Brewers Who March to a Different Beat
In his charming book, Great American Eccentrics, Carl Sifakis defines his subject matter thusly: “The true eccentric follows his own rules of conduct 24 hours a day—because he knows his code is the right one and everyone else is wrong; because he does not want to compete by conventional standards; or because eccentricity seems the only way to gain recognition as an individual.”
America, writes Sifakis, was once truly gifted with nonconformists: hermits and itinerant preachers, flat-earth believers, nostrum peddlers and hoarders of string. Today, he claims, society is less likely to tolerate its eccentrics: “If you are poor and act bizarrely, you’re crazy and perhaps dangerous.”
Sifakis, if he had examined the craft brewing industry, might have changed his mind. The country is dotted with small brewers who entered the market without the benefit of a consumer survey. Their products defy stylistic guidelines. Their labels and packaging are over the top. Their marketing practices are unorthodox, to say the least.
Their numbers include a southern Californian entrepreneur who believes customers should earn the right to drink his beer; a stubborn German immigrant who established the East Coast’s first brewpub in a semidry town in Southern Baptist country; brewers who adhere to the Neinheitsgebot instead of the Reinheitsgebot, using nontraditional ingredients like saffron, rose petals, even garlic.
And they’re not only surviving, they’re thriving.
Magical Mystery Tour
Vermonters have an independent streak. Senator Jim Jeffords made that clear when he bolted the Republican Party, tipping the balance of power in the US Senate. To honor Jeffords, Alan Newman—president of the Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, VT—released a commemorative brew, an English mild dubbed Jeezum Jim. (“Jeezum” is a mild epithet in the local dialect.) “They’re really getting a kick out of it,” he says of Jeffords’s staff.
Newman is quite the nonconformist himself. I met him for the first time in April 2000 at the National Beer Wholesalers/Brewers Joint Legislative Conference in Washington, DC. With his flowing beard and floral-print shirt, he stood out like a mast in a sea of business suits. Newman made one concession to decorum: he wore shoes. “I frequently go barefoot,” he said.
Before he founded Magic Hat with partner Bob Johnson in 1994, Newman already had six start-ups to his credit (“a serial entrepreneur” is what the Wall Street Journal called him). His previous venture was Seventh Generation, a mail-order firm supplying environmentally friendly products like recycled writing paper and water-saving shower heads. Alan’s hippie sensibilities are currently reflected in his beer labels, which lean toward surrealistic, occasionally vertigo-inducing designs.
Magic Hat’s best-selling beer is 9, a “not quite pale ale” with a spritz of apricot essence. The hops and fruit meld seamlessly. “I can look people straight in the eye and say, ‘You’ll never have another beer like this,’” he boasts.
Newman has an affinity for the number nine: he markets his beers in nine-packs as well as the usual increments of six. Ask him about 9, however, and he’ll tell you it’s named neither for the Beatles’ Revolution No. 9, nor for the rock ’n roll standard, “Love Potion No. 9.” Newman cautions against reading deep meanings into his beer monikers, which include Jinx (a peat-smoked ale), Blind Faith (an IPA) and Humble Patience (an Irish-style red ale). “If we ever get famous, we’re going to have to hire someone to write stories to go with the names.”
The Magic Hat website at www.magichat.com is a psychedelic experience in itself. In addition to the t-shirts and mugs for sale, you’ll see a very unusual collateral item: prophylactic devices. “Instead of going into a bar with jiggly women in skimpy t-shirts, I give away condoms,” says Newman, who works with the AIDS awareness group, Vermont Cares.
“Our goal is to keep our customers alive and healthy,” he explains.” If we support the community, the community will support us.”
Magic Hat paced New England breweries with 21 percent growth last year, boosting output to 26,000 barrels. “My goal is to be an international brand,” says Newman. “We’ve got a quirky niche and I think our brands will resonate with people in Athens, GA, as well as in Athens, Greece.”
The Brewer with the Midas Touch
When Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats opened in 1995 in the resort community of Rehoboth Beach, DE, it was probably the smallest brewery in America. Owner Sam Calagione brewed twice a day, six days a week, in 12-gallon batches. “When you brew that often, you get bored with the same recipes,” he recalls. So Calagione began to tweak the formulas with whatever was handy in the kitchen. That’s how he developed his penchant for oddball beers.
Calagione is basking in the limelight for Midas Touch, a spiced golden ale inspired by a beverage served at the funeral of the legendary King Midas some 2,700 years ago. Based on an analysis of the residue on ancient pottery shards, the recipe calls for Muscat grapes, honey and saffron. The beer—which tastes something like a pear cider, but with a drier finish—is available in clear-glass, corked champagne bottles throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and in a few more remote markets like Chicago and California.
“There’s no use in doing what’s been done before,” says Sam. His Chicory Stout includes a pinch of St. John’s wort, an herb said to have antidepressant properties. Raison d’Etre, which is vying with Dogfish Head’s Shelter Pale Ale for best-selling brand, is a Scotch-style ale brewed with beet sugar and green raisins. Immort-Ale is a barley wine-strength ale flavored with vanilla beans, maple syrup and juniper berries.
Last year Sam had a brainstorm: he’d do a 60 Minute IPA, which would receive a hop addition every minute during the hour-long boil. His brewers, however, complained about having to hover over the kettle for so long dropping in the hops. So Calagione decided to automate. He punched some holes in a bucket filled with hops and attached it to one of those vibrating electric football games that you might have played with when you were eight or nine. That contraption conked out when it got wet. Undaunted, Sam rigged a new device from a screw augur to release a steady stream of hop pellets into the brew. He also uses it for 60 Minute IPA’s big brother, 90 Minute IPA.
Calagione graduated from college in 1992 with a master’s in fine arts. “I liked brewing better than writing,” he says of his career choice. He named the brewpub (and the microbrewery that he opened in Lewes, DE, in 1997) after a narrow sliver of land on the Sheepscot River in Maine, where he idled away the summer as a boy.
Sam has made the national media on a number of occasions. His Midas Touch has been featured on “The Today Show” and in People magazine. At the time of our interview, he had just returned from a trip to Turkey, where he participated in a BBC documentary on King Midas’s tomb. Look for it to air on the Discovery Channel this winter.
Calagione also landed a gig as a male model three years ago after a Levi Strauss recruiter spotted his photo in the brewspaper, Ale Street News. A photo of Sam clad in Slates jeans (“they’re one line above Dockers”) appeared in 30 national magazines, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone.
“I’d like to see us as a small company that sells a small amount of beer to a discerning few throughout the country,” says Calagione, who rolled out 5,000 barrels last year. As for now, “I have to turn down calls from Texas, Florida and other states because I can’t provide enough beer for our home market.”
Uli’s Unlikely Empire
Uli Bennewitz was a farm manager overseeing 40,000 acres of land in North Carolina when his brother offered to sell him a used brewery that, he promised, would “spit out beer and money.”
Bennewitz, who had visions of running a German-themed biergarten and resort, agreed. It wasn’t until the equipment was en route to America that he discovered brewpubs were illegal in that state. The chairman of the state Alcohol Beverage Control board suggested that he try to amend the law. So Uli—a German citizen with a visitor’s visa but no green card—convinced the legislators to allow restaurants to sell up to 62,000 gallons a year of house-brewed beer. Bennewitz likes to brag that he did so without hiring a single lawyer.
The Weeping Radish opened on July 4, 1986, in the town of Manteo on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The business takes its name from a German delicacy in which radishes, when sliced and salted, exude beads of moisture that resemble tears. In contrast to the idiosyncratic beers of the other breweries mentioned in this article, brew master Andy Duck sticks to traditional German brews. Corolla Gold is one of the East Coast’s best examples of the under-appreciated helles style. Weeping Radish also produces an amber lager called Fest and a dark lager called Black Radish, as well as a seasonal wheat beer. Twelve-ounce bottles are contract-brewed by Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore, MD, and sold as far away as Ohio.
Manteo, like many southern communities, has its blue laws. Restaurants, for instance, aren’t allowed to sell spirits, although you can buy as much liquor as you want at the local state store. Bennewitz has occasionally run afoul of local prudes. In 1989, the town cut off water to the brewery for a year, claiming that the yeast-laden effluent was too much of a strain on its wastewater treatment plant. Fortunately, Uli at that time operated a second brewery in Durham, NC, and trucked in beer in 400-gallon tankers.
The locals have mellowed out, perhaps realizing what a good thing they have in their midst. “We’re truly family oriented,” says Bennewitz. “We’re probably the only brewery in the country that has a playground outside. We go through more crayons than beer.”
Bennewitz also operates two non-brewing pubs in Corolla and Kitty Hawk, NC, and may add a few more. But his main project at the moment is a 15-acre eco-farm in neighboring Currituck County, where he’ll raise crops and livestock in an environmentally friendly manner. The farm will include a 4,000-barrel-a-year brewery, the wastewater from which will be diverted to the fields. On 64 adjacent acres, Bennewitz will build a commercial village inhabited by bakers, potters, woodworkers and other craftsmen.
“We’re either going to make a fortune or go broke in style,” he predicts.
Many breweries are reluctant to market a single dark beer, considering it a hard sell. Larry Bell, on the other hand, intends to celebrate this November by releasing not one, not two, not even five, but 10 different stouts.
“When the industry hit a blip, I saw other brewers running for the cover of light beer,” explains Bell, the founder and president of Kalamazoo Brewing Co. in Kalamazoo, MI. “I wanted to reaffirm our commitment to full-bodied beers to our customers.”
The dark deluge will include regular offerings like Bell’s Expedition Stout (a super-imperial stout at 11.3 percent alcohol by volume) and Bell’s Cherry’s Stout, as well as such experiments as a rye stout, a java stout, and a rare spiced stout flavored with nutmeg and ginger. The latter is based on Psycho Brau, a recipe that Bell improvised one hot July night when he couldn’t sleep.
Kalamazoo Brewing—whose products are available throughout the upper Midwest—also does some very creditable paler beers. They include Two Hearted Ale, which in 1999 won the first-ever Alpha King Challenge for the nation’s hoppiest beer, sponsored by American Brewer magazine.
Bell backed into the business via his hobby of beer can collecting. “When I was 17, my older brother snuck me into the Brickskeller,” recalls Bell, referring to the famous Washington, DC, watering hole that boasts hundreds of brands. He added five cans to his collection that night, including Brew 102, “the beer perfected after 101 tries.” Bell’s collection of bottles and cans now numbers in the thousands. “I think they breed.”
Bell was introduced to homebrewing while working at a bakery in Kalamazoo. He raised $39,000 to open his own brewery and pub in 1986. His original brewing equipment—long since upgraded—consisted of a 15-gallon soup pot and several plastic garbage pails.
Asked about the strangest beer he’s ever brewed, Bell cites the appropriately named Eccentric Ale, which is served only at his pub. “If I told you about the ingredients, I’d have to kill you,” he laughs. “Michael Jackson says that there’s snuff in it, but what would he know?”
Is there really a market for these bizarre beers in the Midwest, supposedly a bastion of lager drinkers? “In summertime, all of our distributors are on allocation,” boasts Bell, who was closing a deal to purchase a 50-barrel Steinecker brew house from Anheuser-Busch. “People are wrong about the Midwest being conservative,” he argues. “The Northwest has the volume, but they do a lot of it with lighter styles. I think the Midwest actually prefers more aggressive beers.
“In Michigan, we’ve got 70 breweries. They’re involved in all kinds of crazy stuff,” he adds.
There are some disadvantages to growth. In 1998, Bell purchased the Old Hat Brewery in Lawton, MI, a brewpub specializing in German styles. State law, however, forbids breweries over the 30,000-barrel mark from operating more than one pub. Kalamazoo Brewing will probably hit that ceiling by the end of this year, forcing Bell to sell Old Hat. Bell sees no impediment to eventually brewing 200,000 barrels a year. “We intend to become a serious regional player.”
Bell is an enthusiastic promoter of American Beer Month, which was celebrated for the second year this past July. His contribution was to break new ground with a malt liquor. “It’s a truly American style,” he says of this strong lager brewed with 20 percent corn. Actually, when it came time to pitch the yeast, the brew crew was low on the bottom-fermenting variety, so they wound up adding a mixture of 13 percent lager yeast, 87 percent ale yeast.
Some people just can’t do anything the ordinary way.
Jack Joyce prefers that I refer to him simply as co-founder of Rogue Ales in Newport, OR. “We don’t have titles here.” A lawyer by trade (“it was either go to law school or go to Vietnam”), Joyce worked for Nike for six years before starting his brewery with partners Rob Strasser (now deceased) and Bob Woodall. “From the start, we were clear that we would do an alternative business model and stay out of the brewer’s way completely,” recalls Joyce. That approach appears to suit brew master John Maier, who’s been with the company since 1989, crafting award-winning beers like Old Crustacean Barleywine and Rogue Smoke.
Rogue’s top seller is Dead Guy Ale, a hybrid bock fermented with an ale yeast. The skeletal figure on the label, according to Joyce, honors the Day of the Dead, an annual celebration in Mexico. Of course, he’s sold plenty to Deadheads who think it’s a tribute to Jerry Garcia. Every year around Halloween, Rogue releases the ale in a special glow-in-the-dark bottle.
Maier is no stranger to unusual ingredients. For the third year in a row, Rogue has brewed a Rose Festival Ale in conjunction with an annual celebration in Portland, OR. Using his golden ale as a base, Maier adds 30 pounds of organic rose petals to the hop-back. The beer has an amazing floral aroma that wafts up the back of one’s throat into the sinuses. Earlier this year, the brewery brought out Rogue Chocolate Stout, brewed with an actual chocolate essence. Then there’s the Rogue Buckwheat Ale, packaged in a half-gallon hillbilly jug. “Buckwheat is actually a relative of the rhubarb,” notes Joyce. The beer has nuances of apricot and a lingering dry aftertaste quite unlike your average American wheat beer.
For a brewery that made a modest 23,000 barrels last year, Rogue has an unusually large sales area. The handsome silk-screened bottles are marketed in 40 states and exported to Japan. In fact, the chocolate and buckwheat beers were test-marketed in the Far East before they became available in the United States. “Because we don’t make lighter, paler beers, we don’t have enough of a concentration of customers in any one area,” explains Joyce. “We make high-octane beers that travel well.”
Not all of Joyce’s schemes have panned out. Among his failures he cites Rogue tennis shoes and Rogue earrings. The garlic beer was in a class by itself. Brew master John Maier whipped it up for a festival in Tacoma, WA, honoring the pungent herb. “Basically, he took our golden ale and dry-garlicked it,” recalls Joyce. “It was horrible. We went through a couple cases of it, but it was a ‘how many tequilas can I shoot’ kind of thing.”
Of course, failure is an occasional result of taking chances. And people who don’t take chances don’t have many successes either.
The Only Beer for Bastards
If you see Greg Koch and Steve Wagner at a beer festival, don’t expect to saunter over and try Arrogant Bastard, their most distinctive beer, right off the bat. The two will insist that you try Stone Brewing Co.’s other beers first—pale ale, smoked porter and IPA. “You have to prove yourself worthy,” laughs Koch.
Koch won’t reveal what goes into Arrogant Bastard (“we keep the recipe close to our chest”), but it’s an American strong ale with lots of alcohol (7.2 percent ABV), lots of malt and lots of hops. The silk-screened bottles feature a demonic-looking fellow and issue a provocation to the consumer: “You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. Perhaps you think multimillion-dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better.”
Most people take it good naturedly, Koch says. He once received a note from Bastard Nation, a group representing Americans born out of wedlock. They praised his beer for being “a positive promotion of bastardy.”
Koch (who is no relation to Jim Koch of Sam Adams fame) honed his beer appreciation skills while living in the Bay Area in the early 1990s. He founded (and still runs) Downtown Rehearsal, a Los Angeles-based firm that builds music practice studios. The brewery is in San Marcos, a 35-minute drive from downtown San Diego.
Koch intended to celebrate this year’s American Beer Month with a t-shirt amnesty program. Beer drinkers with shirts advertising national brands were invited to trade them in for a substantial discount on an Arrogant Bastard tee with the slogan, “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies.”
“We know that we’ve painted ourselves in a corner and we can’t ever come out with a golden ale,” says Koch. “But we’re having a hell of a lot of fun. People expect us to be crazier.”
Stone Brewing produced 9,400 barrels last year, up 61 percent. Its beers are available in nine states, mostly in the West, but they also show up in a few East Coast enclaves like the DC/northern Virginia area. Seasonals include Double Bastard (everything that goes into Arrogant Bastard, just more of it) and Anniversary IPA, a hop monster that last year measured 102 bitterness units (Budweiser, by comparison, registers about 12). Koch’s summer seasonal is a Russian imperial stout measuring 9.5 percent ABV. “What’s more perfect than a beer that still tastes good when it’s warm?” he asks.
The American craft brewing industry is richly endowed with unique beers and unique personalities. With a minimum of effort, I can think of at least a dozen other breweries that could have substituted for the ones in this article.
But if you admire individualism at its most rugged, don’t wait to try their beers. Once these brewers become rich and famous, they won’t be eccentrics any longer, but geniuses and visionaries. And everybody will be imitating them.
Greg Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.