How did you get to the place you are in? How did you end up in this town, in this job, with these people, or drinking this beer? Generally, after a few quality brews you’ll start wondering what brought you here. I am no different. Which is why I asked myself the question: Why do I drink craft beer?
I grew up in the land of Miller Brewing and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I had my first full beer when I was 16. It was Busch Light. By college I had graduated to Old Style or Keystone Light cans. It was a pragmatic decision. Both came in 30-packs of cans for less than $8.00.
So where did my life veer so dramatically to the point that I travel hours out of my way to visit tiny breweries, haunt bottle shops looking for beer treasures and spend more time than I care to admit discussing the merits of different hop strains or the quality of beer by state? Things changed for me on Thanksgiving Eve 2002. It was because of a Girl. More accurately, it was because of her Father.
I liked her, and I thought she might like me. When she invited me to spend the long holiday weekend with her family I jumped at the chance. We met the family in a townie bar off a county highway. It was like a lot of Mid-Western bars with a worn wood bar-top, wood-paneled walls, a set of deer antlers on the wall and a pool table in back. That is when I learned that by “family” she meant entire extended family including 37 potentially intimidating male cousins and uncles. Walking into the raucous scene I grew more than a little nervous.
Her Father, was leaning up against the bar. He reached out and shook my hand. “What’ll ya have,” he asked. Not knowing if he was a Miller or a Bud man I didn’t want to offend.
“I’ll have what you’re having.” I replied.
Moment’s later he thrust a New Glarus Spotted Cow into my hand. My life would never be the same. Spotted Cow is a farmhouse-style ale made by a lovely little brewery just west of Madison, WI. I didn’t know that then, and to me it was a revelation. Like Zeus had delivered the drink of the God’s to this tiny little bar. It was beer with flavor and taste. For the first time I actually savored my beer before swallowing. It was sweet, smooth and even a little creamy. We hit it off I think, and by the end of the evening I was arm in arm with cousins and uncles drinking Jaegermeister straight from the bottle and belting out drinking songs.
That Girl and I started dating, and took a trip to Europe together to celebrate graduation. One week in Belgium was like a lifetime of beer education all at once. I drank Duvel out of fancy glasses, and learned how smell affects taste. I drank a local beer whose name translated to “12 Dragons.” That was when I learned what ABV meant. One dragon for each percentage of alcohol it contained. Back stateside I had my first IPA from Stone Brewing. I was working as a bartender and extending my craft beer drinking reach even further. We moved to Madison, WI., and explored Capitol Brewery, Ale Asylum and more New Glarus. It was the mid-2000’s & craft beer was exploding into the marketplace.
We traveled often, and finding the local craft beers became a way to connect with the local community. Drinking a Left Hand Brewing Milk Stout separated us from the other tourists snowboarding in Colorado. Walking down the middle of a sketchy neighborhood street to the Sam Adam’s Brewery tour in Boston formed an instant bond with the dozen others who were also walking in the middle of the street. Having an ale at Magnolia in Haight-Asbury made me feel a part of San Francisco in a way a domestic pils never could.
Somewhere along the line the Girl and I got married. At our wedding we had Spotted Cow on tap. For dessert there was a 1/4 barrel of New Glarus Belgian Red. It’s an ale made with Door County cherries, and if you haven’t had it, find it and drink it. We continued to expand our beer palettes, and supporting local breweries became something we felt good about doing. We’d go on brewery tours to learn about different brewing styles, beer history & how water affects taste.
Next we moved to New York City. I pledged to drink 365 new beers (new to me) in one year. At the time I was concerned I might not find 365 new beers, but the number of craft brewers was increasing at record pace. I ended up with 372. The top 10 best had beers hailing from the Mid-West, East & West Coasts. Great beer was being made everywhere. Each can, bottle or draft was an exploration. It wasn’t enough to just drink the beer. I also learned about the breweries, the towns they were in and the people behind them.
By 2012 there were more than 2300 craft breweries in the United States alone. At the same time I ended up taking over a burgeoning craft beer tavern in Pittsburgh. We had 12 rotating craft taps and 100+ bottles and cans. My policy was to not sell anything I hadn’t tried for myself. I was just as IPA-mad as all the craft beer nuts out there, but because I was lucky enough to have the keys to the castle I really started exploring other styles. Stouts, porters, bourbon-barrels, sours and pilsner. East End Brewing was my local go-to beer. Trying new beers made me open to trying other things too. I started eating vegetables regularly. Craft beer drinking was making me grow as a person.
My Wife went to grad school & her residencies moved us close to Golden Road and Eagle Rock Breweries in LA, and then Revolution Brewing in Chicago. We made more new beer drinking friends. We no longer had to worry that if we went out to dinner there wouldn’t be any craft beer available. Craft beer was everywhere. When she finished school we could choose to move anywhere we wanted.
We ended up in Southern California. Truly the Beer Mecca if there is one. So many new breweries open up it is hard to keep track of them all. From our home, a leisurely bike ride transports us to half a dozen breweries or incredible beer bars. We continue to meet new beer-loving friends who are excited to hoist pints, and talk about the state of beer. The number of craft brewers in the United States has topped 3,000. There are also growing beer industries in Canada and Mexico. It is a great time to be a beer lover.
How I got from there to here was truly a fortuitous journey. I’m drinking Bell’s Two-Hearted IPA, Modern Times Blackhouse Stout and everything else I can get my hands on all because a dozen years ago I didn’t want to offend the Father of the Girl I liked. Today, he and I text each other photos of the beers we are drinking or e-mail local beer news & stories. That Girl and I are still a team, and together we both love seeking out new breweries, new beer styles and sharing a toast with all of those out there who love doing the same. And I still love Spotted Cow.