(dana) Mon 11 May 09 12:01
It's a pleasure to welcome our next guest to the Inkwell. Brian Yaeger earned a Master in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California with a thesis on beer. He holds a double bachelors degree in Religious Studies and Russian from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a college renowned for its beer consumption. He can be found writing &/or drinking in the cafes &/or beer bars of San Francisco, or online at http://www.beerodyssey.com. Leading the discussion is our very own (alden), Andrew Alden. Andrew Alden is a science writer (geology.about.com) whose interest in beer spans the modern revival of American brewing. It began in the early 1970s with the common experience of opening a bottle of Coors, hand-carried from Colorado, and finding it even less interesting than Miller High Life. He came to California, tasted homebrew, made some himself, then resolved instead to support the work of the early Bay Area microbrewers. He is pleased to see that his quest for flavor, place and authenticity still appeals a generation later. Welcome, Brian and Andrew!
Andrew Alden (alden) Mon 11 May 09 14:07
Hello, Brian. I'm envious at what you did to create this book--you circled the United States, visiting a bunch of small and colorful breweries and pubs, sat down with their owners for interviews and drank a bunch of great beers, all on a shoestring budget. That's a fine daydream, but you had a good idea to tie it together--ask the brewers about their families. That lifts the whole thing into another plane, a case study of family businesses in one particular industry. Is that the idea you had at the beginning, or did you start out with a different plan?
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 01:24
Hello Andrew. First of all, thank you and The Well for having me. I very much like being interviewed from the comfort of my own home and get to discuss my trip around the country as my dog snores at my feet. I love your opening question because it's important to me that people know this is not a book replete with tasting notes on every beer out there, nor did I just cruise around from Brewery A to Brewery B to get schnockered. The plan for the book blitzkrieged my brain. It was one of those moments were I was talking out loud, to a room full of people, and once I said I was going to do it, I didn't want to chicken out. My initial plan was to visit and get to know all the multi-generational family-owned breweries, wherever they were, all across America. I had zero idea how many that might be. Well, it's not a very large number. In fact, it's Yuengling (PA), Straub (PA), F.X. Matt (NY), Schell (MN), and Leinenkugel (WI). (Some might argue that even Leinenkugel doesn't count since Miller bought them in 1988, but tell that to Jake Leinenkugel and his family, who I met in Chippewa Falls, WI. If there was a Miller left at Miller, I would've gone there instead.) Do August Busch IV or Peter Coors count for having appeared in TV spots in their Belgian and Canadian-owned breweries, respectively? Yeah, I suppose. My point is, if I wanted to road trip around the country, I had to expand my scope, otherwise I would've driven from Pottsville, Penn. to Chippewa Falls, then had a manuscript that only historians or grandpas in the Midwest would've been interested in. So I stuck with my core idea of getting to know the brewing industry as represented by family-businesses. The dream of being an entrepreneur and creating a legacy to hand down through the generations is quintessential American, but it's a dream that is rarely realized. And the brewing industry is as volatile as any. To ensure that the breweries I visited would still be brewing by the time the book came out, I selected ones that had been around for at least a decade and had smoothed out the rough spots. What inspired me was getting to write about each of their pasts and presents, and to have the owners speculate about their futures. Whether all or any of them will be around in 20 years, let alone still in family hands, well, all we can do is wait. And drink their beer to support them.
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 13 May 09 07:26
Before we go any further I wanted to thank you for introducing me to some great beers that are new to me. Like Leinenkugel's soft, delicious Sunset Wheat. Were beers like Leinenkugel's this good all along, or were they just lucky to survive until the craft beer market gave them a new chance to succeed? By the way, readers are invited to taste their way along with us. In fact, you have an appearance in Berkeley tonight if I'm not mistaken, although it's not at a family brewery.
(dana) Wed 13 May 09 10:11
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- please include "Red, White, and Brew" in the subject line.)
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 13 May 09 10:34
And throw in a sixpack, too.
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 11:17
Yes indeed, I will be at Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley at 7:30 tonight. They have a great upstairs deck and I'll be talking about the beer odyssey while drinking 3Rock beer. As for a family angle, it was started by the Martin brothers in 1986 making it the fifth oldest brewpub in the country. I don't know if Reid Martin is involved, but I know John Martin is still the owner. It's a funny thing about Leinenkugel's, or Leinie's as they say in the Northwoods, being available here for you and others to try. The brewery was founded in 1867 and quenched the thirsts of the lumberjacks in northwest Wisconsin. That's how it was for decades because beer would spoil before it could travel far. And beyond that, brewers respected each other's territory. That's all different today. Now, to increase sales, you need to attract new customers. Leinie's has been expanding their footprint for a while, but even as recently as my interview with Jake Leinenkugel and his father, Bill, who ran the company before him (who sadly passed away last year), Leinie's wasn't available in California. One reason it IS here, and in most of the country now, is that tasty Sunset Wheat. It's a Belgian Witbier, or White Ale. Orange peel and coriander are essential ingredients. The original brand, modeled after a nearly-extinct Belgian Hoegaarden style but it's Blue Moon, a subsidiary of Coors, that triggered the landslide of White beers. So your question is, were Leinie's beers this good all along or did the craft beer market give them a new chance, and the answer is both. Leinie's, from the get-go, strictly made traditional German beers. (Because the patriarch, Jacob Leinenkugel, came from Germany.) Side by side against the macro lagers of the mid-20th century, Leinie's line of lagers really stood out. Nowadays, it seems the brewery is, in a sense, a pawn of Miller so that they have a "microbrewery" in their portfolio and they are positioning Sunset Wheat to compete with Coors' Blue Moon. The kicker is that Miller and Coors merged their US operations, forming MillerCoors, so Sunset Wheat and Blue Moon are cousins. I turned my dad onto Sunset Wheat, then tried to ease him into other White beers like New Belgium's Mothership Wit one called Orchard White, which goes one step further by including lavender. This last one is from The Bruery in Orange County, CA, and is one year old. The owners are a married couple in their 20s with no kids yet, so we'll see where they go in 140 years like Leinenkugels. Theirs is my dad's favorite.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 13 May 09 11:41
Now hang on; the guy who started Hoegaarden (and revived the beer from a recipe his mailman, I think it was, remembered) sold it to Interbrew or some giant, then moved to Austin and started Celis Brewing Co. with his family. Tragic story, though: Miller bought it and shut it down. But Celis White was quite popular while the company was in existence. Might've started the trend in the States, I don't know.
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 11:51
The story of Pierre Celis and his incarnations of Witbier is a strange and fascinating one. I've never met him, but from what I've read, he seems to have always been one step ahead of the curve. From Hoegaarden in Belgium to Celis White in Texas and now to the Michigan Brewing Co. (the only one that has yet to be devoured by a corporate brewing entity), he is indeed the person that all White beer lovers have to thank. I just hope he sufficiently cashed in along the way.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 13 May 09 13:00
Hi Brian! I really enjoyed the book, both for the great family and company stories and for the humor. I have a lot of little post-it notes on my copy of the book -- the first of which is on the page for your gateway beer: Baltika. And in its home in Russia no less. I find Baltika 6 to be remarkably rewarding before even considering how inexpensive it is compared to many other complex brews. That's a distraction from the family histories and the road trip on the one hand, but it's such a core question for beer people that it's always fun to ask what brew turned you away from industrial American-style lagers. Nice one.
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 13:23
Thanks, Gail. I was 20 when I studied in Russia, so my beer drinking career previously had been limited to whatever showed up in front of me. And like most American underaged drinkers (and many who are of age), that meant copious amounts of the cheapest swill possible. In my case, Natty Light. It wasn't until I went on the Budweiser tour in St. Louis after my 22nd b-day that I discovered Natural Light is an A-B brand. It just hammers home the point that when it comes to beer, unless you take the time to do some exploring, you'll likely only choose from the highly marketed and distributed products. As for Russia, there was no such thing as marketing. We drank Baltika because that's what was showing up at all the kiosks. (Unlike in the US, we didn't need a fake ID or to ask anyone over 21 to go buy us beer.) At the time, our only choices were Baltika 1, 2, 3, and 4 (so we "splurged" on 4 even though it was 80 cents for a pint-sized bottle, whereas the lower the number, it was roughly a nickel cheaper. Baltika 6, the Porter, is a favorite of mine to this day. But it's no Anchor Porter.
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 13 May 09 13:39
You found a wonderful variety of business models among just a dozen or so different companies. Maybe they suggest a life cycle of the family brewery: you start with the founder, who either starts or revives a small company. The Widmer brothers would be starters (Widmer Brothers Brewing, Portland OR) and Joe and Kendra Bruno would be revivers (Dixie Brewing, New Orleans). Some firms mature into stable, long-lived entities hosted in a small city, like Yuengling in Pottsville, PA or Spoetzl (makers of Shiner) in Shiner, TX. After that they either grow big and get bought out, or fall prey to decay and neglect, like some ancient royal family. Does that make any sense? Some of your most interesting chapters involved those mature brewers in their chosen towns. They reminded me of medieval hilltop villages in Italy, or those Belgian lambic barns where the very timbers are infused with the special yeasts that make the beer special. I get a sense that it takes a village to sustain a family business. Can Yuengling and Pottsville ba separated, or will it kill them both?
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 13 May 09 13:57
Anchor is such a great story in so many ways, and the more I learn about beer the more I appreciate the Porter, Steam, those crazy Christmas beers, their old-world style Barleywine and the lot. But your quotations from Fritz Maytag are amazing. That must have been so much fun!
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 13 May 09 13:59
(Ooops, <alden> slipped ahead of me while I was typing, with a great question about Place.. there's time for talking about Anchor later.)
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 14:34
Can Yuengling and Pottsvile be separated or would it kill them both? Intriguing question. There's no doubt the Yuengling breweries (they built a second one just a few miles from the original) are the lifeblood of the town. One of the handful of reasons I picked the breweries I did is that they are inextricably linked to their birthplaces. In the case of Yuengling, America's oldest surviving brewery dating back to 1829, one thing I researched about Pottsville is its rollercoaster ride of boom and bust. Not pertaining to beer, but coal. Pottsville enjoyed great fortune when coal was king. I can't imagine the whole town would dry up if the brewery left, but it would be a near-fatal blow in terms of employment and "tourism." It's not even on an Interstate highway. As for Yuengling, the company also has a third production facility in Tampa, FL. To think that it is the 6th or 5th largest brewery in the country and only available along the Eastern seaboard is staggering. They have proven that they can brew the beer anywhere, heaven forbid they should get outta Dodge. But their chapter ends with a visit to the town cemetery where founder David Yuengling is buried, along with his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. It is where the current president Dick Yuengling will be buried. So, ultimately, while both COULD survive without the other, I'd say they are permanently interwoven in a symbiotic relationship. David Geary put it best in chapter 2, People want to know that their beer comes form a good place and that it has some history and some provenance." It's no wonder most craft breweries are named for where they're from and many are named after the founders. Anyone can make a Porter using roasted barley malt or a Witbier using orange peel or coriander, but it's the people and the places that provide the final ingredient, the x-factor, that gives a beer its character.
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 14:42
I probably could've written a whole book about any of the families and breweries I visited. In fact, the main reason I didn't seek to write at length about A-B or Coors was because there already are whole books devoted to them. (Under the Influence by Peter Hernon and Citizen Coors by Dan Baum, respectively.) And of course, Sam Calagione already wrote a book about himself... but location-wise and direction-wise, Dogfish Head was a natural conclusion for the book. All this to say that if I were to write about just one person and one brewery, it would have to be Fritz Maytag and Anchor Steam. Incidentally, he has more tricks up his sleeve...
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 13 May 09 15:47
I hope he never runs out. But I hope he revives teh Potrero Commons Ale; that was outstanding. Fritz Maytag is sort of the Craig Newmark (Craigslist) of brewing. His case is that of a scion to the familiy business (washign machines and blue cheese) who continued in family business, but in a different product line. A fascinating parallel case might be Lexington Brewing Co. in Lexington, KY. It's a teeny side project by an enormously successful yeast technologist, who flew in in his private jet for your interview. His son is in training (or was when you were there) and might move into that little niche gold- plated brewery that his dad picked up out of bankruptcy on a whim.
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Wed 13 May 09 16:37
My goal was to find very disparate characters to illustrate that, while these people have one primary similarity in that they make beer for all of us, they arrived there through various paths. I wanted to show that unlike the beer barons of old, who essentially share the same story (emigrate from Germany, take their brewing knowledge to start a new life, grow fabulously wealthy by offering essentially the same-tasting industrial lager), that the new brewers on the block--even if their companies have been around for generations--are doing things their own way. It's sort of like beer styles. They all fit under the umbrella of "beer," but am amber lager is as different from an imperial stout as Dick Yuengling is from Sam Calagione. Those two guys live less than 200 miles apart, but represent polar opposite ends of the exact same industry. As for Maytag, he is another common denominator, in that I'd argue without him, perhaps none of them would be where they are.
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 13 May 09 17:36
Hi Brian. I don't have a copy of the book, but I wanted to say that this interview is fascinating. I never knew there would be so much to say about beer and the people who make it! Reading along avidly...
John A. Morris (johnmorris) Wed 13 May 09 18:09
In 1998-99 the Undermain Theater in Dallas got a Federal Grant to support a play writing class. The artistic director, Katherine Owens, got two young playwrites, Octvio Solis and Eric Ehn, to come and lead the seminar. The two began a process and quickly took it on the roads of Texas. For a while they called in their progress and the seminarians discussed and noted. Finally they, took to passing a spiral notebook back and forth across the table in greasy spoons and honky tonks and wrote, one line at a time, a rock and roll musical about serial killings, capitol punishment, severe physical disability, bad divorce, suicide, justice, retribution and beer. The interlocutor, the Greek chorus, is the Ram on the Shiner Bock Bottle. The last line of the play, spoken at the State Fair in Dallas, is an answer to the question "Why Shiner?" "Because it is God's favorite Beer." http://www.undermaintheatrearchive.org/archive/production/1998-1999/shiner/ind ex.html http://tinyurl.com/pc7w22 (J. Morgan Rowe-Morris in the production credits is our very own Rowe-Morris)
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 13 May 09 21:51
John, you would enjoy the chapter on Shiner. There's nothing in Shiner but ranches and the Spoetzl brewery: "It is very much a family-oriented business, nestled in a town with fewer residents than students in my entire high school." Brian notes that the brewery will be 100 years old in 2009, and in anticipation theyhave been releasing new beers each year: a marzen in 2005 and then a schwarzbier (probably like the "1554" black ale produced by New Belgium, another business Brian visited). That one was such a hit that it's part of the permanent Shiner portfolio. One of the beautiful things about the new beer movement is its freedom to experiment. That surely stems from its roots in the homebrew movement. The national homebrewers' society had its national meeting in Oakland, I think just last month. Brian, was that a destination for you? I was intrigued to learn that you had never made your own beer until just a few months ago. Whereas when I came up, homebrewing was the only way to try new flavors, and it was the best way to educate your palate. My first batch was made from a "Geordie" kit, a box of malt powder and hop pellets produced in England that I picked up at a yard sale. When I interviewed microbrew pioneer Jack McAuliffe in 1981, up in Sonoma, he told me that his first batch was a Geordie kit too. It made a fair English bitter and it imprinted me with the flavor profile of English hops, such a contrast to the bracing West Coast style.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 14 May 09 02:10
Nothing in Shiner but ranches and Spoetzel? I haven't been there in a while, but is the wire factory gone? They made outdoor trash baskets for cities, and after learning that, I kept seeing them around and sure enough, made in Shiner, Texas. It isn't a very big place nonetheless.
John A. Morris (johnmorris) Thu 14 May 09 05:27
Here's a question. I grew up in Colorado and, believe it or not, didn't know any adults who could stomach Coors. The local beer, from Pueblo CO, was Walters Bock. My dad drank it and all his buddies did too and it was my first beer. The brand disappeared but for years you could find "house beers" that were brewed there. Do you know if it survives as a brewery?
Brian Yaeger (brianyaeger) Thu 14 May 09 12:45
In order of comments received: LINDA, thanks very much. My fear was that people would dismiss a whole book about beer as being "just a book about beer." Somehow, even though I grew up in Los Angeles, I adopted a Norman Rockwellian view of America so I'm glad that I got to write about families and small-business owners (some of whom have grown into large-business owners) as told through beer bottle glasses. JOHN, Awesome intro for a killer punchline. What I wouldn't give to see that production. And I can assure you that deep in the heart of Texas, the locals will confirm that Shiner is God's favorite beer. If you can find it, try their new Commemorator Dopplebock (aka "100"). It's like Shiner Bock, but double. ANDREW, I'm flabbergasted that you interviewed Jack McAuliffe back in 1981. Wish I was a fly on that wall. Is there anywhere I can read the story that resulted or the contents of that interview? In contrast to my West Coast lifestyle and sensibilities, my first batch of homebrew was a British ESB (it stands for Extra Special Bitter, but bitter it's not). Kent Golding hops! And after a playful experiment gone awry, my plan is to now brew several Pale Ales using one single hop variety to enhance my understanding of what different hops contribute. I always scratch my head at Double IPAs with 10 different hops. ED, Kaspar Wire Works is still in Shiner! I mentioned it in the book since it is actually the #1 employer in Shiner, pop. 2070. What killed me is that the current brewmaster, Jimmy Mauric, started working at the brewery (the #2 employer in town) after his siblings. He worked his way to the top, and they now work at Kaspar Wire Works. After a long hot day in the factory, which would you rather take home? A trash basket or a case of beer? Back to JOHN, I, too, found it funny that Coors doesn't get the same love in Colorado that Bud gets in Missouri. I chalk it up to the "Coors Mystique" before it was available nationally, where everyone else knew there was nothing special about Miller and Schlitz and Stroh's, so that Coors stuff must be something special. As for Walters Bock, I have never heard of it and doubt it survived. Most of those old brands that have survived (ie: Schlitz) do so b/c the brands were purchased by Pabst (who contract brews through Miller). So if you find yourself in Washington and spot a can of Ranier or order an Old Style in Chicago, thank Pabst/MillerCoors. Incidentally, since this is a behind the scenes discussion about the book, there's a Milwuakee interlude where I visit the ghost town that is the old Pabst brewery as well as the Pabst Mansion. I learned that there is one surviving Pabst who had worked at the brewery who is now a retired race car driver living in Wisconsin. I tried to track him down and meet with him, but it didn't happen.
John A. Morris (johnmorris) Thu 14 May 09 13:06
I enlisted in the Army in September of 1960 and my first destination after drawing uniforms was Ft Hood TX. The bus full of Colorado boys stopped in alittle town in the Oklahoma Pan Handle and the driver announced that this was the last chance to buy Coors. He went in and got two cases but all of us bought the Texas beers we couldn't get at home like Pearl and Jax.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 14 May 09 13:50
There is something so special about "can't get it anyplace else." The restrictions on liquid carry-ons on arilines, and the new charging for suitcases make it tougher, but I know there are many people who seek out unusual local beers when they travel and bring them back to taste with friends. (Right now I like to travel with cans from 21st Ammendment IPA to give to people outside of California, since it is one of the two big IPAs in cans that I know about, and the other, from Caldera in southern Oregon, can't be found here!) The old Coors availability stories are very funny. I worked in a bar in Yosemite when I was in college, and we could not carry Coors because beer had to be stored at room temperature then chilled. They would not allow their beer to be warm then cold, or so I was told. Still, the only good beer we had to offer was Anchor Steam. I share your confusion about hop varieties and flavors, Brian. Recently I judges a prelim round of "California commons" beers at the World Cup of Beer homebrew competition. I tasted Anchor Steam first for calibration, then started judging. A nice beer with a very different hop flavor was up first, and I confidently noted that it would be better with the traditional Northern Brewer hops you can taste in Anchor Steam. I was judging with a judge who makes a lot of California Common himself at home. (Anchor trademarked "Steam" beer, so it is not proper to use it as a regular beer style even when working with the same hops, malts and yeast! It's been dubbed California Common in generic use.) My fellow judge told me that the very different floral flavor was indeed Northern Brewer. Fortunately that beer (with my dumb remark going back to the brewer!) still ranked well enough to be passed on to the next round. (Being a beginning beer judge has its daunting moments.) I wanted to ask about "tmi" moments. The funny and delicate one is you describe hearing D.L.Geary tell about a former consultant having an affair with his then-wife and still business partner Karen. I love that he mentions that fact and then immediately expands the accusation to "...steal from me, betray me, start up a million microbreweries using the same yeast, the same recipes." Your description of avoiding spewing your beer when he said that was priceless. Were there other revelations that were so private that you left them out of the book?
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