Putting the Geek in ‘Beer Geek’
Fans of science fiction and beer find common ground
It’s become an annual Denver ritual and one that the folks at Breckenridge Brewing Co. look forward to a bit more each year: Tens of thousands cram the halls of the Colorado Convention Center over the course of three days, many of them in cleverly crafted costumes and some lucky enough to get a taste of an extremely limited-edition beer brewed specifically for the occasion.
Except it’s not the fall, it is late spring, and this is not the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). It’s Denver Comic Con.
It’s fitting that those two mammoth events share a home, as the common location underlines a grander trend: the convergence of geek and beer scenes. It’s a marriage that makes quite a bit of sense when you think about it. Comic book, genre and gamer nerd culture has moved from the cloistered darkness of the parents’ basement to the mainstream pop-culture consciousness in a little more than a decade’s time. Over the same period, craft beer has expanded beyond the relatively small-but-passionate bands of enthusiasts congregating in niche pubs to a much broader swath of the American population—and a wider array of conventional venues in which they drink, eat and shop.
Breckenridge has been a part of Denver Comic Con since the comic book/sci-fi/fantasy convention’s inaugural edition in 2012. The brewery has produced the con’s official beer, which changes each year.
For the 2015 edition last May, the brew of choice was Hulk’s Mash, a citrusy pale ale with Mosaic hops and mango puree.
Previous releases have been Brews Wayne (a hoppy amber), the Caped Brewsader (Belgian-style wit brewed with Buddha’s hand fruit) and the Fantastic Pour (American-style wheat). Fans pick the names on Breckenridge’s Facebook page; once they do, Breckenridge partners with well-known comic artists or, as in the case of Hulk’s Mash, the local art college to produce the commemorative pint glass, available in the convention center and select Denver bars that are lucky enough to score a keg.
“The program has grown significantly,” says Breckenridge brand manager Ryan Workman. “We used to do this in a 50-barrel batch. Now we do it as a 100-barrel batch in a 100-barrel fermentation tank, and even then it runs out every year.”
That’s thanks to the fact that Denver Comic Con has managed to nearly quadruple its attendance, from around 27,000 in 2012 to more than 101,000 in 2015.
The Denver event is a relatively new addition to the convention circuit. It joins kindred conventions like New York Comic Con, launched in 2006 and the event for which Brooklyn Brewery has crafted its superhero-inspired (complete with comic-book-inspired Milton Glaser artwork) Brooklyn Defender since 2012.
But San Diego—for 45 years, the annual home of the granddaddy of all multi-genre pop-culture events—is the place where the beer geek/geek geek timelines have really collided. It even inspired Heroes Brew Fest, a comic-book-themed San Diego festival that runs concurrently with San Diego Comic-Con (but is unaffiliated) and encourages attendees to show up in geeky costumes.
About a dozen years ago, both San Diego’s Comic-Con and beer community looked considerably different than they do today. Both were successful in their own right, but each catered, for the most part, to its respective subculture. They’ve since dropped the “sub-” and have become firmly entrenched in the culture proper, high-profile fixtures of everyday society.
Head to any multiplex and the marquee is likely to feature at least one Marvel property (playing on a minimum of three screens), a post-apocalyptic road movie, a time-traveling cyborg or a return to a galaxy far, far away. Inside, you’ll likely sit through teasers for DC/Warner Bros.’ attempt at superhero universe building and a second helping of global annihilation at the hands of the aliens from “Independence Day.”
Increasingly, fans of such films can enjoy a carefully selected range of region-specific beers alongside their popcorn buckets, as the Alamo Drafthouse concept expands beyond its Austin, Texas, birthplace. “Our obsession for movies is paralleled only by our obsession for beer,” Alamo Drafthouse proudly states on its website.
Moviegoers now can immerse themselves in the Drafthouse’s drink/dine/watch experience throughout its home state, as well as in Denver; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; parts of Virginia; and Yonkers, N.Y. Future locations are planned for Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Omaha, Nebraska.
Two of the hottest scripted TV series at the moment are a show about zombies and a fantasy epic where—aside from the routine maimings, decapitations and racy skin shots—dragons have been known to barbecue a few people and aspiring monarchs like to dabble in dark sorcery. The latter property, of course, inspired what’s become the gold standard for fully licensed beer and entertainment tie-ins, Brewery Ommegang’s Game of Thrones line. Ommegang launched its first Game of Thrones brew, Iron Throne Blonde, in the spring of 2013 to coincide with the debut of the series’ third season. The beer was a nod to the fair-haired Lannister family, who currently control the Seven Kingdoms (and sit atop the Iron Throne). Subsequent offerings have included Take the Black Stout (a reference to the realm’s Night’s Watch), Fire and Blood Red Ale (a tribute to House Targaryen, whose family members, including heroine Daenerys, professed to have the “blood of the dragon”), Valar Morghulis Dubbel Ale (“All men must die” in the high Valryian language) and Three-Eyed Raven dark saison (after an ominous, mythical creature whose appearance haunts young Bran Stark’s dreams).
“There’s geeky, sci-fi, comic book things on the big screen and on TV,” observes Alex Van Horne, founder and owner of Intergalactic Brewing Co., a 220-barrel-a-year nano that has the good fortune to be located about 20 minutes from the San Diego Convention Center. “It takes the nerd out of the back of the comic book store and recognizes that they’ve had a cool thing all along. It’s the same thing with people who’ve been drinking craft beer for 20 years. It’s good to see people finally getting on board with what we’ve known for the last 20 years.”
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When a brewery calls itself Intergalactic, it’s not too hard to deduce that there are some geek roots in there somewhere. A closer look at the brewery’s product lineup reveals an entire sci-fi convention’s worth of genre references. While its core beers are more science than fiction—Astro Scottish 80-shilling-style ale, Subspace Station session IPA, Orion’s Stout and Andromeda IPA—Intergalactic’s seasonals and limited releases are where it really lets its geek flag fly. Among those are Brown Coat English-style brown ale (a reference to the Joss Whedon series “Firefly” and its subsequent film, “Serenity”), That’s No Moon triple IPA (“Star Wars”), It’s a Trap sour (“Return of the Jedi”) and Ludicrous Speed imperial IPA (“Spaceballs”). Before many of those get names—voted on by local fans—they start out as part of an experimental one-off series with a title that should make most Trekkies chuckle. “We call them Red Shirts,” Van Horne explains, “because we kill them off fairly regularly.”
The nearly 50-year-old Gene Roddenberry-created franchise was also the inspiration for a limited release that was a huge hit for Garrison Brewing Co. last fall. The Halifax, Nova Scotia, brewery released Klingon Warnog Roggen Dunkel, a rye-enhanced dunkelweizen in early November 2014, just in time for the city’s annual sci-fi convention, Hal-Con. Garrison produced it through a partnership with Federation of Beer, a marketing company that negotiated a licensing deal with CBS for a line of “Star Trek”-themed products. Tin Man Brewing Co. of Evansville, Indiana, had developed an earlier version of Warnog, but Garrison tweaked the recipe slightly.
“There were just a crazy ton of people who were coming down to the brewery in costume, a lot of the full Klingon garb,” recalls Brian Titus, Garrison’s president and general manager.
The release also drew out some Trekkies who were hiding in plain sight.
“We had staff showing up with old ‘Star Trek’ T-shirts,” Titus says. “We didn’t realize we had so many Trekkies around us.”
Whether today’s beer culture has the staying power to make it to the 23rd century (24th, for those “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fans) remains to be seen. But it’s heartening to discover that, at the very least, it’ll survive the zombie apocalypse.
Observant viewers of “The Walking Dead”—which, for most of its first five seasons, took place in and around the greater Atlanta area (where it’s filmed)—will have noticed the unmistakable SweetWater Brewing Co. logo on fairly well-preserved cases in abandoned, undead-ravaged supermarkets.
“We’ve been working with their set designers for years, supplying whatever they needed to build the sets for the authentic look of a post-apocalyptic Atlanta,” reveals Steve Farace, the Atlanta-based brewery’s director of marketing. “We saw thousands of impressions through social media as a result, most folks saying beer would be the first to go in that scenario. And we also heard about the quality of SweetWater surviving an apocalypse.”
Philadelphia’s Dock Street Brewing took its obsession with the show a bit further last year when it released its homage, Dock Street Walker. Brewed to coincide with the spring 2014 “Walking Dead” season finale, its ingredients include malted wheat, oats, flaked barley and cranberry. Oh, and some smoked goat brains.
Dock Street gets points for, well, committing to an idea, but SweetWater gets additional geek cred for being based in the city that rivals San Diego as the center of the nerd universe. Since 1987, Atlanta has been home to Dragon Con, kind of a more chaotic, Mardi-Gras-esque cousin to Comic-Con. Atlanta’s modern beer scene was born six years later with the 1993 opening of Atlanta Brewing Co., which has since changed its name to Red Brick Brewing Co. SweetWater would brew its first batch four years later.
From Atlanta, to San Diego, to Denver to Halifax and all points in between, beer and genre geek culture continue to overlap in more areas than they don’t. Host facilities can’t be expanded fast enough to accommodate exploding attendance at comic and sci-fi conventions, a scenario that’s familiar to anyone who’s been to a major beer festival lately.
And, at times, those beer festivals more closely resemble the comic cons of the world than they’d care to admit. For one thing, the cosplay quotient at GABF definitely has surged in recent years, as a growing number of attendees have graced the tasting hall in increasingly colorful and elaborate costumes—staples of the convention circuit—with various beery twists.
“Let’s be honest,” says Garrison’s Titus. “People in the craft beer industry, we’re all geeks for the most part. We’re all coming to it because we’re passionate about specialty beer—most of us started as homebrewers. In a lot of ways it’s a hobby gone wild, and that’s no different than sci-fi: watching the shows, going to the movies, collecting the collectibles and the graphic magazines. People get really serious about it, and it’s growing rapidly.”
In other words, it’s a connection between two worlds that is—to paraphrase a great 23rd century thinker—quite logical.
Jeff Cioletti is author of The Year of Drinking Adventurously, available on Nov. 24, and founder of the beverage travel site, DrinkableGlobe.com. He’s the editor-at-large at Beverage World Magazine.