The way a lot of us think about sports is often tied to a coach we had in little league or high school. The way we think critically about our society and politics is tied to an influential history teacher or a community leader. How we cook—or don’t—stems from the appreciation a parent showed for the culinary arts, or the food they served us and our families on special occasions. So many of the things we hold dear as part of our personalities or preferences are rooted in influences from others that stuck with us. So, too, is the case of quality fermentation and the business of beer.
I’ve long cited my first experience with Saison Dupont as being the catalyst to what became an obsession, and eventually a career, in beer. But along the way, that first eye-opening taste led me to seek the companionship and expertise of so many others who were likewise on their own journey seeking out quality fermentation. Books like Tasting Beer from Randy Mosher, who has since become a friend and a collaborator on projects like 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and Forbidden Root, set the early bar for how much there was to learn about flavor development and the history of innovation in brewing. At the time, Mosher’s way of presenting complex ideas simply through the power of design and writing made it accessible for a novice like myself.
Since then, a small set of individuals have had an outsized influence on my understanding, enjoyment, and preferences. There have been innumerable moments and conversations among an increasingly broad set of people in beer that have influenced me. But today, I wanted to honor the contributions from these few and show how they’ve influenced Good Beer Hunting across the board. Every little ripple they’ve created in my personal experience has eventually resulted in a wave across our entire operation’s thinking.
I first met Ryan, an upstate New York native, when he was pouring at homebrew parties in Chicago. He was part of the local Slow Food organization at the time, where he’d recently met Greg Hall of Goose Island in the earliest stages of Virtue Cider’s formation. Greg and Ryan bonded over the Slow Food concept, and quickly turned their interest toward traditional, heritage cider making. Greg sent Ryan to Siebel, and when he was done, Ryan became Virtue’s first cider maker. With that role, he became the person who would go on to define their more ambitious wild and barrel-aged ciders, which set them apart from the vast majority of the emerging “craft cider” category still largely occupied by semi-sweet juice in a can.
Until Ryan poured me a taste of Virtue’s earliest wild-fermented ciders, I’d never given the category much thought. Cider was a British enterprise, mostly made up of Magners, Strongbow, and my occasional college companion, Woodchuck.
Ryan’s ciders were every bit as jarring and eye-opening as that first Saison Dupont that turned beer on its head for me. They were bone dry, acidic, often still like a wine, and layered with fermentation qualities every bit as nuanced and stunning as the best Gueuze I’d had. This cider was a reset button for me and for an entire category.
Ryan went on to join Angry Orchard to lead their Walden, NY project where he’s taking that approach to an entirely new level. In fact, this past year, he won Best in Show at the famous Bath & West International Cider Championships, much to the shock and chagrin of world-renowned artisanal producers used to collecting those awards themselves.
Over the course of the past seven years or so, usually in this man’s kitchen (he’s an exceptional cook), I’ve shared countless ciders, wines, and beers (“Which are cool if you like shit from the ‘90s,” he’s fond of saying of the latter), always with an eye toward fermentation qualities that cut across categories with ease. And it’s been this kind of interaction that has led me to see wine, cider, and beer as three separate categories that merge at their pinnacle into a horizontal category of sorts, where the best elements of fermentation, acid balance, structure and texture come together to form exquisite beverages that deserve their own club.
Ryan and I have gone on to become close friends and collaborators. I officiated his wedding. (I’m licensed, if you’re in the market.) GBH has designed the labels for his personal collaboration projects at Angry Orchard. And most recently, I’ve partnered with him and Eva Deitch, his partner and a professional photographer in her own right, to launch Cider/Food, a still-emerging project devoted to the traveling lifestyle of great food and cider, which has even influenced my own re-dedication to cooking and eating at home with friends.
Ryan is also my connection to orchardists and cider makers like Tom Oliver, Eleanor Léger, Kevin Zielinski, and Louisa Spencer and Steve Wood, who have all taught me critical elements of their process and intent.
No single person has inspired me with more lust for the good life of food and drink than Ryan Burk. And he’s the first reason GBH wrote about cider at all.
I first met Collin when he was the store manager for Intelligentsia’s Wicker Park cafe in Chicago. At the time, he was helping lead a kegged sparkling tea offering, pouring beautiful, unctuous teas into Belgian tulip glasses. They drank like Saisons!
A quick friendship formed around a variety of shared interests such as coffee, hospitality, and of course, beer. Collin is from Houston, and his ready access to Jester King and Live Oak beers when he made trips home made him one of the more generous beer gifters I knew.
But most important to my experience has been his foray into wine.
The studiousness with which he pursues most things seems to find another gear when it comes to wine, and its role at the table. This eventually lead him to leave the coffee industry and start working alongside Nelson Fitch to open Income Tax, a wine bar and restaurant in the far north Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. I recently moved my family to this neighborhood, and one of the most selfishly exciting reasons was its 10-minute walk from Collin's bar.
Along the way, Collin would share new discoveries with me, unpack the different regions of obscure wines in a way I could understand (but seldom recall later, unfortunately, but I'm getting better), and paint a picture of how it all fit into an ethos of hospitality he wanted to bring to the often fussy and alienating wine bar experience.
Now, I pop into Income Tax weekly and casually taste open bottles at the bar with Collin as he quickly gives me the CliffsNotes, and then we use our shared—but still somewhat unique—vocabularies to arrive at an effective understanding of the flavors and textures I’m getting. This is how I’ve developed my love of white Burgundies, Beaujolais, Trokken Reislings, and a host of obscure, historical varietals and natural fermentation wines. They all fit into that horizontal category that’s across the palate for me.
Collin has also taught me about the practical needs of running a bar and restaurant. How pricing and product work in different situations. And how to balance exciting trends, like natty wine, against their objective qualities which can so often fall short of more traditional precedent, in order to offer drinks that are both exciting and up to par for a discerning customer.
I’ve learned about oxidative character in orange wines and sherries, reduction in some older reds, and similar to Burk’s cider making, the role that tannins play in the structure of a still beverage. This has also, unexpectedly, taught me how to taste a lack of inherent structure in many contemporary beers in the U.S. along the Saison/wild ale/mixed-ferm spectrum. Cross-category tasting is a great educational tool.
Collin has one of the most experienced and well-articulated palates I know, backed by a love of service and hospitality that make me obsessed with watching how other bars and restaurants express their intent.
Stephen is GBH’s partner on Uppers & Downers, our coffee and beer festival devoted to putting two craft cultures on a collision course.
And when we first met, it was this intersection that got us talking and tasting. Over cocktails at Billy Sunday in Logan Square, Stephen slowly began to admit that every coffee beer he’d had, even the sought-after variants of Dark Lord and Bourbon County Stout that his company, Intelligentsia, had collaborated on, were, at best, “fine.”
I was shocked to hear this opinion. These beers were whales! But after hearing him describe how they came to be, and the lack of insight most brewers had into coffee as an ingredient at the time, the opportunity for creating a new approach to coffee beers in which specialty coffee could be treated as an ingredient every bit as exotic and variable as new-wave American hops emerged. We were onto something.
Even as we pursued the groundbreaking concept of Uppers & Downers, which took almost two years to fully form, Stephen became my guide to the coffee world. And lucky me, he was a World Barista Champion—a title I still make fun of him for, even if I admit that it’s an astounding achievement.
It was through Stephen’s tutelage that I learned about the value chain of coffee in revealing detail—even in ways that flout the conventional wisdoms and well-intentioned ethics of some. I tasted my way through countless coffees over the years, often in Intelligentsia’s lab, expertly prepared for tasting and grading panels with experts like Chris Kornman (now of Royal), Geoff Watts, Amanda Seaver, and Jay Cunninghman. I tasted coffees alongside brewers and buyers. I compared lots that Intelligentsia sourced with those bought on spot by other smaller producers, washed and natural and honeyed, and prepared on a wide variety of equipment and according to varied processes. It was an endless matrix—much like beer and wine—that I gradually chipped away at through smell and taste.
In the end, I’ll never be an expert coffee taster. But my exposure to such a different world gave me insight into how deeply the sourcing, evaluation, and end experience can be attributed to a single ingredient. It also gave me an unlikely role in the coffee world as a contextualizer of sorts for coffee folks interested in beer. Beer is recipe driven, combining a number of elements into a final arrangement much like a chef. Coffee is more akin to distillation. Your job is to not fuck it up during one of the hundred steps it goes through to reach your cup, even until the very last moment.
Coffee’s also furthered my understanding of agriculture and fermentation. Stephen remains unenthusiastic about natural coffees, which utilize fermentation to derive unique flavors, as opposed to more pristine, washed coffees. And for someone like him, I can imagine he’s tired of running that gamut to a degree. Natural wine can be the same way. But as someone who’s still quite the novice, tasting through a bright new world, the fermentation qualities these coffees provide can be fascinating. Two years ago, I had my first lactic fermentation coffee alongside Ria Neri of Whiner Beer Co. and Four Letter Word Coffee, and her enthusiasm for it totally sucked me in.
Stephen is now a director in the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and we’ve been able to take Uppers & Downers on tour with the World Coffee Expo in Seattle and Atlanta. Next year, we’ll visit Boston. We recently did our first event in London. We’ve done Uppers & Downers in Chicago five years running. And we’ve hosted small case studies—featuring coffee IPAs, Saisons, wild ales, Lagers, Berliners, even cascara ciders and cocktails—all over the country.
He’s still just as difficult to impress when it comes to coffee beers. But he’s admitted to liking a few along the way. And that’s a challenge I’m always happy to try and meet.
No one has taught me more about the value of that last 10% of effort in beer making than Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead.
I first met Shaun on a side-trip from Montreal to Quebec City back in 2011. At the time, he was still in the start-up phase, working on a small system on his family’s land in Greensboro, Vermont, far from most of the action of craft beer in those days. He barely remembers our meeting, which is fair, since it lasted all of about 10 minutes. But I spent most of that afternoon observing a man engaged in a fidgety, sweaty, incessantly busy process of brewing a beer. And watching him for a few hours taught me a great deal about who he was, and what motivated him. He didn’t walk away from the brewhouse for a moment. He watched it, as though he couldn’t risk missing a single moment or detail in his pursuit of brewing a flawless beer.
After I published what has now become a defining story for GBH, he wrote to say he was shocked at my read. He didn’t understand how I could have written something that felt so familiar and true based on such limited interaction. I don’t think he even understood who I, or GBH, was. But the observations landed. And a challenging friendship—the best kind for me—began. At times, the top of that hill in Vermont is as accessible and ever-present to me as any friend in Chicago.
In the years since, I’ve learned far more than what I perceived in that initial exposure. In sharing beers made by others, and of his own, I’ve learned a great deal about what it is Shaun is trying to achieve in his beers, and what he perceives to be a flaw. A missed opportunity for perfection is perhaps the best way to describe the look of disappointment that comes over his face when he’s tasting something anyone else would describe as excellent. And if you inquire, you’ll be taken on a linguistic journey uncommon in beer-making as he tries to articulate what could have been. Words like succinct, billowy, crescendo, are part of a vocabulary I can’t write without. Indeed, many other brewers now use this language to chase down their own vague ideas—and it all goes back to Shaun. He describes beers and beer-making the way philosophers describe ideas and inner selves, and something about this vocabulary has inspired so many to continue pursuing beer-making beyond flavors and aroma.
In our most deliberate discussions, Shaun has been generous to describe the “how.” More than anyone I know, he’s taught me more about texture and the way beer is carried over the palate in the drinking experience. He’s also taught me about why it’s worth being easily disappointed and difficult to please. One of my undergraduate art professors once made me re-draw a nude a dozen times before he accepted the final product as worthy and skillful. It was the most demanding sequence I faced in my art degree, where I was used to having it somewhat easy relative to my peers in a small state school program. When I was finally done, he told me to destroy the rest.
“You don’t want those to embarrassingly end up in the Louvre,” he said.
To this day, what I taste and experience more than anything else in Shaun’s beers is that extra push—seemingly self-motivated, which I find to be the most impressive part. It’s those hard-to-describe elements, like structure and openness that round it out just right, that lighten the body over the tongue at just the right moment, or that create a distinct denouement in the lingering retronasal qualities of the fermentation as you swallow.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a good-enough beer for what it is. He’s even gone so far as to describe Budweiser in terms usually reserved for wild saisons. Instead, Shaun has taught be to save the hardest questions for the greatest beers. How would it improve? What is the opportunity? What is, in the end, its intent?
GBH, perhaps from my own background as an innovation strategist, derives as much pleasure from the business of beer as it does beer itself. Saison Dupont moved me to pursue the drink in a new way, but what moved me to write about beer was discovering an emerging network of artisanal producers in America that were just beginning to graduate from a cottage industry to a disruptive niche. And for someone whose career was devoted to understanding emerging markets and consumer factors, craft beer was fascinating and somewhat unprecedented. In all the conversations, recordings, and work I’ve since done in the industry, no one has been as prescient and articulate as the founder of Magic Hat, Alan Newman.
I met Alan at an early Brewbound conference in Chicago following my presentation on storytelling in beer. We quickly bonded over our continuing surprise that so many brewers think that branding and storytelling were somehow antithetical to the making and selling of craft beer, a niche within the industry we loved that survived almost solely on its unique story.
A few months later, Alan and I began working together on the Alchemy & Science portfolio of breweries owned by Boston Beer—Angel City, Coney Island, Concrete Beach, and others. Thanks to Alan’s love of storytelling, it was invigorating work. More importantly, it left me with a copious amount of downtime with an industry legend—the man who started and grew Magic Hat, one of the most iconic craft beer makers of all time, and the man who lost it all through a private equity maneuver years later. The stories he told me over beers in Miami, or LA, or in his own epic backyard overlooking Lake Champlain are the stuff of legend, made real.
He was in the room when battles were fought over the definition of “craft beer” after the Brewers Association’s early formation. And he was the dissenting opinion through many of craft beer’s isolationist positions and policies that followed in the years since. Through all that, he never once let down his guard with regard to the damage that “Big Beer” was capable of. But he was also pragmatic, and understood the good it could do if taken advantage of properly.
Throughout GBH’s existence, the brand, or sometimes me personally, has often been called an “apologist for big beer,” some sort of anti-craft influencer trying to blur the lines between macro and micro, a sycophant trying to disseminate the message of corporate America. Alan was the person who helped me laugh at all that nonsense and get on with the business of progress. His clear-eyed view of the system, in which big and small are as much codependent as they are at odds, and his razor sharp recounting of the old politics of craft and how they continue to rear their dysfunctional head generation after generation, helped me see it all for the team sports and fear-based fanaticism it really is.
Since knowing Alan, I’ve had the confidence to set all that aside so I can focus on building something that eventually, if I’m lucky, will answer for itself in no uncertain terms. This year, as the editorial side of this operation—once simply a humble blog!—turns 12 and the studio side turns five, GBH became a million dollar business with more than 40 employees and contributors around the world. If you know anything about being a small business, you know that number doesn't go nearly as far as it sounds—but it does start to give you real options for the future, and it tells me that this unique thing, “seemingly cut from whole cloth” as the writer Jeff Alworth recently described it, has significant value in the lives of those it touches.
All this required a ton of focus and commitment from everyone involved, even during some very doubtful and lean times. These days, I look to a new generation of folks that have picked up parts of Alan's role in the beer industry, helping progress the entrepreneurial, social, and narrative pieces of craft beer, such as Scott Metzger, Collin McDonnell, Andrew Emerton, Kimberly Clements, Bill Covaleski, J. Nikol, Julie Verratti, Jon Urch, and the many others from whom I seek out guidance, learn from unique perspectives, and wrestle with difficult ideas.
The greatest effect craft beer has had on the industry I love is the explosion of difficult ideas.