I met fellow hop-head Brian Yaeger at a local beer tasting about a year ago at San Francisco's world-famous Jug Shop because I overheard someone in his group say something about Isla Vista. "Did you say Isla Vista?"
You know how it goes, you're not paying any attention but all of a sudden you pick up a poignant word out of the background noise and your attention follows. There is a real psychological term that describes the phenomenon, the Cocktail Party Effect; it was first coined in 1953 by Colin Cherry. Anyways...
So, Isla Vista is this very-little town, for which I have very-fond memories of, and we both used to live there. We got to talking, mostly about beer, but also his book, Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He tells me that he traveled cross-country going to all these great micro-breweries and wrote a book about it.
If I remember correctly, I muttered something like, "You bastard! That's so cool." - We have since sipped a slurry of suds together and I more recently asked him for an interview. Here's what transpired:
Me: Let's get this straight, you wrote a book about beer?
Brian: Yes, I wrote a book and that book is about beer. Mostly.
Me: How did you manage to swing that with your publisher?
Brian: I told them they could pay me in beer.
No. It's called a book proposal. I don't think anyone--certainly not first-time authors--just writes a book and gets a book deal. So before I turned in my 350-page manuscript, I submitted this 70+ page proposal about WHY they should be interested in such a book.
Me: What was your inspiration behind it all?
Brian: I get the question, "Are you a writer who loves beer or a beer lover who loves to write?" In all honesty, it started as because I got this crazy notion to write a book. One or two ideas failed to drum up even my own interest. Then, one day, I had an epiphany. "BEER!" I just started talking about going on a road trip to visit all the family-owned breweries throughout the country. One of the first things I learned is that only about a dozen breweries around today survived Prohibition, so my I tweaked my angle just a dab.
But that's where my "mostly" comment comes from. I am always interested in the human interest stories over the product itself. So this is a beer book that's really about the people in the beer business. And there's no shortage of interesting, charismatic entrepreneurs in the biz.
Finally, I discovered something about myself long ago. I love art, but I'm a crappy artist. I can't paint, draw, sing, play music, dance, and I'm only a good cook when no one else is in my kitchen. But I love to write. So I've always written about artists: musicians, muralists, bakers... One thing you won't read about in my beer book is anything technical. Those sciency books are out there. I was interested in the artists behind artisanal beers, and luckily, I think that's where I fit into the beer book niche. If there's one singular characteristic that binds my subjects and most of the people in the industry, it's passion
Me: Despite being a lot of fun, it sounds quite arduous. How long did it take?
Brian: You hit the nail on the head. It was tons of fun AND rather arduous. As far as the entire process, from "I'm gonna sit down and write a book" to "Hey, looky here, I wrote this book in your hands," it took exactly four years.
Me: What was the coolest place on the tour that every beer lover should go?
Brian: I spend much time researching my beer odyssey, and one could scarcely go wrong hitting the 14 breweries I focused on (each one got its own chapter, but I stopped in at many more along the way), and I picked 14 because when I wrote it, there were 1,400 breweries in the US, so I figured 1% is a noble goal. However, today there are 1,500 American breweries and virtually all 1,486 are worth beer lovers visiting.
The other thing is, I intentionally went to breweries in every region because I wanted everyone who buys it to identify one of them as his or her local brewery. So, every beer lover should start with the closest one and then explore from there.
Incidentally, here's a fun map I put on my blog showing all the breweries I've visited.
I'm hitting a new one (to me) this Friday. And I'm doing a huge road trip in Sept/Oct that will take me to over a dozen more. It's not like the Baseball Hall of Fame where once you go, you've been. There's always more breweries to explore.
Me: What was the worst part about writing the book?
Brian: The one everyone can identify with is pulling late night sessions. I became a fixture at every single coffee shop in my neighborhood (the quiet one, the 24-hour one, the one with free wi-fi, the one without wi-fi to keep me focused, the one that served beer...)
The worst part that any writer could identity with was having to edit and whittle down word count. Every word I type is genius, right?
Me: When the going got rough, what kept you going?
Brian: One of the best things I did during the process was registering for a marathon. Despite never having run back-to-back miles in my life, I signed up to run 26.2 miles. The saying about writing a book is that it's a marathon, not a sprint. Not to mention, "researching" beer builds up a beer gut (or my favorite euphemism, a "Milwaukee goiter"). So by training for and running this marathon, it became my literal and literary metaphor for finishing the book. Anyone can do either, all it takes is commitment (and telling all your friends you're going to do it, so you don't back out).
Me: What was the most interesting thing you learned about beer?
Brian: Considering I focused on the people, I'd say what makes the craft beer incredibly interesting is the camaraderie. The people are competitors, but they're friends. They share trade secrets, offer troubleshooting, lend ingredients and equipment, and collaborate on beers. Look for that sense of friendship and community among automakers, shoe manufacturers, soft drink producers, etc.
Me: What was the most interesting beer you had?
Brian: Another tricky one, since "the most" is impossible to quantify. To a lot of people, "beer" is one beverage and one beverage only. It's straw-colored, fizzy, tastes okay freezing but like piss once it warms up, and it's marketed via million-dollar Super Bowl spots.
But in today's marketplace, beer has nearly 100 identified styles ranging from Light Lagers to pitch black Imperial Stouts. And creative brewers concoct beers beyond these styles every day. So the most interesting beer I had was either the vanilla-esque Bourbon-Barrel-aged Ale in Lexington, Kentucky, or the sour Peach Berliner Weise I had from Delaware, or Double Chocolate Coffee Oatmeal Stout from Michigan, or quite possibly the bitter-as-frick homebrew I had out of some guy's garage in W. Virginia that he claimed was 193 IBU (International Bitter Units).
If that leaves you wanting because I copped out of naming one single beer, for adventurous beer lovers in California and a few select states, try something from The Bruery in Orange County. The owner/brewer Patrick Rue is making stuff that's not just mind-blowing, but damn tasty, too.
Me: What was the strangest brew?
Brian: That's an easy one. Mama Mia Pizza Beer. It started as a homebrew and the brewer got a commercial contract. It's literally brewed with garlic, tomatoes, and oregano! I HAD to try it and only found it in Pittsburgh, where they only sell it by the case. So if anyone wants to trade, I have some left...
Me: You must have had your fair share of meager beers, what was the least interesting?
Brian: Sadly, or luckily, those have all faded into mental oblivion.
Me: I'll bet you met a ton of people. Who was the wildest character you met along the way?
Brian: The consensus is to read the chapter on Electric Dave from Electric Brewing in Bisbee, AZ. Just the fact that I tracked this guy down was a major coup (despite running Arizona's first/oldest brewery). Tales of drug running, doing time, cokehead lesbian bikers, and on and on.
Me: So what's in the works for Brian Yaeger now?
Brian: I still love beer and I'm still fascinated by the people who make it. When not writing for newspapers and beer magazines, I've started homebrewing and am working on a book about the homebrewing community. Praying I get it finished in under four years this time.
You can find Brian's blog here.
You can follow him on Twitter.
You can also become a fan on Facebook too.
And of course, buy his book!