Vince Capano is a two time winner of the 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
It’s easy to preach to the choir. It’s not very difficult to get musicians to listen to good music, artists to view works of the masters, economists to study the latest GDP numbers, or to have a starving person eat a soy hot dog and almost enjoy it. What is hard however is to reach out to those who are clueless about your particular passion and get them to see the fallacy of their ways and the wisdom of yours. It’s a rare teacher indeed who can point the masses to the light, sow the seeds of inquiry and move the unknowing from apathy to acceptance, to a passionate embrace of the truth. Well, all of that just happen last week at a beer lecture/tasting presented at the Maplewood (NJ) Jewish Center. Most of the sold out crowd that jammed the basement activity room of the synagogue were followers of all things Bud, Coors, and Miller. Facing off against this sea of beer ignorance stood a lone prophet of craft, local beer legend, Mr. Greg Katz. Yes, that Greg Katz, the Paladin of Beer.
The evening was billed as a “Level One Introduction To Classic Beer Styles”, a title that few would expect to draw a big turnout but somehow it did once again proving the “build it and they will come” theory. It’s a theory that formerly only worked for people who build baseball fields of their dreams in Iowa. The theory now stands amended to include beer in New Jersey.
The lecture room had long tables and chairs arranged in semicircles reaching back six rows. Positioned at the front of room was one long table holding six packs of some classic beers: Pilsner Urquell, Hacker-Pschor Weiss, Fullers ESB, Samuel Smith Pale Ale, Brooklyn East India Ale, Victory Hop Devil, Fuller’s Porter, and Ayinger Celebrator. Standing boldly, alone, in front of the table, cheerfully nodding hello to each and every person who entered was the evening’s host, Mr. Katz.
With every seat taken, Greg began by introducing several beer celebrities he noticed inconspicuously sitting at the last table on the far side. There was the award winning home brewer Andrew Reilly, nationally respected beer writer Dan Hodge, NJ State mead making champ Brian Lynch, beer entrepreneur Livingston Hinckley, and, well, me. And for the record, please don’t believe for a second that the eloquent introduction Greg gave me and his instance on having the audience rise as one for a extended standing ovation had anything to do with me writing this article. Hey, it’s always just about the beer. Well, almost always.
The first beer for tasting was Pilsner Urquell. Greg and his assistant moved around the room carefully pouring 3 to 4 ounce samples into real tasting glasses. Yes, that’s real glass glasses; no cheapo plastic stuff here. Even better, each glass was from Greg’s personal collection boasting a logo from a beer festival, brewer, or drinking establishment. Not only did this prove to everyone in the room and out (a number of disgruntled would be ticket buyers were still loitering in the hall despite the Sold Out sign on the door) that Greg has consumed a lot of beer at a lot of places, it also showed that he’s a trusting soul. To many a beer drinker any glass with a logo is by definition free swag for the taking. In fact, there’s a pending amendment in the Beer Lover’s Constitution citing a drinker’s natural right to perform a Houdini with any logo glass as long as one’s pockets are big enough. Still, Greg’s risk of having his treasured glassware pilfered was small considering we were in a place of worship where the Big Brewer Upstairs sees more than a casino camera.
Filled glass in hand, Greg quickly showed his audience exactly how to drink craft beer. He held it up to the light to examine its color, swirled it around and took in its aroma, slowly drank a small portion and rolled it over his tongue to experience every part of its flavor profile. Unfortunately most of the audience had already chugged the beer down about the time Greg first picked his glass up. Clearly, this was a macro beer swill crowd; Greg has his work cut out for him.
The record for the fastest drinker of that first sample (and every other one for that matter) went to a rather rotund gentleman seated in a single chair directly in front of the first row. He must have had some influence to get that prime location. He must have also had a long day since he was sound asleep before the lecture began. Miraculously he only stirred whenever his tasting glass was filled. His eyes would open, his hand would reach for the glass, the beer would be consumed, and back he went to slumberland. He did it again and again with each new beer. It was a mind boggling feat of multitasking.
Greg was passionately explaining the pilsner style and how Pilsner Urquell is a bottom fermented beer produced since 1842 in the town of Pilsen, part of today's Czech Republic when he noticed a hand frantically waving with a question. Greg acknowledged the individual and gently encouraged him by saying that there is no such thing as a bad question. Instantly proving Greg wrong, the guy stood up and asked, “where can I get a cool beer t-shirt like yours?” Greg just smiled and continued on.
Next up for our tasting pleasure was the Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. The crowd seemed fascinated by the story of how hops were eventually discovered to be a preservative for the beer on the long voyage to the British troops stationed in India. With that several hands reached up with questions. Not waiting to be recognized a middle aged woman seated next to the exit door stood up and said, “what’s the difference between ale and beer? And by the way, I don’t like ale and I don’t like beer. And why would I want a beer from East India anyway?” Huh? At that, Dan Hodge turned away, trying to cover up the small drops beer that were spritzing out of the corners of his mouth, Brian Lynch lowered his head and began to mumble incoherently to himself, and Andrew Reilly applied a vise like grip to the table forever imprinting his hand’s outline into it. Clearly they too did not buy the concept of there’s no such thing as a dumb question.
Nonetheless, Greg patiently went into the definitions of beer, ales, and lagers despite the fact that the woman was now loudly munching from the chip/pretzel bowls while checking her cell phone. Yet sometimes good things can happen when you least expect it. As Greg went into his clear and precise answer many in the crowd leaned forward. They wanted to hear the answer. It was likely a question they had always wondered about too. Sensing this Greg signaled his assistant to quickly begin pouring our next sample saying “the best way to lean about beer is to taste it.” And that’s true on Level 1 or any other.
With our next sample, Ayinger Celebrator, Greg asked each person to take a small sip and think about the flavors. He then held his glass high tightly wrapping it with two hands. “Everyone, lift your glass and hold it exactly like I’m doing”. At that a sea of glasses were lifted toward the ceiling. “Now bring your glass down being sure to keep two hands on it. Roll it slowly between your hands. We want to warm it up.” There were more than a few shocked looks at that one. A shout from the rear of the room spoke for many -“but they say beer should be ice cold.” Greg countered with, “Only if it doesn’t have any taste. As our beer warms you’ll get flavors you didn’t experience on your first sip when it was cold.”
If the editors of Webster’s dictionary were there they definitely would have been moved to put a picture of the crowd at that point next to the word “epiphany”. As looks of wonderment spread throughout the room Greg quickly started a discussion on the amazing array of flavors that had blossomed. One by one individuals rose saying things like” it’s rich and full of dark roasted malt”, “I taste molasses and bread”; “I’m getting date, plums, and even pears.” The Coors Silver Bullet had left the station and none of these folks had gotten on.
After all the beers were tasted and Greg concluded his presentation most of the audience lingered on. I walked around the room admittedly eavesdropping on the conversations. They were all about beer. Good beer, quality beer, craft beer! And that’s when I realized that it’s easy for those of us who have enjoyed craft beer over the years to sometimes forget the delight and joy in our original discovery, a delight and joy that this audience had experienced tonight. They were each like Dorothy opening her house door to discover the mesmerizing Technicolor of the Land of Oz with Greg playing the role of the Wizard himself. Only a wizard could effect this transformation.
Greg had given his audience a one way ticket to the land of good beer. Their journey might just be beginning but they were never going back. That’s the power of craft beer. It’s just that sometimes it takes a Johnny Appleseed, or in this case, a Greg Katz, to plant the seeds.