Here, There, and Everywhere
Believe it or not, I travel less than a lot of my friends in the craft brewing industry. My friend Shaun over at 21A and I have been trying unsuccessfully to get together just to play some records for several months now, but he’s always jetting off to sell beer in far-flung corners of the country—and he has to. Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn brewing is a globe-trotting legend in our industry, continually speaking and doing chef’s appearances on every continent except maybe Antarctica—maybe. Nor am I judging either of those two guys when I say that I’ve considered it pretty important to stay close to home, keeping up with the challenges we have just in our two locations, as well as weighing in on a much smaller, exclusively California and mainly just Bay Area distribution footprint.
That having been said, I can’t resist reporting just a bit on a few trips I did take recently, the result, for the most part, of having promised a long time ago to participate in this conference and that judging opportunity. They just all happened to fall in a pretty rapid-fire way between late September and late October. And I did manage to intersperse them with stretches of home and brewery time, lest it seem that I’ve forgotten where either of those things is.
SEABREW might sound like a holdover from my Northwest brewing days, but what it actually is is a conference, in its fourth year in 2019, of brewers from Southeast Asia. I was invited to speak last year when it was held in Manila, but deferred until this year as an act of workaday conscience. The scene this year was Bangkok, a place I’ve been several times over the years, first a couple of times with my kids, then with my friend Fal (of Anderson Valley Brewing, who back then was brewing for Archipelago Brewing in Singapore), and later with my girlfriend Kim and our collective offspring. The food, and the temples, of course, are incredible, as is the traffic which flows, like water, pretty much wherever it can. I was happy this time to see a number of the little TukTuks powered by propane, but even so, the air quality there is not great. I did enjoy getting around by various means of public transport, including several times by extremely democratic river ferry.
The conference was great, extremely well organized and peopled by brewers and allied tradespeople from Southeast Asia and beyond. I met and hung out with brewers working in Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, India and Australia. I was one of the keynote speakers at the conference, and I took the opportunity to talk about the two chapters I wish I had included in my book from several years ago—The Brewers Association Guide to Starting Your Own Brewery—one on crafting a mission statement and core values and beliefs for your fledgling business and the other on the importance of some kind of exit strategy to be employed down the road. It’s always hard in a group of that size—there were probably 500 people in attendance—to get a decent read on how a presentation is being received, but I had some good questions from the audience and got lots of positive feedback afterward. One of the extra-conference highlights was a little festival showing off the beers of a bunch of non-licensed breweries doing a sort of grey market business. Nearly every beer I had was outstanding, and enormously inventive, many of them using native Thai ingredients.
Following a week in SF, Kim and I were off to Belgium to help oversee the annual New Belgium sojourn of co-workers of five years’ standing. To say I had anything to do with its organization would be a vast overstatement, but having been to Belgium quite a few times over the years—and on this particular trip nine times alone—I pitch in where I can, plotting directions and helping make sure people make it onto this or that train or trolley. Each year the trip is a bit different, paying varying amounts of attention to Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, with lots of stops at breweries in the countryside, a couple of them gotten to by bicycle. As always, it was a fun group, and this year it was a pretty big one—52 people all told. One of the high points for me was the day we trained into Brussels, made a quick stop in the Grand Place to eat some sandwiches on the go, trolleyed over to see my friend Yvan DeBaets at Brasserie de la Senne, pressed onward to the Brussels Beer Project and finished up with a stop at a down-to-earth beer bar recommended by Yvan. This we headquartered entirely in Ghent, an often overlooked city on many peoples’ trips to Belgium, but a great combination of the various aspects of what Belgium has to offer—historical architecture, a lively night and student scene, and canals. Who doesn’t love canals?
Another week at home, and I was off to Chihuahua to judge the Copa Cerveza de Mexico, which is the equivalent south of the border of the GABF. There were about 40 other judges, quite a few of whom have been doing this one for years (and I could see why), tasting and evaluating about 1100 different beers. We spent four days judging, lounging and sampling Chihuahua’s street food and then boarded a plane all together for Mexico City, where we attended the competition’s awards ceremony and festival. Kim joined me in Mexico City, and while we did get to knock around a bit beside all the beer-related stuff, we also mainly resolved to come back when we’re able to stretch out and take a better look around. I hadn’t been there since 1985–and Kim not much more recently—and my memory of a big, smoggy, charming sprawl of city was pretty well borne out. We stayed in a great neighborhood and had a really good time.
So now I’m back, making beer and planning Magnolia’s next stages. If you haven’t made it in yet for the Eclectic IPAs, word on the street is that they’ve surpassed even last year’s lineup in tastiness and creativity. They’re going fast—my favorites are probably the Acid Test Sour Session IPA; Mr McGregor’s IPA, made with carrots, parsnips, ginger and turmeric; and the Pink and the Green, the watermelon/cucumber IPA collab we did with our pals at 21A. But as of this writing we haven’t even released the last one—also tasty, since I’m in a position to have tried it off the tank—Uncle Jo Vietnamese-style Coffee IPA, finished with several gallons of Ritual cold-brewed coffee. Shaun and I had planned to get together the other night to try some of the ones they put out at 21A, but he had to head off to Atlanta to sell beer. He may stop by on Thanksgiving…