Not quite two years ago, I found myself hosting a seven course beer dinner at a country club in the charming Alpine-style town of Blumenau in the south of Brazil. I was the guest of the Mendes family, brewers of the Eisenbahn line of beers, authentic German-style beers harking back to Blumenau’s German immigrant roots. The dinner was sold out, and all ninety guests were elegantly dressed, the jackets were hand-stitched, the silk flowed freely. The chef had been flown in from Sao Paolo, and the food was excellent. A bossanova band, grooving hard enough to blow any New York group off the stage, played in the corner of the room.
Bruno Mendes, who works with his brother Juliano and his father Jarbar at the brewery, turned to me and said “Life is beautiful, isn’t it?” “Yes, it is”, I replied. I had another sip of excellent Brazilian weissbock. At the end of the evening, following Brazilian custom, I had to hug and kiss all the guests as they left. My hosts had a chuckle at my expense, watching the comparatively stiff American deal with the outpouring of local warmth.
Nine days later, having emerged from the smoke sauna on the edge of a frozen lake north of Helsinki, I stood naked in the snow drinking Finnish sahti from a traditional wooden cup. My host, the sahti brewer Pekka Karainen, gestured to a hole cut through the ice. “Now we jump in,” he said with a grin. “Right. You first,” I parried, but it didn’t save me—in I went. It was February. You have no idea.
Beer is like that, it seems. Over the years I’ve experienced the hospitality of brewers, princes, abbots, chefs, bar owners and beer enthusiasts, and I never cease to be amazed at the bonding power of beer. Last April, I was in South Africa, speaking at a wine conference in Cape Town. Wine, it seems, is not quite like that. I met a lot of very nice people, but as I suspected, in vino there may be veritas, but in beer there is friendship.
These days, even though I still work in boots and drag hoses in the brewhouse, I’m no longer the young upstart—elder statesman status is gaining on me in the rear-view mirror. When I was a homebrewer in the 1980s, I worried that becoming a professional brewer would ruin everything I enjoyed about brewing, that beer would just become a job. Fortunately for me, I could not have been more wrong. I haven’t had a boring day yet. I work with great people and we try our damnedest to brew great things. We try to brew the truth.
The brewhouse is a trapeze act—you drop from the bar and someone grabs you before you fall; you let go in thin air, and the yeast grabs your hands and swings you back up to the platform. One thing goes wrong, and everyone falls, each hoping for a net. How I ever thought that such a thing could fail to be thrilling, I can no longer remember.
The Trapeze Act
Americans tend to love the idea of the self-made man, the one who taught himself and then pulled himself up by innate genius and sheer force of will. No doubt these people exist, but I’m not one of them. As a brewer, the truth is that Michael Jackson made me, Mark Dorber made me, Roger Protz made me, Mark Witty made me, Steve Hindy, Larry Lustig made me, and yes, I had a hand in this enterprise, too. Beer people make each other. When you let go of the trapeze bar, someone is always there. Quite possibly that person is your competitor, reaching out a helping hand. If you don’t have the humility to grab that hand, you will fall, and there may be no net. And you won’t deserve one, either.
The everyday thrill of beer is all these things. It’s not only making new beers, exploring new flavors, and conjuring the alchemy of the brewhouse. It’s also the chance to share what you know and take in what others have discovered. It’s the chance to show people something brand new to like. Think about that. Does it sound like a small thing? Well, it isn’t. You don’t find something brand new to like every day.
Beer, like music, or art, or any other great enthusiasm, is a journey. If you’re an avid jazz fan, there was a time when you didn’t know jazz. Then there came a day when someone played you your first Coltrane album, your first Miles Davis album, or maybe Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives. On that day, a little door swung open. It was a small moment, but you walked through that door, and on the other side was a better life. That’s not a small thing at all. We, as brewers, as writers, as homebrewers, as beer enthusiasts, open that door for people every day. Many of the best beers in the world, beers that can change Tuesday night’s dinner from something decent into something extraordinary, cost less than a latte at Starbucks. That’s a small miracle.
Last year, I was at the closing dinner for the judges at the Brewing Industry International Awards in Munich. We had a private upstairs room at the Hofbrauhaus, the beer was flowing fresh and fine, and the tables were populated with some of the very best brewers in the world. As people made their toasts, I decided to give one of my own. Right in the middle, I had to stop and catch my breath as a little lump formed in my throat. I told everyone how much it meant to me just to be in the same room with them. I steered clear of mawkishness and into humor, but the emotion was real. I’m grateful for everything beer has given me, and I can only hope to be around long enough to give enough back. I’ve already been around long enough to know that my people—beer people—are the best people in the world. And that’s a small miracle too.
Internationally recognized brewer and expert on traditional beer, Garret Oliver is the Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and the author of The Brewmaster’s Table.