Dedicated Drinkers and Their Drive to Document
Geek is just another word for enthusiastic… We keep loving stuff and remain unembarrassed by our enthusiasm.
A role by any other name is still a geek. Advocate. Enthusiast. Aficionado. Beer Geeks aren’t fashioned or formed through genetics or environment―they are self-made.
Electrical engineer by day, beer-reviewing machine at all other times, Jens Ungstrup spends about 20 hours per week beer hunting, drinking, reviewing and networking with brewers. That’s not all he spends. Of the 40 bottles of Mikkeller X Imperial Stout-2007 sold at auction, he dropped the equivalent of US $750 to snatch up three of them, making it one of the 48 Mikkeller beers he has reviewed on RateBeer.com.
Ungstrup started to move beyond Tuborg in 1990. He lives in Frederiksberg, a suburb of København―Copenhagen to the English-speaking world. The Danish capital city has become the Scandinavian gourmet capital over the past couple decades, garnering more Michelin Guide stars than are found in Rome, Madrid or Vienna. So it stands to reason that while in 2000 there were a mere 19 breweries in Denmark―population 5.5 million―craft breweries open at such a rapid clip that there are now over 125.
This might explain why three of the Top 5 users on RateBeer.com are Danes. Ungstrup has, as of press time, reviewed 13,134 beers. To commemorate his 12,500th review this past March, which coincided with his fortieth birthday, the Dutch brewery De Molen concocted a barley wine brewed with oak chips soaked in 40-year-old cognac. And what did you get for your big four-oh?
Down the list, the American “RateBeerian” with the most reviews is Josh Oakes of Miami, FL, who has reviewed an admirable 7,472 beers. A German supplanted his position in the Top 5 alongside―you guessed it―two Danes. He presumable won’t have squat brewed for his next birthday.
In contrast, four of the five most active beer geeks in the original virtual beer community, BeerAdvocate.com, are American. Brad Riley, as his alter beergo BuckeyeNation, leads the charge with 3,755 beers reviewed. One wouldn’t expect the most prolific reviewer to be 40-year-old M.D. married to a woman who hates beer and who lives in Des Moines, IA―unrenowned for its beer culture. But that just proves that beer enthusiasm knows no bounds.
Last May marked the fourth annual American Craft Beer Week. And an unscientific poll conducted by Charlie Papazian of the Brewers Association seeking the best American beer community ended with Portland, OR, and Asheville, NC, sharing the crown of Beer City USA. But let’s acknowledge that craft beer is global and that beer geeks reside the world over. That is part of the fun, and the challenge, of beer hunting.
Ungstrup, who is most fond of powerfully flavored beers from Flemish reds to double IPAs and imperial stouts, said, “My motto is that I can’t, with any weight, say that I don’t like a beer I haven’t had.”
It is the realization that there are so many beers out there, many of them fantastic, that sets us on the path to discover as many as possible. The moment one experiences his or her ale awakening is the genesis of the making of a beer geek.
Many beer lovers can recall their first beer. And unless you passed out drunk, everyone remembers his or her most recent one. But what about the ones in the middle? Some people committed to a favorite brand may have only tried a dozen or so beers―likely macro-produced lagers. Many among us sample everything we can get our greedy lips on and have hundreds of beers under―and over―our belts, without having any accurate account for how many that number may be.
There is no one way to define who is the geekiest, but we all have a rough estimate in our heads of the number of various brews we’ve partaken of along our paths. Then there are those who write beer reviews in their private notebooks or, increasingly, on beer review sites such as RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. And then there are the serious reviewers.
In the Beginning
The journey of a thousand beers (or several thousand) begins with a single sip. We all have our romanticized recollections of where our expedition began.
Papazian, the guru who literally wrote the book on homebrewing, used his Beer Examiner blog to recall his first taste of beer―Ballantine Ale―as a four-year-old growing up in Cranford, NJ, proffered by his Uncle Paul. Sixteen years later in 1969, the Charlottesville police did more than reprimand him and his buddies who they busted with a case of cheap beer in their car. That’s when he moved beyond the industrial stuff and got into the “novelty” of homebrewing.
“My roommates and I homebrewed regularly and I eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering in 1972. But I think the beer made me dyslexic because ‘nuclear’ became ‘unclear’ and I pursued other paths,” said Papazian.
Before the Alström brothers became beer geek enablers by creating BeerAdvocate.com, Todd and Jason got sips of beer at the family dinner table. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s and they ventured out to punk shows around New England, they glugged down cans of Guinness Export before radio spots for Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked turned them onto microbrews. Not until the ’90s did they experiment with homebrewing stronger beers.
Riley, a neonatologist from Iowa who earned his top-billing on the site in terms of reviews, said, “the summer of 2003, I got a kidney stone. I read somewhere that beer drinkers get fewer stones,” which explains how he got started on his beer drinking avocation. He skipped the macros and quickly leapfrogged beyond the well-marketed imports when a Google search led him to the site and an intriguing sounding beer called Arrogant Bastard.
Sammy Wisem is the Canadian among BeerAdvocate’s most rapacious reviewers. His handle is NorthYorkSammy and his 3,628 reviews put him in second, though he has posted substantially more “Beerfly reviews.” He has written about 223 bars in provinces and states from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Advocate Jim Brennan is building his beer review empire in Philly. Posting as NeroFiddled, Brennan has added 3,055 since 2000. The 41-year-old packaging manager at Flying Fish Brewery across the Delaware in Cherry Hill, NJ, is a Siebel Institute graduate. But at age 18, his clique―including his nephew and friends―would steal tons of beers from their parents’ garages and what not, spending all night drinking mostly Moosehead, Molson, Michelob.
Later, while a musician gigging at a local bar that poured English ales and Yuengling Porter, he imbibed beyond macro lagers and “kind of fell into homebrewing by accident.” Soon he advanced beyond the extract kit, geekily musing, “What did Yoda say? ‘Do, or not do. There is not try.’”
Whereas BeerAdvocate began life as BrewGuide.com, the other prime beer geek forum, RateBeer.com, began when software engineer Bill Buchanan and a drinking buddy needed a better way to record their beer notes from sampling sessions.
Piqued by the aforementioned Sam Adams radio blitz, Buchanan’s affinity for less mainstream beers found its footing at his local watering hole in suburban Detroit, a place called The Box Bar. “was floored when I saw that they had a 12-page beer menu,” he said. This discovery of fresh, interesting beers also led him to dabble in homebrewing. The Box Bar’s printed beer lists became scorecards with scrawled notes and after he relocated to the Atlanta area, RateBeer was born in 2000.
Were it not for that, there’s no telling what Ungstrup and his fellow RateBeerians, particularly his Copenhagen crew, would be up to today. At the very least, they wouldn’t be up to nearly 8,000-13,000 reviews apiece.
To think that Ungstrup only weaned off Tuborg when, as he recalled, “one of my best friends, who was studying pharmacy, told me about the processes around brewing.” A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.
“A one week beer trip to Belgium and later in the summer a four-week trip of the east coast of the U.S. made me start to forget the middle-of-the-road beers. I started my own little database to register the beers in.” That’s when he stumbled upon RateBeer and found it easier to simply sign up.
His fellow Dane, Henrik Papsø, posting 12,655 reviews as “Papsoe,” started collecting beer bottles as a teenager. He launched his beer drinking career when he found the full bottles too tempting. He didn’t start actually keeping notes until a trip to Newcastle, Australia, in 1988 where, he demurred, “girl had gotten my further travels delayed for several weeks.” It began with note-taking on Aussie beers. His newfound passion became irrevocable a few years later when a Belgian moved into his university dorm. At present, he keeps separate notebooks for each country he visits.
Third on RateBeer’s top users list is Per “Omhper” Forsgren from Sweden. His personal journey to beer geekdom, according to his site, Ohhh.MyHead.org, may never have set sail were it not for a fateful ski trip in 1993. His group of friends stood dumbstruck in a liquor store, unable to select which pack of beer to buy. Someone said, “Let’s buy all beer in this store and find out which one is the best.”
After trying roughly 100 different beers, Forsgren and his pals picked a winner, but what if there were better beers out there?
Middle of the Road They Ain’t
What makes these beer geeks tick is that they not only catch the fever, they embrace it, they offer their livers and their souls over to it as willing hosts. Ask yourself, how much are you willing to sacrifice?
Back in 1973, Papazian began teaching a class on brewing in Boulder. His students were so enthusiastic, he soon helped form the American Homebrewers Association. By 1982, he’d co-organized the inaugural Great American Beer Festival. The 20 breweries that appeared―only three of which were micros―are a far cry from the near-500 (one-third of all American breweries) that pour at GABF today.
One common though not constant thread among those who exceeded mere beer interest is delving into homebrewing. Learning how to brew adds a deeper awareness of the science and artistry that goes into craft beer. From the United States to Denmark to points around the globe, it’s no wonder today’s brewers are far from jobbers, they are passionate artisans. And you can’t have beer geeks without beer geek brewers.
Peter Zien, owner and brewmaster at AleSmith in San Diego, has earned over 400 brewing awards, not the least of which is Small Brewing Company of the Year and Brewer of the Year at the 2008 Great American Beer Festival. Zien’s secret, or one of them, is hiring local homebrewers who approach brewing with the same wide-eyed devotion.
AleSmith ales have garnered nearly 3,500 reviews on BeerAdvocate, averaging an impressive A- among 23 various beers.
Mikkeller owner Mikkel Borg Bjergsø deserves a fair amount of credit for Denmark’s rise in the beer world. When it comes to designing his beers, he insists “my wants always come first… After this I think mostly about the beer geeks.”
And they keep his beers in their thoughts―and glasses―to the tune of over 8,000 reviews among 70-plus beers on RateBeer. He keeps his local RateBeerians busy.
Papazian noted of Denmark’s ascension in the beer geek world, “Some of the pioneers took notes about what happened in the U.S.A. a decade ago and helped lay the foundation.”
What does this mean for the beer geek? As is the case with all viruses, geographical borders mean very little.
For Bjergsø’s part, he revels in his homegrown status, especially considering Denmark’s embarrassment of riches. “Raters here have access to more beer than anywhere in the world. Last year alone we had 647 new Danish beers and at least 1,000 new imports. Therefore, you can drink five to eight new beers a day and never get back to one you already drank.”
While he is firmly a Danish brewer, he has developed a reputation as a “gypsy brewer,” practicing his craft at breweries throughout Europe and America.
RateBeerian Forsgren enjoys the variety to be found in Stockholm, but is fortunate enough to travel as part of his job. He travels off the clock as well. He has drunk beers in about 90 countries. That’s lucky for him since in Sweden, only Systembolaget―government controlled stores―are allowed to sell alcoholic beverages over 3.5 percent.
Many of these and other beer geeks are avid travelers. Between the bottles and growlers the Danish tasting group fetch from foreign lands to local shelves is, as Ungstrup put it piously, “heaven to me.”
But lacking local bounty isn’t a deterrent to Riley. How does someone from the Hawkeye State―Iowa’s home to only 16 breweries including 13 brewpubs―become the most prolific reviewer on BeerAdvocate.com? “Iowa is a terrible state for craft beer,” he acknowledged, pointing to the Prohibition-era beer laws. At least he doesn’t have to contend with Systembolaget. While committed beer lovers find ways to bring good beer home (Riley never reviews pub pours!), he makes periodic trips to his native Ohio (hence “BuckeyeNation”), Chicago, Twin Cities and more adventurous points throughout the Midwest. Legal online vendors help fill in the rest.
As a matter of happenstance, beer trades violate federal laws prohibiting unlicensed shipping of alcohol.
We all like to drink, and exploring a variety of flavors is understandable. But these guys get more out of it than intriguing tastes and a buzz. Sure, RateBeerians like Ungstrup maintain a bottle cap collection, and Papsø, until last year, soaked his empties to get the labels off and adhered them next to the ratings.
Riley said, “I love the reviewing as much as I love the beer (the good ones, anyway). It’s my only creative outlet. To fellow advocate Brennan, it’s a kind of meditation.”
Helping Us in the End
Truly, there is something extra they get out of it. They not only revere beer: they respect the various processes by which they accrue and review beers. RateBeerian Papsø described his own reviews as clinical and surgical; BeerAdvocate Riley is the loquacious one. “I’ve written a review, I proofread it multiple times to check for spelling errors and to improve the flow of the words. I proofread at least once before I submit it and then several more times once it’s been entered.
When I first started, my reviews were short because I knew next to nothing about beer. Then, once I became better informed, they tended to get long and overly wordy. I like to think the best reviews have a poetic aspect to them. I’ve always loved poetry because I’ve always had a love for words.”
Here’s an excerpt from his nearly-500 word write-up of Surley’s 16 Grit Ale, his fave DIPA so far of ’09.
Terrifically turbid caramel-covered orange with juicy tangerine and mango highlights. The golden sandstone colored head oozes quality…. The foam is firmly creamy and sticky, leading to both persistence and an extensive array of fine lace… Each sniff results in billowing clouds of orange, pink grapefruit and passionfruit.
So while it is poetry for some, it is almost rigorous to others.
“What can I say? These folks are athletes,” said Buchanan. “My expectations have been wildly exceeded. When we started RateBeer, we figured someone who drank 100 beers and logged the experience for each one was going to be an anomaly.”
One of the hundreds of anomalies, Papsøadded, “It can be tedious and boring to taste 200 German lagers in a weekend. But this is a sport and beer hunting is pretty addictive.”
It’s what separates the men from the boys. Most of us consider craft beer devotion one of our many hobbies or interests. The Alströms state that BeerAdvocate.com serves about 10 million page views per month and welcomes upwards of 400 new members daily. But that’s nothing compared to Forsgren and his ski pals whose database is “transferred to a UNIX-system where a shellscript auto-generates all the files before they’re transferred to our web space located at Stockholm University.” Perhaps he overshot beer geek and landed at beer nerd.
There are countless beer blogs beyond these sites. Take Hedonist Beer Jive (hedonistbeerjive.blogspot.com) by San Franciscan Jay Hinman. He began blogging in 2003, but had self-published a music fanzine starting in 1990, the same time he discovered Redhook. But it’s not his only blog. He also has Detailed Twang as his music geek outlet and First Principles as his, uh, libertarian political geek avenue. Is he a card-carrying beer geek? Sure. But it’s proudly not his all-consuming passion. He confessed, “Beer geeks are more fun than music geeks. The alcohol helps.”
One theme exemplified in Hinman’s blogs is obscurity. From music to beer, geeks gravitate toward the fringe. The top RateBeerians and BeerAdvocates go the extra mile.
As for those extra miles, even standard tourists will visit a destination and perhaps sample some local brews. Beer geeks, at great expense of time and cash, hunt down beers and perhaps sample local culture. Ungstrup once flew to Montreal explicitly to gulp up all the Dieu du Ciel he could. Riley frequently drives up to five hours for new brews. Back in 2004, he drove six hours―each way―for Dark Lord Day at Three Floyds in Munster, IN, before the hullabaloo. “I got there three days after the release and there was a handful of people milling around the brewery and huge stacks of DL for sale.”
You can usually find Ungstrup at a pub in Copenhagen with his fellow Ratebeerians Papsø and Jesper Kjær, whose RateBeer nom de biere is Yespr. Over the years, some drinking buddies have found it hard to keep up with reviewing at their mad pace. Ungstrup’s mom is worried he drinks too much and he has a 12-year-old daughter who doesn’t know what to make of her dad’s hobby, but one thing’s for sure―she’s not interested safeguarding or cataloging his bottle caps.
It’s not just tasting, but reviewing more beers than most of us will ever try, that makes this faction strive to review as elaborately as possible. “I hate short reviews―especially of great beers. They deserve a lot better,” said Ungstrup. But he admits his fall short of poetry, although his friend “thinks that it would improve my chances with women.”
These beer geeks, in their determination and endurance, achieve more than personal satisfaction and possibly global, or at least virtual, celebrity. They help us, the common beer lover. As Wisem said, “Geeks are at the leading edge, prodding the craft scene.”
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø agreed. He is on RateBeer.com every day. Again, his beers such as Beer Geek Breakfast receive mostly rave reviews, but he said, “I use them to change things. If I read a bad review caused by a specific aspect in one beer I remember that the next time I brew it. It’s like having unlimited access to passionate, well-educated tasters and critics.”
AleSmith’s Zien, whose Speedway Stout is among his most respected beers (and not unlike Beer Geek Breakfast), also uses the sites to check in with his customers and co-geeks. He has gone as far as replacing bottles of his beer when necessary as a preventative yet appreciative measure, even when the beer geek clearly procured the bottle beyond normal distribution channels. That’s because, as both brewers agree, beer trading is a healthy way for a brewery to gain international attention.
Of course, it’s not always about worldwide notoriety. Ungstrup’s fortieth birthday beer never made it beyond the Netherlands, where it was brewed, or Denmark. Papsø also got a commemorative ale, in his case for his 10,000th review, brewed by Danish brewery Amager Bryghus. He told a story about his friend, Amager’s brewer/owner, who got permission to attend a huge blind tasting of extreme American beers despite the fact that his wife was going into labor.
Speaking of crowning, Riley prefers to review in solace, and said, “Before cracking the crown, I check the brewery’s Web site for useful information.” Then he’ll do a search for more. He’s even called up brewers. He keeps thinking he’ll slow down, but shows no signs.
As for our friends in Denmark, when will they stop raising the bar (no pun intended)? Ungstrup doesn’t see a need for this kick to end, jokingly envisioning a nursing home with an ever-changing beer list. “There are so many untried beers out there, so why stop? It makes for a good excuse to travel, see the world and meet old and new friends.”
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, & Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He lives in San Francisco.