PART TWO If you ask brewers what they think of uber-beer geeks, they will often nervously respond with a flurry of compliments and phrases designed not to anger the temperamental creature. Go off the record or manage to overhear two brewers talking in whispers at a conference and a different message emerges: beer geeks are not universally loved. To a sensitive, hard-working brewer who toils and sweats to develop, distribute and market a beer, a fly-by-night review by some would-be beer "expert" in Bemidji can make them question their choice of profession.
Beer geeks are fickle to a fault, loving one brewery on Monday only to castigate it by Friday. They are opinionated, often without any level of education, training or experience beyond the ability to dial up a website and tap out a few words. And while breweries live for these consumers, they also lose sleep over their breezy moods and attitudes.
While many respect the beer geeks and their roles in the industry, many more quietly bemoan their levels of influence or their methods. "The internet is an equalizing medium," says Sam Calagione, President of Dogfish Head Brewing Company. "The guy who is less educated in beer, his opinion is weighted equally to the guy who is more educated in beer. In some ways that's not fair."
Calagione knows about beer geeks. His brewery has been a darling of the beer geek community for many years. In recent months, however, a vocal minority of beer geeks have started to carp at the brewery for a variety of seemingly insignificant reasons.
"Among some level with beer geeks, because we've been discovered, it's almost a point against us," says Calagione. "I think it's a negative thing only because it deters people from embracing what we're doing. The negative responses we get usually have less to do with our beers than it does with the way we present our beers. That's better than having bad things said about our beers, but we still react to it."
Despite the recriminations of a few hysterical beer geeks, Calagione and his staff still keep their ears open to the voices of the greater community of dedicated beer lovers. "I'd be lying if I said that we weren't paying attention to what the websites are saying about Dogfish Head," he says. "We watch the sites and are a very sensitive crew of brewers. We want to be appreciated and we want to be liked and anyone who says they don't care about that is doing themselves a disservice because those are their customers. At the end of the day, we want people like ourselves, the beer geeks, to really appreciate what we are doing."
What breweries are exciting you right now?
BIERGIRL CORNELIA COREY I wish I could afford for Fantome Babbillard BBBrr to be my summer regular. I found it to be wonderfully refreshing. And, having just returned from Montreal, I keep wishing Brasserie Dieu du Ciel was my local.
DR. BILL BILL SYSAK Every year, more and more breweries spring up around the world and access to their beers increasingly becomes easier. Take America. Even ten years ago there were only a handful of breweries outside of the East and West Coasts that were making exceptional beers. Now, practically every state has brewers creating well crafted beers and stretching the style guidelines to the limits. Brewers like Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port and Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River have constantly proven to me their ability to make unique beers that are excellently structured from first mouth feel to final taste, whether it is a 1O-percent alcohol Belgian Ale or a 4-percent alcohol session stout. East Coast breweries like Dogfish Head, Heavyweight, Southampton, and Victory continue to impress. Dozens of small or new breweries around the world are doing the same. I've tasted fabulously complex beers over the last couple years from Italy, Mexico and Australia.
DAVO DAVE RODRIGUEZ My locals, like Brooklyn, Victory, Heavyweight, Ramstein, Southampton, and McKenzie's, are always exciting me. They keep on churning out some quality brews with the ability to be innovative and fresh. Although not a huge fan of their beers, I take my hat off to Dogfish Head for always pushing the envelope. And there is always that brewery that I can't get my hands around. Three Floyds is on every beer geeks' excitement list. And I've asked doctors if I can replace the blood running though my veins with Heavyweight's Perkuno's Hammer. Survival is not likely, but at least I'll die a happy man."
VENOM LOREN VERKOVOD While I cannot deny my love for big, beefy stouts and super hopped IPAs, I also cannot hide my love for under-appreciated lagers being made with finesse throughout the country. There's just something to be said about a pilsner that just knocks you off your feet with remarkable flavor and balanced verve. I'm also intrigued when a brewer can throw the style guidelines out the window and make something that doesn't fit any pigeonholed moniker. Unless it's an imperial stout. Sorry, zero tolerance here.
Are you a brand loyal consumer (someone who routinely buys a staple brand, say Harpoon IPA six packs) or do you mainly seek out new beers?
BIERGIRL I would say I'm loyal to craft brew as a category but no one brewery or beer. There are no beer factory beers in the cellar but a wide variety of craft brews, including domestics and imports.
DR. BILL I think anyone who knows me will concede that I am always on the lookout for the best beers available, whether it's a new offering or a beer I've enjoyed for years. I've tried close to 75OO beers in 25 years. I like to share a lot of the newer or rarer beers with my friends - if I'm having a beer after work or as a night cap by myself or with my fiance we have a half dozen favorites. I usually buy 1O cases of Celebration Ale for personal consumption each year - Stone Arrogant Bastard, Alesmith Yulesmith, or a Belgian from De Dolle, or one of the Trappists. I'm particularly fond of Orval and Rochefort 8.
DAVO I'm a little of both. I remain faithful to some locals. There are those seasonals I always purchase - Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Ramstein's Winter Wheat, Victory's Storm King. And then there are those everyday available beers that I have in my fridge - Heavyweight's Perkuno's Hammer and Victory's Hop Devil are two. As for trying new beers, this is what keeps me going: the search for something new. It used to be the search for the Holy Grail of beers. No doubt, there is no one beer that will be the "end all" of all beers. Now, I search out those small regional brewers that I can't get in my backyard. It's always nice to see what brewers in other parts of the country are doing. Also, the quest to try new beers is the stimulant to all my beer travels.
VENOM I'm loyal to the local Connecticut beers available in bottles and cans, and try to maintain a stock of "everyday drinking beer" in my fridge from a local brewery. I, of course, have my favorites, too, which I also try to keep on hand as well. Whether they be local, regional or national, I always find myself buying a staple beer that I've had time and time again and will continue to purchase simply because it's my fallback beer of choice. The problem with the survival of local beers is there aren't many beer drinkers out there that are loyal, except maybe the consumers who drink the mass produced "Big Three" products. At least, I think there aren't many who are loyal. I see more people going in and out of liquor stores, coming out with Harpoon six-packs when they could just as easily be coming out with a New England Brewing Company or Cottrell six-pack. Call it ignorance? Call it unknowing? Maybe the locals could do a better job of spreading the word, via tastings and such. But if the love isn't there to begin with, can it really be fostered?
What makes a great beer bar?
BIERGIRL First, there should be good selection of styles, bottled and draft, not just quantity. Bars should be aware of their ability to turn over beer in a reasonable amount of time so that it doesn't become old or stale. I like the staff to be knowledgeable, helpful and welcoming. The premises should be reasonably clean and well-maintained, at least the restrooms. And I really like for there to be hooks under the bar on which to hang my jacket or backpack. Also, a coat hook area is great to have during winter so you don't have to try and hang your coat on a chair or barstool.
DR. BILL There are many great beer bars across the country, but there is always room for more. Great selection and clean lines for the taps are important. It doesn't matter if you have 1O1 beers on tap if your lines are dirty. Once again, a knowledgeable wait staff is a must. I will walk into one of the large chain tap houses around the country every once in a while and even though I am usually familiar with all the beers on tap, I'll ask my server something like, "What's the hoppiest beer you have?" or "Do you have any Belgian doubles?" If they don't know, that's fine. As long as they have someone there, like the bartender, who they can refer my question to. If no one can answer my question, then they don't pass. That may sound picky, but I'm a proponent for good beer and I'm always looking for places that I can send people to try quality ales and lagers. They may be new to craft beer, and I want places with service staffs that will be beneficial to them, not harmful to their experience. Most bars can't afford to have beer sitting in kegs that are not moving. For them, I would recommend increasing their bottle selection by two or three beers, more if they have the space, and see how these lesser known beers are received. Once again, a helpful staff that will promote these beers is a must. Having your local beer distributor hold beer appreciation nights with new and different beers seems like a reasonably safe and effective way to attract new customers and introduce your regulars to new products.
DAVO To me, a great beer bar is an unadulterated commitment to serving craft brews and promoting them. I don't think having 6O taps of all craft beer cuts it anymore. The call to arms has been made and these bars need to do more to showcase craft beers. Unfortunately, craft brewers have small advertising budgets (if any at all), so it has fallen on some beer bars to promote events for those beers they maintain on tap. Major kudos to them for doing so. They get people excited about the beers and they get the name of unknown brewers on the tongue of those that never heard of them before. Serving the beer is no longer sufficient in my eyes. The best beer bars essentially are the heart that pumps the blood through the body. The best thing I can say is that there are far more then I can mention or visit. With more bars committing themselves to craft beer, I'm happy to report that my beer budget and travel budget are beyond sustaining. This puts a big grin on my face.
VENOM A great beer bar to me is a place that I can say "OK, I can park my ass on that stool and drink beer all night with my friends without ever having the same beer twice throughout the course of the evening." Selection, selection, selection isn't where it's at. I mean, having 6O taps is impressive no doubt, but how the hell can an establishment keep 6O taps running fresh all the time? I'm more impressed with a place that has, say, 15 taps, with a few being reserved for the local boys, and the quality being impressive on each and every pint. So I guess for me its quality over quantity. The atmosphere of a beer bar is also critical, and I'm not talking about the curtains but the patrons themselves. You can't prop up a beer bar in a town or setting that won't support it. I've been to a few beer bars that are impressive with taps, but nine out of ten people are pounding plastic Coors Light bottles. If your market isn't geared for a place with 15 taps of nothing but quality craft beer than you're honestly doing the beer scene an injustice by having a place that could easily satisfy both the beer geek and typical "Big 3" consumer, but it just isn't there. I think there's a line that has to be drawn in the sand as to who the target audience is going to be. And I have no problem with a bar having 15 taps of Bud-Miller-Coors if that's what the people want. Just keep it out of my neighborhood.
Final Words from the Panel
BIERGIRL I think many on-premise establishments can and should do more to make women feel welcome. More and more women have significant amounts of disposable income and want to socialize in harassment-free, comfortable surroundings. Also, too often women customers are viewed as annoyances, the usual excuses are they pay separately, don't order in rounds, and are more work than males. Most important is the staff - if servers, bartenders etc. make women feel more comfortable, they will be more likely to patronize an establishment. The main stereotype that comes to mind and always gets to me is when a server suggests that I might like the lightest or fruitiest beer available. I almost feel obligated to order the biggest, baddest beer available even if it's not what I want at that particular time.
DR. BILL I've held hundreds of tastings throughout the years and turned on literally thousands of new beerophiles to flavors beyond their imagination. I love fine wines, tequilas, vodkas and single malt scotches, yet no other beverage has the number of styles or range of complex flavors that can play across your palate as the various beers available to the consumer today. I have been purchasing beers for aging for almost 2O years now, I usually keep between 1OOO to 16OO bottles at any time. I acquire through purchase and trade somewhere around 3OOO bottles annually, of those I'd say 1O% are obtained with the thought of keeping them for over 5 years, while 75% of the rest will be gone in less than a year from purchase. Certain types of beer styles, if stored properly, can continue to age 1O, 2O, even 5O years, transforming themselves with new and subtle flavor profiles year to year. I have a 1968 Thomas Hardy's Ale from the original bottling, a half dozen different Belgian ales from the '5Os, and other initial bottlings from the beginning of the American micro scene, including Anchor's first Old Foghorn and Our Special Ale - or how about an original Pete's Wicked Ale.
DAVO I've driven all the way from New Jersey to Cleveland, Ohio for just beer; to the Great Lakes Brewing Company, Buckeye Brewing Company, and a few great places to have beer. I've made one trip to California for ten days that was all about beer. I visited San Diego for the Strong Ale Fest and hit a few of the local stops. Then I traveled up to Northern California and hung around Sonoma County and San Francisco. I ended my trip with a drive down to Los Angeles and Long Beach, and chilled among the great beer spots there. Overall, I hit five breweries, eight brewpubs and six beer bars. No doubt, there are travels abroad that are planned. I have every intention of hitting Alaska for the January festival of barleywine.
VENOM When I joined BeerAdvocate.com, I really didn't know much about "other" beers besides the ones I had tried and knew. This epiphany was like a kid walking into a candy store. What followed was a torrential pace of reading, learning and then discovering any and all "new" beers I could find - locally at first. I scoured the shelves of all my local liquor stores and began my quest. Afterwards, I discovered online mail order beer stores as a start in my exploration of beers from throughout the country. As for my approach to new beers, I don't look at beer hunting as head hunting, as a few people have deemed of the typical "rate and move on" beer geek. While I do enjoy finding new beers, I don't go to the store just to look for something new. I just hope the impression of this solitary beer geek comes across as passionate and not entirely, but quite possibly, insane. But it's all for the love of beer.