Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Paladin of Beer
Paladin- A heroic champion; a defender or advocate of a noble cause; a person of pure honor; Paladins must be intelligent and have a very strict code of honor in which they live by; heroic warrior that relies on chivalry and positive Karma; someone who provides healing to those in need.
Now just why would a serious craft beer guy order two beers at once? Being a direct person I simply asked. The person being questioned, Mike Fleck, was equally direct. “I’m going to drink one now but the other I want to let warm up so the true flavors can come out.” Mike had never done this any other time I’ve been in his company at the craft beer mecca,The Tap Room, so why now? That was one question however that I knew the answer to even before asking. Like the Lone Ranger leaving a silver bullet, Zorro leaving the sign of the Z, or Buffy leaving a trail of deceased (finally) vampires behind her, letting a beer warm up meant that Mike had recently spoken to the man himself, the one and only Paladin of Beer.
Paladin is an apt title indeed since our hero has been a knight, albeit without armor, in a savage land of macro beers. He’s a solider of beer, roaming bars and pubs around the globe spreading the word of quality brews. I’ve heard tales about him from distributors, brewers, bartenders, and most of all from my fellow beer drinkers. In places with names like Copper Mine, Maloney’s, Stirling Hotel, Blind Tiger, and Andy’s Corner Bar he is legend. By day he’s an unassuming businessman but by night he is on a mission from Saint Gambrinus himself. He is Greg Katz.
Greg is perhaps the single best known beer drinker in bars throughout New York and New Jersey. You can walk into almost any good beer pub within 40 miles of his hometown, Maplewood NJ, and safely assume people there know him if not by name then by sight and if not by sight then by the change he makes in what they order. You see, Greg talks beer to anyone who will listen …. and often times to those who don’t. He’ll strike up a conversation about beer even if you have a glass of wine or a martini in your hand. If you’re a wine person he’ll explain how beer has more varieties and flavors than the fruit of grape. If you’re a macro beer drinker he’ll extol the heavenly flavors in craft beer. And if you like good beer already, Greg will tell you just what to do to enjoy the full depth of the beer experience.
Greg was not born a beer savant; it took hard work. Okay, so maybe saying it was hard work is a slight stretch; let’s just say it took a lot of drinking over a lot of years. As Greg puts it, “when I started drinking beer all I wanted was enough suds to get drunk. Then one day I was in a store and saw a beer whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I decided to take a chance and bought it. It was Plzeňský Prazdroj. That changed everything.”
Don’t worry, I looked it up for you. Plzeňský Prazdroj is better known by its German name, Pilsner Urquell.
“The key to learning about beer is the willingness to experiment” according to Greg. And experiment he did though it wasn’t easy. After all, when Greg began his beer studies it was in the dark ages of craft beer. It was a time when the likes of Rolling Rock and Michelob were considered gems of the brewer’s art. With his Pilsner Urquell epiphany, Greg realized there had to be other great beers out there. And so his quest began. He went to countless bars and sought out their home grown beer experts to learn from. With his job located in New York City, Greg had the good fortune to be present when the Big Apple’s craft beer movement took off. It was there he learned about Belgium beers at the famed Burp Castle, discovered German purity at the legendary Ginger Man, and saw the light (and dark) at the world famous McSorley’s. It was in the big city that he was able to sit down and talk beer with Brooklyn Brewery’s internationally acclaimed brewer Garrett Oliver and even with the iconic beer hunter himself, the revered Michael Jackson.
“Beer people are the best. Almost everyone I met helped me learn something new. It’s thanks to them that beer is an automatic part of my lifestyle.” And a nice lifestyle it is as I followed Greg around on a few of his “circuit” stops. The “circuit” is his name for an ever widening group of pubs that he regularly frequents because they specialize in craft beer. If a bar is on the circuit then you can be assured of two things – they serve good beer and business will improve thanks to Greg’s touting of the establishment to his beer loving friends.
According to Greg the only way to get on the circuit is to have “a large rotating tap list, beer dinners, meet the brewer’ s nights, special beer events, servers who can seriously talk about beer, and be widely recognized by beer aficionados as well as the well informed quality beer drinking public.” It’s all a bit involved if you ask me. If I were doing the selection it would all be very simple. Give me a few free beers and bingo, you’re at the top of the list.
The path traveled by Greg has not been as smooth as you might think. Some people are just resistant to change. When Greg’s pleas are ignored by a swill loving drinker he patiently explains his broccoli theory. “Remember when as a kid you found that piece of dreaded broccoli on your plate? Bet you said you didn’t like it and Mom’s retort was how could you know that if you’ve never tried it before? Well, it’s the same thing with craft beer. You can’t say you don’t like it if you don’t try it!” Makes sense but then again I wonder how he explains that I love good beer but still hate broccoli.
Most of the erstwhile macro drinkers that Greg encounters insist nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer’s day than a super cold can of Coors Light with the fully activated double blue cold line. He counters with tales of Victory Prima Pils, Bell's Oberon , Anchor Summer Beer, and just about any good German Hefeweissbier. To make his point he’s been known to actually buy a round of craft beer for his potential convert and then let the beer speak for itself. One caveat, if you run into Greg at a bar don’t expect him to actually buy you a beer no matter how many Coor’s Light cans you wave in his face. He only buys beer for attractive females. Hey, we said this guy is a Paladin, not a Bozo.
It really doesn’t take long to help someone develop an appreciation for good craft beer according to Greg. “Just start drinking. There’s an enormous variety of good beers out there. Not just different styles like pilsners, porters, stouts and ales, but unique spins on each that add an array of other ingredients. The only rule I insist on, regardless of what you’re drinking, is that you let the beer sit on the tongue; allow it to resonate on your taste buds.”
Greg uses his bar stool pulpit wisely. You’ll never hear him talk about politics, religion or even the weather – it’s all about beer. And that’s an especially good thing. Beer, as he often says, brings people together. “All nations and types of people drink beer. Give everyone enough beer and any problem can be solved.” That already makes more sense than almost anything coming out of Washington, DC. Greg, you’ve got my vote in 2012.
Still, even a Paladin can be challenged by another expert. When that happens it’s a duel as exciting as high noon on any old West street. Greg, by most accounts, is undefeated though I thought he had at long last met his match when in a heated discussion he was asked to give the most correct pronunciation of "gueuze, Westvleteren, oud bruin, and Trappist".
He answered the question with a question – “would you like the pronunciation in English, Flemish, or French?”
Put another notch on the glass of the Paladin of Beer.