When you’ve gone from a relatively chill existence of writing solely about music, to eventually overseeing all editorial content for a steadily expanding media company, frankly, it’s enough to make anyone seek solace at the bottom of a bottle. So it’s no wonder that the L and Brooklyn magazines Editor-in-Chief Mike Conklin has increasingly become an expert in all things beer, frequently penning breaking, brew-centric stories for the L and Brooklyn, and occasionally even escaping from the Downtown Brooklyn offices, in order to expound on noteworthy New York IPAs on Heritage Radio. That’s why Conklin was invariably tapped (ha!) to sit down with Other Half Brewing’s Sam Richardson during Taste Talks, to chat about the brewery’s brief history, its plans for the future, and the hype that’s surrounded them since day one. But first, we just had to turn the tables on Conklin, to talk about what’s in his own personal beer collection, how even the uninitiated can fumble their way through a tasting, and why the current state of craft beer is eerily akin to the indie rock movement of the 90s.
When not entirely overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands of your actual job, you’re occasionally able to write articles focused on one of your own personal passions: beer. How, when, and why did drinking beer become more than just a pleasant pastime for you?
There wasn’t one particular moment, or even one particular beer, that sent me down this crazy rabbit hole. It was, rather, a gradual transition. I grew up drinking Budweiser and all that junk just like everyone else, and then, in college, I discovered Yuengling, which at the time seemed like a significant upgrade. Eventually I moved on to a steady diet of entry-level craft beers like Brooklyn Lager and Blue Point Toasted Lager, with the occasional IPA thrown in. From there, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I believe it involved an obscene amount of Troegs Nugget Nectar, a fresh bottle of Dogfish Head 75 Minute IPA (a blend of their 60 Minute and 90 Minute with a bunch of maple syrup added… delicious and still a favorite), and 22 perfect ounces of Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout.
I’ve thought a lot about why I’m so drawn to the world of craft beer, and, aside from being predisposed to obsessive behavior in general, I think there’s something about it that feels very much like the indie rock world I came up in during the 90s, where there’s this incredibly vibrant community—and that’s an important part: it really is a community, or at least a collection of micro-communities—of people who are respectful of traditions within their chosen art or craft or whatever but who are also intent on moving things forward, often on their own terms and without the backing of giant corporations.
But then just as the major labels swooped in and starting picking up all these little indie bands that had developed really big followings in a really organic way, based on an ethos that stood in direct opposition to the way the majors operated, the big breweries have started doing the same with craft breweries, and the conversations around it are exactly the same. People were confused and angry when bands like Jawbreaker, or Sonic Youth before them, signed to majors—and the same thing happens now, with Anheuser Busch buying breweries like Goose Island and Blue Point. There’s also the whole “crafty” thing, where the big guys launch bullshit brands like Blue Moon and Shock Top and market them as if they were real craft breweries—fake origin stories and all. I find the whole thing really interesting. Probably more interesting than it actually is, admittedly.
Whether we’re actually able to detect those grapefruit notes or not, most of us are able to at least go through the swirl n’ sniff motions of wine tasting. What is the accepted process (and what should we look out for, specifically), when it comes to tasting beer?
I don’t know, man. That whole thing can get a little precious, I realize. I start by pouring the beer into a glass—preferably some sort of tulip, which I find helps me focus on the aroma (oh god, what an asshole) and the taste without getting, like, a mouthful of a bottle or even the unpleasantly thick and intrusive lip of a standard pint glass. Give it a quick smell and take a good sized sip—let it linger on your palate for a minute and think about how it tastes: Is it bitter? Fruity? Floral? Bready? Do you pick up any of the yeast? Really, the most important thing is just to try as many beers as possible, in as many different styles as possible, so you start to learn what you like and what you dislike.
Gowanus’ own Other Half Brewing couldn’t be more local… but besides the appealing “Made in Brooklyn” factor, what else particularly excites you about them (and their beers, of course)?
Put simply, they’re just making some incredibly delicious beers—especially when it comes to their lineup of IPAs, which is suddenly as varied and consistently excellent as anyone’s in the entire state. They also just started bottling. They did a wine barrel-aged version of their Imperial Stout that I loved, and they’ve got lots more planned for the near future.
What kind of questions do you plan on asking owner and brewmaster, Sam Richardson, during Taste Talks?
Well, Sam’s got a pretty strong resumé as a brewer, having worked at Pyramid out west and then KelSo here in New York, so we’ll likely touch on some of that. I’m also really interested in talking to him about the nature of hype and the role it plays in the beer world—Other Half has the message boards going crazy, which I imagine has been a huge help, but along with that comes a bit of backlash, and I’m curious about the degree to which he’s mindful of all the chatter. We’re also going to serve samples to the audience, and Sam will walk us through a little tasting. I’m really excited about that.
What’s in your fridge right now, beer-wise, and why?
There’s probably less beer in my fridge right now than there has been at any other point in the last three years, which is suddenly giving me really terrible anxiety. But let’s see: there’s some Great Lakes Oktoberfest, a couple past-their-prime Ithaca Flower Powers, a few stragglers from that dreadful Sierra Nevada Beer Camp mixed 12-pack, an old bottle of Goose Island Big John I meant to drink one night and then forgot. I’ve been drinking from growlers a lot lately—mostly stuff from Other Half (Hop Showers is my go-to), Singlecut (Kim’s Hibiscus sour), and Great South Bay, whose Field 5 IPA is among the most underrated in the area. As for the insane amount of bottles stashed away in my closet and in my parents’ basement on Long Island? That’s a whole other story.
Taste Talks Food & Drink returns to Brooklyn September 12-14, 2014. See the full schedule and buy tickets here.