Craft Brews Create American ‘Beer Snobs’

Posted March 9th, 2015 at 12:25 pm (UTC-4)

(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

Even though it was part of the job, I have to confess that a recent assignment for, Craft Beer in America, was a true labor of love.

That’s because I’m a craft beer devotee, a “beer geek,” and have what I like to call a weekend “hobby job” at Washington D.C.’s newest craft brewery, Hellbender.

It was founded, like many crafter breweries, by two men who began as home brewers and decided to make it their business. Hellbender is named, by the way, after a large, endangered species of North American salamander.

Looking for more

My own interest in craft beer dates back to my college days in the late 1970s and early 80s. Like many college students, I drank a lot of beer. After a while, I remember thinking, Is this it? Is this all there is? I began looking for alternatives to the lagers that the big breweries were offering.

My home state of Wisconsin was blessed at the time with many small, regional breweries, but most of them offered variations on the same thing. Even the major European imports at the time, such as Heineken or St. Pauli Girl offered little diversity.

Guiness Stout offered me the first dramatically different taste in a beer. I was intrigued by its somewhat smoky, nutty flavor and it only made me thirsty for more.  In my late 20s, I discovered a wonderful imported beer store in Minneapolis and drank my first British ales and porters as well as German and Belgian styles. I remember thinking, Oh, THIS is what beer is supposed to taste like!

Self-described “beer geek” Jeff Custer, at Washington D.C.’s newest craft brewery, Hellbender.

Self-described “beer geek” Jeff Custer, at Washington D.C.’s newest craft brewery, Hellbender.

In my 30s, I started making my own beer, with mixed results. I made ales exclusively because they were, frankly, easier. It was certainly fun, but I knew others were doing it better.

In 1992, I visited Portland, Oregon, a city known at the time for its brew pubs, bars and restaurants that brewed and served their own beers. I was blown away. These brewers had taken those old European styles and put their own twists on them.

Hoppy flavor

One of the keystone craft beer varieties is the India Pale Ale–or IPA–known for its sharply bitter “hoppy” flavor. As the story goes, the style came about when British brewers prepared beer to export to colonists in India who craved their British beer. Hops, a flower, were known to have preservative properties, so the brewers doubled up on them in hopes of helping their export ale survive the long journey.

Legend has it that one of the ships carrying the brew wrecked in Ireland. When Irish beer drinkers tried the new beer, they assumed it was just another case of the Brits keeping the finest exports from them, further raising tensions between the two nations.

American craft brewers took the IPA recipe and ran wild with it, loading their beers with American varieties of British hops that carried stronger flavors. One of the more popular of those hop varieties is Cascade, named for the mountain range in the northwestern U.S., that is known for its strong, piney, almost citrusy flavor.

Many craft breweries seem to take pride in producing particularly strong versions of the beer, releasing special versions of the ales, known as Double or Imperial IPA’s, so-called “big” beers, that are intensely bitter and extremely potent, with around 10 percent in alcohol content. They carry names like “Hop Slam,” “Hop-a-licious” and even “Palate Wrecker.”

Life-changing brew

A seminal moment in my craft-beer drinking life came about eight years ago when I walked into my neighborhood beer store and was perusing their selection when someone came up behind me and said, “I see you are a discerning beer drinker. May I make some suggestions?”

I turned around to find a store employee wearing a name tag that read “Hoppy Dave.” Dave proceeded to introduce me to several varieties of craft beer that I had never tried before, several of which I continue to enjoy to this day.

Days later, when I went back in to thank him, he stopped me before I could speak and said, “I’ve got a beer that will change your life,” and shoved a six-pack of something called “Hedonsim Ale” into my hand. Dave was right, it was excellent.

From then on, once a week, I would walk into the store and ask Dave what beer he had that would change my life that week. More often than that, he would introduce me to a style or brand that I had never had before, and that I would love.

I wasn’t the only one from the neighborhood who had the same experience. Soon, on any given Saturday afternoon, you had to literally wait in line to consult Hoppy Dave about beer. He would recommend something or, if you had heard of a beer he did not carry, he would do what he could–including bending a few distribution laws–to get it for you. And his store profited as well, as Dave easily persuaded the neighborhood beer drinkers to pay up to $25 a six pack for the beers he suggested.

Hoppy Dave is gone now. His store refused him a raise despite the incredible beer business he generated, so he moved on. But his legend and his legacy live on, with guys like me, his beer-geek disciples.

We remain constantly on the look-out for the next craft beer that just might change our lives.

Jeff Custer
Jeff Custer has worked as a news writer, international broadcaster and digital video producer at VOA since 2001.

10 responses to “Craft Brews Create American ‘Beer Snobs’”

  1. Rick says:

    Still can’t understand folks who love “skim beer” which is the no-taste, clear, generics.

  2. Jordan Garvin says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I really enjoyed your article. I too am very excited to see where beer is headed and what has changed over the years. I must admit the change wall well underway in the states when I began my ventures away from the big breweries about 10 years ago. I’m from Minnesota and tried (and eventually completed) the World Beer Tour at Old Chicago in Minnesota. While many of 110 beers required to complete the tour were nothing too out of the ordinary, it opened my eyes what more could be out there. My first Boddingtons was an eye opener after going to college in Wisconsin and living off of whatever was cheap. In the same way you recall Hoppy Dave, I can still picture my server waiting for my reaction to my first pub ale. I knew I had a lot more exploring to do from then on.

    I still live in Minnesota and we have a thriving craft beer scene in the Minneapolis area where I reside. My go to is the Masala Mama IPA from Town Hall Brewery. Luckily their third location (a remodeled bowling alley) is walking distance from my home. If you make it back to Minneapolis, it’s worth a stop, as are many of the breweries in NE Minneapolis. If I make it to D.C. I’ll be sure to have Hellbender on my list.

    Thank you,

    Jordan Garvin

    • Rampant Lion says:

      I’m also from Minnesota…and Masala Mama IPA is my favorite from Town Hall Brewery. If you have not already done so, I would highly encourage you to try anything from Dangerous Man–the Single Hop (Citra) IPA I had there was spectacular. Steel Toe’s Size 7 and Size 9 are also excellent.

  3. Nelson says:

    This is the gold age of beer in America. It’s a great time to be alive (and drinking beer).

  4. Bo says:

    I love the article, but more specifically, I love the picture of the beer! That, as I’m sure you know, is The Church Brew Works from Pittsburgh, PA. As a transplant from Pittsburgh to Hampton Roads, VA, thank you for giving me a little bit of home. If you haven’t traveled this far south, we have some pretty great beer, with new breweries popping up or moving in within the year. The website I listed is our business which was consequently inspired by all of the craft beer we’ve been experiencing since moving south.
    Thanks again!

  5. Cannon says:

    Beer tastes are personal and subjective, Whether you’re a hopped up beer connoisseur or new to the world of craft beer there’s no better way to enjoy beer than to do it yourself … this is perhaps the most wonderful thing. Thank your shared!

  6. Upstate NY Craft Connoisseur says:

    Our local craft brewery has been so successful over the last decade using our local still pristine water sources, and specializing in Belgian Ales (and recently taken over by Duvel), that you can almost not get into tasting room now and it is America’s #1 craft brewery tour (ommegang) and just had second beer festival here locally and it was also very cool.

    A decade ago, when I first went there, the tour was just the actual brewery and the alcohol content so high, according to the tour guide, they could only distribute to a dozen states. Just like local wineries and cideries, this has all changed and can pretty much ship anywhere.

    However, due to the huge number of tourists almost year-round now, had to move on to another local new Certified Farm Brewery. It is also another form of Community-Supported Agriculture.

    This will be my new go-to since localism here is as big as organic.

    In this state, and as you learn at the local Farmers’ Museum, hops was the number one ag export around 1900, so everything old is new again and it is awesome.

    Finally, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, such that the majors are all now moving away from p!ss in a can to more nuanced flavors to follow ‘consumer preference’ and ‘market trends’. And I haven’t made it myself yet but you can buy local hops now in stores to make your own.

  7. Ryan says:

    Ok, this has bugged me for awhile. I am tired of the state of American craft brewing. It seems that it is a reaction against macrobrews; sort of like “all that they are, we will be against.” Many American craft beers lack balance. They seem all too eager to over hop beer or just make it stronger. It is easy to hide sophomoric brewing talent with hops and ridiculous malt bills. I am not picking on anyone in particular. When I lived in the UK, the beers had a character that was intangible; that is, a flavor that came not from the hops/malt/yeast themselves, but how they were treated and blended to make something, well…intangible. One that comes to mind is the “nuttiness” of Belhaven Scottish Ale. IPAs in the UK have WAY less hops than do American interpretations. They are much smoother with less alcoholic content; like Deuchar’s IPA from Scotland. Also, why do American brewers have carbonation levels on par with soda? Beer from a beer engine has much less carbonation and the beers flavor profile jumps out when pulled rather than poured from a standard tap. I feel like we are the cowboys of brewing; just making our beer bigger, hoppier, and as a result, predictable. There is some innovation but it usually is simply attempting to blend multiple styles (white IPA, black saison, india brown ale, etc…) or adding new ingredients to the grist (herbs, fruits, vegetables, etc…) Brewers with centuries of experience behind them can coax more flavors out of good old malt, hops, water, and yeast than can most of our breweries. It seems like we all have a brewpub near us now; I have yet to taste (with one exception) a brew in a British style that actually tastes like an authentic hand pulled Real Ale from the source of the style. This is not meant to annoy anyone as it is just my opinion. I am curious if anyone else has noticed what I perceive.

    • Rampant Lion says:

      The best beer for you are the ones you like. That being said, I’m not sure you understand the American craft brew “movement”. As a group, they are pushing traditional beer style boundaries to extremes, in pursuit of better and better taste. With certain exceptions, they DON’T CARE about adhering to a given style. They are experimenting…and with MUCH SUCCESS (even if not always). It is interesting that you pick your bone with IPAs, as many American craft beer IPAs are FAR SUPERIOR to the traditional British IPAs, in terms of taste (e.g., Odell IPA, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and HopSlam, Surly Furious and Abrasive, Oskar Blues G’Knight, Steel Toe Size 7, Dangerous Man’s Single-Hop IPA (with Citra)…I could go on and on).

      They are brewing craft beer as America likes it. If that is not your taste, so be it. If you are a stickler to traditional beer styles, I can respect that–just don’t condescend on those that have taken this style to new levels. Can I appreciate British traditional styles of beer? Absolutely! I have had a number of pulled beers and they were excellent (including a particular beer from a pub in Winchester, not far from Winchester Cathedral–“Her Majesty’s Bitters”, if I’m not mistaken, for instance). To disparage the American craft brew movement, due to non-adherence to traditional beer styles, though, totally misses the point.

      Craft brew aficionados are looking for the best tasting beers–bar none. They care little for traditional beer styles, unless that is their pursuit (i.e., best traditional style craft brew). Lagunitas comes to mind, here. I hope you understand my point.

      In any event…CHEERS!

      • ryan says:

        Well spoken, I can see your point and it was not my intention to disparage the American craft beer movement. I think it will be interesting to see where it continues to go. This certainly is a lively topic and I agree that America brews beers that Americans like, otherwise there would be no movement. Cheers to you as well!

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