This week, I’ve had meetings of import with electricians, conservation experts, an architect, metal fabricators and several small squirrels formerly residing under our family’s decadent—as in, grandly decaying—1912 craftsman barn. I’ve pulled weeds in 100-degree heat, euthanized rodents and inhaled the blue-black dust of freshly cut steel. I’ve pleaded with federal agents scrutinizing my plans for professional fermentation, page by painstaking page. I’ve sampled homemade, exploratory alcohols, gazed up at the blue moon and Jupiter rising and worried myself to fitful sleep over everything from the shape of a bottle to paying back investors and, more to the point, the day we’ll finally set as our “grand opening.” And while every one of these things could be true of a winery and vineyard plot somewhere in the world’s luckiest latitudes, there’s one factor that sets breweries apart: the freedom to do this quite literally anywhere.
I’m building my small craft brewery where I grew up, on my family’s old hazelnut farm (as a lease-holder, renting out its hundred-year old barn), but I could have picked any business park cul-de-sac to get started. Instead of the “divine right of kings” sort of lineage that drives some other alcoholic industries—you’d have to be born fabulously rich to own a single row in one of Bordeaux and Burgundy’s most hallowed parcels—beer, the great equalizer, gives everybody, at least, a fair shake; at most, a shot at glory. This, I’ve realized, is what’s made the meteoric rise of craft beer possible.
You can easily go out and buy one of the best beers in the world for under $15. You can dare to brew your own take on that beer using rudimentary equipment (I started in my dorm room with some cheap plastic tubs as fermenters), and anyone can buy the grain, hops and yeast needed to brew a good, even a great, beer. In fact, until recently—and things may be changing a bit, with the gold rush attitude going on, and the inevitable swooping-in of various overcompensated fools—your average craft brewer made beer as a passion first, with just a couple hundred bucks in gear and a dog-eared tome by Charlie Papazian.
An approving back-porch tasting here, a medal there, maybe a job in a cellar and, pretty soon, these guys (and, increasingly, women) are standing not only in their own breweries, but on the world’s biggest stage for beer at this point—the World Beer Cup, an American contest in which craft brewers compete against each other and the top European forebears. In spring 2016, at the World Beer Cup’s Philly contest, when an American brewer (inevitably) takes one of the most prestigious categories, oh, how the cheers will roar like a mighty river. It’s a beautiful thing.
Scores at the apex of today’s industry don’t have brewing degrees, or even college degrees. And it’s not that brewing is easy. It’s that the raw materials for brewing beer are relatively easy to come by. Knowledge is almost always shared. You can buy a ticket to a good beer fest, walk up to Yoda and quiz him. Brewers, with incredible frequency, collaborate instead of compete. How many wine labels have you seen where two rival winemakers from the same AVA, or even region, share the credit?
It sounds old-mannish to say this at 41—eh, OK, who am I kidding?—but in my day there wasn’t much of a professional brewing class. There were 600 American craft breweries when I graduated from college, and breweries were treated by the media as cute trend story items instead of the engines of a $5-billion industry they now drive. After graduation, my best friends went off to sail tall wooden sailing ships (really), wait tables and study up for medical school. I took off for a year in Europe and learned to make beer on a Watson Fellowship, which set the course for the rest of my life.
What I returned to, a year later, in the fall of 1997, was an industry in chaos. Growth had flatlined as supply outpaced demand. I applied to almost every brewery in Portland—there were perhaps 15 then—and didn’t get any offers. (I ended up as a cellar hand in a winery, which was a great start on its own.) But it was a blip. Today, Portland has over 85 breweries. There are 3,500 nationwide (with 2,000 to come) many in cities and regions where the phrase “craft brewery” itself would have elicited a wary “say what, now?” only a couple years ago. Rural Louisiana, suburban Arizona, Anchorage, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom—even Tulsa. Five of the best breweries in the world call those zip codes home. Far from Munich, indeed.
The best part? The people making it all happen come from a glorious range of professions. There are more than a few lawyers and money men trading wingtips for welding visors. But many come from humbler quarters. Among the brewers I know are individuals who were, formerly: a philosophy teacher, a ski patroller, a carpenter and a firefighter. Scores at the apex of today’s industry don’t have brewing degrees, or even college degrees. And it’s not that brewing is easy; it’s that the raw materials for brewing beer are relatively easy to come by. Knowledge is almost always shared. You can buy a ticket to a good beer fest, walk up to Yoda and quiz him. Brewers, with incredible frequency, collaborate instead of compete. How many wine labels have you seen where two rival winemakers from the same AVA, or even region, share the credit?
Collaboration, experimentation, starry-eyed dreaming—all the elements are there. Much more difficult is combining the base ingredients into beer that holds its own not only on the back porches of the world, but maybe, just maybe, every two years against brands that have dominated the shelves for centuries. Who knows where my little salvo into the stars is going to end up? I feel lucky to be doing it at all. Because, ultimately, the genius of beer is that it’s largely driven by the pursuit of contentment, not status. To the beer-hoarding, black-marketing beer collectors of the world I say: Just drink it already! Life is short.
I’d like to think that’s what Don Younger would say, too. As the brewery nears that “grand opening” I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the summer I spent working for Younger, a craft beer legend who cut a swath for Portland’s beer pioneers, driving a beat-up old Rolls Royce back and forth from his local-brewer-friendly joint, The Horse Brass, puffing a cigarette with a mischievous grin and a glint in his eye. I’d gone to his smoke-gilded bar as a beseeching newbie, and he’d served me a lot of beer, tolerating my eager questions, eventually hiring me to assist (as in, stuff cardboard boxes) at his new venture, Belmont Station, a bottle and gift shop that today is one of the best beer bars anywhere. He loved to say about the burgeoning industry, rather cryptically, “It isn’t about the beer … It’s about the beer.” (Clink.) What on earth was he saying—that the greatness of beer lies in that it can be both the journey and the destination? That drinking delicious creations with friends is not to be overanalyzed? Either way, he was right.