The Way Back Brew Machine

We asked top brewmasters what turned them to the craft side

breakoutbeer_01OK, think back to the first good beer you ever had. No, not the first cold, cheap, keg beer in a solo cup in college, but the first really, really good craft beer—maybe it was crisp and hoppy, maybe it was Belgian, maybe it was something else entirely? Whatever it was, it changed your opinion of what beer can be. Now you know your Citra from your Simcoe and order gueuze when you can. You might even brew at home. And for sure, you’ve been to a few breweries yourself. We know we have!

For us, well, there were more than a few epiphanies along the way, from a hoppy home brew long-ago to the first taste of citrusy, rich, Black Butte porter from Oregon and the first swig of Orval, the classic, brettanomyces-kissed Belgian ale. Whatever it was, suddenly the watery dreck of keg-parties-past didn’t seem so appealing. Sure, we’ll still tip up a cheap, cold longneck when we’re shooting pool, but these days, flavor is the force propelling us deeper every time.

How about you? What was your breakout beer? The one beer that got you totally fired up, forever changing the way you drink? And what did you drink before that? Tell us below.

And read on for testimonials from some of America’s top brewmasters and brewery owners sharing their beery epiphanies—and the standby brews they started with (and maybe still throw back now and again). Natty Light, anyone?

Tomme Arthur, Port/Lost Abbey, San Marcos, CA
College Go-to: Mickey’s Big Mouth
Breakout Brew: Rodenbach Grand Cru

“Hard to imagine, but I never really landed on the cheap beer craze in college. I had a friend early in my collegiate experience who weaned me off domestic lagers and said I should try this new and more interesting beer from all corners of the globe. That said, I am known from time to time to enjoy a Mickey's Big Mouth. It's the only beer on the planet that I drink and never imagine how it could be improved or what made it taste this way. In some ways it's my turn-off-my-brewer-thinking-cap beer. It's tough to always chew the fat on every beer I drink. So a Big Mouth from time to time reminds me: not all beer needs to be contemplated.”

“I would say the truly memorable and ‘wow’ beer that pointed my compass in a new way would have been Rodenbach Grand Cru. Up until that point, I'd never experienced that refreshing acidity in a beer. The almost vinegar-like smell combined with roast and toasted caramel malts was crazy. It literally stopped me in my tracks. Since then I have spent numerous hours reading, learning and experimenting in order to make a beer like this. We brew a Flanders styled Red Ale which is one of the most decorated beers we produce. I'm over the moon each year we produce another great batch of Red Poppy. It's been a long journey since that first sip back in 1996 but each sip still takes me back.”

Bill Covaleski, Victory Brewing Co., Downington, PA
College Go-to: Genesee Cream Ale
Breakout Brews: Weinhard’s Dark

“My a-ha beer was Henry Weinhard's. It was dark, fruity, aromatic & herbal, which are things I had never experienced as a Genesee Cream Ale drinker. “Genny” Cream was soft and sweet and readily available by the quart as a college student. Nothing really drew me to the beer but it was accessible and available. My dad drank Carling Black Label, which seemed thin and bitter, but now I realize: that herbal, dry bitterness is a sophisticated virtue my dad understood and I did not. Now I brew Victory Prima Pils and our other pils-style brews to capture that.”

Meg Gill, Golden Road, Los Angeles, CA
College Go-to: Natural Light
Breakout Brew: Dale’s Pale Ale

“In college, I drank a lot of Natural Light, especially in keg-stand-competition-mode. But then there were the Blue Moon days, which got me through graduation, so long as I could afford it.”

“Then there was the night I drove from New Haven, CT to Boulder CO, straight out West with a childhood friend of mine, without cash, to stop at a hotel… we got into Boulder just before bars closed after a couple days of driving. I tasted my first Dale's Pale Ale on tap at a bar called Foolish Craig's that night, and it was the boldest beer I had ever had. After that drive and all the dreams of adventure that came with it, I was forever hooked.”

“I consequently went to work for Oskar Blues and everything about my experience there—the passion for the enjoyment of life, the canned beer (re)movement, learning, and adventure is what led to the founding, with my partner Tony Yannow, of Golden Road.”

Gary Fish, Deschutes Brewing Co., Bend, OR
College Go-To: Miller High Life; Pabst
Breakout Beer: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale; California wines

“As for college, in Utah, in the 70’s, our go-to was usually anything cheap. I remember drinking quite a bit of Miller High Life, as it had more flavor than the other major brands, at a decent price. Kegs for our parties were usually Pabst (deemed the best of the ‘cheap’ beers).”

“There was a time later when I moved back to California and began helping a friend, Ed Brown, open the Rubicon Brewing Co. in Sacramento. At that time, our go-to beer was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, in addition to anything else we could get our hands on. We were doing serious research at that time, of course.”

“As for the ‘sip of a lifetime’ that seminally changed the way I think about beer, that is a bit more difficult. I grew up in California, where my father was involved in the modern renaissance of the California wine industry in the early 70’s. So, I was, in a sense, brought up on thinking differently, and looking for what is interesting. I remember the ‘a-ha’ moment being more of a realization that brewing beer commercially, in a brewpub, where you sold everything on the premises, was actually within our reach. With my restaurant background, we could provide that very cool experience. I believed that the paradigm was about to shift, like it did with wine, and we were there at that moment.”

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