestone Walker, that’s exactly what they got when they hired Matt Brynildson.

Unlike most brewers, this Great American Beer Festival’s “midsize brewmaster of the year” has a science background. While earning a chemistry degree from Kalamazoo College, he took a job at Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company, where he developed new ways to use hop oils and extracts. Studying under brew gurus like Rudy Held (Stroh’s) and sucking down the vast cornucopia of brewing research at hand, he and lab partner Phineas “Phin” DeMink, owner of Southern Tier, went homebrew crazy.

Brynildson later attended Siebel Institute and left the laboratory behind. He joined Goose Island, where he would eventually become head brewer. He then jumped at SLO Brewing’s shiny new brewery, before it and he were acquired by Firestone, a solid brewery that languished in the eyes of the beer cognoscenti.

Brynildson initially focused on session ales, like the barrel-fermented Double Barrel Ale. Turning the perilously unstable world of oak brewing into something reliable, predictable and awesome proved enormously challenging. These aren’t beers with rock-concert flavors to cover things gone awry, and to this day, Brynildson challenges anyone to try it for themselves.

After putting the sessions on firm footing, Brynildson found Firestone’s 10th anniversary looming. Nodding to the family’s winery, he took four recipes aged in multiple barrels, sampled each barrel and used a vintner’s blending panel to produce a perfect marriage. The “X” was a monster hit. Each subsequent anniversary grows more complex and includes extensive wine-style tasting notes.

The winery-inspired blending approach surprised and changed a number of brewers’ thoughts on barrel aging. Brynildson achieved a complexity that could only come from disparate components. Here was a way to get people to sit up and take notice. The anniversary project took the “ho-hum” brewery and made people pay attention.

The anniversary blends may have attracted attention, but his Pale Ales and IPAs sealed the deal. The brewery declares their “Passion for the Pale,” and means it. In the Firestone Walker lineup alone, Brynildson’s won for the flagship Double Barrel Ale, the revamped Pale 31 Pale Ale and the stellar Union Jack IPA. How good is Union Jack? In its short lifetime, the beer has racked up countless awards, including two consecutive gold GABF medals in the insanely crowded American IPA field. Union Jack is the Ivan Drago of IPAs, developed in secret over a year.

“I consider myself a student of the art,” Brynildson says. “I have a real cool stein collection. I’ve never thrown away a brewing mag. I center on the 101s of practical brewing. I respect beer.” He promises, no matter the accolades, to “continue traveling, teaching, drinking, learning and loving … beer.”