Writing about alcohol seems easier than it is. While it’s possible to convince your friend of the merits of a double chocolate porter when you’re all at the bar yelling at each other, putting words to paper that resemble the actual drinking experience is no easy task. Wine reviewing being what it is—an easy stand-in for self-righteous highbrow culture—good beer writing walks a line between understanding the subtler aspects of a brew and keeping your words free of the stultifying air of bourgeois overreach.
The BarBEERians are a group of beer lovers based in Montana with a blog dedicated to beer reviews and news. They consistently put up content accessible to both the casual beer enthusiast and the burgeoning connoisseur (it helps that they share my propensity for ridiculous stouts) as well as pointing out some of the more absurd happenings in the world of booze.
Splice Today had a chance to sit down with the BarBEERians and hash out some thoughts about beards, label shopping and how to write about beer.
Splice Today: Hello gentlemen, thank you for agreeing for this interview/profile/roundtable discussion about your blog, beer and your beards. Let's start this off simple: How did this blog come to be, and is a beard a badge of entry?
Matt Emery: The website was Steffen's idea. We all really wanted to start something about beer in Montana. There are a lot of sites about beer floating around, but none of them are very clean or easy to navigate. Plus, the Montana beer market wasn't covered very well. We wanted to change that. But Steffen was the one with the background to really push the idea into fruition.
We all had something to contribute to the website. Miles is a huge beer connoisseur and went to college in Portland where he was ambushed by great beers. He probably knows more about beer than any of us. Steffen had all the website development smarts and the ideas to craft and run BarBEERians. He's the one that really pushed us into getting the site going and maintaining it. I came from a writing background as an English major and creative writer, so I naturally love writing about anything, beer included. The whole site's a great creative outlet.
I don't have the decades of experience that a lot of beer aficionados have, but that's fine. I'm not trying to sample beers with a pinky in the air mentality. I'm trying to be an average beer drinker, sitting down at a table, ordering a brew, going through the smell, taste, and mouth feel that'll tell me if I should order it again. I'm just a beer lover who happens to write about his passion.
The beards seem to be a big connection with not just us, but all beer culture in America. Brewers have beards. Bartenders have beards. Beer writers have beards. Go anywhere in America that has beer, and you'll find beards there. It's kind of a fun connection--sharing beer and beard stories.
Steffen Rasile: As a freelance web designer, I am constantly looking for projects to try out all the new media out there. Being able to track the analytics, and Twitter responses vs. Facebook has been a very valuable experiment for me, and have helped grow my business.
Beer just seemed the easiest, and after reading Gary Vaynerchuks book Crush It! I figured it might be time to "Cash in on my passion." I don’t do any of the writing on BarBEERians but I mange the site and try out new web elements all the time.
There are a lot of Beer websites out there, but I want to try and make BarBEERians an easy place where people look for beer news and reviews. Beards and Beer go hand in hand. I am actually the President on the Montana Bruigher Beard and Moustache club (an official chapter of the USA Beard Team). It makes it hard when someone asks me about my beer website, and I hear Beard and launch into a history of the World Beard and Moustache Competition. No one seems to mind since they are usually also into beards.
Miles Anfinson: The whole website was really Steffen's idea, and in addition to building/maintaining the site, he has done a lot to motivate us. When the blog just started it was hard to commit to writing everyday. Drinking a beer or five every day isn't that hard, but writing about what you drink makes it a little bit trickier. I am sort of a Luddite when it comes to the Internet. I know how to get around the web and no stranger to computers, but I've never really used Facebook, Twitter, or the other social media sites, so having Steffen around to do some tech support for me is great.
I spent four years in Portland, and I guess that is really where I fell in love with beer. I cut back on mixed drinks and cocktails at the bar and heavily increased the amount of beer I drank. I also tried a few years of drinking lots of wine due to a catering job I had, but when it came down to it, I wasn't half as interested in wine as in beer. It also helped that my friends out in Portland did a lot of home brewing and one of them even worked for a summer the Rogue Brewery. At first I was very tentative. I have never really gone to tastings or even talked about my palate much. I thought we needed to do some research and talk to people who knew about beer tasting. Then one day, I met up with Matt and Steffen only to find the blog had already been built and there was a post! After being thrown into the bustle, I'm glad it went down the way it did. It gives us the ability to talk about beer the way we really taste it and not necessarily "by the book."
As for beards, I love them. They have a tendency to follow beer for sure and beings as they sound a lot alike (especially in Montana, where we are pretty lazy about enunciation), which leads to a bit of confusion, but as I said, people here like both beer and beards.
ST: As a beard-sporting amateur beer lover myself it's good to know there's a place for us out there. Your site is a pretty simple round-robin blog of reviews and observations and commentary on all things beer. Are there any beer blogs out there that served as a model/inspiration for this venture? And what do you recommend to amateurs like me who have only tasted a small handful of these beers who nonetheless appreciate some good beer talk—blogs, periodicals, books?
MA: Ha, I like the idea of being an amateur beer lover! I mean, if you love beer, you're a beer lover.
There certainly wasn't a beer blog that started as the model or inspiration for the BarBEERians, but there are a lot of blogs out there that have neat things going on with new media and social networking. When you see something cool happening on someone's blog (it doesn't matter if its about beer) you think of a way to make it work for you. Steffen has been great about this and is always finding new resources to help the blog. Just the other day he added a button to the admin pages so we can automatically Twitter about our posts. Stuff like that doesn't necessarily make a difference for the readers, but it does make blogging a bit easier for me, especially since I think it is important to utilize resources like Twitter and Facebook, but am not very familiar with their interfaces.
As far as recommendations for "amateur beer lovers," I would say drink beer and drink different beers. One of the great things about Portland was there was a great little organic food market that also sold a lot of different beers between my house and the college. Every day on the way home, I would drop in and buy a 22 oz. bottle of something new. Sometimes I would get a beer that I didn't like at all, maybe even one that was highly recommended. But I learned two great lessons from these sessions. First, everyone had different beer tastes. So your buddy may rant and rave about the new smoked porter he just had, but you might not care for it at all, which takes us right into the second lesson. Learn what you like, the more beers you try, the more you can focus down what you like. Every time you drink a new beer, for the first few sips, really focus on what it is you like or dislike about the beer. Maybe it’s too alcoholic, or not sweet enough, or maybe you just don't like how full you are after a pint. That is one of the things I like about having more than one person doing reviews of beer. Someone may find out they like the beers Matt likes, but not really care for the ones I like.
ME: I have to agree with all of this. We didn't really have a set site we were trying to base ours off of. We saw the other sites out there, knew what they were doing, and we thought we could do things better in a cleaner, more useful, and more intelligent way.
Miles is spot on in how to get into beers. Say you're a Bud Light fan or a Blue Moon fan and want to try some other beers like those. Don't jump to stouts or porters or anything extreme like that. Start out with something that correlates with what you drink. If you like wheat beers, try to find a wheat beer that isn't overly alcoholic, and give it a go. Then try another. And another. The thing that got me hooked was going to the beer store every week and buying assorted six-packs or, at some places, you can make your own six-packs. That's the way to really get into it. That way, if you don't like a beer, you're not looking at five more you have to drink.
But it's important to keep experimenting. Don't worry about tasting a beer you won't like. It will happen. But for every beer you don't like, you'll find one you do. Don't settle for getting the same six-pack every weekend or getting the same beer every time at the local watering hole. If you branch out, soon you'll be sucked into the ever-long search for the perfect beer. It's a fun way to really get into beer.
ST: So, Budweiser is shilling a winter wheat beer now (plus they brew that awful Red Hook stuff). Are craft- and microbrews starting to have an influence on the major beer producers? Is this ultimately a good thing or is it just another way for them to make a few bucks?
ME: The macrobreweries are big moneymakers for a reason. They're seeing that the smaller, craft breweries are starting to take up a chunk of the market share with their thousands of assorted beers, so it makes sense for the big guys to want to counter that. The way the macros are marketing their new product has been most interesting to me though. Blue Moon doesn't claim to be associated with Coors, but it is. Whereas something like Bud Light Golden Wheat clearly shows its connection with Anheuser-Busch. Michelob and Anheuser-Busch though have really been pushing into craft beer territory, but really don't want the consumer to know they're drinking a big beer company's product.
Michelob has released something called Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale, and it's hard to tell by the bottle that it's made by Michelob. It sounds like a micro. It looks like a micro. So they probably get quite a few people to buy it thinking it's a micro. I hope the taste tells them it's not. It's a miserable beer, but once you know that, they've got your money. So I do think it's mostly about the money, especially with companies that are trying trickery to get sales.
Bud Light Golden Wheat is interesting, though, because it's obviously geared toward someone who is more than happy with drinking just Bud Light at the bar, but might want to experiment with all these ever-expanding groupings of microbrews. I don't think something like Bud Light Golden Wheat will take away business from micros, but those Michelob brands clearly are trying to not only grab a part of the money that's going to microbreweries, but also become one themselves.
Is it good for beer? Maybe. Is it bad for beer? Probably not. Enough of a divide exists between people that care about macros and micros that neither will be threatened by the other. If you want to drink a wheat beer, I doubt you'll waver between Bud Light's version and a version from a brewery in northern Wisconsin for an extended time.
ST: It's damn cold all across the country. What are your go-to winter beers?
SR: When the weather drops I find myself more drawn to the local tap room. The community coming together to drink seems to warm everyone up.
MA: I'll second what Steffen said. Really when it gets cold outside (the high tomorrow is 1!), its all about being comfortable, and the local tap room has a large variety of great beers, good people, and can get pretty warm when the place starts to fill with people. Most people turn to the darker beers during the winter. They look for a good stout, porter, or even barley wine. Personally I don't think it gets better than the Blackfoot River Tartanic Scottish Ale. But that is not always readily available since the taproom closes at eight. So, what then? I look for something fairly sweet, generally dark, and with a decent ABV. The Faceplant Doppelbock is one of my favorites. It is out of Bayern Brewery in Missoula.
ME: Montana does make a lot of good winter beers (not surprising considering it's winter here for seven months). I prefer stouts myself so if you're looking to go national, you can't go wrong with Founders's Breakfast Stout for a strong and meaty treat. Something like Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout is also comforting and warming. It's much more like an imperial stout than a dessert stout the name might hint at.
Some people also prefer something lighter and spicier, and you can't go wrong with Bell's Winter White. Or for someone who isn't looking to get too adventurous, Sam Adam's Winter Lager is pretty delicious and widely available.
ST: You Montana boys and your ass-freezing weather. I imagine your stouts have a viscosity akin to motor oil. What do you look for in a beer review? Also, if you’re label shopping, do you have any tips for the adventurous beer drinker who's standing in walk-in full of funny named foreign pint bottles? (With wine I aim for the $10/cool label method of selection, and generally come away with mediocre stuff. It's why I stick with beer.)
ME: I like writing. And I like beer. Most sites and blogs like using bullet points and quick notes to tell you what a beer's like. That's fine, I guess, but there's more to drinking and enjoying beer than just sitting and drinking. There's a story with every beer. And I like finding that story while tasting it. Maybe it's the people your with. Maybe it's the bar you're at. Maybe it's a memory a beer can touch on. Somewhere, in every beer, there's a story to be told that can't be hashed out in bullet points. That's what I like to do with my reviews, and that's why I think our site's unique.
Shopping's tough. It can be intimidating, for sure, but it's also part of the fun. Try and pick a type of beer you want beforehand, and you'll already have a smaller window in front of you. Do some research on breweries beforehand. Some breweries are super adventurous and different with the beers they brew, and a stout at Dogfish Head or an ale from Jolly Pumpkin will be different than anything you'll find from Great Lakes Brewing Company. From there, the world is yours. It's part of the fun of tasting and sampling. Find a store that sells individual bottles. That way, if you hate a beer, you won't have five more to dispose of. You'll like some beers; you'll hate some beers. Just have fun with it, though. Find the story in the brew, enjoy it with some friends, and you'll guarantee yourself a good experience.
MA: Obviously, a beer review should say something about the beer: appearance, aroma, taste, mouth feel, that sort of stuff. But I really don't think that is why people read about the beers. Sometimes I wonder if the reviews encourage/discourage people from getting certain beers. Maybe they do, but I think often they don't, unless it’s just a peripheral sort of thought, but rarely do people seek out a beer they read about. It is more about the culture and stories behind beer that keep people reading, or at least that is how I imagine it works.
As for "label shopping," I am with you on the wine. I shoot for a 10-12 dollar bottle with a sweet label and generally end up with something that isn't too great. My best find doing this was the Mirrassou Pinot Noir, which can be found for that price range. But back to the beer. When I go to the store to buy a six-pack to drink with a few buddies and I want something I don't usually drink, I generally go by brewery. For example, Deschutes makes some great beer that is readily available in the grocery store. New Belgium on the other hand, I'm not a huge fan of. I often find their beers to be more watered down with a bit of a buttery taste, which I'm not really into. I would highly discourage shopping by the label. As we have talked about before, the Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale has great packaging and looks a lot like a classy microbrew, but it is brewed by Michelob and absolutely terrible. I've seen some beers with eye-catching labels that were not good (sword swallower), but also beers that look pretty run of the mill and are a real find. Generally, beer is cheap enough that you can sample something you think might be good, and if it sucks, you lost five bucks. I think label shopping works if you spend a few minutes in the aisle checking things out. Start by picking a brewery or two, or a style that will narrow things down nicely.
ST: It's 2010. What's one beer you are resolved to put in your belly this year?
Alan Zackheim: A brewery in Big Fork makes an imperial IPA that is killer. I have been thinking about it since I tasted it almost two years ago.
ME: Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. If I can find any bottles of it, I'll spend an entire paycheck buying them all. If I find it on tap, I'll never leave the bar.
MA: I would really love to find a bottle of the Life and Limb collaboration from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, but chances of that diminish each day. Otherwise, Steffen and I have a 10-year aged bottle of Blackfoot River Brewery's Thousand Year Ale, which was brewed in 1999 and bottled on midnight of the change of millennium.