All beer lovers have their story. Mine began in an unlikely way, but looking back now it all makes sense. When I was young, my brother, Billy, had a beer can collection. I remember following him on my banana-seat bike (sans tassels ’cause that’s how I rolled) as he’d score collectibles in shopping mall parking lots, diving into dumpsters, trading with his friends and having a blast every minute and in every dumpster. This all to me was fascinating.
I also remember going to a place when I was young and not even double digits in age. We had to walk downstairs into what seemed like the cave of a brick castle. There was usually a line to get in, and it was always darker than other restaurants, yet the place was warm, inviting and full of cheer. It was the Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., and my parents would take me and Billy there every few months with the goal of a family outing over food (and beer for the adults), and to help stock his growing can collection. Mom and Dad would order all the beers my brother wanted just for the package it was in. Amazing. They’d drink some, too, but mostly ended up giving the extra liquid to the tables nearby so he could still have the can with the bottom punched out (breweriana style) and top still intact. It all amazed me, without even tasting a brew. I liked the packaging, its variety, the people I connected with and what a good mood my parents would be in on these outings. The beer seed was planted in my mind.
In college I drank my share of mass-produced adjunct lager but was always turned off by the advertising for beer. Much of it seemed demeaning toward women and geared toward males in their 20s, which did not include me. I looked for something more. I spent the first few years after college in the television news business, but soon became disheartened by the corporate world and decided to take a risk and travel the good ol’ U.S. of A. By now, beer had become part of my DNA. Along with my friend, Christie, I hit the road for nine months in my Volkswagen, affectionately dubbed the Gypsy Jetta, in search of what we called the “great three”: great outdoors, great music and great beer.
After long stretches camping in the backwoods, we would head to the nearest town and seek out people we most saw eye to eye with. The brewpubs were the places we always felt most welcome. Here is where I found I liked the way the beer tasted and how it was marketed. I loved the variety and how beer paired with food, and I loved the people.
That trip changed my life, renewed my hope in a very organic and evolving definition of the word “community” and opened my eyes to craft-brewed beer from small and independent producers, and all that surrounds the pursuit of it. From this trip I remember visiting Anchor Steam Brewery—my first brewery tour—and thinking that I could have a life in beer. Soon after, I decided to homebrew, and at a beer festival a short time later, I entered a contest for an American Homebrewers Association membership. I won after a man named Charlie Papazian picked my name out of a hat. It was fate. The beer life was literally calling my name.
Often I think of what Ken Wells, author of Travels With Barley: a Journey through Beer Culture in America, wrote in this very column some years ago. “It was our first, tiny taste of optimism.” To me that fine statement sums up beer. Any day I am enjoying a beer is a better day than when I’m not. Frankly speaking, I’m inspired by the beverage and especially by what’s going on with craft beer in the United States. Its taste, its packaging, its producers, its variety, how it pairs with food, the people I connect with every time I enjoy one, and yes, the way it makes me feel. I say I’m maybe 100 pounds in a wet towel, so every sip counts. Thus I’ve learned to savor the flavor in low quantities, but with pride, not shame. I savor frequently, daily. Now, with each sip, my tiny taste of optimism expands even more, each and every day.
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