Every craft beer enthusiast has a story about how they arrived at their love of craft beer. Whether they wondered forty years in the desert before reaching the promised land or they made the non-stop, direct flight. I would describe mine as more the wondering in the desert for forty years journey. Being in a reflective mood recently, I thought about how today’s young beer drinker has a much different experience than those of us who have had the fortune to grow up during the coming of age of the craft beer industry. In order for us to really appreciate where we are, it’s is incumbent upon us to take a look at how we got here.
I, like so many others, share my beer “roots” with my father. My father is typical of his age; having grown up drinking mass produced domestic beers. His career took him to many different parts of the country throughout his working years and he had the opportunity to try some different things. But mainly due to habit and lack of availability of craft beers locally, he usually came back to his mass produced beer of choice. Living in the Atlanta area all of my life and having traveled the country a great deal myself, has afforded me a different experience than many others in my age group (late 40’s to mid 50’s). How so? The craft beer industry had been quite suppressed in Georgia up until 2017. Old, outdated laws really limited production of beer and how it could be distributed in the state. For example, up until 2017 a craft beer brewery could not sell product directly to consumers at the brewery or tap room. The quirky work around was, the brewery could offer a tour (a paid tour mind you) and at the end of the tour you could take home a limited amount of “samples”. Bizarre at best. After years of hard fought battles, restrictions were lifted in 2017 allowing on site beer sales. Suddenly, new craft breweries and tap rooms started popping up all over the Atlanta area, as well as middle and south Georgia. The amazing and fun thing for me is, instead of growing up in a mature craft beer market, I’ve been able to watch a fledgling craft beer industry in a major city begin to grow and flourish first hand. I’m not the only one. The same thing is happening in many states all around the country as many of these outdate beer laws fall. Getting back to how all of us have a story about how we got to the place of being a craft beer enthusiast; let’s take a closer look at my journey and see how it compares and contrasts to yours.
Those Early Impressionable Years
This is probably going to sound familiar to many of you. I had my first sip of beer when I was probably 10 or 12. After pestering my dad to no end one Saturday afternoon, he finally relented and let me take a sip of his beer. I don’t remember what beer it was, most likely a PBR or Budweiser. Being a dad now, I know exactly what he was thinking. He’s going to hate this and never going to want to take another sip. Well, he was half right. I thought it was awful. Who can drink this stuff!!! Mission accomplished; but things would gradually change.
Fast forward to high school. My parents made the mistake of arranging for me to ride to school and back with some older boys who were teammates of mine on the high school football team. One day, we stopped off where they had hidden a stash of Budweiser Pony size beers. Of course, being somewhat intimidated and not wanting to look uncool, I drank one with them after some pressure. Remember, this was Budweiser. Again, it was awful. Couldn’t stand the stuff. But my course was unknowingly set. It didn’t take but a few high school parties later and I was a full fledged beer drinker.
Mid 80’s to Early 90’s
Back in those days, our beer choices in Georgia were still mostly limited to mass produced beers; but with the added option of some imports primarily from Canada and Europe. Georgia’s oldest continuously operating craft beer brewery, Atlanta Beer Co., was not founded until 1993. As a typical college student, for me price and availability were of primary concern – quality, not so much. I definitely had an immature palate and no real way to educate myself about the variety and nuances of beer (internet existed, but was not widely available). Miller Lite was my beer of choice. When down to my last few bucks, Milwaukee’s Best, Natural Light, and Keystone were fall backs. What, a bar is running a “Nickel Night” beer special on Rolling Rock? Yes, I’ll admit it. Rolling Rock was the beer of choice that evening! The rare times when I had a few extra bucks in my pocket, I went for imports. Molson Golden, Labatt’s or Amstel Light were favorites. I even snuck in a Bass Ale, Harp Lager or Heineken on occasion. Right off the bat, I know what you are thinking. The immature palate and lack of beer knowledge was painfully obvious. Molson Golden and Heineken often had that familiar skunked smell. I had no idea it was a flaw! Just thought it was how some imports smelled.
Another interesting thing about this time period is the cult like status Coors Beer had gained. Coors was brewed only in Colorado and was not available East of the Mississippi. In fact, the movie Smokey And The Bandit was centered around the main characters bootlegging contraband Coors across the country to Georgia. Coors finally begin to be available East of the Mississippi in the 80’s and it was a real big deal to get your hands on their famous “Banquet Beer”. At this point, Coors and Miller Lite were my typical go-to beers; but I usually had some Amstel Light, Molson Canadian or Harp Lager in the fridge too.
Mid to Late 90’s – Welcome to the real world
Like it or not, the college days had to end and you had to go out and get that first job. When I graduated college, there was a full fledge recession on and jobs for college grads were tough to get. Fortunately, I had planned to work in my father’s business. One of the bonuses was I was traveling around the country on business entertaining customers. At this time, there were a number of craft beer breweries around the country – Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, Harpoon, etc., but they had been mostly localized in distribution. Very little trickled into Georgia and that was mostly at high end restaurants, bars and hotels. Traveling on business offered me a great opportunity to experience some new beers. I believe the first true craft beer I tried was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I liked it at first, as it was really different. But if I am honest, it was still too bitter for me at the time and I lost interest pretty quick. The one that really stands out to me is Anchor Steam Beer. On a business trip to San Leandro, CA with my father, we ate dinner at a local restaurant after checking into our hotel. When we saw Anchor Steam on the menu, we both decided to try this beer we had heard so much about. I was instantly hooked. Frankly, it seemed just as bitter as Sierra Nevada; but was more balanced. From that point, I became interested in exploring different styles, not really knowing what styles really were, and better quality.
I wish I could say this was the point were I really became a craft beer enthusiast; but I can’t. At the same time, I had started drinking more wines. Looking back, I can see now how the bold flavors available with wine really were attractive to me and pulled me almost completely away from beer all together. I especially zeroed in on robust red wines. I really became absorbed in learning all I could about tasting and appreciating wines. My beer drinking really dwindled down to an occasional beer. My beer preferences were for Anchor Steam, Red Brick Ale, Harp Lager, Bass Ale and Molson Canadian. This was definitely the wondering in the desert period for me and beer. My preferences were for better quality; but I had no real enthusiasm for it. I was directionless. There was something missing.
2000 to 2017
Wow, just looking at those dates above confounds me. The year 2000 was a significant year, as it marked the year that I changed professions and stopped traveling very much. But it amazes me that I was basically uninterested in beer for about seventeen years! Wine was the thing for me. So what changed? It was a combination of things; but here is what stands out the most. My wife hates beer. Can’t stand it. She doesn’t drink very much alcohol to start with; but when she does, she drinks wine. My next few observations will be familiar to a lot of wine drinkers. When you are basically the only person in your household who drinks and you like wine, you are constantly struggling with keeping an opened bottle of wine fresh. I don’t care what anyone tells you, a bottle of wine is best right after it is opened. No manner of preservation techniques will keep it the same as when it was first opened. I started getting frustrated with pouring out half to three quarter drank bottles of wine because they just were not as good as those first few glasses after the bottle was opened. At the same time, most of my beer consumption was centered around the warm months of the year. I still never really lost the craving for a ice cold beer after a round of golf or working out in the humid Georgia summer sun. Then I discovered German wheat beers! Where had these been all my life! Weihenstephaner, Schneider Weiss, and Erdinger quickly because go-to beers for me. They were light, refreshing and not bitter. Yet, they had some interesting flavors and characteristics. Even better, I can buy singles or a six pack that keep the beer fresh and eliminate waste. The added bonus was that it was less expensive than wine, especially after factoring in waste. At the end of the day, it was German wheat beers that kept me interested in beer.
The great awakening
It’s interesting sometimes to see how a consumer’s buying habit can change significantly after one single experience. For years, I had been buying my German wheat beers at a local beer and wine store – Jax Fine Wines and Spirits. It was close by and they used to give a cash discount. I went there countless times and would make a bee-line for a section of German beers, ignoring the stacks of IPAs all around (I have never been a big IPA drinker). About a year ago, I made a run over to Jax and they were out of the Weihenstephaner Hefewiezen that I liked, so I went down to a larger Total Wine store about 10 miles away. As I made my way on to the beer aisle, I first notice they had six pack cartons available to mix and match the beers you want from the singles shelf. The I noticed the vast array of craft beer singles of many different styles. My curiosity was peaked, and frankly, I became a little overwhelmed and intimidated by the sheer number of breweries and styles I knew nothing about. Not really knowing what do select, I just grabbed some beers from Arches Brewing, Reformation Brewing, and some random Mexican beers I was curious to try.
The amusing thing is, the first two beers I sampled – Arches Southern Bel’ Belgian Ale and Reformation Cadence Belgian Ale – I really didn’t like that much; but I was impressed with the complexity and range of flavors. The one that instantly hooked me was Arches Brewing Southside Lager (it was named Unseasonal Lager at the time). It was a European style Amber Lager. It was fantastic! It was flavorful, sweet yet well balanced with bittering hops. I was hooked from that time on. Needless to say, Total Wine became my favor store. One lesson for retailers, have a big section of singles. That has allowed me to try a huge variety of styles from multiple breweries without having to buy a six pack of something I ended up not liking. There is nothing worse than having those three or four beers remaining from that six pack that you really tried to like; but just couldn’t force it. Almost every beer drinker has been there.
A Twenty One Year Old Beer Drinker in 2019
Let’s consider the twenty-one year old beer drinking today. There is still the cheap, mass produced beers widely available. However, that same new beer drinker now most likely has a craft beer brewery with a tap room within a ten to fifteen minute drive. They also have large retailers and bottle shops with aisles full of craft beer choices. Stop and consider that for the moment. Their journey can start right at craft beer and they never have to touch mass produced beers! But what about becoming educated about their choices among styles and breweries? First, they have a lot of people around them that are knowledgeable. Or they could talk with the staff at the brewery tap room. Even better, they have access to a wealth of information on the internet. In theory, they have the opportunity to become much better educated consumers, at a much younger age.
No doubt, at this point in my beer journey, I have learned that you can never really learn everything there is to know about beer. I do consider myself a beer enthusiast because I want to promote the merits of the beautifully crafted beers that I continue to uncover. Additionally, I want people to know that we have some wonderful breweries in Georgia that are producing as high a quality beers as anywhere else in the country.
Thanks for reading. Until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!