The People Behind the Beer
'Behind the Brews' celebrates one year with a tribute to San Diego's brewers
This is my 52nd weekly blog post, which means I’ve been writing Behind the Brews for a year now. I’d like to mark my first anniversary by taking a moment to reflect on the nature of the folks who make San Diego’s beer scene tick: The brewers.
For most of the year, I focus my posts primarily on the beers—praising certain styles, covering important events, and talking about ways to expand beer appreciation. The personal interviews I’ve done with brewers have—to a certain extent—revealed some of each person’s true character, but most of the focus usually stays on the brewery, the brewing program, and the beers being produced. Often overlooked is a discussion of the collective nature of our brewers in general. They are, by and large, a diverse group of individuals who have come to brewing from all imaginable walks of life. They have given up jobs in biotech, finance, engineering, law, business—even rock ‘n roll—to dedicate themselves to their passion for brewing. No matter where they started, they all wound up here, in the world’s most exciting brewing mecca, making some of the best beer found anywhere on the planet. Together, they evolve classic styles, create new styles, and share their innovations and excitement with each other.
As diverse as all our brewers are, I have found—during my years of studying them, talking to them, and writing about them—some common threads that seem to connect them all. I’m generalizing, of course, but only in an attempt to define, characterize, and appreciate the collective nature of the folks who are, arguably, at the very core of what makes San Diego such a dynamic beer capital.
I find that brewers are a lot like chefs. Not only do they create recipes for their beers—as chefs do for dishes—they also seem genuinely bemused by all the fuss that is made about what they do. Sure, chefs and brewers enjoy praise and adulation, but they also tend to view all the hype surrounding their industries with a healthy dose of irony. These guys don’t crave the limelight. Most are solitary types at heart; they’re people with healthy but small egos who are willing to put up with the attention and the interviews and speaking at beer dinners only for the good of their businesses. If I had to guess, I'd say most would be much happier saying nothing and just communicating through the beer that they craft. I kind of think of them as the Juliette Binoche character (Vianne) in the movie Chocolat. She’s a woman of few words, but she speaks to everyone through her chocolate.
Brewers like routine. From what I can tell, most brewers embrace the predictable daily process of brewing—from the quiet solitude of the early morning hours milling grain in the brew house, to the demanding jobs of cleaning, rinsing, and sanitizing equipment—the ebb and flow of creation (much like cooking) seems to satisfy them on an almost spiritual level. They don’t shy away from hard work, and they seem fine with the fact that a lot of brewing winds up being mostly about hosing stuff down and sterilizing vessels of one sort or another.
They have given up jobs in biotech, finance, engineering, law, business—even rock ‘n roll—to dedicate themselves to their passion for brewing
They also relish the sheer science of the brewing process. Most admirers on the outside don’t often realize it, but most brewers are real geeks—and I mean that in the most positive and affectionate way. This makes total sense. If you think about it, a great deal of brewing is pure chemistry. Want to really animate a brewer? Ask him or her about the different levels of alpha acids in various varieties of hops. Or how to extract IBUs most efficiently during the wet hopping process. And if you really want to get a brewer going, ask about the process of attenuation, yeast flocculation, and the difference between original gravity and final gravity in beer. Just like true geeks, brewers are most excited when they’re sharing information and collaborating with other brewers. When they interact, they often seem like dedicated hard-core enthusiasts who’ve gathered at a convention to share their most-prized “beer-knowledge trading cards” with one another. Their “trading cards” often come in the form of growlers brought to meetings, offered up to give their colleagues a taste of what they can do. Brewers always welcome reactions and comments from other brewers, and they take special pride in receiving praise from fellow pros whose recognition and opinions are valued above all others.
It has become a kind of cliché, but lots of brewers do embody something of a “rebel” spirit. Not only have they chosen a somewhat solitary life as a creator, they’ve each made a choice to defy the odds (and the business pundits) simply by starting their own brewery. In most cases, they’ve persevered even though their spouse or significant other thinks they’re crazy for doing it. And they’ve persevered despite the fact that—for most brewers—it's a foregone conclusion that they won’t become millionaires by owning a brewery—in fact, they’ll be lucky to make enough money to keep the lights on and to buy the ingredients they’ll need to brew another batch. The ultimate reward for most of them is making great beer and being their own boss while they do it.
I’m not a brewer, so everything I’ve learned about beer and the San Diego brewing community I’ve learned as an outsider looking in. During that time, I’ve been constantly amazed by the openness and generosity of spirit I’ve found among our brewers—everything I know about brewing I have learned first-hand from them. I hope I have been deserving of their trust and have done their talents justice. Understanding the brewers as people has allowed me to tell their stories as a way of inspiring others to appreciate their craft. I hope that I have been able to communicate their unique perspectives as well as their honest love of brewing. It's a privilege to spend time around so many people whose passion and commitment shine through in every sip I take of their beers. My hope is that, by telling their stories, you’ll taste their passion, too.