February 25, 2006

Great American Beer Fest 05

It seems to me from people’s beer-drinking habits that it doesn’t matter if a brew is good or bad, just that it is. I think you can divide beer drinkers into two camps: those who love a great tasting pint of suds for which they’ll pay a premium price, and those who love to down can after can of brewski so ya might as well drink the cheapest stuff available. An aspiring beer snob, I place myself in the first group, so it was an irony-laced moment when, faced with 1,669 different beers all free for the asking, I went with the Schlitz Malt Liquor. What’s with the all the beer, you ask? Let me back up just a tad. Tuesday, I found out about the Great American Beer Festival, the Brewers Association’s 24th annual. Wednesday I cancelled all my plans and booked a ticket (sorry, Mom, I’ll make up missing your birthday to you later). Thursday I arrived in Denver, thirst in tow.

If I’m going to write a book on family-run breweries in America, I’ve got to dedicate myself to my research. This was purely a fact-finding mission, y’see. I’m willing to thrust myself into the trenches, and if sampling beer from more than 380 U.S. breweries is what I’ve got to do, then I become a martyr I shall. Which brings me back to the Schlitz Malt Liquor. In the mid 19th century, breweries were at an all-time high with over 4,000 in the U.S. There was a mass exodus from Germany and they mostly sailed to the New World. Breweries were entirely regional and the thought of selling their craft outside their city limits was unthinkable. Many of these Prussian emigrants settled in Milwuakee and Minnesota and if there’s one thing you can say about them—they know their beer. It may seem like a joke now, but the biggest and best breweries around there, around then, were Pabst, Schlitz, Strohs, and Best (as in, Milwuakee’s Best). At some point, they were all interconnected through mergers and marriages. Later, they all fell under the umbrella of Miller Brewing Co. Today, there’s not a single Pabst or Best or Miller involved in the brewing. Philip Morris Co. bought out Miller in 1971 and South African Brewing Co. took it over in 2002 for over $5 billion. SABMiller puts out scores of beers, everything from Amstel Light to Zubr (a Polish Lager). With the media pass I wangled from the Brewers Association publicist, I was allowed into the Denver Convention Center early and watched as reps and volunteers scrambled to set up their tables with all the breweries arranged by region. I found myself shaking hands with Bob, brewmaster at Pabst. He was sad that he couldn’t be more help in finding a family connection for me, although there is an August Pabst out there who at one point worked in the brewery from which we all enjoy our PBR today. Seems like I’ll have to expand the scope of my project beyond families with a brewing heritage. Then there was a great clamor, it was 5:30, and the taps were opened. I requested a sip of the “Tragicallly Unhip” Schlitz Malt Liquor (they’re own admission which they emblazoned on their stickers) and can now say from experience why I’ve never had it before.

I say I had “a sip,” because it is fest policy to only pour one ounce samples. All the tables even have buckets in case you don’t want to finish it. One ounce. Sixteen hundred and sixty-nine beers. If you could sample each one, you’d drink 100 pints of beer and you can imagine what would happen with the 69 ounces leftover. Every kind of beer imaginable was represented: lagers; ales; stouts; and porters. They had one of my perennial favorites, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (Chico, CA was in the house) but they had some outrageous beers that knocked my lederhosen off. Natty Greene’s Brewing Co. from Greensboro, NC brought an amazing smoked porter. Pitch as night but not sweet like most porters, this smokey concoction could quench my thirst anytime. From Lexington, the Kentucky Brewing Co. poured the one new beer I’ll never be able to forget. Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. They ferment this ale in retired bourbon barrels and the result is one whiskey and beer fans should both agree on. Although the brewery was founded in 1794, it has undergone all sorts of changes of ownership and is run by a local yeast company since 1980. While it’s not family-owned, it’d be a hell of a great excuse to visit the bluegrass state on my roadtrip. Maybe I’ll suggest to them a mint julep ale.

Each year the festival surpasses its own Guinness World Record for most beers tapped in one location. An odd thing about this variety is that breweries sometimes bring their seasonal selections, so it’s a bit disconcerting to taste a summer ale, Oktoberfest ale and holiday ale all at the same time. The difference is usually just the way they roast the barley or stew up the hops. One question reps like to ask when pouring for inquisitive or just wishy-washy tasters is if they like hops. I apparently don’t because I’ve never been a fan of India Pale Ales which are hoppier than your standard ale. So when I saw the amount of Double IPAs available…well…that’s just too damn hoppy for me.

There were a lot of fruity options available, brewed with varying degrees of success. No fear of being labeled poofy, the Mash House Brewing Co.’s peach hefeweizen from a brewpub in Fayetteville, NC was deliciously refreshing. The Widmer Bros. Brewing Co., on the other hand, actually credited with brewing the first hefeweizen in America, bombed big time with their Cherry Bomb, a Belgian-style ale so tart and nasty, it tasted like a beer filtered through a sour cherry pie.

The mountain west contains as many craft breweries as the north central plains and north east coast and Coors Brewing Co. is the granddaddy of them all. (I’m currently reading Citizen Coors which is absolutely fascinating. The way Adolph Coors and his offspring changed the brewing industry time and time again is incredible and the Coors men are equally worthy of respect as well as the title “supreme assholes.”) The first brewery in the Rockies opened in 1859. Coors’s opened in 1873. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Boulder Beer Co. opened, which is now the oldest microbrewery in Colorado today. Perhaps it was the ounce of their Hazed & Infused that pushed me toward the bathrooms for the first time of the night. I’d say two full hours of sampling beer is not bad bladder control, but of course with an expected attendance of 28,000 imbibers, I didn’t find relief until almost 8.

To justify this trip as a tax write-off, I dutifully took notes (with increasingly decreasing legibility) while most of the other fest-goers dutifully got faschnockered. Whenever someone dropped his or her plastic tasting glass, everyone hollered “Whooooooooo.” By night’s end, the whoos were so frequent and scattered; if they were visible they would’ve given someone with epilepsy seizures. Seasoned attendees wore homemade pretzel necklaces. One girl who forgot this fashionable and pragmatic accessory walked up to the Yazoo Brewing Co. table while I was chatting with Linus Hall, founder and brewmaster who upgraded from homebrewing to microbrewing in Nashville in 2003. He poured me some of his gold-medal winning hefeweizen (earned at last year’s GABF, which is not a bad way to introduce yourself your first year running) from one of the four pitchers in front of him. “Is this the Tennessee Brewery? Where’s all the beer at?” the girl asked. Linus and I both looked down at the table and I said, “It’s not like they’re hiding it” to which she responded, “I dunno. I thought maybe they were Jewish in Tennessee.” I mused to myself that whoever bought this blonde her big, fake tits could’ve made a wiser investment.

In a far corner a stage was set up for bands. There was another stage set up in the middle for cooking lessons—cooking with beer! By the time I decided to try something solid since my breakfast pizza at LAX that morning, they were on dessert. Dessert with beer?? Hell yeah!! I missed the demonstration, but arrived just in time to get a plate of something like bread pudding with chocolate chunks in it a la mode. The ice cream was cinnamon ice cream with pumpkin ale adding further nutmeg and allspice flavor to it. Then it was topped with bananas flambĂ©ed in more pumpkin ale and—now this isn’t just all the beer talking but maybe it is—it was fucking goooooooood.

Beer makes people happy. Astronauts at the space station must’ve been wondering what that glow was emanating from the Rocky west.

The Papago Brewing Co. from Scottsdale, AZ was pouring a barley wine with 9.6% alcohol. It had nothing on Chimay, which was originally brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium, but it was good. I enjoyed my shot of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine, too, which kept me warm while I waited around a bit to shake Jim Koch’s hand. The founder, brewer, and spokesman for Samuel Adams was pouring his new Black Lager (schwartz lagers were somewhat popular at the fest) between bouts of signing autographs and chit-chatting with judges. He wrote down his marketing director’s contact information for me and said that when I roll into Boston, he’d be happy to sit down with me for my book. It’s true that he developed Samuel Adams Lager from an old family recipe he found.

My last introduction for the night was with Sam Calagione who was signing copies of his new book, Brewing Up a Business. Sam started Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in 1995 in Rehoboth Beach, DE, the first state’s first brewpub. It’s grown leaps and bounds through brewing great beers and insanely brilliant marketing. If you’d like to try America’s strongest beer, pass up their Raison D’Etre and go straight to the Raison D’Extra. Ranging from 17-21 percent alcohol by volume, this 40 proof beer will floor you on the drop. My buddy won some when his team placed first after going undefeated last month at Dogfish Head’s first annual costume bocce ball tournament. I can’t wait to tell you more about them after I cruise into the beachside brewpub where Sam said he’ll have a cold one waiting for me as we work on that chapter.

Then the lights got a bit brighter. A tide of inebriation started flowing toward the exit. One girl exclaimed “I’m in hhhheaven” as she stumbled away—or intentionally did a little jig. I walked all the way back to my hostel (drunk dialing everyone I know along the way). There were two people about to head out to a diner so I joined them. After telling them all about this book I’m working on, they both mentioned that they’re in AA but no longer in CA. Over eggs, homefries, pancakes and toast, I told them about how my road trip will work; over coffee and cigarettes Ann told me that she can’t vote because she went to prison for drunk driving. I promise to be safe. For the rest of you, reading my book will be the only time when drinking and driving mix.

Robert Newman, Brewmaster from Pabst, interlude:
Pabst brewing is owned by a charity in CA.
“August Pabst lives in Oconowoc, WI. He was employed at the brewery when I worked there until the charity owned Pabst. But he was more of a figurehead for the last 10 years more than anything. Even in the ‘60s Pabst wasn’t owned by the Pabst family anymore. It was owned by a businessman in Chicago. He owned the controlling stock. And now, nobody owns it. It’s not a stock-owned company. It’s operated by the charity.

Basically the mergers & acquisitions in the 60s, 70s, and 80s is what did it. Even the Stroh family sold out to Pabst in 1999.

There’s a book out on Pabst that I think was written in the 70s (Pabst Brewing Company).

That brand’s contracted out. (SAB)Miller makes 99 percent of our beers.” And with that, a gentleman of no discerning taste asked Bob if the can in front of him could be opened and enjoyed, and the brewmaster obliged.

Men’s room quote interlude:
“Hey guys, flush twice. It’s a long way to the Coors brewery.”