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10 beer innovators

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Sometimes a great idea is as simple as a slice of orange; right in front of your eyes the whole time, just waiting for you to do  something different with it. Other times, there is nothing there at all; a void just needing to be filled by a thinker who happens to be thirsty. Here are 10 people whose innovation and influence can be found in every beer we drink.

CHARLES FINKEL/EXPLORER

It’s hard to believe, but just 30 years ago you couldn’t buy a bottle of Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, a pint of Ayinger Celebrator or a single Belgian Trappist ale in America. The imports we drank were mostly mainstream, big-selling lagers like Heineken, Foster’s and Beck’s. Now, you can walk into run-of-the-mill bars across the country and order a tart, funky-smelling lambic flavored with raspberries.

Beer has come a long way, and you can thank Charles Finkel for pointing us in the right direction. It was Finkel who, in 1978, formed Merchant du Vin, a beer-importing company that took its cues (not to mention its name) from his earlier wine-importing venture. His simple but profound idea: import the world’s best versions of two dozen classic styles of beer.

“Back then, I wasn’t even sure what a pale ale tasted like,” Finkel says, explaining that America’s 40 or so breweries were producing mainly “uninteresting” beer. “So I began to write letters to breweries around the world…and I found one made by Samuel Smith Brewery in England,” he says, and made arrangements to ship it across the Atlantic. It might’ve been the first $10 sixpack in America.

Paging through an early copy of Michael Jackson’s “World Guide to Beer,” Finkel found descriptions of other nearly extinct styles: oatmeal stout, nut brown ale, imperial stout. He urged Samuel Smith to make those, too, before turning his attention to still other little-known styles: gueuze from Lindemans, organic ale from Pinkus, wood-aged ale from Rodenbach.

“My whole life I loved the taste of beer,” Finkel, 63, says. “And I always sought good quality.”

You can’t understate the impact of his quest. The exotic flavors of Merchant du Vin’s imports later influenced a whole generation of craft brewers. Today, dozens of other companies, following the path that Finkel cut, import hundreds of even more obscure wonders. Just take a look at the takeout selection at your favorite deli and you get an idea of how a wine merchant, of all people, changed the American beer scene.

What’s Next: Finkel and his wife, Rose Ann, are restoring and expanding production at Seattle’s Pike Brewing, which they founded in 1989.

STEELE PLATT/TAP KING

Think big. Really big. Think about a bar that serves every beer known to man. When Steele Platt, CEO of the Yard House chain of beer restaurants, started planning his first multi-tap bar in 1996, he imagined an astounding 400 separate draft lines pouring every beer known to man.

Until his contractor asked to see the plans for the beer system.

What plans? “I figured we’d just put in as many taps as possible. Four hundred seemed like a decent number,” Platt, 47, laughs now, 11 years after his first Yard House opened in Long Beach, Calif. Turns out, with that many tap handles, the bar would’ve been longer than the entire building.

Platt scaled back—a little—to a mere 250 taps, and then barreled ahead with one of the beeriest tavern chains in America. Today he has 15 locations, mainly in Southern California and the West, and each is a Mecca for draft lovers with no fewer than 130 spigots. Take a look inside the glass-enclosed keg room and you’ll find as many as 600 chilled kegs. That may not be every beer known to man, but if you sat down and drank a different draft every hour the bar is open, it would take you a week to go through the list—and by then, there’d be something new for you to taste.

While the engineering alone is a marvel, it’s the basic, mouthwatering concept behind the chain that makes Platt a groundbreaker. “People come to the Yard House because we’re the ones with so many taps; that’s the hook,” he says. But once they’re in the door, they’ll find a creative menu of American cuisine and a classic rock ‘n’ roll playlist handpicked each day by Platt himself.

“I think we’re doing a lot to bring up the level of beer,” he says. “Really, that’s what it’s all about.”

What’s Next: Platt plans to expand the Yard House to the Northeast in 2008.

CRAIG BELSER/GLUTEN-FREE PIONEER

When the doctor tells you that you’ve got celiac disease—an intolerance to the gluten found in most grain—the first three things you worry about are: bread, pizza and beer. They’re all made with grain. “Man, you take beer away from somebody, you’ve gotta do something,” says Craig Belser, 43, a former computer analyst. “I mean, it’s not like you can go to a football game and have a glass of bubbly chardonnay. That just doesn’t work.”

When Belser got the bad word about seven years ago, there was no gluten-free beer on the market. Despite having no background in brewing, he put his analytical mind to work to learn how to make his own. He quickly focused on sorghum, a grass used to make beer in Africa.

Sorghum, though, is notoriously difficult to malt. Most breweries that use it add a bunch of adjuncts and sugary syrup, yielding a low-quality, thin-tasting “beer” with little character.

It took five years, but Belser finally solved the problem, inventing his own secret malting process to produce a gluten-free beer that actually tastes good. With business partner Kevin Seplowitz (also a celiac), Belser founded Bard’s Tale Beer Co. and packaged a beer called Dragon’s Gold lager. Within three months of hitting the streets, bottles were being sold in 11 states. It’s now sold nearly coast to coast.

Says Belser: “We’ve got a beer that people will say, ‘This is a damn good beer, and I’m drinking it because I like it, not just because I have to.’”

Something else he and Seplowitz discovered: A burgeoning, thirsty market. With 1.5 million celiacs in the United States alone, gluten-free beer could see $50 million a year in sales. Those numbers, not to mention the success of Bard’s Tale, caught the eye of Anheuser-Busch; last year, the brewer came out with its own version of gluten-free beer.

What’s Next: More styles. In coming months, look for Bard’s Tale bock, pale ale and porter, all gluten-free.

GARRETT OLIVER/TASTE MISSIONARY

Wine and cheese, wine and cheese—God forbid you ever serve fromage sans vin. But next time you unwrap a smelly wedge of brie, forget the bordeaux; crack open a French bière de garde instead, and you’ll discover—as Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver preaches—nothing goes better with cheese than beer.

It’s a message he’s spread over the past 15 years at hundreds of dinners around the world. In several well-publicized match-ups, he faced off against top sommeliers and chefs to establish the best pairing of a half-dozen or so cheeses. Invariably, Oliver says, “People are just shocked to see beer, not wine, walk away with the prize.”

OK, big deal, beer and cheese. Nothing earth-shattering—except that it’s a small step in beer’s evolution, from a mere drink of refreshment to a part of everyday cuisine.

Oliver, 44, has been at the forefront of that evolution as a thoughtful advocate for craft brewing. In addition to producing masterful styles at Brooklyn Brewery, he’s a frequent guest on cooking shows, and his book, “The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food,” is an essential read for both brewers and chefs.

For Oliver, food is the ideal way to draw newcomers—especially those who profess not to like beer—to the wonders of full-flavored ales and lagers. “Everyone has dinner every day,” Oliver says. “As a brewer, if you’re not at the dinner table, you don’t mean that much to people…Beer is so versatile—it goes better with a wide variety of food, but until recently, almost nobody was aware of this.

“Today, beer is an affordable luxury that can transform people’s moods.”

What’s Next: Look for Oliver on upcoming food specials on PBS and the Food Network. And this spring, Brooklyn Brewery releases Brooklyn Local 1, a Belgian-style beer that’s refermented in the bottle.

CRAIG PURSER/ON THE CASE

It’s been barely a year and a half since he’s been on the job, but so far Craig Purser, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), has managed to make some serious headway.

His predecessor had the reputation of a pit bull, who once vowed, “We’ll grind our adversaries into dust.” Purser, 40, takes a less combative approach to leading the 1,900-member trade group. He wistfully describes the “integral role” wholesalers play in distributing a “safe and secure” product, asking you to “close your eyes and imagine walking through a beer distributor… imagine the wide variety. The distributor is the one who brings you all this choice and diversity.”

Unfortunately, sentiment won’t win what may be the biggest challenge beer wholesalers have faced since Prohibition. Several judicial rulings and continuing lawsuits threaten to eliminate the so-called “three-tier” system of distribution in which beer must be sold through licensed wholesalers.

For that battle, Purser’s organization has skillfully crafted a new message, arguing that rulings by “activist” judges to allow direct shipping to retailers would break down “state-based” regulation of alcohol. “Kentucky doesn’t want New York’s liquor laws,” Purser says, “and I can assure you that New York doesn’t want Kentucky’s.”

The NBWA has deep pockets to spread that message. Under Purser’s direction, it had its best fund-raising year ever, raising more than $3 million in 2006.

What’s Next: A new Congress means new faces. “We’ve got a lot of people to educate, to tell our story to.” Thanks to Purser, the NBWA is well-armed to spread that message.

SAM CALAGIONE/THE LITTLE GUY

Beer fans already know about Sam Calagione’s unconventional Dogfish Head Brewery, his “off-centered” ales, the inspired marketing schemes (he rowed his first case of beer across Delaware Bay to New Jersey) and his oddball contraptions (Randall the Enamel hop transducer module).

His competitors and colleagues just shake their heads and smile, “That’s Sam…”

But last year at the annual Craft Brewers Conference, they weren’t waving him off so lightly. In an invigorating speech—and in following conversations—the 37-year-old Calagione urged small brewers to protect their turf against the big guys who, lately, have been showing a lot of interest in the little guys.

“It’s very important to understand the motivation of big brewers as they make their own fake micros or absorb small breweries or strike distribution deals with craft brewers,” Calagione says. “Craft brewing, to me, isn’t just the ingredients that go into beer. It’s a philosophical reality. I’m sure the big brewers can make a very good, full-body, high-IBU beer. But at the end of the day, I know their agenda is to essentially own the beer market.”

Is anyone listening?

Calagione hopes so. Increasingly, you hear small brewers talking up the benefits of staying small and local.

And he hopes he’s wrong about the big guys. Ten years from now, he vows, if the industrial brewers that are now dabbling with micros are still showing an honest interest in craft beer, Calagione’s going to personally deliver a case of his famously hoppy 90 Minute IPA to the doorstep of a certain brewery in St. Louis, Mo.

What’s Next: “I’d rather not pontificate. At the end of the day, brewers love brewing and selling beer, that’s why we opened our brewery,” he says. So watch for more quirky beer, including the new peach-flavored Festina Peche.

JIM KOCH/EXTREMIST

More than a few people have turned their noses up at some of Boston Beer’s more unusual flavors. Sam Adams’ Triple Bock with its heavy, portlike body, Utopias with its astounding 50 proof alcohol content—those aren’t beers, they sniff!

Jim Koch is one of the few CEOs of a $200 million-a-year business who will tell you, without apology, it doesn’t matter what the customers think about one of its products. “I don’t care,” he says of his extreme beer. “It’s not meant for everybody. It’s not even meant for 1 in 1,000 people. Even if nobody drank it, I’d still be doing it, because it’s a cool thing to do as a brewer.”

That’s “cool,” as in completely obliterating the world record for alcoholic content in a beer—a mark held by the Swiss-made Samichlaus, at 14 percent. In 1994, Sam Adams produced beautiful cobalt blue bottles of Triple Bock that had been fermented with a new, hearty yeast that could survive even in a high alcohol environment. The alcohol topped a stunning 17 percent by volume.

That was followed by Millennium (20% ABV) and Utopias (25.6%). And other breweries joined the chase, pushing the alcohol in bocks and pilseners and IPAs well into double digits.

Koch, 57, loves the idea that his rapacious yeast has helped change the conventional wisdom of what a beer should be. “To me, there’s no reason a brewer can’t make beer that has the richness and complexity of a fine sherry, an old port or a fine cognac,” he says.

But for a brewer, there is something even more visceral than changing a paradigm. “When I first tasted Triple Bock, I knew that in 10,000 years of brewing history, nobody had ever tasted what I had just brewed,” Koch says. “I was tasting flavors that had never been created before. Now, that was neat.”

What’s Next: More barriers will be broken. Koch expects his 2007 version of Utopias to be the strongest yet.

KEITH VILLA/A PEEL TO THE MASSES

Having successfully built a worldwide brewing giant on the sale of a bright, clear lager, Coors Brewing had a small problem on its hands: How do you get beer drinkers to try a cloudy ale spiced with orange peel and coriander? That would be Blue Moon, the Belgian-style white ale that master brewer Keith Villa created in 1994.

Villa, 44, was trained in Brussels, and it was while visiting Belgium’s breweries that he was first turned on by the country’s distinctively cloudy witbier. “I liked the style of Belgian white. It was thin and tart and refreshing,” he says, “but I always thought it had a flavor that a lot of Americans wouldn’t like.” So, when he was asked by Coors to develop a new line of craft beers, he tinkered with test batches, tossing in a batch of oats along with the usual wheat and barley to soften the taste.

It sold like crazy to the beer fans at Coors Field in Denver, where the brewery tests out many of its new products. But it took several more years before Blue Moon took off nationwide.

The turning point came in 1997. Villa saw a bartender serve his beer with a lemon—the usual accompaniment to wheat beer—and thought that was all wrong. An orange slice, he knew, would bring out his ale’s flavor even better. He and other Blue Moon reps began traveling from town to town, encouraging bartenders to slip a wedge of orange into every Blue Moon.

The cloudy craft beer soon caught on. Everyone wanted that beer with the orange on top. “It’s a true discovery beer,” Villa says. “Once people got a taste, they really wanted to have it.”

What’s Next: Would you believe peanut butter beer? Maybe not, but it was one of Villa’s most popular test batches at last year’s Great American Beer Festival.

JEFF BECKER/MEDIATOR

It’s hard to imagine, with such fierce competition among them, that the Big Three—Bud, Miller and Coors—are likely to join forces and work together. But, believe it or not, they do at the Beer Institute.

That’s where the three big brewers are joined by Grupo Modelo, which imports Corona, and Heineken USA, as the big players in the beer industry’s main lobbying organization. Credit Jeff Becker, the group’s president, with getting them to put down their slingshots and sit at the same table.

How tough of a job is that?

“For me, this job is a dream come true,” says Becker, 48, who was named in 1999. “I love coming to work every day.”

But don’t these guys absolutely want to slug each other?

Well, Becker concedes, the big brewers have “quite different corporate cultures.” But he said he’s never had any problems. “Even though you have your scuffles in the marketplace, you have to see the bigger picture…Our guys have a tremendous ability to check their individual [commercial interests] at the door and work for the greater good.”

That’s partly because the Beer Institute has done an effective job of focusing on huge issues that involve every brewer, regardless of market share: Excise taxes, underage drinking legislation, TV advertising and the threat of lawsuits.

When you force bitter rivals to sit around the same table, you’d expect some angry stares. But Becker, who joined the institute in 1988, says he’s stuck around so long because, “the beer industry is really a

family-oriented industry…It’s a wonderful family and American tradition.”

What’s Next: With a federal court expected to rule this year on challenges to state beer distribution rules, the Beer Institute is expected to gear up its message in support of wholesalers.

RHONDA KALLMAN/INDEPENDENT THINKER

The new millennium was right around the corner, and Rhonda Kallman was looking ahead. She’d already carved a reputation as the sales genius behind Boston Beer, teaming up with Jim Koch to form the biggest and grandest of America’s new generation of craft brewers. She even had a plaque on her wall, lauding her as a pioneer woman in an overwhelmingly male industry.

“I’d gone as far with Sam Adams as I wanted,” Kallman, 46, says. So in 1999 she left the company, took a breather, went to the beach with her family and thought about what to do next.

That lasted all of four days. A phone call from Dr. Joseph Owades, the inventor of light beer, had her thinking up a new business plan immediately. “I’ll make the beer,” he told her. “You make the company.”

That was the start of New Century Brewing, not just another craft brewery. Kallman’s innovative idea was to create a new kind of beer company—an “independent” brewery that would be an alternative for mainstream beer drinkers. Instead of making all-malt beer, Owades (who died in 2005) designed Edison, a high-end light beer that, Kallman said, “gives domestic beer drinkers an opportunity to trade up in flavor.”

So far, the beer—made for New Century by Matt Brewing—is available mainly in the Boston and New York markets. It was joined last year by another brand, Moonshot, a pilsner made with caffeine.

It’s a bit of a long shot. Light beer is dominated by the giants. But it’s also a big market; maybe there’s room for Edison.

Kallman knows it won’t be as easy as her last job. “All the stars were aligned for Boston Beer,” she says. “The economy was right, there was a need for new beers, the time was ripe for Sam Adams. That made it easier to do…

“Things are different today. It’s a tough business, but I love it.”

What’s Next: New Century is ready to expand its market. In coming months, look for Edison in California.  •

 

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