Friday, July 20, 2012

AN INTERVIEW WITH KEN WEAVER & ANNELIESE SCHMIDT

As promised, the writer/photographer team behind the outstanding regional craft beer resource "THE NOTHERN CALIFORNIA CRAFT BEER GUIDE" have allowed themselves to be subjected to a Beer Samizdat "grilling". We were so impressed with this book that it's now stowed away in our car, ready to be consulted for quick-drinking options whenever we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory here in NoCal - and given the guide's incredible thoroughness and breadth, they've truly got just about every inch of the top half of our great state covered. They basically document every brewery, store and even nanobrewery from Alturas to Mammoth Lakes, from Crescent City to Santa Cruz. If you missed my review of the book earlier in the week, here it is.

Without further jawboning, here's our interview with Ken Weaver and Anneliese Schmidt. He wrote it, she took the pictures. Both drank the beer.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Aside from its historical place in the craft beer industry, and the general beauty of the area, what are some of the qualities that make Northern California such a hotbed of craft beer activity?


Ken:  I think it's a coalescence of a lot of things. You have the influences of strong surrounding food and wine cultures. You have clear cultural support of local businesses and artisanship. In the Bay Area in particular, craft beer is an affordable luxury surrounded by somewhat less affordable luxuries. ... But history definitely plays a huge part. Even thinking back before Anchor and New Albion, I think strong arguments could be made that this region was positioning itself as "beer country" since the Gold Rush.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Your book has captured a particular moment in time in which the explosion of great beer doesn't appear to be driven solely by business plans or profit, but by a desire to both make and drink indigenous American beers made with craft, skill and even experimental ingredients. How does this wave of breweries and brewers compare to the last big wave we saw in the 1990s?

Ken:  I should probably preface this by noting that I was in high school in the 90s... But I think an important point is that craft beer's success does ultimately depend upon striking a balance between the artistic and business senses. It's the part consumers don't like to talk about (it kind of undermines the magic), but the fact is that, today at least, talented brewers without a viable business model aren't likely to last long, and business-first approaches to craft beer tend to be (and should be) called out for what they are. Those craft brewers that succeed long-term tend to be the ones that can manage both the brewing and the business sides of things successfully. The competition's increased and the consumer base is both smarter and broader, and those are ultimately signs of a healthy artistic community. 

Consumer education is such a huge element underpinning the growth of craft beer, and it's because of small, steady improvements on that front that I think we've reached a different place culturally than we were at 15 or 20 years ago. Folks with money on the table are talking 10% to 20% market share for craft beer, and, from my freelance angle of things, one sees writing and educational opportunities opening up that simply weren't there before.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What prompted you both to put this book together? Obviously you've got a love for the drink and the area - but what publishing forces combined to make this book possible?

Ken:  Is "dumb luck" an appropriate answer? A publisher approached us with the basic idea in mind, and we took it from there. Chris (Gruener, from Cameron + Company) and I met briefly at a book festival maybe two years ago, and he knew that we were doing some work with All About Beer and that I was publishing literary fiction here and there. That's about it. I'd done some blogging, published basically one piece of nonfiction, and had a degree in creative writing that essentially qualified me to be a barista. But Ali and I had done a lot of different work before that, and this ended up being an ideal fit. I was finally hitting some sort of stride as a writer, Ali's photography was really falling into place, and we knew and were comfortable with negotiating the various circles of beer connoisseurship: fellow geeks, homebrewers, and folks who were just getting into it. 

There's a fair amount I'm skipping over, but I'll mention that Ali's constant input and her presence as the grounded second opinion and co-pilot had a huge amount to do with the final structure of the book, and not just in the photos. Add Chris' constantly supportive publishing role and our talented designer, Gwendolyn Meyer of vision road design... and you've got a beer guide.

BEER SAMIZDAT: How did you discover some of the smaller beer establishments in a given region - via recommendations, the web, just driving around...? I'm pleased that you got my neighborhood beer store Monterey Deli in there, so I know you were looking pretty hard for the small gems.

Ken:  We made use of pretty much every print and digital resource we could find ahead of time. We put together an itinerary for each weekend, shaped it around brewery visits (where we actually had to sample significantly), and tried to eliminate ahead of time restaurants and bars that we knew weren't going to make the cut. My previous consulting gig involved tracking down disparate sources of information, and the biggest challenge was just keeping things organized and working around Ali's vacation days. Once there, the brewers and locals proved immensely helpful in tracking down those hidden gems. The goal was to get a comprehensive resource without the unnecessary spots.

BEER SAMIZDAT: I'm assuming some terrific places have opened up since you completed the book - any you'd like to share that would make the book's second printing?

Ken:  We're definitely looking forward to spending some more time with Berryessa Brewing Company out in Winters and Sante Adairius Rustic Ales down in Capitola. Calicraft Brewing (Walnut Creek) is shaping up nicely based on what we've sampled so far. And we're lucky to be right smack in the middle of North Bay happenings. Divine Brewing in Sonoma. HenHouse Brewing Company in Petaluma.

On a side note: We're in the process of getting our website up and running. My plan has been to have a one-page PDF there that I'll keep updated with major openings, closings, and changes, such that folks can print it out and tuck it into the Guide before heading out on a trip.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Anneliese, tell us a little bit about how you came to become such a phenomenal beer photographer. Is photography a hobby that's turning into a vocation for you, and what was your path from previous forms of photography to your work for All About Beer, Mutineer and this book?

Anneliese:  Haha, thanks! Photography is mostly a hobby for me, but it's something I really enjoy doing and it's been great to have the opportunity to do some freelance work on the side. I got into photography in high school, and have been taking pictures ever since. Recently, I started taking a course through the New York Institute of Photography, which is really helping to hone my skills and give me a better understanding of the way professional photographers work. For my personal work, I tend to lean toward travel and nature photography and macros, which has helped to train my eye to look for unique and interesting subjects and angles. 

Beer photography really just cropped up as a way to work with Ken. We make a great team, and I'm grateful that we get to do these things together. I just recently put together a website of my portfolio (www.aschmidtphotography.com), which finally brings all those pieces together.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Did any visited establishments stand out as being antithetical to the craft beer consciousness you're promoting, and were therefore left out of the book?

Ken:  There's a loophole (in California, at least) that apparently allows some restaurants to get a significantly cheaper liquor license if they also have a small operating brewery on-site. There weren't many of these, thankfully. One place was very upfront about the situation (and how little emphasis they place on their brewing), while another was brewing beer that tasted like dish soap. Neither made it into the Guide.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What's the weirdest thing that happened as you trekked the state, visiting breweries, stores and bars?

Ken:  We've been relatively lucky at avoiding shenanigans. Waking up to a skunk in our "tent" (i.e. the canvas-walled enclosures of Yosemite's Housekeeping Camp) was probably the most perilous. I'm kind of blind without my contacts in. This did not help the situation.

BEER SAMIZDAT: I'll assume that you saw more Racer 5, Lagunitas IPA and Anchor Steam tap handles than you can count. What other, newer beers seem to be breaking out and becoming standards across Northern California right now?

Ken:  North Coast Scrimshaw and Trumer Pils come to mind, but those aren't really new. Sierra Nevada Torpedo, maybe? I got nothin'. One's head (especially mine) tends to filter out the more ubiquitous tap handles after a while.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Finally, what's each of your favorite dark horse California beers that you discovered on your journies that you'd like to see become better-known?

Ken:  Our favorite spots were generally those breweries we chose as Beer Destinations that most people in the Bay Area haven't heard of. Dust Bowl Brewing out in Turlock, for sure. Dying Vines and its English-style ales in Oakland (brewing with Linden Street). Loomis Basin out in Loomis. Redwood Curtain making Belgian-style beers up in Arcata. Sutter Buttes in Yuba City. All doing phenomenal work, if quietly.

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