Happening:

First Draughts


Robert Alan Wendeborn

Beer as an intellectual, creative pursuit: The one that changed everything

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Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, the beer that changed everything.
Ar 151119930
Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, the beer that changed everything.

Anyone who does something creative has had a moment that changed their life, a moment of extreme epiphany, a flash of light, a buzz in their gut, a flurry of ideas, images and words. It’s one of those moments when you can confidently say, “I want to do this, I have the ability to do this, I’m going to try and do this for the rest of my life.”

My entry to loving and working with beer came through school and actually through my first love, writing. I was set to graduate college with a bachelor’s degree in history, but needed to fill a few upper-division electives, and the college of Chemical Engineering offered a class, Brewing and Society, once a year that was designed as an elective for people from other majors. You had to make beer and drink beer and that sounded really awesome to 22-year-old Robbie.

In the class we were required to learn the history of beer, its social impacts, how beer is made as an industrial process, as well as the biochemical reactions that make wort production and fermentation possible.

We were also required to taste a lot of beer, and write about it. The writing was something I already knew I wanted to do, I’d already had that epiphany, but the beer that changed the way I thought about beer, the beer that made me think I could enjoy it beyond just drinking for fun, a beer that made me realize that it can be an intellectual, creative and deeply fulfilling pursuit was Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.

I searched every possible hard drive for that writing (I’m sure it was lost in the great hard drive crash of 2008). But writing about that beer felt like I was writing poetry. Drinking it was like standing in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or “Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso for the first time. Emotions and senses became crossed. I felt things when I tasted this beer.

You ask any craft beer industry worker and they’ll tell you about the beer that changed their life, and this experience is what makes the craft beer community so vibrant and alive and great to be a part of. We’ve all had a beer that so changed the way we approach life that we work to spread that same feeling, that rush of poetry to our lips.

Recently, Lagunitas sold a 50 percent share to Heineken, and to owner Tony Magee, it boiled down to taste: “About the same time we launched Lagunitas in Ireland and I met people there who were big fans of U.S. craft flavors, some of whom were themselves newly-minted brewers, and I realized that the whole damn world of humans may well want to enjoy these same flavors. When I got back home I thought long and hard about how to aim at that truth, how can we get there, to the whole world.”

Magee is saying the same thing I am, but I think he’s simplifying it too much. I would never reduce a beer to a flavor, and never look at craft beer like a colonial project. To me it’s a community, a passion, an experience, and it spreads not through marketing and branding, but by one person, drinking one beer that makes them feel things, not just taste them.

Robert Alan Wendeborn puts the bubbles in the beer at Ska Brewing Co. His first book of poetry, The Blank Target, was published this past spring by The Lettered Streets Press and is available at Maria’s Bookshop. robbie@skabrewing.com