(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

Even though it was part of the job, I have to confess that a recent assignment for voanews.com, 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.