In his charming book, Great American Eccentrics, Carl Sifakis defines his subject matter thusly: “The true eccentric follows his own rules of conduct 24 hours a day—because he knows his code is the right one and everyone else is wrong; because he does not want to compete by conventional standards; or because eccentricity seems the only way to gain recognition as an individual.”
With his flowing beard and floral-print shirt, he stood out like a mast in a sea of blue suits.
America, writes Sifakis, was once truly gifted with nonconformists: hermits and itinerant preachers, flat-earth believers, nostrum peddlers and hoarders of string. Today, he claims, society is less likely to tolerate its eccentrics: “If you are poor and act bizarrely, you’re crazy and perhaps dangerous.”
Sifakis, if he had examined the craft brewing industry, might have changed his mind. The country is dotted with small brewers who entered the market without the benefit of a consumer survey. Their products defy stylistic guidelines. Their labels and packaging are over the top. Their marketing practices are unorthodox, to say the least.
Their numbers include a southern Californian entrepreneur who believes customers should earn the right to drink his beer; a stubborn German immigrant who established the East Coast’s first brewpub in a semidry town in Southern Baptist country; brewers who adhere to the Neinheitsgebot instead of the Reinheitsgebot, using nontraditional ingredients like saffron, rose petals, even garlic.
And they’re not only surviving, they’re thriving.
Magical Mystery Tour
Vermonters have an independent streak. Senator Jim Jeffords made that clear when he bolted the Republican Party, tipping the balance of power in the US Senate. To honor Jeffords, Alan Newman—president of the Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, VT—released a commemorative brew, an English mild dubbed Jeezum Jim. (“Jeezum” is a mild epithet in the local dialect.) “They’re really getting a kick out of it,” he says of Jeffords’s staff.
Newman is quite the nonconformist himself. I met him for the first time in April 2000 at the National Beer Wholesalers/Brewers Joint Legislative Conference in Washington, DC. With his flowing beard and floral-print shirt, he stood out like a mast in a sea of business suits. Newman made one concession to decorum: he wore shoes. “I frequently go barefoot,” he said.
Before he founded Magic Hat with partner Bob Johnson in 1994, Newman already had six start-ups to his credit (“a serial entrepreneur” is what the Wall Street Journal called him). His previous venture was Seventh Generation, a mail-order firm supplying environmentally friendly products like recycled writing paper and water-saving shower heads. Alan’s hippie sensibilities are currently reflected in his beer labels, which lean toward surrealistic, occasionally vertigo-inducing designs.
Magic Hat’s best-selling beer is 9, a “not quite pale ale” with a spritz of apricot essence. The hops and fruit meld seamlessly. “I can look people straight in the eye and say, ‘You’ll never have another beer like this,’” he boasts.
Newman has an affinity for the number nine: he markets his beers in nine-packs as well as the usual increments of six. Ask him about 9, however, and he’ll tell you it’s named neither for the Beatles’ Revolution No. 9, nor for the rock ’n roll standard, “Love Potion No. 9.” Newman cautions against reading deep meanings into his beer monikers, which include Jinx (a peat-smoked ale), Blind Faith (an IPA) and Humble Patience (an Irish-style red ale). “If we ever get famous, we’re going to have to hire someone to write stories to go with the names.”
The Magic Hat website at www.magichat.com is a psychedelic experience in itself. In addition to the t-shirts and mugs for sale, you’ll see a very unusual collateral item: prophylactic devices. “Instead of going into a bar with jiggly women in skimpy t-shirts, I give away condoms,” says Newman, who works with the AIDS awareness group, Vermont Cares.
“Our goal is to keep our customers alive and healthy,” he explains.” If we support the community, the community will support us.”
Magic Hat paced New England breweries with 21 percent growth last year, boosting output to 26,000 barrels. “My goal is to be an international brand,” says Newman. “We’ve got a quirky niche and I think our brands will resonate with people in Athens, GA, as well as in Athens, Greece.”
The Brewer with the Midas Touch
When Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats opened in 1995 in the resort community of Rehoboth Beach, DE, it was probably the smallest brewery in America. Owner Sam Calagione brewed twice a day, six days a week, in 12-gallon batches. “When you brew that often, you get bored with the same recipes,” he recalls. So Calagione began to tweak the formulas with whatever was handy in the kitchen. That’s how he developed his penchant for oddball beers.
Calagione is basking in the limelight for Midas Touch, a spiced golden ale inspired by a beverage served at the funeral of the legendary King Midas some 2,700 years ago. Based on an analysis of the residue on ancient pottery shards, the recipe calls for Muscat grapes, honey and saffron. The beer—which tastes something like a pear cider, but with a drier finish—is available in clear-glass, corked champagne bottles throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and in a few more remote markets like Chicago and California.
“There’s no use in doing what’s been done before,” says Sam. His Chicory Stout includes a pinch of St. John’s wort, an herb said to have antidepressant properties. Raison d’Etre, which is vying with Dogfish Head’s Shelter Pale Ale for best-selling brand, is a Scotch-style ale brewed with beet sugar and green raisins. Immort-Ale is a barley wine-strength ale flavored with vanilla beans, maple syrup and juniper berries.