It all started with a three-headed dog.
Cerberus is a big, delicious, and slightly dangerous beer from Nanaimo’s Wolf Brewing Company. I first tried it about a year ago after starting some work with Wolf Brewing. They were brewing a new beer: Kev's first big seasonal since starting with the company. It was a recipe he'd brought in from his home brewing days, a potent, triple-hopped Imperial Pale Ale. This was his first time brewing it on a large scale, and an exciting time for everyone at the brewery.
I remember it all very well, because it would mark the beginning of my commitment to craft beer culture. While my work with Wolf was fleeting, my love of their beer, and the beers of their brethren, would carry on.
Anyway, fast forward a bunch of months, and a lot of different beer. I had just started in on the idea of blogging with my friend and co-author, the inimitable Matt Carter.
A few of us folks were sitting around, and it came up that a few new brews were about to hit the shelves at Lucky’s Liquor Store: namely Four Winds’ Juxtapose and Driftwood’s Singularity. Before you could say "O'Zapft Is!," I was ripping down the Old Island Highway in a mad dash to snag a couple of bottles of the elusive, and exclusive seasonals. I ended up hitting three different stores that day and coming home a lot poorer, arms laden with delicious, delicious beer.
Don't get me wrong, both beers are well worth the trouble, but when you start to hoard a thing, you can't help but take stock of your situation. Am I a beer geek? Has it happened that quickly? In 2012, Michael Agnew wrote an article for Growler magazine titled "The Beer Scene is Getting Weird." And here I was, four years later, moments away from becoming that crazy dude who carries around an empty growler and a menu of rare beers I want to trade.
It's not the only time Driftwood and Four Winds have caused a ruckus, either. Driftwood's Sartori is often purchased weeks in advance, and brews like Old Cellar Dweller and Obscuritas are nearly impossible to find. Likewise with the rare releases from Four Winds; brews like Exil d'Eden and Common Winds are more fantasy than reality for all but the most dedicated beer geeks.
Which creates this kind of strange dynamic in craft culture. Unless you're deeply embedded, it's pretty likely you'll never hear about most of the special, rare releases. That's good news for the beer elite, because they (and when I say "they," I mean "I") don't really want you drinking the limited release stuff. I (I mean, "they") want you to drink the gateway, core lineups. Drink Fat Tug, but leave the Obscuritas to me.
I've heard it argued that the subtleties of the really rare brews are often lost on new enthusiasts. In a way, it makes sense. It takes time for your taste buds to become accustomed to hops, nobody starts out with Flying Monkeys (chemically impossible, and arguably disgusting) 2,600 IBU Alpha Fornication.
I have to wonder though, if chasing rare beer is about flavour and drinkability. Lots of easily accessible (and sessionable) beers are tasty, and not rare at all. Here in Nanaimo, Wolf's Golden Honey Ale, Longwood's Pilsner, and White Sails' IPA are all fine brews to bring home after a hard day's work.
Of course, none of that stops me from buying the rare releases when they come out. At this point, I could easily become that guy who starts tailing trucks, collecting growlers, or worse, growing a waxy mustache.
I need to find some balance. Like great beer, and the Force, balance is key.
How I stopped being a beer snob
Most people here in Canada drink Lucky, or Budweiser, or Coors, or something like it. Part of being a beer geek means looking down your nose at those who do. Possibly chortling, possibly while wearing a monocle and top hat. Like Mr. Peanut, but less anaphylactic.
Seriously, how is Lucky the most drunk beer in Nanaimo? It’s basically the Twinkie of beer.
But, it’s all beer, which, anthropologically, is as culturally significant as any foodstuff. And it's more, too. In an article on anthropology now titled Beer through the Ages: The Role of Beer in Shaping Our Past and Current Worlds, John w. Arthur explores our cultural relationship with beer.
Beer binds people together and serves to reinforce social hospitality and communality during ceremonial and everyday activities. It is a common cultural marker of wealth and status; it may represent a payment of tribute to chiefs, and it is essential in the redistribution of wealth.
So, anyway, it looks like whether it's Lucky, or not, we’re all drinking beer, and we’re drinking it, maybe, because it’s nourishment.
So, knowing all this, and in spite of our anthropological leanings to consume beer for a greater sense of community and connection, there's this divisiveness between macro- and micro-brew culture. Macro drinkers think of craft culture folks as bearded hipsters and fussy sippers drinking Pumpkin Peach Ale, micro drinkers think of the Lucky and Budweiser crowd as unsophisticated guzzlers.
All of my research is leading me exactly nowhere. I'm more confused than I was when I started writing. I think if I’m going to figure out my place in craft culture, I’m going to have to leave my cold, beerless desk and head to the source.
I get in my car and drive, and find myself where it all started for me, at the bar at Wolf Brewing company. Kev’s there, tapping this season’s first keg of Cerberus. “It’s not quite ready, yet,” he tells me. “What’ll you have?”
The brand-new Irish Red Ale is on the Nitro tap. It’s a decidedly English style that starts out sweet and light, and offers up a note of nuttiness as it warms. It’s really malty, which I quite like in a beer. Kev confides that this beer was very nearly a nut brown; it refused to turn its trademark red hue right until the last minute.
We catch up; you might recall that I used to work with Wolf, during which time I got to know Kev and the other folks a little. I always liked that part of craft culture, hanging out in the brewery after hours, chatting with Kev about the trials and triumphs of brewing beer. Brewers are kind of the ultimate beer geeks, if you want to know where the action is, where the trends are going, spending time at a brewery is your best bet.
It also hearkens to the past. I'm pretty interested in beer history, especially the history of brewing here in Nanaimo. Back then, in the late 1800s through to the first 20 years of the 20th century, all beer was craft beer. At the end of a day, you'd take a nickel and a bottle, and you'd head up to the brewery for a fill. It was just as much a part of a day as picking up bread, or milk.
I like that. The idea that you're connected to your local maker. When I got interested in local food culture a few years ago, it was because I wanted a closer connection to my food. Ultimately, that led me to doing a podcast on small scale agriculture, co-authoring a blog about sustainability, and doing some work with Nanaimo Foodshare Society. I suppose I’m not content to be on the outside looking in, I want to feel like I'm helping the thing move forward in some small way.
It's the same with beer. The different brands and releases are cool, but what I crave more is the connection to my maker, and to the other folks in craft culture.
Case in point, I like Longwood beer, but what I really like are my visits to the brewery. I recall the time I got to taste Elijah (it’s a great name): their delicious bourbon-barrel aged beer eponymously named for the Elijah Craig barrels it's aged in. Everyone was there: Harley (you remember Harley), Tracey, Morgan, and Fred the Sockblocker. I did more than taste Elijah that night, I really experienced it, through the senses and experiences of everyone in the room.
Back at Wolf, I snap out of my fugue long enough to see the Cerberus being poured in front of me. Remember the Cerberus from earlier? It’s back, and bigger than ever. It’s everything I remember, and an entire year of craft culture comes back to me in a rush. But it's not the beers themselves that come rushing back, it's the experiences. Great Canadian Beer Fest, visiting Cedar Valley Hop Farm, brewery tours and tastings. Those are the parts of culture I crave, and ultimately, treasure.
That said, Cerberus is a damn fine beer. It's delicious, complex, citrusy, and surprisingly sessionable for a near nine percenter. I fill my growler, and feel the same sense of satisfaction I do when coming home from the market with a bag of fresh produce. This is the connection to craft culture I crave, whether it's with a rare release, or standard session beer, it's the connection to my maker and community that makes it all worthwhile.
Now, it’s some weeks later, and I’m at home. It’s been a crazy week. There’s some family visiting, and the conversation turns to craft beer. I head into the laundry room (aka, the beer cellar), and look on my shelf. There, behind a bottle of Cereal Killer is a lone bomber of Four Winds’ Juxtapose. I pull it out and place it on the table.
“Here,” I say. “Take this with you.”
Not so long ago, I doubt I would have been willing to release my last bottle of Jux, let alone any beers I might only have one of on my shelf. Lately though, my tune has changed. The culture for me isn’t in the brews or IBUs; it’s in the breweries, where the beer’s made. I get a lot more joy from knowing I’ve introduced someone else to the fine folks at Four Winds than I ever did enjoying one of their beers on my own.
So, for you beer geeks out there, I say this: It’s time to--err--release your rare releases. With just 25% of the beer market belonging to an ever-increasing number of breweries, it’s up to current culture to make that number higher, not by distancing ourselves from macro brews and the folks that enjoy them, but by closing the distance, by finding and creating common ground.