Monday, October 17, 2011

AN INTERVIEW WITH BOB & BR FROM THE “BEER HEAR!” PODCAST



In the introductory blog post here on Beer Samizdat, I made a ham-handed swipe at “beer podcasts” and my own active listenership of them several years back. Truth be told, most are overly long tasting/BS sessions, with loads of guffawing and tangential forays into in-jokes and trivia that bore the listener to tears. There’s a popular one I tried called BEER SCHOOL that, no kidding, was often over two hours long and was wrist-slittingly arduous, full of back-slapping, name dropping and weird forays into beer arcana. It turned me off of “listening to beer” for a good three years. Then, a week after Beer Samizdat got off the ground, I discovered WFMU’s BEER HEAR! podcast. The WFMU seal of approval was enough to get me at least interested, seeing as this New Jersey-cum-nationwide nonprofit, independent radio station is one of our nation’s cultural treasures.

Then when I saw that the podcast itself clocked in at a mere 4-8 minutes typically, and took place “live” all over New York City’s many amazing beer bars and events – I started downloadin’. Well I’m here to tell you it packs more informative & interesting content into five minutes than most beer podcasts do in one hundred. The hosts, Bob and B.R., are witty, funny, play off each other well and are super-knowledgeable about their chosen avocation & vocation, respectively. They complement each week’s BEER HEAR! podcast with a blog post or two as well. I thought it might be prudent to dig into the psyches of these two a little deeper, and find out just what makes them tick, beer-wise. They were kind enough to sit down for a torturous Beer Samizdat e-mail grilling, and this is what transpired:


BEER SAMIZDAT: Does the Beer Hear! podcast and blog have a mission statement, and if so, what would that be?

Bob: There are a few things that I think that we try to accomplish with the blog and podcast. First, we want to uncover info that people might not be aware of -- including ourselves. We try to provide a warm, person-to-person vibe, too. Also, we definitely want to promote good beer and good people involved with the beer scene - and we want to have fun with it!


BEER SAMIZDAT: Describe the “public” nature of the Beer Hear! podcast. What experiences – good and bad – have you had with recording this in bars, as opposed to a studio or someone’s kitchen?

Bob: Some early history is needed here. The podcast sprung from a brainstorming session on how to help one of our favorite local pubs, the East Village Tavern, to get some publicity. The EVT was the "club house" of our 20-team street hockey league for 2 years, but then the league moved to another bar. We felt badly about that, and we offered to help one of the owners, Owen - who is a great guy, and a NYC fireman - to recover some of that lost business.

We came up with the idea of a weekly tasting panel at the bar that we'd podcast. We recorded three or four sessions, and none of them were any good. Even when the pub was fairly empty, background noise was a problem. but that aside, we thought that it was really boring to listen to people talk about drinking beer! It didn't matter how fun, funny, witty, knowledgeable, or interesting the guests were — we didn’t think that people would find it interesting.

So we put the whole project on the shelf until we could come up with a format that we DID like. and that format ended up being NO format. or maybe better stated, ANY format. So, one week it could be an interview with a brewer, next week a review of a bar, then a discussion about a particular style of beer. Whatever -- so long as it was a little interesting, hopefully a little informative, and we pray slightly entertaining. We're still trying to figure out how to involve more "citizens". we're experimenting with "bonus podcasts" added on to the main podcast. We'll probably keep trying that out. We're open to any ideas, though. Got any? And the EVT is still doing fine!

BR: The biggest problem with recording in bars is the background noise, but we generally try to find a quiet spot or head outside to conduct the interview. Then there are the (sometimes drunken) patrons who see the microphone and absolutely have to make a statement. While we don't mind, most of those "spontaneous" interviews don't make it into the podcast. But the ones that do make it in are well worth it!

A bonus to recording at bars is that it is such a social scene and people tend to be more relaxed than if they were in a studio, so the interview becomes more of a conversation as opposed to a self-conscious or stilted discussion.


BEER SAMIZDAT: How did you come to be involved with WFMU as a means to distribute/air your show, and what percentage of your listeners are listening in real time vs. downloading the show in iTunes?

Bob: I’ve done music-oriented radio shows on WFMU since 1997, mostly as a fill-in guy. Previously, i was a d.j. on WUNH, my college radio station, and BR was a d.j. on WMHC at the same time. I had a regular overnight show on WFMU for a bit in 1998, and a morning show for about a year from Oct. 2009 to Sept. 2010. I still fill-in when asked. When we approached GM Ken and assistant GM Liz about Beer Hear, they both liked the idea and gave us the green light. (B.R. has volunteered at WFMU, and has co-hosted music shows with me, as well.)

The podcasts are pre-recorded, edited and posted weekly, so it's not possible to listen in real-time, unless you happen to be there with us when we're recording it.

As of last week, the podcasts have been listened to or downloaded over 2,000 times. I have no idea if that's a lot or not, and I have no idea if 1,000 of the downloads are by my mom. (actually, I’m pretty sure that none of them are my mom!).


BEER SAMIZDAT: One of the most notable aspects of your beer podcast vs. others who talk about beer “on the internet” is its brevity. What’s the motivation behind keeping it between 4 and 10 minutes each week?

Bob: "Short and sweet" is the name of the game. I don't think that most people want to listen to a 60 minute rambling interview with a craft brewer, answering questions like, "what's the pH of your mash when you mash out using the decoction technique, and how many times do you add heat to get to your target mash-out temperature?" BORING. Well, for me, at least. I’d rather hear someone talk about the intangibles, get more of a sense of the "why" rather than the "how". I’d rather know some silly things that show the personality of the person, than their pedigree.

BR: We try to make it educational and fun - and lengthy rambling isn't all that fun. We hope that there's a mix of basic info for people just getting into the beer scene as well as few technical or obscure tidbits for those who know a lot about beer/brewing/breweries.


BEER SAMIZDAT: For non-NYC readers/listeners, please help us understand the evolution of New York City’s craft beer “scene” the past several years. As a frequent visitor of your city, I think it’s gone from one of the nation’s worst metropolises for good beer to perhaps its best, in the space of maybe half a decade. How did this happen?

Bob: This is not something that can be answered in one email or blog post, and you may have just inspired us to write a book. I tried to answer this question three times. but I can't do it in less than 100 pages. So, let me just give you this: When I was teenager, I visited NYC for a youth organization conference. One night we ventured out and the older guys in our group took us to the bar "The Kettle of Fish". There, I enjoyed my first beer in a bar. It was a warm bottle of Guinness Stout. It was horrible — bitter, warm, flat. but it was intriguing. It destroyed my perception that beer = Budweiser. I never looked at a beer the same again.

Present day NYC a few decades later: I was at a bowling alley in Brooklyn and drank -- on tap -- a Mikkeller “Beer Geek Breakfast” and a Cigar City “Imperial Stout”. That’s like the difference between going to NOBU and being served fish-sticks, and eating lobster bisque in the lower level of the Port Authority bus station.


BEER SAMIZDAT: BR, you’re a craft beer distributor and importer with Shelton Brothers on the east coast. What are the biggest challenges facing distributors like yourselves in this new age of beer abundance?

BR: Yes, the biggest challenge - and it's nothing new - definitely has to be the archaic "three-tier system" that was established after Prohibition. Under this system a brewery (or importer, as a foreign brewery's representative) cannot sell directly to the public. Breweries MUST sell to a distributor who then sells to the bar, restaurant, or retailer, often at a significant mark up.  The bars and stores then tack their own margin onto the distributor's price which can mean high prices for the consumer, especially for imported beers which often have higher initial costs due to transportation, etc. There are also other related problems with the three-tier system such as lack of choice and competition: a small brewery might be distributed by a small distributor that then gets sold to a much larger distributor that focuses on a major multinational brewery. Then the smaller brewery gets no support and basically no distribution because all the distributor cares about is the huge volume of Bud/Miller/Coors it can sell.  It is very hard for the small brewery to leave this distributor so either they lose money because they are no longer selling much beer or they lose money buying out their contract or taking it to court. And then the consumer loses out because the choice of beers has vastly decreased.

In my opinion, beer abundance is not a hindrance or challenge but rather a boon for everyone involved. The more good beer that is out there, the better it is for both the beer lovers AND those providing the beers!


BEER SAMIZDAT: What are the most promising developments in the craft beer world of late? Do you like how things are evolving right now – why/why not?

Bob: It used to be that many micro-breweries were not very good, and there was a glut of horrible brewpubs. But now, many of these super small breweries are making extremely good beer and very creative hybrid styles. Quality, variety and creativity are all improving.

BR: I think that's very subjective but I believe that the most  promising developments are the quality of beers that are being brewed  these days and the wide range of styles that you can find.  We've never had so much variety as there is now. As a beer drinker, I love the choice and as a beer importer, I love that there is a larger audience for my beers and that it is an audience that appreciates our different breweries and styles.


BEER SAMIZDAT: What are the best beers being produced on the east coast right now, and your personal favorite brewers & why?

Bob: I love Smuttynose “Star Island Single” and their winter beer, as well - and they were smart enough NOT to tell people that BOTH are Belgian-style beers!!! Also, Captain Lawrence Koelsch is probably the best koelsch that we've had outside of Köln, and better than some inside of the city ring. Anything that Dan and Martha make at Pretty Things is going to be wonderful. everything that we’ve had from Stillwater has be great. Southampton “Double White” is always a favorite. All the beers from Dogfish Head, Kelso, Sixpoint — all solid. And if you’re lucky enough to be in NYC, Brooklyn has been making limited edition brews that are mind-blowing, like the “Manhattan Project”, a dark cask ale aged in rye whiskey barrels.

And the brewers of all those breweries are really nice people!


BEER SAMIZDAT: Taking it more globally, who are the most innovative and interesting brewers that you’re into right now?

BR: I'm biased because I feel that most of the innovative and  interesting brewers are the ones that we import! Without naming names, I do think that the new Scandinavian breweries are doing a great job at creating a beer scene in countries that had just about lost any true brewing tradition.  Depending on the brewer, they take inspiration from European and American styles, or traditional beers from their homeland, or a combination of both.

If I had to name 1 brewery that makes fantastic beer not only because the brewers are very talented but also because they refuse to bow to current fads and brew only what they like, it would be Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, Belgium. Yvan De Baets and Bertrand Leboucq are extremely passionate about their beers and brew beers full of character that are extremely well-balanced and complex and very, very pleasurable to drink.  Yvan is also a brewing historian and can answer any question you might have about brewing history in Belgium and northern France.  I love how his passion about all things beer and his exacting standards come through in the beers they brew.  And they're both all-around nice guys who are fun to hang out with. What more could you want??

Now the rest of my brewers are going to hate me for leaving them out!


BEER SAMIZDAT: Anything else to share with Beer Samizdat’s dozens of weekly readers about yourselves, your podcast and about your avocations in general?

Bob: I used to be more critical of people who liked mass-produced light lager, but not so much, any more. The way I see it, beer is food. Food is culture. Culture is to be respected. and if you love Schlitz, I can respect that. Just don't bring it to our b-b-q. OK - bring it, if you must. but bring me some Hansens Gueuze as well.

BR: I'll toast to that!

You can find the Beer Hear! podcast for download on iTunes and at their blog as well.

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