Before they set off on a promotional tour at local breweries, bookstores and bottle shops near you (see calendar), I sat down with them to chat about their strategy, the book’s structure, challenges, and to get their perspective on what’s new and interesting about the region’s craft beer scene.
How did the book get started and what was your creative strategy for tackling something so big?
Ken: We were approached by Cameron + Company maybe a year and half ago, in the spring of 2011. During the first six months we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we could do, how we wanted to package it a little bit differently, and how much work would go into it. Once things actually got started, probably around late July or early August of 2011, we had about four and half months to gather and write material. One of the biggest challenges was looking at our budget of vacations days. She was working full time and I was working part time right up until the last three weeks of the project. We started with the far away stuff so we could fit it into our schedules. For each region we figured out what we needed to do in terms of cursory research and what places we needed to visit. In some cases we would visit ten, fifteen or twenty places in a day. Most of the time we weren’t drinking.
That takes a lot of energy.
Anneliese: It’s a lot of driving from one place to another.
Ken: There’s no other way to do it. It’s nice when we did sample because you can leave beer on the table. We did maybe five breweries in a day, which if you talk about it in terms of wine, it’s nothing. We would start at eleven o’clock when places opened and then just cycle through stuff and hit up a lot of bottle shops and beer bars along the way since we didn’t have to drink there.
A lot of guidebooks follow a particular structure. What was your approach to organizing all the information?
Ken: So we basically divided it up into eight total regions. That was the structure for the chapters and then we knew we were going to have all the listings. They are the core of the book, but that doesn’t really encapsulate the beer scene. We knew we were going to have pictures, not necessarily how many, and some sidebars where we would be able to talk about things like Lagers, Moonlight Brewing and barrel aging beer. There were some things that just didn’t fit into the typical package. Then the other thing we wanted to do was address beer styles. Most beer books and guides have this weird section on styles that are usually three or four pages, its short, and no one reads it. So we wanted to repackage the style section. Living in the Bay Area, we have these archetypal beers that we can use and teach people with, like Anchor Steam and Pliny the Elder. That’s how we handled the beer style sidebars. That was the one additional thing we liked and thought was a bonus. The sidebars gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of layout, breaking up the text, and we could talk about anything, like bottle cap art or whatever.
Anneliese: We were able to talk about things that didn’t fit into the listings.
Ken: All the quirky things that fit into the beer culture worth highlighting. They’re things that aren’t necessarily a place, like food pairing. The maps and instructions were pretty much a given.
Anneliese: We wanted the layout and design of the book to be something we would buy, so we basically made it for ourselves and we’re actually looking forward to using it!
Did you go out and grab a bunch of other beer guidebooks for reference?
Ken: Our publisher picked up a ton of them and I had seen quite a few. Lisa Morrison’s book, Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, was definitely one that we gravitated too. I think her book is pretty different than ours, but hers is very user friendly with a similar vibe in mind. It incorporates things beyond just the breweries. We wanted to include the larger brew scene.
How worried were you about trying to capture it all?
Ken: I’m still worried (laughs). I’ve been completely neurotic. I put my negative perfectionist tendencies to the test when doing something like this. There are 280 listings. I’ve updated them so many times and have been annoyed at finding changes. It’s a given that things are going to change and there will be things you can’t fix because it’s a print book. There’s new stuff that’s opened up, but it was a really exhaustive search to try and make sure we didn’t miss anything.
Anneliese: It was great because once people heard what we were doing, they would say, “Oh, have you heard of this place or that place.” Most of the time they were next on our list.
Ken: For instance, we’ve heard of Russian River Brewing. “We’ll get there eventually.” (laughs) People were happy to share that sort of stuff. It would be hard to do the research from afar. It’s great when you’re in the brewery and asking people what’s going on, trying to figure what beer bars just opened up, especially when you’re talking about stuff that’s outside the Bay Area.
Are you concerned at all about how people might interpret your work? Have you received any complaints?
Ken: I haven’t gotten any complaints yet, but I’ll certainly get them I’m sure. It’s generally a positive book, I mean it’s a very positive book throughout and I think where we needed to be honest to our readership has really drained me. It’s been an emotional burden in terms of just feeling bad we couldn’t say nicer things. That’s something that I struggled with. We wanted to include all the breweries and there are some who aren’t doing good stuff. Some of those have are already closed. We didn’t want someone to pick up the book, a regular at a place we didn’t like, and say, “Ken Weaver says your beer sucks, I’m not drinking here anymore.” I never wanted to do that and I think that’s why we handled it very delicately. You know whether or not we’re really fond of a place. You can’t take that sort of cut and dry approach to things, so our focus was trying to find the really good stuff and calling attention to it. I think we did that with the style sidebars.
What was it like to work on the book together?
Ken: It was good, it was easy and it was fun. It worked out perfectly.
Anneliese: We spent a lot of time travelling together so that was great.
Ken: We made it as fun as we could, but a lot of it was really fast paced travelling and I’m really glad I didn’t have to do that with anyone else. We tried to incorporate some of our friends, but it was too hard. We really tried hard to focus on the beer, atmosphere, and draw that out in the listings as much as we could. There wasn’t a lot of other time to do stuff. She was taking photos and I was reviewing beer, so we couldn’t incorporate visits with friends.
Did everyone welcome you with open arms during your travels?
Ken: We had very few problems, but we didn’t go out of our way to make our presence known, just because we tend to be quiet.
Anneliese: We wanted to see what the perspective is for the future guidebook owner.
Ken: We also just didn’t have time. If you have to do five breweries in a day, you can’t schedule more than one or two meetings, otherwise you would spend three hours there. We’re really looking forward to using the book ourselves and spending more time at the places we really enjoyed.
How did the Ken Grossman foreword come about?
Ken: I didn’t talk to Ken about it. It happened through our publisher. It’s one of those things that I didn’t have to do, but I suggested him. He ended up being the best fit. Ken’s still active and it just made sense. It’s the biggest brewery and it maintains all the necessary components of craft beer. For some reason he decided to do it. I think it was just easy to get people behind a project like this because it needed to be done. That’s what we found time and again.
Since you traveled so much and got a full perspective on brewing in Northern California, did you start seeing themes, regional identities, or other things you thought were unique to a particular area, such as styles or personalities?
Ken: That’s a good question. One nice thing about doing something like this, is that it gives you a perspective on a beer scene that you couldn’t possibly have otherwise. As for particular geographic regions, it’s hard for me to say. Sure, San Francisco had more food focused stuff, Oakland, the North Bay and San Francisco also have smaller nanobreweries opening up, whereas the larger outside regions are slower to adapt, but there’s also fewer people and things out there. I guess the biggest thing that was exciting to see was the breadth of approaches people are taking. It looks like everybody’s doing IPA and all these other hop focused beers, but it was nice to sort of see what was underneath that in certain places and see some non traditional things, like at Redwood Curtain in Arcata. They’re entirely focused on Belgian beers. You go to Oakland and see Dying Vines, and you find someone entirely focused on British styles. You see Strike Brewing in the South Bay and they started out doing small session beers. All these places give you a sense of how significantly varied Northern California actually is. If I look hard enough, I can find something that really scratches an itch that nobody else is really scratching now, whether it’s cask beer or something really assertive.
Anneliese: For me, each region had one place that kind of epitomized the area.
Ken: When you’re traveling in the Bay Area, I think there’s a tendency to forget how lucky we are. There’s so much good stuff. There’s a surplus of it. But when you go outside and see some of these other places, you’ll find even more people who are constantly trying to make great craft beer. If you have notebook, are asking questions, and you’re really excited about what you’re drinking, you get a reaction that’s one of the really fun parts about beer traveling. You can actually talk to the local folks in a more calm and relaxed manner. We’re in a city and it’s a very different feel compared to the breweries and beer bars farther out. It was calmer, less crowded, and people were excited that you cared about craft beer. In the Bay Area, over half the people coming in are hugely excited about craft beer. It just sort of encourages you to go beyond the suburbs. People are psyched to talk about it because they don’t normally do that in the middle of Central California, Mammoth Lakes, or Etna.
Were there any shockingly good surprises?
Ken: Dust Bowl Brewing.
Anneliese: We just didn’t know anything about them. There wasn’t much information available. Their taproom just recently opened a few months ago.
Ken: They opened maybe six weeks before we had gotten there.
Anneliese: There wasn’t any press about them. We knew they existed and that’s about it. They blew us away.
Where are they located?
Turlock? Where’s Turlock?
Anneliese: Between here and LA (laughs). Just south of Modesto on Highway 99.
Ken: That’s a good example of the benefit of going out to these places ourselves. From the Bay Area perspective you see one thing, their Hops of Wrath, which when I look at the numbers on RateBeer.com, is considered mediocre. Part of that is probably related to freshness and bottling issues that they had early on, which is misleading. When we were there they had maybe fourteen beers on tap. One was a barrel-aged blend, one was a phenomenal Helles- type Lager, and one was Hops of Wrath, fresh. They just had a tap list you wouldn’t expect driving down the I-5 and seeing all the other breweries out there. There’s no way to know about it because no one ever goes out there and does the reconnaissance. It was just amazing stuff across the board. The brewer, Don Oliver, won the Samuel Adams Longshot Homebrewing Competition back in 2006. There was an article maybe a year ago that featured some industry mavens who picked the next round of great American craft brewers. Jim Koch of Sam Adams picked Don Oliver at Dust Bowl as the one to watch. You don’t get that from the slightly stale IPA bottles.
Anneliese: The project gave us an opportunity to refocus on Northern California beers, especially since we spent so much time on the East Coast. There are beers I know I’ve had, but I wasn’t really paying attention. For the book we had to start paying attention again, and now all my favorites are locals. Now I’ve forgotten that there’s beer outside of Northern California.
Ken: It’s been hard to get out of that pattern.
Is there anything that didn’t make it into the book that you wish you had space for?
I wish I had a time machine. That would have been awesome.