The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth: An Affectionate Look at the More Beer-Obsessed Among Us

Feature by | Mar 2007 | Issue #3

Second-place Guinness Book of World Records can collector, Jeff Lebo. | Photo by Sam Holden

Beer geeks. You probably know one of us. Hell, if you’re reading this magazine, you may be one. And even if you don’t, or you aren’t, you probably know what we’re talking about. You can find us at our countless beer festivals, wearing the uniform: beer T-shirt (occasionally tie-dyed), denim, baseball cap with brewery logo and, in winter, a hoodie, ditto the logo. We’ll go anywhere in the world to find great beer.

We are also known by other names: “fanatic,” “hophead” and “snob,” among others. But “fanatic” never quite caught on, and “hophead” is generally reserved for fans of IPAs and other hoppy beers. “Snob” never crossed over, and to this day retains its mostly derogatory meaning. Originally, a snob was someone who made shoes, a cobbler, before it came to be applied to a person of the lower classes who wants to move up, and then on to its present meaning—a person who considers their tastes vastly superior to everyone else’s.

Occasionally, kinder, gentler terms are employed, like “enthusiast,” or “aficionado,” but they never seem to strike the right chord for some reason. Most of us prefer to be known simply as “beer geeks,” though, oddly enough, the word “geek” originally meant a fool, and was later tacked to the lowest rung of circus performer, one so down and out that he’d do virtually anything to get by, like biting the heads off chickens.

Of course, times have changed, and now “geek” is a badge of honor. Now we have band geeks, computer geeks, science geeks, film geeks, comics geeks, history geeks and Star Wars geeks, to name just a few; all of them proud to call themselves geeks, because of the shared passion that is so central to the word’s modern meaning. Today, a geek is an obsessive enthusiast, often singlemindedly accomplished, yet with a lingering social awkwardness, at least outside the cocoon of his chosen form of geekdom.

Collectors: The original beer geeks
The original beer geeks have to be the collectors who’ve been snapping up labels, crowns, coasters, signs, ads, cans and bottles for decades. If it has a brewery name on it, these people will collect it. Generally, it’s known as “breweriana,” and it’s been a popular hobby for a long time, predating the craft beer movement by many years. Collecting cans is one of the more popular and enduring beer geek pursuits. The Beer Can Collectors Association, for example, was founded in 1970. And even with fewer breweries canning their beer today, the hobby continues to grow. William Christensen of Madison, NJ, holds the world record for his 75,000 cans, according to the 2000 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. The second-place can collector, Jeff Lebo, with over 50,000, is online with his CANsMART Beer Can Superstore, at cansmartbeercans.com. Breweriana swap meets, CANventions and other festivals—not to mention online auctions and stores—provide boundless opportunities for hobbyists to build their collections. Clubs like the Brewery Collectibles Club of America and the American Breweriana Association both publish magazines with information to assist and educate their members, and encourage new collectors. At one time, beer collectors skewed older, but the growth of microbreweries has sparked a resurgence of interest in breweriana.

The rubber chicken man
Given the prominence of chickens in the lives of circus geeks, it’s fitting that one homebrewer has combined his love of brewing with—you guessed it—a rubber chicken. Former jet pilot Phil Farrell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, began homebrewing over 10 years ago. Living in northern Georgia, he became active in a local homebrew club called the Chicken City Ale Raisers, so named because their hometown, Gainesville, is the “poultry capital of the world.”

The group was looking for an edge in competitions and, as a joke, Farrell picked up a rubber chicken to use as a mascot. They started winning, and, looking for more magic, the chicken started coming along to festivals. As a goof, he started taking photos of the rubber chicken with brewing luminaries. At first it was slow going, but once brewing legend Charlie Papazian had his picture taken, things started to take off. Today, nobody squawks, and Farrell has about 2,000 photos of beer people posing with the rubber chicken— enough to fill 10 photo albums.

And it still works. Last year, Farrell was named the Mid-South Home Brewer of the Year for the second time, and this year, he’s one of the three finalists for Beer Drinker of the Year, an honor he’ll be competing for on February 24 at Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.

The Beer Can House | Photo courtesy of Orange Show Center for Visionary Art

The Beer Can House | Photo courtesy of Orange Show Center for Visionary Art

The beer can house
While most people keep the breweriana inside their houses, at least one person actually lives in his. In 1968, Houston upholsterer John Martin Milkovisch was tired of mowing the grass and replaced his lawn with metal doodads before turning his attention to the house itself. Over the next 20 years, Milkovisch decorated his home with around 39,000 beer cans, which he cut up and fashioned into chimed curtains (out of pull-tabs), fences (out of the can tops) and walls (flattened cans). Today, the house is owned by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, which plans to turn it into a museum.

Field research: The beer festival circuit
If you want good beer, at some point you’re going to have to get up off the barstool and travel. There are beer festivals, small and large, all over the place. Festival season traditionally runs spring through late fall, but with the recent explosion of indoor winter festivals, the circuit now runs nearly year-round. And if you go to enough of them, you’re bound to notice something curious. Like fans of Phish and the Dead before them, there are hopheads who travel the country, and in some cases the world, to attend as many beer fests as they can. Most of these fans are easily recognizable because they often go well beyond the standard beer geek uniform. They turn an ordinary festival into something more memorable. There’s a veritable army of these festival fans and they make up the core group a festival presenter can count on for attendance.

One such couple, Rebecca Boyles and Fraggle, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, attend virtually every local festival, along with a few in Southern California and outside the state, like the Great American Beer Festival. Fraggle started homebrewing with his Dad in the late ’70s, and Rebecca discovered she liked microbrewed beer when she first tasted Portland Brewing’s Wheatberry Brew 15 years ago. The pair are both into the punk scene and first met at a Sado-Nation show in the East Bay, sharing a moment with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the only decent beer the dive bar stocked.

They’re planning a wedding for next year at some beery locale, and will continue to follow the festival circuit. A recent trip they took was a two-and-ahalf day Northern California pub crawl from home to Crescent City, near the border of Oregon, over 360 miles away, stopping at every brewery along the way.

That’s another popular method of field research: the beer tour. There are travel agents who specialize in this type of trip, whether abroad to Europe or to one of the major American festivals. There are bus tours through major cities and pub crawls whose goal is to visit every brewery and beer place along a given route.

Mark Campbell and Lisa Morrison | Photo by Martin Thiel

Mark Campbell and Lisa Morrison | Photo by Martin Thiel

Field research, Part 2: At home
Some beer lovers find that staying home and just being keg potatoes is the way to go. Many go the extra mile to make their home experience every bit as intoxicating as their local. Kegerators and built-in draft systems have become de rigueur for the true beer geek.

When Portlanders Lisa Morrison and Mark Campbell remodeled their Hawthorne District home, they included plans for a keg system in the basement that feeds up into their kitchen, which now boasts two tap handles on a granite countertop that matches the rest of the kitchen. Others use mobile, self-contained kegerators, or build cellars to keep those rare bottles aging in just the right environment.

And while the delivery system is certainly important, it’s the delivery itself that’s really at the heart of staying home. That’s often where the most intensive, über geeky tasting techniques can be put to the test. One of the masters of the private tasting is Bill Sysak, better known to the beer world as “Dr. Bill.” He got the handle not from medical school, but from working as a medic in the military. While he still works in the medical profession, his real passion is for the finer things: beer, single-malt Scotch, tequila, wine, cigars and food—especially cheese.

He dislikes the term “geek,” but doesn’t mind if you call him “the king of the beer geeks,” which doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Dr. Bill has between 1,000 and 1,400 beer bottles from at least 400 different breweries in his home at any given time. He’s known to throw lavish tasting parties for his friends in the beer community, and his 12-hour birthday bashes are legendary. At last year’s, he spent $13,000, opening a different Belgian beer and American Strong Ale every 10 minutes for 12 straight hours, in addition to providing food, cheese and more.

Dr. Bill’s philosophy is simple: He prefers the finest pleasures life can offer, and wants to enjoy them with close friends who share his passions.

The trading floor
Let’s suppose, though, that you’ve tried all the beer where you live and blown all your cash on it to boot, making travel an impossibility. What now? Beer trading may be the answer you’re looking for. Thanks to the web, beer trading has exploded. Numerous websites, such as BeerAdvocate.com’s Beer Trading Group, exist to bring people together to trade their doubles, the way kids used to swap baseball cards. There’s even at least one website, tradebeer.com, set up to do nothing but facilitate trading. You post a list of beers you want and beers you’re willing to trade. Thousands of others do the same, and everybody gets what they want.

Beer drinker of the year
How do you decide who is and isn’t a beer geek? Or, in a world seething with competition, who’s the biggest beer geek of all? Well, one way is the Beer Drinker of the Year contest, hosted each year since 1997 by Wynkoop Brewing. Wynkoop owner John Hickenlooper— who’s actually now mayor of Denver— started 10 years ago, and now receives over 100 “beer resumes” each year from aspiring king-of-the-beer-geek hopefuls.

A cadre of beer journalists and past winners whittle down the applicants to three finalists who are flown to Denver for a public competition that includes a lengthy quiz, “bribing of the judges,” and “beer whispering” segments, along with a closing statement. Three experts wearing black robes and the white wigs of English judges choose the winner. Winners get geeky prestige and validation, along with $250 to spend in their home pub and free beer for life at Wynkoop.

Ray and Cornelia: The first couple?
Cornelia Corey, the first and so far only, female Beer Drinker of the Year, has one more claim to fame: Her husband, Ray McCoy, was likewise named Beer Drinker of the Year. That makes the pair the only couple to have won. Corey’s title came in 2001; her husband won two years later in 2003. They’ve been together for almost 20 years, residing in Clemmons, N.C., and they discovered better beer together during a trip to London over a decade ago. Their knowledge and appreciation has grown exponentially, and when they finally got around to marrying last year, they had 11 kegs at their reception. Like many beer geeks, the first couple is a fixture at beer events all across the country.

On becoming a beer geek
Not everyone sets out to become a beer geek; often it just happens. Someone hands you a beer and, without much thought, you take your first sip of a whole new world. You drink it in and your life is changed forever. But now what? you ask. For the willing, there are always people to show you the way. Most, if not all, commercial brewers, brewery owners, beer writers and beer website owners are beer geeks who have managed to figure out how to fund their hobby. It was their initial passion for beer that got them where they are today.

But if there’s one thing all geeks share, it’s a desire to help others and bring them into the fold. There’s lingo to learn, jargon to jaw on and styles to study. Speaking beer geek is like picking up a delicious new language. Most importantly, there’s great beer to drink. That’s the reason we’re all here. The landscape of the beer geek is as rich and varied as the outside world; a microcosm of society as a whole. But inside the bubble, I can guarantee we’re having a much better time.

Are you a beer geek? Take our quiz to find out:
You may already be a beer geek, but just to be sure, answer “yes” or “no” to the following 10 questions to ascertain your level of beer geekdom.

  1. You have a child or a pet named after a beer.
  2. You were married or spent your honeymoon in a brewery or breweries.
  3. When someone drops the name “Michael Jackson” into a conversation, your first thought is not pop music, Billie Jean or moonwalking.
  4. You own more than a dozen bottle openers and keep at least one on your keychain.
  5. All of the glassware in your house has logos on it.
  6. Your wardrobe consists primarily of shirts, sweats and jackets from breweries.
  7. You plan your vacations around beer festivals, and make sure your destinations have enough breweries and pubs to visit before making reservations.
  8. You own at least two refrigerators.
  9. Your home is decorated in early American beer paraphernalia.
  10. What few non-beer-geek friends you have always keep a handful of decent beers in their refrigerators just to keep you happy … or quiet.

If you answered yes to one or more questions: Congratulations, you’re a beer geek! Five or more makes you an über beer geek. The higher your score, the more passionate your geekdom. 

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