Sunday, 11 March 2012

Birth of a Beer Geek

It was the summer of 2009 and I was in the middle of Hyde Park sitting next to my Dad and sipping a pint of Tuborg, the only beer available at Hard Rock Calling as we waited for Neil Young to come on stage. I was half cut, three sheets full sail into the wind and going through an apocalyptically turbulent time in my life when he turns to me and says ‘I’m moving to the USA next year.’

At the time I remember thinking ‘but what will I do without my Dad’ for about half a second before realizing that I was heading into my late twenties and was fiercely independent, ‘that’s fantastic news!’ is probably what I said but like I say, I was pissed as a wet fart and struggle to recall the details other than that Neil Young rocked.

Historic 'Old Town' Fort Collins, CO
Fast forward 11 months and I’m sitting with my sister in terminal 5 of Heathrow airport, eating a bowl of noodle soup and drinking a bottle of Asahi in a branch of Itsu before boarding our direct flight to Denver, Colorado. My Dad was completely upping sticks and shipping his entire life across the Atlantic at the bidding of his company, his old house, OUR old house had been rented out and he would be meeting us at our destination. His company was flying us out to Colorado, all expenses paid for two weeks in order to help him find a place to live and make sure he was settled. I had never been to the States before and unless this opportunity had arisen I probably wouldn’t have made my way over for some time. I wanted to see relics, ruins, wonders of the world and I hadn’t planned to visit humanities movie set until I had been to the other three corners of the world first.

We arrived in Denver late and my Dads flight was even later so the first time I drove down I25 towards this town called Fort Collins that my Dad had decided to move to I had no idea of the scenery provided by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that we were driving past. We checked into our hotel late and thanks to jetlag I was pretty much wide awake by 3am, so was my Dad who knew I’d be awake, ‘you’ll need to get some sleep Matt, especially when we start visiting the microbreweries’ he muttered, ‘Did you know Colorado has more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the world?’

Now at this stage of my life I considered myself a real ale drinker, gone were my student days of mass lager consumption, I’d gone off the stuff mostly except when there was nothing else available and my favourites were probably something like a Deuchars IPA, London Pride or Doom Bar. I thought I knew a bit about beer, I drank a hell of a lot of it after all and I was even considering a CAMRA membership but I failed to see the benefits of the cost as I rarely, if ever visited a branch of Wetherspoons. ‘You’ll like the IPA here’ my Dad said as we walked into Old Town, the city centre of Fort Collins ‘unlike us they don’t water it down, it’s export strength and at this altitude you have to watch how much you drink!’ like many towns in Colorado, Fort Collins sits at an altitude of about 5000 feet, that’s higher than the tip of Ben Nevis, the tallest point in the UK in case you were wondering.

Fort Collins is a beautiful town, home of Colorado State University (and their college football team, the CSU Rams) and sits smack bang between the towering Rockies and the endless expanse of the high plains, I don’t work for the Colorado tourist board but you really should go there, especially if you like beer. I was probably musing about how FoCo (the affectionate abbreviation I’ve given Fort Collins) used to be a genuine frontier town full of cowboys, rangers and gold miners less than 100 years ago when we eventually settled somewhere for lunch. Outside the door to Choice City Butcher & Deli there was a laminated sign that simply read ‘Voted #9 in the world for places to drink on!' Now I had not yet heard of this ‘rate beer’ but as far as I could tell that meant that this was surely the place to have lunch. Now I could probably write an entire blog about this experience alone perhaps even my sandwich alone, a Colorado Reuben with buffalo meat, it was heaven and washed down with this supremely bitter pale ale called ‘5 Barrel’ from what appeared to be the most popular local brewer ‘Odell’ I remember thinking it was great but far too bitter for my tastes, how I look back at this moment and maniacally laugh.

The remains of a tasting tray at Odell Brewing Co.
My first two week trip to Fort Collins was full of massive highs (visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park) and massive lows (Rocky Mountain Hangovers) but the one activity I enjoyed most was visiting all of these quirky breweries. The first of these was what I have now come to call my spiritual home, my own Mecca if you will; the tap room at Odell Brewing Co. I remember sitting with my Dad, we had ordered a couple of tasting trays and spent ages working our way through the different styles of beer, at this point I fell in love with beers like 90 Shilling and Levity, some of their weaker beers but with flavours far more powerful than anything I was used to back home. Their super hoppy IPA was too much, I couldn’t imagine drinking a whole pint of something so resinous and bitter (how things change), I didn’t know at this point what an IBU was but there I was being repeatedly beaten around the face by them. Later that afternoon we were joined in the tap room by some of my Dads new colleagues, we had missed that afternoons brewery tour but thankfully Bruce, one of my Dad’s new work mates knew the brewers and so took us on a personal guided tour of his own.

When I had my head in that mash tun of boiling wort which was to become a batch of IPA I did not know how pivotal this experience would be or how much I would treasure it in a few months time. I embarked on several other tours while I was there including the idiosyncratic New Belgium, North Americas third biggest craft brewer (after Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada respectively) and for the sake of comparison the gargantuan Budweiser Brewery, one of several in the States, on the outskirts of town. Here, at the end of the tour our guide asked me and my Dad why we were even there when the output of the microbreweries was so superior… turns out even the AB/InBev staff prefer micro to macro… One thing I did have to hand to the brewers of Bud is how they brew such massive quantities and yet still managed to produce beer that tastes of nothing exactly the same time after time, that’s a lot of work.

The AB Budweiser Plant in Fort Collins, CO
Despite all of this it wasn’t this initial trip that transformed me into the hop junkie I am today but was most certainly the catalyst. I left Fort Collins with a taste for beers like New Belgium Fat Tire and Coopersmiths Poudre Pale Ale and the distinct feeling that the beers I used to like were now sadly lacking. Shortly after my return to the UK I was sitting in a pub with friends nursing a pint of something like Greene King IPA and I remember thinking I had to do something and try and find out if I can get these super flavoursome American brews back into my mouth. My first step was to email New Belgium and Odell to find out if they have plans to export in the near future. New Belgium replied within hours saying that they have no plans to export outside of the United States (their loss in my humble opinion) and for some reason I heard nothing from Odell. I then started googling things like ‘American Pale Ale’ which led me first to Beer Here and my first ever online beer order. I was so desperate for a pint of something at least a little like 90 Shilling that I ordered a USA mixed case, I had so far never heard of Goose Island and had seen beers from Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada and Flying Dog in bars around London but had never had the gumption to order them when the opportunity presented itself.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was perhaps the revelation that I had been waiting for, it had been a fortnight since I had left Colorado and my palate had been craving those zesty citrus flavours on bed of sweet freshly baked bread and crushed digestive biscuits and SNPA had it in SPADES. Over the next few days I began feverishly working my way through the beers in the case, each one opening previously unlocked doors in my brain with my tongue screaming WHAT HAVE I BEEN MISSING! It was at this time I was sat at my computer, bashing down a Brooklyn EIPA when an email from the guys at Odell Brewing popped into my inbox. I don’t have the original email any more but it read something along these lines:

‘Dear Mr Curtis, sorry for the delay in replying to your email but we were not able to answer your questions until after our press launch. We’re pleased to announce that Doug Odell has recently visited England for the UK launch of our beers and that several beers in our core range are now available in the UK!’

I was alone in the studio bedsit style flat I lived in at the time but I can honestly say that I let out more than just a whimper of excitement. I had to find these beers, but where, they didn’t say where I could actually BUY them from… Thankfully minutes later I had discovered what is now one of my favourite websites; and placed an order, perhaps against my better financial judgement but the beer held sentimental value now and I had to have some in my possession!

The beer arrived and this time things were different, there were more flavours that weren’t there when I tried them a few weeks ago in the brewery, it was perhaps the seasonal extra pale ale St. Lupulin that gave me most pleasure as it’s piney, grapefruit secrets unraveled on my tongue. My palate still had a long way to go in terms of expansion and discovery but this was the beginning, these USA beers had opened my mind to what beer could really taste like and pretty much from that point on I became a craft beer snob. I like to think that I’m a little more humble in my snobbishness now, with time comes a little wisdom and humility but I’ll be honest in saying there are probably some beers that I just won’t drink, wine has lost almost all of its appeal but port and single malt whisky is still held in high regard. Almost two years on from these events it gives me immense pleasure to see how much love folk in the UK have developed for Odell because I genuinely think they are crafting some of the finest ales in the world at the moment.

A drunk vagrant on tour at New Belguim Brewing
After I had discovered what the USA craft brewing scene had to offer it got me thinking, surely, SURELY there must be a UK craft brewing scene bubbling underground and I trawled through forums trying to find out if we were trying to match our American cousins. One name kept coming up, time and time again… Brewdog. Yes it was through the naughty schoolboys of our own craft brewing scene that I discovered the delights that the UK craft beer scene had to offer such as Thornbridge, Marble, Dark Star and pretty much everything else I have come to love to drink these days. This is probably why I bought some EFP shares, I’m a sentimental man because I wasn’t really won over by their advertising techniques. Nevertheless Punk, Hardcore and 5am Saint are some of my all time favourite beers and I will continue to thank them for introducing me to the new wave of British Brewers.

You may feel that I’ve very quickly glazed over the British segment of this post but in terms of my voyage of craft beer discovery it was just the last piece of the puzzle. Over the months after my first trip to America my palate continued to improve as I sampled beers from the likes of Mikkeller, Stone and Camden to name a mere few and they all continue to impress. In my successive trips to America I’ve completely devoured some amazing hoppy brews and visited other breweries big and small including Great Divide, Big Beaver and Equinox but have still barely scratched the surface (I’ve not been to San Diego for starters…)

On April the 4th I will make my fourth trip to what has become my favourite country, stopping in New York for four days which will include a trip to the Brooklyn Brewery. Then I’ll head out to my Dads place in Fort Collins for 10 days and high on the agenda will be my first visit to Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont and a many, many visits to what has become my Dads local watering hole, the tap room at Odell Brewing. Expect a lot of manic, excitable and daily blogging during those two heady weeks in April…


  1. I met Doug at the Rake Bar during the summer before the British Writers' Guild Dinner. He's very down to earth and easy to talk to. He loved The Kernel single hop IPA sample from my glass so much that he decided to order one at the bar. Try seeking Brodie's and BrewWharf beers as you are clearly a fan of light pale ales with a considerate amount of hop action! Brodie's has a brewpub in East London.

  2. I've still never met Doug but my Dad has on several occasions and says exactly the same thing, I tried my first Brodies beers recently (Hoxton Red and Dalston Black IPA's respectively) and thought they were excellent, have not hear of BrewWharf so will be sure to investigate them too. Thanks again for all of your advice!