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March 28, 2007
New York Times
Overcoming a Frat Party Reputation
By ERIC ASIMOV
ANY online communiqué from Todd and Jason Alström ends with the tagline “Respect Beer.” It’s hard to know how to interpret that phrase.
Is it a request, a plea for understanding a beverage to which the brothers are devoting their lives?
Or is it a demand, a threatening line in the sand heightened by the tendency of the Internet to amplify aggression?
Curious, I traveled to the Boston area last week to meet the Alströms, whose Web site beeradvocate.com has become a lightning rod for the pent-up passions of beer lovers everywhere.
They started it 10 years ago, posting notes on beers they enjoyed or despised. Now it is a full-featured site with news, essays on beer history and styles, forums and voluminous notes on brews from around the world. The Alströms say they have more than 100,000 members. Reversing the usual direction of print to Web, they’ve begun publishing Beer Advocate magazine, a glossy monthly about beer and beer culture.
The Web site is just one of the gathering spots for beer lovers — not the guys sitting in front of the tube with a six-pack of mass-market brew, but a rapidly growing body of connoisseurs who are as devoted to their chosen beverage as wine lovers are to theirs.
On sites like beeradvocate.com, ratebeer.com and realbeer.com, in blogs and bars, restaurants and stores in about every big city, beer cognoscenti debate and argue over beer styles, issues of authenticity, alcohol levels and of course which beers they like best.
Each of the Web site has its partisans, and crossover is common, but at beeradvocate.com, discussions seem to get louder, arguments rage more fiercely and passions flow close to the surface.
The image of the craft beer revolution of the last 30 years has centered on celebrities in the beer world like Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and author of “The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer With Real Food” (Ecco, 2003), Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, and Charlie Papazian, a leading home brewer who is also president of the Brewers Association, a trade group of craft brewers. But the real action in beer culture takes place on a far more visceral level, in the rants about why so many good restaurants have wine lists as thick as books but only carry three beers, or whether beer lovers have a bias against big breweries, or whether high-alcohol extreme beers are great or ruinous.
We met at the Publick House, a bar and restaurant here on Beacon Street as devoted as the Alströms to treating beer with love and respect. With beer memorabilia on the walls and Gothic archways in the dining room, Publick House resembles dozens of other beer temples around the country. But the sheer variety of glassware hanging in overhead racks reflects a desire to treat each genre of beer as special by serving it in the appropriate vessel. And the ordinary hullabaloo of the packed dining room has given rise to a new adjoining room, the Monk’s Cell, devoted to the quiet contemplation of myriad Belgian brews.
At first glance, the Alströms epitomize both sides of the Respect Beer question. With a shaved head, beard and multiple earrings, Todd, 38, projects an almost reptilian aggression, seemingly ready to pounce on anybody who might reject his demand. Jason, 35, offers a quieter demeanor, taking a little more time to get his words out. You can imagine a “please” appended to Respect Beer, in the form of a polite request.
In fact, both are far more mild-mannered and thoughtful than they might appear online. In person, Respect Beer is neither a demand nor a request but a reasonable approach to a beverage that, given a chance, offers the same sort of pleasure and conviviality as a good glass of wine. But it needs the chance.
“I go to a really high-end restaurant, and they come out with a really nice wine list and a book of cocktails, but the beer list is just something the waitress recites and they’re all awful,” Todd said. Jason adds, “That really disturbs me. But some have caught on and they really get it.”
“It’s a lost opportunity,” Todd insists. “They could offer such great beers. Beer enthusiasts need to be more vocal, they need to say something!”
As with so many American wine lovers, it wasn’t until Todd and Jason Alström traveled to Europe that they discovered what would become their abiding passion in life. Todd was in the Air Force from 1987 to 1992, at one point stationed at Greenham Common in England, about 45 miles west of London. Jason would occasionally visit there, and they would repair to the local taproom.
“I fell in love with the pub, and those really flavorful ales,” Jason recalled, as we sipped a selection of Belgian ales before dinner. “It wasn’t like any other drinking experience.”
When Todd was discharged and returned to Massachusetts, something was missing. “I wasn’t exactly depressed but I just wanted to sit down and have a few pints of bitter,” he said.
Now smitten, the Alströms brewed their own beer, and, with Todd returning to the United States smack in the middle of the craft beer revolution, they tasted copiously of the new brews appearing in just about any style a beer historian could conjure up, and quite a few more. That’s when they came up with the idea of posting their reviews on the Internet. Todd quit his day job in advertising four years ago to devote himself to beeradvocate.com. Jason left his job as an airline baggage handler just last year. Now, along with their Web site and magazine they hope to open their own brewery in the Boston area. But their biggest hope is more ambitious by far.
“One of our main goals is trying to raise the image of beer as a whole and bring back the beer culture,” Todd said. “We had a beer culture but Prohibition kind of reset the button.”
The popular image of beer drinkers has always been the industry’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The slobbering yahoos at the football game with the bare chests and painted faces; the snarling mud wrestlers battling over “tastes great, less filling,” and the usual array of good ol’ frat house antics are all representations from the mass-market beer industry itself, which has succeeded by aiming low. The cost has been respect, and the result has been a decades-long battle to win it back.
The Alströms and others in the craft beer industry are determined to remove the image of rowdiness from beer drinking. At the beer festivals they sponsor in the Boston area they emphasize beer-and-food pairings, and they limit the size of the beers served by the brewers in attendance to tastes, to discourage overindulgence.
“We find a lot of people who learn this culture has nothing to do with the beer culture they’re used to,” Todd said.
Even Anheuser-Busch, the biggest of the big breweries, has gotten on board with “Here’s to Beer,” a campaign and Web site aimed at merchants and the hard-core beer lovers. Rather than talk about particular brands — it doesn’t even mention Anheuser-Busch — it focuses on education, talking about history, varieties and styles, and beer-and-food pairings.
“These are places that we haven’t traditionally been,” said Bob Lachky, an Anheuser-Busch executive. “Ultimately it’s aimed at the consumer to rethink beer.”