We’re back with the second part of our rambling chat about all things beer with London beer writers Will Hawkes and Matthew Curtis, who we meet over pints at lovely London craft pub House of Hammerton.
In the first part of our interview, we asked these fine gentlemen, among other things, to discuss some of their favorite UK breweries, share some of their go-to London pubs, and look at the future of the London brewing scene. Here we veer in all directions, touching on everything from the roles and responsibilities of beer journalists, to the UK expansion of Good Beer Hunting (with Curtis at the helm), to somewhat off-the-map breweries in the United States, Alsace, and Australia that deserve to be on it.
Cheers to Hawkes and Curtis for their time and eloquence… and for the mild hangover.
Beer Travelist: From the outside looking in, it seems like there’s a fairly tight community of beer writers in the UK. It seems like everybody knows everybody, and…
Matthew Curtis: We all like each other, too (hahaha). No, there is some good kumbaya.
BT: How can you collectively elevate the conversation in the UK about beer?
Curtis: The most important thing we need to do is challenge each other, and we need to listen to each other. I think the listening part is a very important thing. I wouldn’t be in this industry if it wasn’t for the beer writers. I had a lot of great conversations with Will when I was setting my rates. Adrian Tierney-Jones will send me an email if I do something that’s shit and ask me what I’m doing, and I love that about him. When I was asking for advice in my early days, Melissa Cole just rang me and became a good friend, and again if I do something shit she will scathe me, but in a good way.
We are peers, but we’re not immune to criticism, and I think we need to learn that.
Speaking as someone who’s come from a non-professional background, who is an enthusiast who self-taught himself about beer, I also think there’s room for more voices. I still think I’m occupying a niche, and there are plenty of parts of beer that aren’t being talked about.
I also feel like beer writers are part of the beer industry, whether they think so or not. I know some beer writers who try to be very impartial and who maybe don’t consider themselves part of the industry as commentators, but I think that in order to get the best commentary you have to be a cog and connect yourself with all the different parts, from retail and consumer to brewery, distribution, and farmers. You have to be able to speak their language.
Will Hawkes: The nature of journalism is that you have to make relationships, and once you know people and they trust you they will tell you things. Immediately, then, you’re somewhat compromised if you, say, become friends with a brewer and he or she tells you something. In some people’s eyes you’ve become compromised and crossed a line—but you’re also getting stories.
I think there’s always been a bit of a difference in terms of the American and British ideas of journalism. American journalism, at its best, is very pure and you stay completely detached from the subject. British journalism is Fleet Street; it’s Grub Street; it’s an arm wrestle in the gutter and you get the story. It may not be quite so morally pure, but it still serves a journalistic purpose.
I’m not saying beer writing is like that at all, but that’s my background. I worked in local papers, and then for national newspapers, and I think if you try and tread a morally pure line in journalism, then you’re gonna come a cropper. You have to take each situation as it comes, and you do what you do to get the information and to serve the reader, which is the purpose of journalism. The beer consumer, in this case, is the most important person if you’re writing about beer.
Wait, was the original question? I’ve completely lost it.
Curtis: It was if we hated each other…
BT: Haha, well, not really, but okay—do you hate each other?
Hawkes: No, I don’t think so. There’s a certain amount of rivalry, but that’s really good.
BT: To this end, what responsibility do we have, as beer writers, to “tell it like it is?” One of the problems in travel writing, which is where I come from, is the “Everything is Amazing Syndrome.” Everything the writer sees, tastes, and experiences on a luxurious trip to, say, Thailand is just bloody brilliant… and then there’s no disclosure that the story about this amazing, flawless trip was paid for by the subject or whatever.
So in beer, you tend to see the same thing—nobody writes about the bad, and it’s considered controversial to say anything bad about anything in the industry.
Curtis: It’s controversial to say anything bad or good. I think there’s an incredibly important distinction to be made betweeen beer bloggers and beer writers. People have an expectation of bloggers, and there should be none because bloggers do it for a hobby and they can write about what they damn well want. They do it in their spare time, and they do it for fun.
I decided to make the transition from blogger to writer, and I feel that as a beer writer—as a journalist—that I have an obligation to report on what’s happening, and if I’m reporting on something it must be balanced. I get to write op-eds, and I can say whether I agree with something or I don’t, but it has to be based on fact. I think the problem is that some people see a beer blog that might decide to wade into that as having a responsibility, and in fact they have no responsibility because they’re doing it as a hobby.
But for people who do it for a living, there is a greater need for scrutiny in beer. However, we also have to remember that it’s just fucking beer, and sometimes you can spend too long scrutinizing, and you can forget that sometimes there’s a beer that comes out that deserves high praise. You also have to accept that if you say something really nice, some people are going to disagree with you, and if you say something really bad some people are going to disagree with you, too.
Case in point recently is that I decided to write a review of the new Hobgoblin IPA because I didn’t think it was very good. The only reason I decided to write about it was because of some of the clap trap in the press release about how it was going to reach a younger market. I thought that was nonsense, so there was that hook for me to write about it. The bizarre thing was that as a result of that I saw people decide that I must be wrong, so they went out and bought it just to try and prove me wrong.
And you know, that’s actually great. That’s great. I’m really glad that inspired them. If there is a market for that beer and people drink it and like it, they will—I got to say my piece either way.
There is a responsibility of professional beer writers to be scrutinous, but they mustn’t forget that there’s good stuff to write about, too.
Hawkes: I think an issue that’s kind of related to this is that beer writers know about the subjects, so when companies bullshit we can call them out on it. One recent example was the Young’s pub company, which did a massive celebration of 185 years since the brewery was founded. Young’s Brewery closed in 2006, and the Young’s pub company is something completely different, and they’ve been going for like 11 years.
They were bullshitting the customer, and celebrating Young’s traditions, but they said goodbye to those traditions when they closed the brewery in 2006. When we know about a subject like that, we can bring that perspective and you can point out that a lot of what passes for discourse in beer is complete nonsense. I think that’s a crucial aspect of journalism.
BT: Matt, Good Beer Hunting takes some flack online—you can see it sometimes, in particular, on Twitter—for some of their relationships with breweries with which [founder] Michael Kaiser has worked, like Goose Island.
Update 11/13/18: Curtis recently resigned from his role as GBH’s UK editor.
Matt: It’s interesting that you mention Goose Island. Michael did work for them a few years ago, but 95-percent of his clients are start-ups, and no one ever talks about those start-ups. He helps small, independent breweries launch, so he’s actually more responsible for more of the money coming into GBH from brand-new breweries than AB InBev.
What’s a really important distinction, as well, is that the only link between his editorial team, of which I’m a part, and the strategy team is Michael himself because it’s his company. He hired an editorial director to take on his role, so Michael doesn’t even decide what goes on the site. He has Austin Ray, who does a fantastic job of editing, and there are plenty of other beer websites that have a similar model.
Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine, based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, and one of the bigger American magazines, has a little ad company that generates revenue. Magazines sell ads, and we sell ads, as well. If people disagree with what you say, they will look for ways of discrediting your opinion. I think Good Beer Hunting is interesting because it’s a very modern model that nobody has done before.
We’re also very opinionated. Michael is sharp as a tack and dry as the Sahara, and that comes across on Twitter. He has every right to be that, and some people get wound up by it, and he does kind of feed off that. I have access to the GBH Twitter now, as does Austin, and it’ll become more of a unilateral voice.
GBH is a very young company. You have to remember it was Michael’s blog, and it’s not his blog anymore—it’s a company and he is building a team, of which I am an active part, and we are still finding our voice. That’s hard, because we say things that people really want to get into, and that’s good. I think it’s important that we learn something from every conversation we have, but we are also very opinionated and we’re not always going to restrain ourselves.
BT: On a somewhat similar note, a thing we have trouble with in Asia is breaking outside of the bubble; I think you have a little bit of that here in London, too. How can craft reach a wider audience in the UK, or perhaps what do craft breweries–and beer writers–need to do better to reach a different audience?
Matt: That’s an incredibly good question because I run a lot of beer events in London, and I genuinely see the same 50 or 60 interchangeable people at these events, and that’s a concern of mine. Those people are wonderful and they love their beer, but there’s nothing better than getting strangers at your beer event, especially if they’re beer-curious.
There is a bubble. I travel a lot, especially in the UK to places like Bristol, Leeds, and Manchester, and those cities have the same thing—a beer clique—as well. I think that’s just growing pains, and I just suggest that people be as welcoming as possible. As far as I’m concerned and how I deal with it, I travel. I get accused of being London-centric at least once a week, and less than 10-percent of the articles I published in 2017 were about London. I’ve actually consciously decided to write more about London in 2018 because I feel like my city is getting criminally undercovered due to people’s fear of being London-centric.
I can guarantee that in 2018 I’m going to be obnoxiously London-centric. I know this scene better than anything, so why shouldn’t I be writing about it? I just hope people aren’t intimidated by the cliques. They do exist, though, and I think we just need to be aware of that.
BT: Do you think about a general audience when you write? For example, I’m a little self-conscious about referring to things like, say, Brettanomyces without providing some kind of brief explanation about what it is.
Hawkes: You do have to make your best effort to explain it in a way that ordinary people can understand. I think about it all the time because I do write for national newspapers, and it’s not an exclusive beer audience. We do still have the issue, particularly in the UK, of people who think that beer is not for them. They perhaps haven’t felt as welcomed in the beer world to understand that beer is as much a part of our culture as anything else.
One of the reasons I travel to Alsace or Belgium or the Rhine or Franconia is to see those beer cultures that have been entrenched for centuries, and then you get a better appreciation of the beer culture in your own country. When I was in my twenties I learned to speak French, because my wife is half-French and her grandma speaks French and I wanted her grandma to be happy with me. The thing it taught me, though, is that when you speak other languages you have a different view of the world. Suddenly you can see your own culture in a totally different light, and as a writer, when you go to Belgium or France or Germany or anywhere, you get a much better idea, as a Briton, of what’s good and what’s bad.
I lived in California for a year, and I didn’t know what Britain was until then. If you only know England, you know nothing about England. You don’t know how it’s different than anywhere else, and that’s exactly true about beer. You have to know about a lot of stuff and put it into a certain context. Beer is a really fascinating subject within a much richer culture, and that’s how you convey it to a wider audience because you put it into that context. Suddenly it’s not about citra hops, or some dude with a baseball cap in Minnesota—it’s about 1,000 years of northern European culture, and that, for me, is what makes it fascinating.
BT: What can breweries do better to cross over in terms of finding a new audience? Related, is the supermarket adoption of craft beer a good thing?
Curtis: That’s a couple of huge questions there. Breweries need to find their core audience, then if they want to grow they have to expand beyond that. Not every brewery wants to reach the mass market, and the beer geek market will only sustain a brewery of a certain size. You look at The Kernel, which is sustained by people that don’t just love beer, but love picking out produce from Spa Terminus (where The Kernel is located). Breweries need to be self-aware and mindful of the market. It’s always going to be changing. I do agree with the old saying that brewers should brew what they want to drink, but they should also brew what they think people want to drink.
In terms of the supermarket, I think it’s important that craft beer is there because you can’t stay this same little niche thing forever. I just think that those breweries need to be aware that when they do that they may be leaving behind the relationships they may have built. Some of them are doing very well—places like Northern Monk and Magic Rock—where they have a core range and a very limited-edition range. That’s the way to do it. You can’t expect an independent retailer to stock your core pale ale if it’s in 5,000 supermarkets; it’s just unrealistic.
BT: Is this why you don’t see BrewDog on tap as much in London?
Curtis: Well, you do if you go to places like Nicholson’s. If you go to a pub in which you don’t normally drink you might see Punk IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur…
Hawkes: If you walk through London and stop for a drink at every pub you walk past you’ll see BrewDog quite a lot. If you go to places that are ostensibly craft pubs, yeah, you won’t see it because they’re big now. I went to Sainsbury’s today, which is the second biggest supermarket chain in the UK, and I looked at the craft section to see what they had. There was some Camden, Weihenstephan, some other nice German and Belgium beers, but it was mostly BrewDog.
When most people in the UK think of craft beer, they don’t think of this rich diversity—they think of BrewDog. BrewDog defines craft beer in this market, and when BrewDog is interesting or obnoxious or whatever, then so is craft beer.
BrewDog is craft beer as far as the average UK punter is concerned. It’s kind of under-acknowledged because if you drink all these other beers—if you love Magic Rock, Cloudwater, or The Kernel—you see them all on a plain. It’s not a plain; it’s a skyscraper, which is BrewDog, and there’s some pocks next to it, and that’s everyone else. That’s the reality.
BT: Will, I read an article in which you were quoted as saying that “beer lovers are understandably wary of big companies running breweries. They want choice.” This question is for both of you: Do everyday beer drinkers actually care who makes the beer if the beer tastes good? Is it too much to ask of a regular, everyday beer drinker trying to support craft that they get into the nitty-gritty of brewery ownership?
I’m thinking about my dad, for instance. He loves craft and supports Michigan breweries, but doesn’t really have the time or, frankly, inclination to get into the details about, well, Founders is 30-percent owned by Mahou San Miguel and Bell’s is completely independent, so maybe I should only buy Bell’s even though I like Founders, too.
Will: It’s way too much to ask, and everyone makes their own decision about how much they care about that stuff. What I was getting at is there is an interest in supporting small companies that have their own world view, and in a broader point, our lives are richer if we have more variety, more choice. I don’t really have a philosophy about me, I don’t feel like I need to support beer—I like delicious wine more than I like shit beer.
I’m not wedded to beer, but my philosophy is that we had a period after World War II, particularly in the US, when everything was very centralized in a small number of companies. What I love about the world is that you can go to different places and have a different experience, and I’m a bit of a hypocrite in this respect, because when I’m in London I want everything. But if I go to Franconia, I want those Keller beers; if I go to Belgium, I want that huge diversity of style; when I’m in the Rhone Valley I want a glass of Rhone wine.
I love that diversity, and I think that’s what small companies give you. If you have one big company with someone in charge of 100,000 people, that’s one view of the world, but if you have 1,000 medium-sized companies, that’s 1,000 views of the world. I think that’s cultural richness, and that’s what I’m really interested in.
BT: How does that world view reach the masses?
Hawkes: It’s really hard, but it’s possible because it becomes part of culture. Culture can change very swiftly, as we’ve learned in this country and in your country politically. I think in Britain we’re on the brink of a big cultural shift, and I think we’re ready for it, but at the moment this terrible government is just stumbling and stumbling to figure how we can stay where we are.
It’s over. It’s over. In 20 years time we’re going to look back and ask why they couldn’t accept it when it was over. Culture shifts happen, and I think we’re about to have a big one.
Curtis: I think Will has answered that for me; I completely agree with him.
BT: Furthermore, to cite one example AB InBev recently bought Pirate Life, which like any acquisition is going to expand the distribution and put more “craft” into the hands of a greater audience. If the beer quality stays the same or even improves, is this not in line with the idea of making more good beer accessible to more people?
Hawkes: It’s a big assumption to say the quality will stay the same. I think in the short term it will, but the problem with big breweries is that when the downturn comes they cut costs. That’s just the nature of big breweries.
So, I think it’s great being in supermarkets or pubs that don’t have any other interesting beer. It’s good that, say, Camden will be there. In the long term, however, once you sell your brewery you lose control, and the people who’ll be controlling it are the same people who’ve been controlling 400 other brands around the world.
Curtis: Well, the assumption is that people want craft beer, but I think people forget that the best-selling beer in the UK is still Carling, just as the best-selling beer in the US is Bud Light. I mean, macro beers are on a downward curve and people do want better beer. Think about people who are turning 18 years old now—they can walk into a shop and buy Gamma Ray as their first beer experience.
That’s pretty mad.
Hawkes: Gamma Ray is the phenomenon of London beer for the last two or three years.
Curtis: Gamma Ray is a beer that is transcending London because as London as Beavertown are, they aren’t tied to a borough.
Hawkes: But Gamma Ray is a representation of London—it is London.
Curtis: The market for craft will grow, and being in supermarkets is important. Craft brewers are finding ways to differentiate themselves, be it mixed fermentation, or New England IPA, or imperial stouts based on old recipes. There’s a natural process that we’re going through. With any modern culture you’ll see early adopters and enthusiasts, and then you see the waves and there’ll be peaks and troughs.
I do genuinely think that in the last decade beer has changed forever. When the current generation dies off, there will just be a normalization of craft. It will just become beer. It sort of happened with wine in the 90s. It became normalized with a massive range of wine in the supermarket.
Hawkes: That’s true. Think about what happened with wine in the UK—no one ever drank wine apart from extremely rich people, whereas beer has always been the drink of ordinary British people, so it’s a slightly different thing. I think wine has sold into a nice situation whereby there are 5- or 6-pound wines, which people buy for weekday drinking, and then you have your fine wine to be enjoyed by people in blazers, and you have your natural wine, which are enjoyed by people with quiffs (stops to take a long look at Curtis), and… that’s what wine is.
Curtis: I love natural wine. (Leans into recorder.) I LOVE NATURAL WINE.
Hawkes: I don’t think you can put beer in the place where wine was because beer is different. It’s much more part of our culture than wine has ever been.
BT: My wife told me that in some ways craft beer has gotten more snobby than wine.
Curtis: Well, I know some wine writers and I’d have to disagree with that intensely.
Hawkes: Oh, they’re both snobby…
Curtis: Beer has historically been a drink of the people, and it will always have a part of it that remains that. I think that some people are worried about it losing that, and I think it’s actually going to gain more of that. Beer is splitting into tiers, and there just needs to be an acceptance that beer can be a 2.90 pint of bitter in a Yorkshire pub, but it can also be a 20-pound bottle of a three-year-old, mixed fermentation sour.
Hawkes: And this is where it will become more like wine. I agree.
Curtis: Just because the 20-pound bottle exists, it doesn’t mean that 3-pound beer will stop existing. Beer is just splitting into different things; beer is just a general term used for a lot of products. Craft, or whatever you want to call it, has allowed it to split into these different genres, just like it did with music, and beer will continue to do that. No other beverage has really managed to do that.
BT: Will, you released a book in 2016 called Liquid Education. Education is something that comes up a lot in Asia, in particular. What does “education” mean to you as it relates to beer, and how has the education of UK drinkers changed over the years?
Hawkes: It still means a lot because most people in the UK know fuck-all about beer. They don’t need to or want to, and I respect that. People assume that when you look at the traditional heartlands of beer—Britain is one of the big four—people expect that when you come to the UK everyone is going to be a fountain of beer knowledge. Most punters know fuck-all, and they don’t have an interest in knowing fuck-all.
I kind of respect that because that’s British culture. I think there’s a long way to go. In London, most people don’t know that stout is a London invention. Whether that will ever change I don’t know, but one of the beauties of the people of London is that they don’t have any intrinsic connection to Britain, which is why it’s such a great place.
Education is and isn’t important. Education about beer, as anything, is valuable because you’re learning, and learning, for me, has always been a wonderfully pleasurable and enriching experience when I’m doing it on my own terms. I love it. But for some people, they don’t give a shit and that’s great, too. The thing about beer culture is that’s it’s not all the beer drinking, it’s about the atmosphere. You go into a great English or Scottish or Irish pub, or you’re in a gasthof in Franconia, or one of the brown cafes in Belgium—that’s beer culture. You might be drinking Stella Artois, or you might be drinking Harvey’s Sussex Best, but that’s beer culture.
My view has always been that if people want to learn more about it, here it is.
BT: What are your plans for London Beer City moving forward?
Hawkes: When it started, I wanted to help move London beer culture towards an understanding of what London beer meant, but also not be too finnicky about it. I want it to be fun and not be dominated by massive breweries. Whether that’s made any difference I don’t know, but that was always my intention. I think now London is at a stage where some of the smaller breweries are getting bigger and bigger, so maybe whatever London Beer City will be a different thing. For the first four years it’s sort of tried to introduce people into good beer in a non-annoying way.
BT: Are you happy with it?
Curtis: You should be, because you’ve done an incredible job, and I can understand why it needs to move to the next step.
Hawkes: I’ve never entirely happy with anything; fucking creatives. It is what it is.
BT: Matt, you recently took over as editor for Good Beer Hunting UK. What lead to the UK expansion, and why is the UK worthy of being GBH’s first international outpost?
Curtis: There are a few factors. I started writing for GBH 2.5 years ago, and when I did about less than 2-percent of our audience was based in the UK. Over a slightly less than two-year period, it built up to a slightly less than 10-percent, and a big portion of that came from the podcasts that I started doing. My professional background before I was in beer was audio and engineering, and music technology, and I was so happy that GBH let me do the podcast under their banner because I’d wanted to do one for ages.
Then we started doing a lot more UK- centric stories, and a few things happened all in succession. We launched our subscriber community, the Fervent Few, which is one of our financial supporters. It’s essentially a subscription to a magazine: you get access to a forum, you get a little badge, and we have different tiers up to the pro tier, which is $100 a month, and anyone can join that. We’ve got everyone from people like Cloudwater and Siren to Beerhawk, which is an AB InBev-owned company, and these are all people that love the site and subscribed.
What is really crazy about the pro tier is that we’ve actually gotten more UK subscribers than US ones, and that indicated a need for a UK outlet that was doing this kind of writing. We partnered with Beavertown to do these seminars at their Extravaganza, and then when we published the content with that we were having 30-percent UK traffic weeks, and these are on some of our busiest weeks ever. It was very obvious that there was a desire for the kind of content we’re doing in the UK, so Michael decided to position me as the guy to lead that and hire some people.
I don’t have the budget to hire Will here sitting next to me—I can’t afford that kind of thing. Some of my best friends, incredibly talented people, I actually met through beer who maybe weren’t as ostentious on social media as I was, which is the only reason why I got a GBH gig, and I get to hire these talented writers and see where we can go. I also just hired a talented photographer out of Bristol.
BT: So what are your goals?
My goal is to build an amazing beer platform. You talked earlier about growing the niche. As someone coming from a non-professional background, it would be very difficult for me to land a column for a major newspaper, and I don’t think I’m the right kind of writer for that. I don’t think I have what they want; I don’t think I have the skills and I don’t think I want to write about that kind of thing.
I do believe, however, that there is a niche, and as I talked about earlier it exists and I’m aware of it, but I believe the fundamental way of helping beer grow its niche is by doing in-depth, deep-dive content that also has points where people can jump in. The Fervent Few community is a really good way of doing that, as well. Some of that community is fans, and some of it is people who work for breweries. It’s pretty amazing to do an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Paul Jones from Cloudwater—and what was most amazing about that was how many Americans were desperate to ask him a question.
But it’s just about building a really great website. It’s still young, and still figuring out where it wants to go, but the UK was hungry for it. It’s become a core of our audience.
Hawkes: The interesting thing about Good Beer Hunting, but also UK beer, is that there’s an interesting repeat of what happened with rock ‘n’ roll culture. The popular culture in the ‘60s was an American thing—a slow-moving, but evolving American thing—and then suddenly it hits the UK. The thing about the UK is that once it takes something up—and you saw it with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and whatever—and suddenly it’s amplified.
BT: Well it seems like a lot of times you just do things better than in the States.
Hawkes: It’s not done better, it’s just done differently.
Curtis: We’re like a megaphone because there are so many people crammed into a small space, so when it hits it’s amplified very quickly.
Hawkes: In terms of that rock ‘n’ roll thing, it was definitely the case of 20 years after that you were either African-American or you were British.
BT: You both have done such incredible jobs with the beer events in London.
Curtis: That’s something that happened to me completely accidentally. Before I was a professional I was asked to do that by a pub chain—they offered me a little money, and were one of my first professional contacts, and I actually still do work for them at The Duke’s Head—and it’s funny because I was speaking with Melissa Cole and the same thing happened to her like 10 or 15 years ago at The Rake when they just wanted her to help. It’s good keeping in with pubs. People spend so much time talking about breweries.
BT: You both travel often. Matt, I know you’ve been frequenting the States a lot over the past year or two, and Will I see a lot of tweets from around Europe. What’s one of the more memorable beer-related experiences you’ve had on the road in recent memory?
Curtis: Chicago, as a city. I’ve spent the last seven years traveling around the US—I’ve done the West Coast, the East Coast, spent a lot of time in Colorado. I’d move there [Colorado] if I wasn’t so tied to London. I went to Chicago and I saw not just the beer culture, but the diversity.
I hit a brewery that was a lager brewery, and then the brewery down the street was like, well, they’re a lager brewery, so we’re an IPA brewery, and then the next one was a mixed fermentation brewery. Chicago has an exciting culinary culture—a foodie culture—and I saw that bleeding into beer. I just think it’s one of the most gastronomic, exciting cities in the world, but also combined with that Midwest attitude of relaxed, friendly, conversational vibes. It really captivated me. It was a really amazing experience for me.
Hawkes: For me, I have to go back to Alsace. In Hochfelden there’s a brewery called Meteor, which is the oldest brewery in France (1640) and the last big family-owned Alsatian brewery from that great area. I went around there, and it’s in this little town, one of those unbelievably beautiful Alsation ‘Hansel and Gretel’ towns. They have all the German traditions, and I was talking to the owner about how they make beer using maize. They have a sort of halfway house between the German tradition and the industrialized lagers, and make a really nice pilsner. That was a really interesting experience.
Another highlight was meeting the guy in Strasbourg who is recreating the brand that his great-grandfather invented, which is Bières Artisanales Perle, one of the area’s great breweries. He’s brought it back and is making a fantastic Alsation pilsner with Alsatian hops using pure malt. He’s also making some delicious ales and top-fermented beers.
In Strasbourg, the places in which people drink beer are more interesting than the places where people make beer. That’s always been my interest, and in Alsace I think you really see that. I spoke to Michel Debus—he’s 91 now—and he’s like the godfather of modern Alsatian brewing. I talked to him about the renaissance, and at 91 he talks very slowly, but his passion for what’s happening is evident and I absolutely loved it. That was my highlight of the year.
I think Alsace needs to be shouted out a little bit more. It’s a part of beer culture, and one of the most important things is that the food is sensational there, too. It’s like German food, but ten times better.
BT: Last one—off-the-map breweries people need to know about?
Curtis: There are actually two breweries like that in America I’d like to talk about. They’re probably my two breweries of the year, but then that’s hard to say because I love a lot of breweries. Weldwerks Brewing in Greeley, Colorado. They earned gold in the barrel-aged stout category at the Great American Beer Fest this year, which is, you know, Bourbon County territory. I met those guys two years ago and they had a line at GBF of a couple hundred people. They’re making zeitgeist beer—pastry stouts, New England IPA, key lime pie goses—but then I also know they have a mixed fermentation program in the works. The head brewer has got some incredible ideas, and the beer they’re making is very good.
Melvin Brewing in Jackson, Wyoming, is making great IPAs. They hired a whole minibus for GBF, parked it in the middle of the arena, put up a big PA and started blasting hip-hop. They had people jumping over each other to get beers. The festival can be very strict about pouring to the glass line, but these guys didn’t give a shit—they had cans and they were just filling people’s glasses up, and it was just this real attitude shift for American breweries, like ‘okay, the Brewers Association is now the establishment, we need to kind of rebel against that, but on their turf.’
The US is the most competitive beer market in the world, so I always look there for what’s happening, and those are the two breweries that really stood out. There are also a lot of smaller breweries doing clever things.
Hawkes: I think one of the most fascinating things about beer is that European beer evolved like a mushroom. There aren’t any rules, and then you have American craft beer, and you start talking about styles, and you’re slicing up the mushroom. It has its value, but it’s an American idea of European history and it’s always going to be inaccurate. You talk about saison—who can define a saison? Is it Dupont? Fine. It’s Dupont.
You talk about these beers; they’ve all evolved side by side. De Koninck, in Belgium, is an English pale ale; it’s also a special Belge, so what is it? It’s all the same stuff and it all evolved together. In the States… I understand why it happened, but it’s all become this rigid style thing. That’s not how beer is, and I feel like we need to move beyond the idea of styles and just talk about flavors and other aspects of beer before we really get to a true appreciation of what beer is.
You asked for two different breweries.
In Australia, there’s Le Sirene in Melbourne. They make lovely saisons, and Costa, who runs it, is a nice guy, but intense and very accurate. Another one is Two Metre Tall in Tasmania, which makes lovely wild beers, and ciders too. The guy was a winemaker in the south of France, and he went to Tasmania to make wine and somehow fell into beer making, and he realized its potential. He makes really, really special beers.
Part I of our chat with Will Hawkes and Matthew Curtis is here.
Will Hawkes is a drink, food and travel writer, the author of Craft Beer London, and founder of London Beer City. He contributes to the FT, Washington Post, Observer Food Monthly, Daily Telegraph, and The Age. He was named British Beer Writer of the Year in 2013. He’s on Twitter and Instagram.
Matthew Curtis is a freelance beer writer, photographer, and former UK Editor for Good Beer Hunting. He also regularly contributes to Ferment Magazine, and has written for Belgian Beer & Food and The Brewers Journal, amongst other publications. Find him on Twitter and Instagram, too