Joshua Bernstein is one of the more prolific craft beer writers working today. (Longreads featured a Q&A with Bernstein after the publication of his recent book, Complete IPA) As he explains in an essay about living in New York on and after 9/11 for Good Beer Hunting, Bernstein’s path has been winding, including stints working at American Baby magazine, and editing a porn magazine.
His office was located in Chinatown, a brisk walk from the Twin Towers, and even before that clear blue morning, Bernstein liked to escape the doldrums of his office job by fleeing to his apartment’s rooftop in Astoria and doing what every New Yorker in their twenties has done: drink.
Culinary appropriation is a thorny phenomenon to pin down. More or less everything we consume came to be through hybrid, murky lineages: people move (whether by choice or by force), communities clash and interact, and tastes evolve. Very few food items have a neat, uncontested origin story. But as Lauren Michele Jackson shows in her Eater essay on the erasure of black influence from artisanal-food culture, some trends are impossible to deny. Black labor and black innovation had been instrumental for many American staples, yet by the time barbecue, beer, or malt liquor resurfaced in recent years as craft items with major cultural cachet, they’d been (and still are being) thoroughly whitewashed. The same goes for what might be the whitest of spirits (in the popular imagination, at least): moonshine.
For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.
The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”
But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.
According to the Brewers Association, craft beer hasn’t slowed down, and the brewers only continue to grow, making up nearly 22 percent of the beer industry’s retail value. The rise of craft—or the “end of craft” depending on how you view it—owes its success to the the authenticity and devotion to full-bodied flavors, as well as a homemade, independent spirit.
Which is why, on National Beer Day, we’d like to share our recent interview with Josh Bernstein, the dean of craft beer writers and one of the first to fully articulate the innumerable sensations, like the hit of a Mosaic hop on the tongue, that accompany a sip of beer. Bernstein, who recently released, Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer, spoke with Longreads about his—and the nation’s—obsession with India Pale Ales and the growing evolution of craft beer.
Americans love IPAs, but how has the beer style changed in the past decade?
Back then, IPAs were all about aggression. Bitterness is great, but it turns as many off as it turns on. Big burly IPAs served a purpose, but they fell along with the imperial IPA pushWhat’s interesting to me is that IPAs are not all about bitterness, and brewers have begun to utilize hop varieties in different ways. The sledgehammer aspect of IPAs has disappeared, and been replaced with nuance.
[Hop varieties] Mosaic and Citra emphasized tropical, fruity, citrusy aromas. We are in this flavor-questing world right now. We want flavor in everything we do, from Thai takeout to beers, and hop varieties play within this new world. People start to spin IPAs in different directions: white IPAs, black IPAs, etc. People spun the color wheel to accentuate flavors like tropical fruits. The creativity has trickled down and it is dizzying. It used to be that Northeast IPAs were made in the English tradition, in which the malt was profound. Yhey were dark and sweet, which contrasted to the brightness of west coast IPAs. The last three years, though, Northeast IPAs have transformed to this hazy, juicy, and fruity beer with none of the bitterness.
IPAs have created a new template for beer that people can agree upon. The consumer wants flavor, and IPAs deliver in spades.
What was the tipping point for IPAs?
Definitely the beers of Vermont: Alchemist’s Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead. In 2012, I was stuck—snowed in—in Burlington. It was the best and the worst thing to happen to me. The local co-op had plenty of Heady, and I spent a long blizzard weekend drinking my way through their selection, and I saw the future of what these flavors could be. When you start to look at what is happening now, a decade of hop varieties have begun to trickle out from the ground. Brewers started to create hop crosses—like Citra, which debuted in around 2007—and use new ingredients to create distinct beers.
How does craft beer continue to grow from here?
There is a national evolution and international evolution, and we are at the beginning of this change. Beer styles grew up in geographic regions thanks to the water and the intellect of brewers, but with the rise of the international economy, beer styles are now moving quickly. Hops are like the marijuana industry—full of crazy strains and flavors. With hop research, we are seeing the very beginning of what is possible. It’s what comes of the ground that will determine where IPAs and craft beer goes.
There’s also research that has to be done to determine how long these flavors will last, shelf-wise. Ben Edmunds at Breakside Brewery is doing research on how to keep a juicy flavor without falling off. IPAs in particular are like fragile butterflies—they need to be consumed fresh—and because IPAs are a crowded market, you have to innovate to stand out. You can’t just brew an IPA and expect it to be good, or draw interest.
Tired Hands in Philadelphia is making a milkshake IPA, and Great Notion Brewing in Portland specializes in Northeast IPAs. Brewers are helping push tastes in different directions by researching different ways that flavors can fit together
Will IPAs always be dominant?
We are a nation of lager drinkers, and there is a rise in pilsners right now, but after twenty people come to the bar and ask for an IPA, brewers have to make one. Take Carton’s Boat beer. I talked to [owner and brewer] Augie Carton at a party, and he first called Boat a koslch because no one had called a low alcohol IPA a session IPA back then. And even when people complain that there are too many IPAs on tap, you talk to any bartender and ask what is selling, it’s IPAs.
If IPAs are king, is there another style you see bursting into the craft beer conscience?
Dry hopped sours are percolating. It doesn’t sound great, like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth, but the chemical interaction and interplays just work.
I used to love Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA, but now with all the different options availible, I haven’t had one in a while. Last month I revisited 60 Minute and I had a much different reaction—it didn’t hit me the way it used to. Is that something we’ll see, brewers tweaking their flagship recipes to fit the new craft sphere?
Legacy brewers have realized the IPA is key going forward, and they’re seeing shifts in American tastes and global tastes. It’s great to go back to beers you’ve forgotten and find out why they were elegant beers. Your palette matures and you tend to look for those big memorable flavors that used to stand out for you. But since education is so much higher these days, brewers are altering recipes to accommodate for new flavors.
Breweries adapt: New Belgium [Ranger] and Sierra Nevada [Torpedo] adds IPAs to their roster, and Sierra Nevada even comes out with a gose last year [Otra Vez]. IPAs and other styles change. A little more citrus in there, or some tropical notes. There are more than 5,000 craft breweries in the United States—you have to stay current.
For eight years, until Tropical Storm Irene struck the village of Waterbury, Vermont, the corner of South Main Street and Elm was occupied by The Alchemist Pub and Brewery. It was, by most measures, a common small-town bar. The walls were chocolate brown brick. The barstools were steel and backless and topped with black leather. A pool table sat in the corner. The ceilings were high, and the lighting was soft. A cast of regulars helped fill the pub’s 60 seats. It was charming in its familiarity, quaint and comfortable, but brewing in the basement was a beer capable of inspiring obsession. It was called Heady Topper and since the pub was the only place you could buy it, Waterbury—home to just a few thousand—soon became a mecca for craft beer drinkers.
The pub belonged to Jen and John Kimmich. Jen ran the business side, and John handled the beer. They first met in 1995, when they were both working at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. John had made his way there from Pittsburgh. He’d been enthralled by a home brewer and writer named Greg Noonan who was a pioneer in craft brewing, especially in New England, where he helped push through legislation that recognized the concept of brewpubs.
After graduating from Penn State, John packed everything he owned into his Subaru and drove to Vermont in the hopes that Noonan would give him a job. He did, and for a year John waited tables, coming in on the weekends for no pay to learn the trade alongside the head brewer. Then John became the head brewer. Jen was a waitress at the pub. After turning down John’s initial first-date offer, she came back a week later and asked him out. A month later they were engaged.
Two months after the Kimmiches opened The Alchemist in Waterbury, John, driven by an obsession with fresh, floral, hoppy flavors, brewed the first batch of Heady Topper. The immediate response from customers upon tasting it was bewilderment, followed by intrigue. Their eyes scanned the room, meeting all the other eyes scanning the room, all of them in search of an answer to the same question: What is this? “People were shocked, maybe,” John says. “They would taste it and go, ‘Oh, my god.’ They’d never had anything like that before. People really went nuts for it.”
At first, John didn’t brew Heady year-round. He would make it two times a year, then three, then four, tinkering with the recipe each time. He had other beers to make, like Pappy’s Porter or Piston Bitter or Bolton Brown. They were all distinct, unusually compelling beers, but soon word began to spread about Heady: It was a hit. The problem, if there was one, was that it was only available in the pub. Enterprising customers solved it by sneaking pints into the bathroom, where they would pour them into bottles, screw on caps, and then shuffle out of the bar, pockets bulging. The business and the Alchemist name were growing with rapid, radical speed, beyond anything the Kimmiches had anticipated—and then the storm came.
Irene arrived in Vermont on a Sunday afternoon in August 2011. It roared north from the southern end of the state. Waterbury’s usually calm and placid Winooski River, a short distance from the pub, swelled uncontrollably. The local waterways and tributaries overflowed, and the contaminated water rushed through town, absorbing sewage and sodden trash and heating oil, staining everything it touched. Trees and shrubs were unearthed or turned gray and brown, like they’d been doused by a plume of ash. Cars were flipped; bridges buckled and collapsed; houses were left twisted and roofless. In some stretches of the state, more than a foot of water fell.
From their home in Stowe, just 10 miles north of Waterbury, Jen and John and their son, Charlie, watched the storm unfold. When they got the call that Waterbury was being evacuated, John jumped in the car and drove down, powerless but determined to see the destruction with his own eyes.
By the time he arrived at the brewpub, the basement—where he had been brewing for eight years, where he stored the original recipes for more than 70 beers, and where he and Jen had their offices and kept the food—was completely under water. On the first floor, John stepped inside. The water was not yet waist high, but it was well on its way, so he worked his way to the bar and poured himself a final pint of Holy Cow IPA. Then, with the water rising at his feet, he raised his glass skyward and toasted goodbye to everything they’d built. Read more…