The Brewer in His Natural Habitat
We’re blessed here in San Diego. We have always had a world-class zoo. And while our sports teams continue to be more rotten then Hamlet’s Denmark, our zoo (and lately breweries) continues to be held in the highest regard. I have very fond memories of the zoo. Like many San Diegans, my youth was populated by their catchiest little jingle. It went like this: “You belong in the zoo …The San Diego Zoo … ”
In my teens, the slogan became less prominent as the antics of Ken Allen became newsworthy. A crafty orangutan, he was famous for not only his numerous escapes from the zoo enclosures but also for what he did when he was on the loose.
Seemingly, Ken Allen was also part pig, as he loved to ham it up. While on the lam, he sought out patrons and their affection. Notably, during his greatest escape he was found yacking it up with the tourists who thought King Louie had escaped the pages of the Jungle Book and another lifelike Disney character was out for photo ops.
Ken Allen I am not. Recently, I was interviewed by a local university business student who wanted to know what my least favorite thing about owning a brewery was. I paused and then offered up flash photography. He seemed perplexed at the answer. Then I explained I can’t walk 10 feet these days in our brewery without someone taking a picture.
Is this how the animals in the zoo feel? It’s not as if Jack Hanna or Steve Irwin was stalking our brewers, speaking in a hushed tone as they explored our native environment. Nope, in many ways, it’s worse. Daily we are bombarded by amateur naturalists who come to view our brewer primates in their native environment.
Given how Instagram provides a photographic outlet for personal storytelling, I suppose it’s not that surprising. People now travel long distances to see us, and when they do, they are very much active participants in our process of making beer. And more often than not they do so with a sample of beer in one hand and their cell phone in the other.
The very best zoo enclosures are elaborately designed to bring the tourist into the mix by removing as many barriers and creating as natural a habitat as possible. Whether it’s the great gorillas or Lost Abbey brewers, both enclosures offer a similar proximity showcasing primates at work or play.
It appears we’re not alone in creating these spaces. We have a sign near our kegging line that states: “No Flash Photography It startles our brewers.” Our friends at Societe Brewing, also here in San Diego, also have a sign on their walls warning patrons to “stand clear, our brewers are known to throw their own feces.” Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, as we really don’t mind if people capture the essence of their visits to our brewery.
As I have previously discussed here in this magazine, my job has evolved since I was singularly “just a pub brewer” into many things, and one of them has me being principally available to our consumers as the “face of the brand.” No matter where I go in this business (a bar, restaurant or even my local grocery store), I have been recognized.
It’s kind of weird, this notion of brewer turned rock star or celebrity. I mean, I was a nerd in high school. The only reason the cheerleaders talked to me was because my sister was one. I was a nothing to the ladies and while not quite the token punching bag for the ogres and jocks, I pretty much did everything to not be recognized for anything.
Well damned if you do as fame and fortune are smiling on craft brewers everywhere, leaving us (me if you prefer) fewer places to hide. I can barely have a beer in our tasting room without getting gawked at (woe is me. I get it). But that’s not even the worst of it. My mom was even recognized (she might recall flattered) walking the aisles at a Costco some 30 miles away from our brewery. In that fan’s defense, she did have a Lost Abbey shirt on.
I think it’s awesome to see how far we’ve come. And in many ways, it continues to amaze me how the biggest and most recognizable names in the business remain inherently approachable. I’m always in awe of Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head when we hang out. The dude shakes more hands than a stumping politician. And I am confident Jim Koch of Samuel Adams has politely mugged for more cameras than Wilt Chamberlain had sexual partners.
Clearly Sam and Jim are some of the best at engaging the public. But it’s never been my strong suit. Since that first photo I was asked to take, I have struggled to be more available to those fans and supporters of our brewery. Given that it’s never been in my nature to want to be that spokesman, I’m surprised I haven’t developed a Howie Mandel-like phobia of being touched by strangers. Because I’ve got to tell you, sometimes these people make me nervous.
Yet from here it’s easy to see how blessed craft beer consumers are. There aren’t many industries where you can go watch your idols at work. Pearl Jam doesn’t open up rehearsal space to fans. And last I checked Tiger Woods doesn’t invite rabid hackers to join him on the practice range. But brewers from smallest to largest continue to embrace fans at every turn because we’re as passionate as they are about beer.
Recently, I developed a list of the types of fans we’re most likely to run into as we go about our daily lives here in the land of Lost Abbey captivity. You see, like the naturalists who have come to see the brewers in their natural habitat, I, too, have come to appreciate the craft beer fans in their surroundings. I have a feeling the gorillas in our zoo have developed a similar coping mechanism.
In no particular order, here are the aficionados who have most recently visited our brewery.
The Gawker: Completely unable to muster the courage to say hello until it’s time to go and equally afraid to summon the strength to ask for a picture usually until their significant other does so on their behalf.
The Starer: The consumer who sips a beer slowly in shock almost that an actual brewer is near them with a fixed gaze on their beer glass defined by a laser beam focus like a gazelle realizing they are being stalked by a cheetah.
The Stutterer: A patron often rendered speechless by the thought, nay act of talking to the man.
The I Love You Man: A combination of high on the sauce and euphoria from having reached the state of Nirvana that apparently comes from A: drinking our beers at the source, B: consuming too many of them and C: wanting to share how amazing we are at this thing called beer.
The I Love You Woman: Similar to the I Love You Man but typically less inhibited and shy in front of the camera.
Punch-Drunk Patron: Can be a man or a woman but always a combination of an I Love You Person who wants the photo and bestows amorous tendencies that border on illicit behavior. Because as we all know grabbing your favorite brewer below the belt always makes for a better picture.
The Pointer: The patrons who in an instant channel their inner pointer and like a proud dog strike a pose in my direction as if to show friends they have just found the fallen duck.
The Double-Take Doubter: That can’t be him. I mean he’s just over there at the bar having a beer like it’s no big deal.
These are but a handful of the most common consumers I come into contact as a brewery ambassador. But as a nerd, I’m sure if the roles were flipped and I was a drinker visiting my favorite brewery, I no doubt would probably exhibit more than one of these traits. So this is me apologizing for being uncomfortable if you see me out in public. I love beer. I love my job. There are parts of it I am better at than others. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 4 p.m. and I am being ushered back out front to the cameras.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.