Celebrating a Great 21st … But This is Not Kansas City
With a bit of luck, you and I will be clinking glasses round about now. Usual time, same place? You remember it, of course? They have 1,200 beers, in 50 or 60 styles, from 300 breweries, under one roof?
If we miss each other in the crowd, I shall be sorry, but it is understandably popular. There will be about 25,000 people there.
I shall be even more regretful if we have already failed to connect; if our date for a beer is well past time, and the first weekend in October fading in the distance.
Everything fades eventually, though the distant memories are often clearer than the recent ones. There have been not only sad anniversaries this year but also happy ones. I have been remembering the time that Charlie Papazian, the guru of homebrewing, came down from the mountains (the Rockies, in his case) and made his first visit to London. He stayed at my house, and we went to the Great British Beer Festival.
“Do you think we could do this in America?” he asked. He says that I responded, “Yes, but what would we do for beers?” Homebrewing was doing well, but microbrewing had barely begun to emerge. There were only four or five micros, and fewer than 20 regional breweries, but he somehow managed to create a Great American Beer Festival.
Forgive me if I have told you all of this before. It’s just that this year’s GABF is the 21st, and that thought has nudged me into a rare moment of reflection. By helping Charlie in London, I played a part in the creation of the Great American Beer Festival. It turned out to be a very big creation, and scores of people have played major roles over the years, but I remain very proud of my very small part. The Great American is the world’s best beer festival. None comes close in the diversity of beers available.
Across the United States, homebrewers drove this diversity, bringing enormous dedication and skill to their creations, and often turning professional. This new industry was serviced by Charlie and a growing team of enthusiasts. A competition for homebrewers, a conference for those who wished to turn professional, and the festival have all grown out of a single beer weekend.
Many of the homebrewers, and even some of the new professionals, were trying to produce beers in styles they had never tasted. Sometimes, their only reference was a (probably slight) description in the 1977 edition of my World Guide to Beer. On the odd occasion, judging the homebrewers’ competition, I would be the only person present who had tasted a commercial example of a particular style. My descriptions were not very detailed, but they helped lay the foundations for today’s judging criteria.
I had been discouraged from detail by my publishers, who were afraid that the book, which was aimed at the consumer, would be “too technical.” They were worried that anything remotely thoughtful would be “too difficult” for beer-drinkers. In their hearts, they thought that people who liked beer couldn’t read.
People who like beer are fair game for derision. “Homebrewers!” some polystyrene man would laugh. “My Uncle Hiram used to homebrew down in the hollow. His bottles always exploded.” I heard this story so many times that I wanted to explode a few bottles myself. The polystyrene men were usually radio journalists on whose shows I was appearing in order to publicize the Great American.
This was arranged by an ostensibly bookish fellow called Daniel Bradford, who emerged after a couple of years as the director of the festival. I would come into town (initially Boulder, later Denver), a day or two ahead of time for media appearances. I usually had a new book, or an update of my Pocket Guide to Beer. A “London-based, internationally-known author on a book tour” was more easily sold to the media than a beer festival run by people who lived in Boulder. No matter that the beer festival would soon be internationally known.
I would then struggle to squeeze a mention of my book and the essential information about the festival into a three-minute interview conducted by someone who kept telling his audience that the festival was a celebration of homebrew; that the products on offer would have names such as Toad-Spit Stout; and that all the bottles would undoubtedly explode.
One year, I wrote an article about the festival for The Denver Post, emphasizing the point that it was a festival of American beers. The paper illustrated it with bottles of imported beer. I complained, but understood. Such things happen, I know. Daily newspapers are produced quickly. I first worked on a daily when I was 18 years old, and still contribute to one, writing an occasional column on beer. (Unrelated: The Denver Post subsequently started a beer column by the estimable Dick Kreck.)
The Denver Post’s rival, The Rocky Mountain News, once covered the festival with a single paragraph, which appeared a week after the event. It was an A.P. story, on a New York dateline, and noted that the event was “said to be the biggest beer festival in the U.S.” I wrote a letter, from London, suggesting that a reporter in Denver might have been better placed to write a properly researched story. I did not receive an answer. The Rocky Mountain News much later became one of the sponsors of the festival.
Some people in Denver still don’t realize that they are not just one venue on a national tour. “Where do you go next?” someone asked me. “Japan,” I answered. He looked surprised. “Not somewhere more like, say, Kansas City, Missouri? The whole show goes to Japan?”
I liked the idea of a place being “more like Kansas City, Missouri.” I tried to imagine putting the KC test into practice. Supposing you are on tour, and arrive in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I don’t know. It’s not much like Kansas City, Missouri, is it? Shall we head on to Oklahoma City? I’ve heard that’s a bit more KC–ish.”
More like KC than Japan? Supposing you went to Dallas, Texas? Would that be more like Japan? Could be…
Excuse that digression. I needed to stretch my legs. The “show” does not go to Japan, but I do. In Tokyo, I appear in a “show” called “Whisky Magazine Live.”
The Great American Beer Festival has thus far stayed within the Rocky Mountain Empire, whatever that is (I guess Fort Collins is a frontier station). Denver is capital of that Empire. There is much missionary work to do even in Denver, but it is one of America’s best beer cities. That’s another reason to visit at least once a year, but this is an indulgence, like our conversation today, spiked with private jokes. We need to do missionary work everywhere.
While the main event stayed in Denver, there was one year a smaller, out-of-town, production in Baltimore, but it lost money. I was not able to be there, and therefore cannot report first-hand that the big crowds were absent. I believe it was the wrong time; possibly the wrong place; but the right idea.
The U.S. has the world’s greatest diversity of beers, but a significant majority of Americans don’t know that, cannot believe it, or don’t care. In this respect, Americans are no different from anyone else. Some people just don’t understand the importance of beer. We have to take beer to them. This may involve being patient: there could still be jokes about exploding bottles.
Was that one I just heard? No, it was a bag of pennies dropping. Kansas City used to be regarded as more or less the geographical center of the continental U.S. It would be convenient.
There are some good breweries in the area–and the folk at Boulevard once sent me some excellent jazz CDs. Kansas City jazz, of course, All we need now are some red-headed women.
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.