Oh, what I put myself through in the name of beer.
Although I have made many covert allusions to it on Facebook and Twitter, I have not officially announced that I am working on a book for the University of Illinois Press. Tentatively titled A Beer Guide to the Upper Midwest, it will be a beer-travel guide to every brewery and brewpub in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. Any brewery that has an actual facility that can be visited will be included. There will be little beer-historical tidbits for each state as well. I have this dream of the upper Midwest becoming the next beer Mecca like the Colorado Front Range. Hopefully this book will help to push that dream a bit closer to reality.
But before the book can be written, there is the research. There are 150+ breweries in the four states that I am covering, with new ones popping up all the time. Putting together a comprehensive list has been a challenge as no one really seems to have a handle on the current brewery proliferation. I have to spend a certain amount of time tracking down rumors of this or that small brewery that might be starting to make beer in such and such a town. Then there are those that seemingly spring out of nowhere. I already know that will have to include a disclaimer in the introduction stating that, while I did my best, I probably missed some.
Then there’s the travel. You don’t really realize how many 150 is until you try to visit them all. It means long days and weeks on the road racking up countless miles on the Big Gold Boat of a Chrysler that I drive. Brewery visits often start at 10:00 AM. Of course this also means that beer drinking starts that early. A four-brewery day is a long, beer-soaked haul in which, ten hours after beginning, I am struggling to fight my way through the last beers of the last brewpub’s 14-beer line-up. I just keep telling myself, “I will get through this. I will get through this.” It’s good to have a digital voice recorder. Note taking is by then pointless. Aside from the brown splotches of spilled beer that smear and obscure the ink, my already bad handwriting deteriorates to squiggly lines that more closely resemble a seismograph than language. One particularly long tasting session included the following, barely-legible words, “Personal note: at this point my palate is shot.”
This kind of intense beer travel does have its benefits. For one thing, I believe it has greatly refined my palate. When you taste the many different beers of many different brewers in rapid-fire succession, the difference between well-made and so-so beer becomes starkly apparent; apparent in a way that actually took me by surprise. Beers that may have been fine had I just walked into a pub for a pint suddenly reveal all of their flaws. The great beers, the ones with beautifully balanced recipes and flawless process, sing all the more brightly. For the most part brewers in the region are making good beer. Some are making great beer. Some should maybe consider doing something else.
It’s a treat to sit down with brewers and talk about their beers. Their passion for the craft is contagious. I have gained interesting insights into beer, brewing, and the industry from these conversations. Many of them encourage a lively and honest back and forth about their creations that is certainly beneficial to me and I hope gives them some benefit at well.
It is interesting to learn about the range of brewery types out there. I have visited pico breweries that are making ten-gallon batches for a local market, and regional breweries working with fully-automated 120+ barrel brewhouses. In between there is every size, shape, and type of brewing operation imaginable, every one working with the same kind of passion and dedication to their product.
This year is going to be interesting. I can’t wait to see what unfolds.