By ERIC FRULAND
Craft beer found me when I was in college and I haven’t looked back since, and my father has never looked at me the same. A Budweiser man to his marrow, if it ain’t Bud Heavy or red wine out of a jug, he thinks you’re a communist. Every time he pours a beer (right down the middle of the glass) he quotes Auggie Busch like the two of them grew up and threw up together at Sigma Chi.
I wouldn’t say it’s fun watching him panic at restaurants that don’t have the King, I’d say it’s a lot of fun. Without fail, his heart rate rises as he enters Fight or Flight, realizing he's surrounded by Reds when all he wants is for the label to be red, and the promise and comfort of barley/rice suds that only his brand can deliver. The most fun is when he asks for Bud and they bring him Bud Light, explaining that it’s all they have. This truly sends him into a tailspin and I have to remind him that they probably carry Bud Light exclusively for 21-year old girls.
So when I started drinking the alternatives back in the late 90s, I became an immediate disappointment, and that was way before my prolonged stint working at a Kinkos in San Francisco while I was “finding myself." I don’t think my dad forgave me until my daughter was born, and most likely not until my son was.
But back to beer. It was the late 90s and back then (much like today) the most sought after beers were the ones unavailable in your area. Living in Iowa City meant that a lot was unavailable in your area, and it was a special treat when a friend went home to Dubuque and returned with a case, preferably a keg, of Sierra Nevada. Fat Tire and Goose Island were two others that weren’t available and were always exciting to get.
Today, breweries are popping up left, left, and right and right and there are thousands more than there were back then. Most new breweries are doing all of the standard beers: IPAs, ambers, wheats, porters, stouts, etc. And, while all of these are great styles and deserving of a place on the menu of the beer conscious bar, to break out as a brewery, it has to produce a standout in one of these styles – which is much easier said than done. That’s not to say that their beer is subpar, it’s just that they haven’t had enough time and practice to really produce something special.
So what sets breweries apart and makes them so sought after?
In addition to becoming famous for a specific style, it’s their small scale production and limited distribution. This makes them extremely rare and highly desirable, which I think skews the ratings on sites like ratebeer, beeradvocate, and untappd dot com.
Unlike 20 years ago, each market today typically has many breweries and probably a few that would rival the whalez (a whale is a rare beer that's really difficult to find) in a blind taste test. Instead of comparing a local DIPA against a Russian River Pliny the Elder, understand that your local one is unique. Sure Pliny is amazing but I think we get too caught up on that (and many others) being the standards of comparison. There are really no secrets in brewing anymore, just recipes - and infinite variations of them. We need to appreciate a local brewery's specific house yeast and bacteria strains, barrel aging, local water, ingredients, and creativity, and for the most part I think we do.
I knew once I moved out of the city and into a house in the suburbs that I was going to become a homebrewer. That was nearly three years ago and little did I know what was involved and how much cleaning, researching, and note taking was to be done. The joke goes that brewing is 90% cleaning and 10% note taking. This is very true, especially if you want any kind of consistency in your beers/recipes. It’s through this that I’ve gained such an appreciation for local breweries and learned 100x more about beer than when I started.
Many homebrewers try to clone a specific beer (it would be like learning your favorite band’s song on the guitar). And I get it, it's fun to see how close you can get, but the is it's impossible. I prefer to keep it simple. No need to add a bunch of things to your water to match a Belgian water source. Do Belgian brewers care about matching anything? If you can drink your tap water without making a funny face, then it's fine to use. And it's part of what can make your brews unique and you should embrace that.
With a wife and two small children, finding time to clean, brew, ferment, and bottle can be a challenge, especially when my two year old constantly drools and has macaroni and cheese on his face (he’s his father’s son). To counteract this, I plan brewing and bottling months out in advance, and I can honestly say it's an awesome hobby. The downside (according to my boss/wife) is that my house smells like a brewery for two days and there’s a whole section in the basement devoted to brewing equipment. I say it could be worse.
As of this writing, I’ve done 21 batches with no repeats. I’m still learning and dialing in my process, part of which involves me very carefully carrying 5+ gallons of boiling wort downstairs. In a perfect world, and if I had a lot more quid (which would likely mean larger house/garage), I would try my hand at spontaneously fermented, barrel-agen sour beers. One downside is that each of these takes one year minimum to produce. Many of the most sought after and highest priced beers are ones such as these. The fact that barrels take up so much room, each takes so long and many things can go wrong makes these beers really to do at scale for distribution. You are working with bacteria after all and they work on their own time and could turn bad -- ruining a batch and a year's worth of waiting.
If you are a sour beer fan, I highly encourage you to support the local guys doing it. This will allow breweries such as Penrose, Lake Effect, and Off Color to continue isolating those unique yeasts/bacteria that will make them unique and better as time goes on.
They say kids will do anything as long as it’s not what their parents did, and I fear the day of reckoning when my son comes of age, flips me the bird, shotguns a Bud Heavy, smashes the can on his head, and says he misses grandpa. But until then, I’m going to enjoy all that the craft beer world (and my basement) has to offer.