Book Tour Tales: Why Do I Love Upstate New York?


Back home. Been in the USA since Thursday and, unlike a lot of you who have to cross an ocean or get out a map, I was able to hit three grocery stores on the way home. See, I live 37 minutes from the international Thousand Islands Bridge, the most beautiful border crossing on the planet. So I bought laundry soap. But unlike most trips into the nearby Empire State, the family was not in tow. I don’t take off in another direction all that often. Which means I had a lot of time in the car to think about stuff. Or at least stuff other than where Mr. Bunny had gotten himself to. It’s always under the swim bag, by the way.

I had all the time in the world to think about what attending the SUNY Cobleskill event Grain to Glass meant. It certainly was the opposite of that stunned big craft celebrity brewer neediness. The room was full of people interested in becoming better brewers, better hop growers, better business people. It was also held on alumni weekend at the school, largely an agricultural college. There were chain saw demonstrations as illustrated past the corn stalk. There was free pulled pork from the hospitality school students, classrooms of diesel engine repair classes to check out and a whole bunch of other stuff. Beer was a topic among topics. It was a trade. It was placed in its proper place. A hipster free zone where no one gave a rat’s ass about the next PR twisty line coming out of the national Brewers Association board. Excellent.

Then, there was thinking about where I fit in to that proper place. People were really interested at that event and the others Craig and I attended about their region, their history and their beer. Beer was part of their culture. They were not there to learn about their niche hobby. There was no beer community. There was beer in the community. So, they wanted to know about traditional hops as opposed to new hybrid flavoured hops. Folk there – like at the other events – want to know about US ale brewing history, how there was two centuries of beery life before lager. It’s good to imagine how brewers in training might want to emulate those who came before them instead of some big craft guy who they see on YouTube or a TV ad. Are you picking up a theme?








One of the real treats of the trip was talking with a guy who has run a bar called The Lionheart for a quarter of a century who has found the way to sell three dollar pints of US craft beer while making a good living. A lot of it has to do with running a good bar with great staff but a lot of it also has to do with ignoring the next big thing that never turns out to be the next big thing. Taking care. Supporting local. Looking for value. Remembering the customer pays the bills not the suppliers. Including different sorts of clientele. Serving a mix of clients was also the obvious decision Browns of Troy which was running a charity event in another section of the brewery while we were holding forth in another space talking about the city’s brewing heritage. In a third section, the bar crowd were kicking back Brown’s great oatmeal stout or an IPA made on site as Jeter played his last game for the Yankees on the big screen. And as the Giants beat the Washington Whatchamacallits on another.











What’s it all mean? Why do I bother spending holiday time and more money on discount hotels than I will ever make on the book to visit again and again. I was telling someone how weird it is studying and writing about the history of a city I have no personal connection with. Yet when I am there – whether it is Troy or Cobleskill or Syracuse or up in the North Country – it feels like a place that is entirely normal. Not to mention beautiful. Yesterday afternoon I cut out of the SUNY event to take three hours to doddle my way over to Syracuse on a warm Saturday afternoon care of route 28 then along route 20 to route 92. Changing leaves. Pre-interstate main roads though small towns, along river valleys over rolling hills farmed for generations. Took me through watersheds that meet the ocean at Baltimore, New York and east of Montreal. Bought a hot dog at a Stewart’s.

Reading what I just wrote, if I am Stan I might think about how beer comes from this place and with the farmstead brewing and hop yards and cideries there is a lot to be said for that. But it is also a great place that you can learn about through its beer, its bars and its breweries. Beer isn’t a community. It is a window through which you can get to know about a community. That is why I am actually optimistic. You may not catch that from time to time but I do disagree with the idea posted by Boak and Bailey last week that beer is not as rich a seam as food, or music, or film. Beer is as rich but you have to know what beer isn’t to appreciate the point. Beer is not passive and it is not haute or elite. It is pervasive and innocuous. When we say beer is like bread we have to remember it is really like bread. An everyday thing. But we live and have lived in the everyday for hundreds and thousands of years in communities built around the brewery as much as the church and the town hall. That’s what people do as they do other stuff with their lives. Like these guys who you can see in the background of the picture above. People of the beer, I’d say.

That’s worth writing about.

What I May Think About When They Write About Beer

Jeff has written a good piece on the results to be drawn from the experience of being part of a NAGBW judging team:

We had 34 entries that were published in probably ten different publications, and they ranged from very short reviews to lengthy pieces on styles, equipment, or process. One entry on a bit of brewing history ran on for thirty pages. When you immerse yourself that deeply into something, you have a chance to see patterns and habit–not all of them good.

He gives four themes for better writing and then concludes that for “… those of you who read beer books, magazines, and blogs, what would you like to see change? Where do we need to go as we evolve?” Good thoughts. I know not who the “we” he speaks of are but the structures of his thinking are top drawer, spot on. I appreciate his experience as I was on the beer book judging panel. We reviewed more books than I have toes. While I have the normal number of toes I still consider that a reasonably sizable number so, as a tool for use in counting like books, I am sure you will agree it represents a fair quantity indeed. And while I won’t spill the beans on the jury room deliberations, it is fair to say that I also drew some lessons, like Jeff, from the experience. What shall they be? Let’s see:

=> Write something new: There are subject matter themes, structures and literary tricks that look awfully familiar. This may mean they are comforting. That also means they are ruts. Deep ruts. Want expend some intellectual value into the book? Don’t bother with the preface by the guy who once brewed but now plays, takes sabbaticals and owns a lot of shares in a big craft brewery. Want to write a “complete guide” to understanding beer? At least acknowledge all those who have written the same books before you. Better? Don’t write it. We have enough.

=> Do some reading. If you find you have used a whale analogy about over-priced beers but haven’t clued into that this might be a Moby Dick reference, you might want to do a bit more research to understand the implicit implications. And if you don’t know that much about beer history, don’t bother jabbing down that ale in America before lager brewing came along was sour, murky and foul. You will be wrong and look silly.

=> Don’t expect moolah: There is no money in beer writing. Few live on the stuff and many find a way to turn a large investment of resources into a very small return. Read this. See? Plus, a chunk of beer writing is aimed at placing a name in the media, getting the author to the next writing or leveraging the next, wow, collaboration opportunity. It shows. No one cares. Nothing dates a book more quickly than goals beyond the covers. Focus on the text. Don’t waste my time (… and I get review copies.)

=> Don’t write to be liked: Stan warmed my heart when he wrote “I’m not certain what sort of audience this… will reach” when he discussed The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer at the beginning of this year. As I explained, it was written to express. It was also meant to challenge and offend and make people laugh. And it did. The two brewing histories – Albany and Ontario – have been more traditional in structure but have raised lots of interesting questions and solve some puzzles, too. They were itches that needed to be scratched.

Good lessons? Could be. Now, Jeff asked questions at the end. I won’t poach his questions. Answer those questions over there. If you need to respond, if you are dawn to react to me you might want to ask yourself things like “is Al nuts?” or “how bitter can he get?” Frankly, I don’t care what you think or do but if you are going to write don’t be fawning, boring, dumb or wrong. Be yourself. Unless you like to be fawning, boring, dumb or wrong. Then be someone else.


But The Problem Is My Own Unified Theory…

monkey4I wrote this quickly over at Stan’s this morning. Govern yourselves accordingly.

I have to say I find this a very unsatisfying approach. I want to preface this by saying I do not believe I am being contrarian or a prick. I am also not talking about any one person. At least I have no intention to be so. Yet this shall be firm… so, jumping in the deep end, while I appreciate the honesty of this argument (1) it smacks of a desire to prop up the concept of style, (2) there is a touch of the quest for the “new unified theory” brass ring, (3) it fails to take into account the continuity of beer in time and space, (4) it does not take into account some obvious themes that run opposite.

I am coming more and more to an understanding that there is nothing called style. If we line up concurrent beers, beers over time and beers across geography, there are few dividing line and as much complexity and evidence at the points of overlap between styles as there is in the core examples of style. I still come back to Jackson’s definition of style as just an homage to a classic beer and can go no farther.

This has been confirmed again recently. I am judging the NAGBW book entries right now and if I read another attempted statement of a unified theory I shall scream. Understanding all beer is impossible so we layer an abstract overlay that is with reasonable grasp and stand back to state (a) it explains everything and (b) I came up with it… so therefore I am clever and worth being paid as a beer writer. I understand the natural desire for achieving excellence in thought. I weep when I see the road to that excellence being based only on first constructing a unique proprietary analysis for that thought and staking a claim to authority. But I see it again and again. Thought needs building upon and yet surpassing what has gone before. Something seems to keep us spinning our wheels.

Further, that approach leads to grasping at the straws that can be assembled to prop up the new analysis and rejects alternate explanation early on. When I read about these local beers, I see “eureka” moments based on finding a reference to what happened in one place based on a scrap of evidence without the thought that the neighbouring town or county did not have its records survive. Why presume that there was not continuity with neighbours? When one reads Ungers books you see the path of jurisdictional autonomy that preserved the beer of Hoegaarden but you also see neighbouring towns and principalities being absorbed and modernized too. Wheat beers were common in the Low Countries, likely lots similar to that one. But because the evidence is not there, it’s like they never existed, conveniently now for the modern unified theorist of partitioned styles.

Finally, real themes appear to contradict niche style theory but seem to be rejected. How can beers like Kentucky Common be accepted while US beer thinking is blissfully walking around that tiny gap in history about ale brewing from, oh, 1600 to 1900. How can a part of a likely much larger whole be proclaimed as being autonomous without connections and continuities being defined. It’s not just that Albany ale still is not considered to be what it screamingly it, but it is only an example. Masses of unexplored town and city brewing and drinking experiences go unexplored I suspect because they do not fit neatly into the twin requirements of tight stylistic definition and proprietary unified theory.

Not a rant. Nor an accusation. An invitation either to prove me stupid (always a possibility) or at least see a concurrent bigger analysis that might undermine indigenousness and its kin fatally. Offered with greatest respect to the above.