THE EVOLUTION OF AN ALEHEAD

Aleheads.com is barely 20 months old. If it were a child, it would be about a year away from potty-training and still unable to form a truly coherent sentence.*

*Basically, it would be the Commander.

And yet, during its short, absurd tenure, Aleheads.com has had quite a profound effect on yours truly. It’s allowed me to share my thoughts on beer with the literally zeroes of people that want to read them. It’s given me an outlet to hone my writing chops to the point that if my college professors read my prose today they might say “Wow! You’re slightly less illiterate than I thought!” And it has given me the opportunity to forge relationships with some of the worst monsters in human history like the Czar and Kid Carboy. But the most profound personal change that has occurred thanks to my participation in this endeavor has been a sweeping change in my relationship to beer.

I suppose, in retrospect, this shouldn’t be surprising. Engaging in a beer blog every day for nearly two years has taught me more about beer and brewing than I learned in the rest of my 16+ years of beer-drinking combined. Writing for this site has forced me to research beer styles and breweries, conduct legitimate “tastings”,  talk to brewers directly, scour the internet for beer news, and to finally get serious about homebrewing. It gave me the chance to meet and share opinions with fellow Aleheads and to discover a treasure trove of other phenomenal beer blogs and beer writers. I may have started this project with my friends in order to disseminate our shared beer wisdom with the masses…but it very quickly became apparent that WE were the ones who were going to benefit the most from this blog. I thought I knew a lot about beer when I published my first post in February, 2010.

I knew nothing.

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My personal beer journey has been explained in dribs and drabs in various posts on this site, but I’ve never really described my true evolution as an Alehead. That’s mostly because no one cares. This isn’t a site about me, or Sudsy, or Beerford, or the Professor.*

*Though it is occasionally about Magnus since, unlike the rest of us, people actually liked him.

You didn’t come here to read about Brother Barley. You came to hear Doc describe an obscure beer you’ve always wanted to try. Or to hear Slouch rant about Anheuser-Busch’s latest crimes against humanity. Or to follow along with Kid’s latest beer travelog. But blogging is a wholly self-reflective exercise. There’s nothing objective about it. You can’t scrub away an author’s biases from a post any more than you can prevent an anthropologist from filtering their observations through their own cultural lens. So if you want to know the history that informs my rants, then take a quick trip with me, won’t you?

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In 1993, at the tender age of 14, a young, impressionable Brother Barley’s knowledge of the world of beer was impossibly narrow. The occasional, illicitly procured can of Budweiser, Molson, Coors Light, and Gramps McHop’s bottles of Haffenreffer Private Stock were about the limits of my understanding of the fermented arts. As you might expect, given that jaywalker’s row* of brews, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this mythical beverage called “beer”.

*Jaywalker’s row is the best I could come up with as the opposite of “murderer’s row”. Please offer better suggestions in the comments section.

But it was around that time that I had my first sips of real/micro/craft beer in the form of some local breweries named the Boston Beer Company and Harpoon. Given my inauspicious start with macro brews, I wasn’t exactly eager to sample these “new” beers. I just assumed it was the same crap I had tried before. Hey, I was 14 and the term “craft beer” wasn’t even part of the American lexicon yet. But still, like any 14-year-old, when offered a beer, the thrill of doing something “illegal” more than trumped the fact that I probably wasn’t actually going to enjoy what I was trying. And truthfully, I didn’t. Yes, the Boston Lager and Harpoon Ale were admittedly MUCH better than the horrendous beer I had consumed up to that point. But neither beer was the catalyst to turn my young self from a beer skeptic into a beer apostle.

It was during that fateful year that my best friend at the time became enamored with collecting beer bottles. I’ve mentioned this story in the past, but he had an older brother who happily bought him all sorts of different beers to help grow his collection. I remember he had some sweet bottles like Bishop’s Tipple and Blackened Voodoo (the latter was purchased along with a bottle of the infamous Dixie White Moose…it was just as bad as the legends claim). Sometimes I’d try a sip or two of the different beers he had, but mostly we just played video games, built tree forts and ziplines, skateboarded, lit fireworks, and egged teachers’ houses (the usual stuff). Beer just wasn’t that important to me.

All that changed when my buddy handed me a bottle of Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter. I still remember that first sip (out of the bottle, of course…I didn’t know to drink beer out of a glass for another three years). It tasted like nothing else I had ever tried. It was sweet up front with a well-roasted bitterness in the finish. It didn’t have that watery, “chemical” taste I had associated with beer since my first sip of Bud, nor did it have the telltale “skunkiness” inherent in many a green-bottled imported brew. It didn’t taste “good for a beer”…it just tasted flat-out “good”. And like that, my assumptions were shattered. If one beer could taste that incredible, surely there were more out there like it. Not long after that first bottle of Stovepipe Porter, I fell madly in love with Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. It was my favorite beer for many years and it’s still a frequent guest at the McHops Monastery.

Through High School, I was a lonely beer snob. Just ask Doc. He spent most weekends in Gramps McHops’s basement with me watching me tear through a sixer of Sam Adams Cream Stout, or Harpoon Alt, or Nutfield Auburn Ale, or Allagash White. I disdained the macros even then (though, like any high school kid, I gratefully accepted ANY brew when offered one at a party). Gramps and I made it a weekly ritual to head down to the package store and pick up a rack of craft beer together. It was fun, I had a pretty nice bottle and cap collection of my own going at the time, and I was learning a lot about different beer styles and what differentiated the offerings from different countries like England and Belgium. But my evolution as an Alehead hit the proverbial wall in 1997 when I packed up my duffel bag and trekked off to college.

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College is often the low point for an Alehead’s personal beer journey. OK…it’s not the low point in terms of actual consumption…if that’s the metric you’re going by, then my college years dwarf every other era in my life by a landslide. I attended a notoriously beer-centric college that INVENTED beer pong (according to the New York Times) and had an open fraternity system that allowed you to walk into any house on campus on any night of the week and grab as many cheap, watery macros as you could fit into your ever-expanding gut. With such a culture surrounding me, it’s not surprising that my appreciation for beer completely stagnated. Gramps would still send me beer from time to time, and once in a while I’d grab a sixer of something decent (usually Magic Hat, Otter Creek, or Allagash) from the local package store. But when money is tight (and you’re never more broke than you are in college) and free beer is forever flowing in the basement of your dilapidated dwelling place, it’s hard to convince yourself that it’s worth spending your limited resources on beer…even if there are options that are astronomically better than the watery swill available to you.*

*Though even I will admit that the one situation in which macro lagers are far superior to craft beer is in the world of beer pong. When you’re playing ten games a night…each of which requires a minimum of three full beers a piece, you quickly realize the advantage of weak, thin-bodied, light beer. Especially when there’s a better than decent chance that beer will be revisiting you later in the evening.

My Alehead fires were restoked some time in my Junior year when I started making frequent visits to my hometown with Slouch, Piels, the Captain, Beerford and Magnus. Our first stop would be to one of the local package stores where we’d stock up on a ridiculous quantity of craft beers including a ton of Belgian and British offerings. Many an Alehead was born on those trips even if it would be a number of years before we could truly afford to indulge in our vices.

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After college, my fallow period came to an abrupt halt and I quickly re-engaged with the world of craft beer. This was in 2001 and the renaissance of beer was truly under way in America. A job I had lined up in the telco field had disappeared in the wake of the dot-com bubble-burst and I remember my first, desperate job interview after graduating was at Harpoon (they were unimpressed…and rightfully so). Once I was gainfully employed and had some money to burn, I ramped up my interest in beer in earnest. Now that I actually had to PAY for beer again, it made no sense to spend my limited funds on something that didn’t taste good. I started frequenting the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston, Bukowski’s in Back Bay, and Anam Cara (now the Publick House) in Brookline…all of which had extensive draft lists. I bought “prestige” bottles every now and then and kept them in a little beer fridge for special occasions. I even started working nights a few times a week at an extraordinarily well-stocked package store that Doc managed (a store that sold ALL the Trappists, including Westy…and lots of funky, aged brews). My depth and breadth of beer knowledge was growing and my tastes were expanding with them. I learned to appreciate Tripels and Saisons, Lambics and Gueuzes, Dopplebocks and Schwarzbiers…even the occasional Pilsner.

After a few years in Boston, I spent a year in California with Wifey where I fell hopelessly in love with hoppy, West Coast beers. It was there that my allegiances switched from the subtle complexity of Belgian brews to the bold, brash strokes of American craft beer. I tried everything I could get my hands on while in California and felt a particular connection to North Coast and Deschutes brews. After our West Coast swing, Wifey and I moved to DC. While hardly a craft beer mecca in terms of local breweries, DC had a number of excellent package stores and a ton of restaurants with great tap lists. My appreciation for beer continued to grow in our nation’s capitol and I spent more than a few hazy evenings in the basement of the Brickskeller, trying to make my way through their legendary 1,000-bottle beer list.

A few years ago, we moved to ‘Bama to start a family. Thanks to the passing of the Gourmet Bottle Bill (hooray for Free the Hops!) in 2009, beer exploded in the Yellowhammer state. I became enthralled with Southern breweries like Terrapin in Georgia, Cigar City in Florida, and the local Birmingham micro, Good People.*

*The nice thing about the craft beer revolution is that, no matter where you live, there are probably a half-dozen great breweries within striking distance of you. Unless you’re Herr Hordeum in Kansas.

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And that brings us to early last year. The Baron, Doc and I had been engaged in long-winded, florid, impossibly geeky e-mail chains for years about our favorite beers and breweries when we finally hit on the idea of turning our passion into a blog. This was hardly novel stuff…there were hundreds of beer blogs out there and we started ours for the same reason everyone else did…to serve as a “clearing-house” for tasting notes on beers we had sampled. But, like many blogs, ours quickly morphed into something different. We still produced a cavalcade of tasting notes, but they started taking a back seat to podcasts, op-ed pieces, industry analysis, and some of the strangest beer posts you’ll ever see (like my infamous comparison of EVERY character in The Wire with a craft beer). In order to write these posts…some of which talked in-depth about beer styles and brewing methods, I actually had to know a little bit. This forced me to drink as many beers as I could get my hands on, actually “focus” on the taste, aroma, and body of those beers, sample offerings from a myriad of breweries, and read everything about craft beer that I could find. After a few months, I realized just how ignorant I was about craft beer. After a few more months, I somehow knew even less.

Immerse yourself in the world of craft beer in 2011 and you will quickly be overwhelmed. There are over 1,800 breweries in operation right now with 700 more in the planning stages…and that’s JUST in the US. Every day a new beer style is developed. There are Imperial Reds, Imperial Browns, Black IPAs, White IPAs, Wheatwines…whatever you want, it’s out there. Ingredients you couldn’t have imagined even five years ago are now being added to beer like endives, beef hearts, and civet poop. Hell, one brewery is serving beer out of a deer head. It’s mind-boggling and exciting and overwhelming and frustrating and thrilling all at once. Being an Alehead today means having greater variety and choice than at any point in history. It also means that you have to accept the fact that you can never taste “everything” and that as the industry grows, the percentage of beers and breweries you have a relationship with gets smaller and smaller. That’s a good thing, of course, but it does have the side-effect of making even the most knowledgeable Alehead (which, admittedly, none of us are) feel like they’ve barely scratched the surface of what the beer world has to offer.

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One sad repercussion of my trial by fire over the past couple of years has been that the styles of beer I truly enjoy have been dwindling in number. When we first started the site, I was amazed at how many types of beer there were that I hadn’t “really” explored yet and I seemingly loved them all. But like a film or music critic that becomes a narrow-minded, bitter, old crank, my tastes have started to become a little TOO specific and my senses, which were once wowed by novelty and craftsmanship have become as cynical as me. When I peruse the shelves at a well-stocked package store, I find myself dismissing entire styles and breweries based on my experiences with similar beers. I’ve started to neglect most Brown Ales, eschew all but a handful of Saisons, and even ignore Tripels. I rarely drink lagers anymore. Even everyday Pale Ales mostly leave me cold. Take a look at my beer fridge and you’ll mostly see a variety of Imperials, Barleywines, BDSAs, Strong Ales, and lots and lots of IPAs and Stouts/Porters. My fascination with all that the craft beer world has to offer seems to be sinusoidal. It started low and then peaked a few months after we founded the site when I became acutely aware of just how massive the craft beer revolution has become. I loved seemingly every beer and beer style I tucked into. But as I continued my education, my personal tastes evolved. If you could make a “tree” out of all the styles of beer that exist, the past year has seen me take a metaphorical pair of pruning shears to that tree. What’s left is a nice, shapely topiary that accurately describes Brother Barley’s beerly preferences. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the wild, untamed mess that the tree used to be. Let that be a lesson to all of you would-be beer bloggers. The farther down the rabbit hole you slide, the more jaded you’ll become…

Still…the benefits of founding Aleheads FAR outweigh the drawbacks. Beyond the fact that it exponentially sped up my beer education, it also has allowed me to strengthen the bonds between me and my beer-loving friends AND form new relationships with fellow Aleheads that I had never met (including Kid Carboy…I’m not sure if that last one is a plus or minus). I can honestly say that I’ve never known more about beer than I do right now. I can also honestly say that I’ve never been more aware of how LITTLE I know about beer than I do right now. I suppose the best way to word it is to say that while I still know nothing about beer, I know slightly less nothing now. And that’s a vast improvement.

So my fellow beer enthusiasts…tell me about the evolution of your interest in beer. Was there a particular brew that sparked your passion? Was it more of a slow burn? Has our humble website aided in the advancement of your knowledge or, more likely, made you even more confused? What has made you the unabashed Alehead you are today?

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10 comments

  1. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    As one of history’s greatest monsters, I resemble that remark.

  2. “Jaywalker’s Row”? How about “Criminally Negligent Manslaughter’s Row”? I mean, we’re still talking about murder, just the lamest form of murder you can commit.

    Glad that’s out of the way. My gateway beer, if you will, was Pete’s Wicked Winter Brew. The beer was retired years ago and the entire brand was dissolved just recently, but that’s the beer that pushed me on my way to better suds. I had no clue that beer was supposed to have flavor, even if those flavors happened to be cinnamon and nutmeg. I would later despise those flavors in beer (Hello Harpoon Winter Warmer) but the seeds had been sown.

  3. Joining this motley crew of beer bloggers has definitely kicked my own alehead evolution into overdrive (in TMNT terms, aleheads.com has been my mutagen). That I also live in a place in which I can hardly even keep up with the new breweries popping up within my own state has probably helped keep me in the bushy, tangled, brambly part of my own beer preference tree’s growth. I’m still so fascinated by all the new beers out there to sample that my fridge usually has a couple of six packs of beers I know and trust and a dozen or two 22oz bombers of assorted new beers I have yet to try.

    I also learned a TON about how beer actually comes to taste like it does by working my way through a couple of good home brewing books in recent months. Sure, I understood the general principles of what went into making various beer styles, and the differences between ales and lagers and whatnot, but now I’m at least starting to have a frame of reference for what might actually be causing the differences in flavor between two different IPAs instead of just noticing that one was hoppier and the other was maltier.

    Oh, and that civet poop coffee must have started as a practical joke that someone just never caught on to.

  4. You egged teachers houses?

    1. Actually, Alex did most of the egging. But I went along for the ride sometimes. 14-year-olds are remarkably stupid.

  5. Excellent post Barley, and I’m already feeling the same way after only writing about beer for about two months!

  6. beer-miester · · Reply

    OK, this is a true story..so my mom says.. she washed out a beer bottle..no doubt Black Label, then put milk in it an done of those old school baby bottle nipples and severed it up to me. Yes, that is dating me but who cares. Anyway, does that count for getting started down the craft beer evolutionary trail???? It was a crafty idea… pun in tended.

  7. Sounds like you never had a chance, Beer-Miester.

    Black Label, huh? That’s a rough first brew. But I suspect you didn’t have much say in the matter…

    Kudos to your Mom for her ingenuity!

  8. […] few months back, Brother Barley reflected on these pages about how he has evolved as an alehead. It’s a piece that I reread the other day, […]

  9. […] Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter: I’ve told this story many times before, but this is the beer that birthed an Alehead. When I was young, one of my best friends had an […]

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