One Lap of America

Admit it. You've dreamt of quitting your job, packing up the jalopy, and going on a one-lap-of-America brewery tour. Brian Yaeger not only did that, but lived to write about it. His book, Red, White, and Brew, is a worthy contribution to the literature of beer traveling.

There are many paths to beer writing, and some of them quite circuitous. Yaeger's led through the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of the nation's top party schools, where he majored in Russian and religious studies. Those studies might have prepared him for life as a low-budget beer pilgrim. He spent many a night couch-surfing at the homes of friends of friends–when he could find them. "There's a chance I camped out in my car in front of your house," he confesses.

Red, White and Brew goes avoids dry statistics or, at the other extreme, hangover stories. Instead, it focuses on people: "fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, sages, and philanthropists, pioneers and explorers." Yaeger is an engaging writer who tells lively, focused stories about the leading men--and women--of American craft brewing. And if you have any doubt he can talk the talk, read his description of Grand Teton's Spiced Brown Reserve: "like a scene in a snow globe where good friends nibble pumpkin pie and wash it down with homemade eggnog, only, instead of water inside the snow globe, imagine it filled with beer."

What makes this book so enjoyable is that Yaeger's subjects opened up to him. D.L. Geary of the eponymous brewery in Maine described an ugly falling-out with Alan Pugsley. He accused Pugsley of fooling around with his wife, and stealing his beer recipes to boot. Kalamazoo-based Larry Bell told Yaeger that his road to brewing success was potholed with a couple of visits to his bankruptcy lawyer. Others said that bigger brewers bullied them over trademarks.

Several brewery owners discussed raising children, a task that includes the challenge of teaching responsible drinking in a society that preaches both zero tolerance and "party hearty." Evidently they've set a good example. The sons and daughters of craft brewery people have formed an informal organization, carrying on the tradition of cooperation within the industry.

The stories in
Red, White and Brew are diverse enough to fill a business school casebook. There's definitely more than one way to run a brewery. At one end of the spectrum is Dick Leinenkugel, who reluctantly gave up a Marine Corps commission to rescue the family business. (He also represents the fifth generation of Leinenkugels.) At the other end there's Kim Jordan, who was a social worker before running the green, socially-conscious New Belgium Brewing Company. Guess what? Both business models work.

Then there's Anchor Brewing. One of the photos in the book, taken in the 1960s, is worth the proverbial thousand words. It depicts a buttoned-down Fritz Maytag, Anchor's founder, surrounded by what looks like the cast of
Hair. Believe it or not, many of those people are still on the job. As you may surmise, low employee turnover is the hallmark of a successful operation.

Craft brewing is very much alive, but what does the future hold?
Red, White, and Brew offers some possibilities. Bell's and New Belgium went from homebrew to micro to regional, with further expansion on tap. August Schell Brewing Company reinvented itself as a regional specialty brewer. Leinenkugel was acquired by Miller Brewing Company, which wisely left the folks in Chippewa Falls alone. Widmer Brothers Brewing entered into a business relationship with Anheuser-Busch, but its founders maintain close ties with local beer geeks.

Yaeger also put his research skills to good work in
Red, White and Brew. For example, he refutes Spoetzl Brewery's claim that it was the nation's first female-headed brewery. Years before "Miss Cecelie" headed Spoetzl, Johanna Heileman found herself in the top spot at G. Heileman Brewing Company. Yaeger also offers a few nuggets of trivia. Those bourbon barrels used to age beer? They contain a gallon of absorbed bourbon, enough to kick up the beer's alcohol content by several percent. The ubiquitous American pint glass first appeared at a beer bar called Three Dollar Dewey's because it was the only glassware that owner Alan Eames had on hand. The Pabst brand, emblematic of reverse beer snobbery, is contract-brewed by ex-rival Miller Brewing Company. Speaking of Pabst, the city that ranks first in per capita consumption is none other than Portland, Oregon. Go figure.

Finally, Yaeger offers fodder for a barroom debate. He says that if a Mount Rushmore is ever created for craft brewers, the four heads depicted on it should be Maytag, Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Jim Koch (Sam Adams), and Jack McAuliffe (long-gone New Albion). Care to disagree? The floor is open for nominations.


Brain Yaeger also has a Web site documeting his odyssey.