Beer West’s contributing editor, Christian DeBenedetti, spends more time on the road in search of great beer than most people spend at their nine-to-five. We pinned him down in between trips to San Francisco and Vail (for the Big Beers Festival) to answer a few questions about his beer and travel adventures.
Beer West Few people have traveled in search of beer as much as you have. How did you develop a passion for beer?
Christian DeBenedetti American craft brewing really came alive while I was in high school, and I was known to convenience stores as a rather short-statured gentleman named “Richard S. Wilderotter III.” At college, starting in 1992, I learned to homebrew and began collecting beer books and writing how-to articles on brewing for the school paper. In 1996 my life changed forever when I landed a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, given for year-long, independent study projects around the planet. I’d proposed to study the evolution of traditional brewing techniques in Europe and West Africa (where rural brewing somewhat resembles what we know about the ancient art). Working on the application, I nervously cold-called Charlie Papazian for advice. He was amazingly helpful and sent me a list of phone numbers (numero uno: Michael Jackson). I edged out thousands of applicants and won in March of 1996, which made USA Today and, I heard, a Rush Limbaugh hit-list of “frivolous” academic grants. Yes! That year I visited 59 breweries in 14 countries (hauling a backpack and guitar), camped in hop farms, and tasted a lot of truly great beer. My trip essentially began in Michael Jackson’s (the late, great beer writer) local pub in England and ended in a crazy home brewery in the Czech Republic with one of the head brewers of Budvar, with long explorations of Oxfordshire, Franconia, and the Belgian countryside in between, just to name a few. I also dodged muggers, survived malaria in Niger, and got picked up by the cops for illegal busking in Prague. I came home with $300 to my name, some smuggled African wild yeast, and a lot of memories and friends.
BW What makes traveling for beer so exciting?
CD The progression out there is incredible, and the food is getting better. And while anyone can geek out on equipment and recipes, ultimately, brewing is about people. I love meeting like-minded brewers and beer lovers and communing over the incredible stuff bubbling to the surface everywhere.
BW You recently authored The Great American Ale Trail (Running Press, 2011), the essential travel guide for beer lovers, and winner of the Lowell Thomas gold award for best guidebook of 2012, from the Society of American Travel Writers. What were some of your travel highlights while writing the book?
CD Where to begin? I really loved exploring Alaska in January. Did you know you can ski on an island in Gastineau channel about 10 minutes from Alaskan Brewing Company? Of course our own West Coast is also magic for beer lovers. But I would say the drive from Durango, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico is among the prettiest I’ve ever seen, and that’s a route bookended by terrific beer, from Ska Brewing Company to Marble Brewery, with Pagosa Brewing
Company in between. Highly recommended.
BW Are there any essential items road warriors should have with them when traveling for beer?
CD Besides a designated driver? That’s a big one. Well, I always travel with a camera and a notebook, naturally. Good music’s big. Favorite new road trip music: Blake Mills, Wayne Hancock, and the Moondoggies. Turn it up!
BW Describe your most outlandish beer trip.
CD In the dead of winter 1996/1997, I spent a few weeks in an area of seminomadic peoples about 100 miles outside of the capital of Niger, accessed via foot, shallow-bottomed pirogue, and donkey cart (the only way to fly). There I helped brew about 50 gallons of beer with a brewess named Tamou Wobo who was less than five feet tall and had a massive goiter and teeth shaved to sharp points—for beautification. She danced and sang every time I walked into her little mud and straw village—she’d never seen a man help brew beer before, which involved mortaring millet and sorghum for hours with huge wooden limbs. We threw a New Year’s Day party and the world’s craziest, tribe versus tribe soccer match in a dusty millet field. There were easily 50 players. Eventually I had to steal and hide the ball in a hut, where we kept the beer and gourds (to drink it with), because the players started going all Bruce Lee on each other. The beer was good, actually. Lightly smoky, yeasty, and sour. I ended up with a wicked (however curable) form of malaria, but I can truly say it was worth it.
BW What are your thoughts on the future of beer travel in the U.S. and abroad? Are people traveling specifically for beer or is it still mostly a tasty afterthought?
CD Americans are traveling for beer domestically all the time now. That’s how the idea for my book was born, and hopefully it has inspired people to take more journeys, even the shorter ones, which can offer such nice surprises. That little brewpub in the next town might be making the best beer in the world right now. Heading abroad isn’t cheap, but it’s incredibly rewarding. Last year I visited breweries,
beer bars, and distilleries in Sweden, Belgium, France, and Italy, and met a lot of Americans abroad, many of whom were in the industry, boning up. They know how important it is to remember there would be no “craft beer” if it weren’t for the Old World inspirations.
BW What’s the hottest region in the U.S. for beer travel?
CD The West Coast and Colorado still own it—I just had some great beers at Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co.—but there’s so much energy in the South right now. Breweries, beer bars, festivals… It’s all ramping up. And central U.S. cities like Chicago and Detroit are seeing some urban renewal thanks to craft brewing. We experienced it in Portland decades ago, so it’s interesting to imagine what kind of craft beer culture will take root in other parts of the country.
BW Best beer trip in 2012 or beer trip that you’re most anticipating in 2013?
CD A major highlight last year was being invited to brew a 10-barrel collaboration with Odell in Fort Collins, Colorado, which we hop-backed to high heaven and called PUBLisher Extra Pale Ale. It was great to be back in the brewhouse; I spent my first several years out of college working in breweries and wineries. This year I can’t wait to get to the Bonnaroo music festival, in Tennessee, which is greatly expanding its craft beer offerings in the same way that San Francisco’s Outside Lands fest did in 2012. I hope to turn it into a major southern road trip and hope to make it all the way to one of my favorite, if unlikely, beer regions: New Orleans and the Gulf coast. There’s a beer bar on St. Charles Avenue that never closes and a little brewery out in Cajun country.
Christian DeBenedetti is also the co-founder and editorial director of WeeklyPint.com, and co-founder of The Zythos Project (thezythosproject.com), which produces The Braüler, a stainless steel growler. To read more about his travel adventures, visit christiandebenedetti.com.