The Year in Beer: An Interview with the Beer Geeks
By Isadora Dunne
For some beer lovers, attending both Oktoberfest and the Great British Beer Festival in a single year would be an accomplishment. For Chris Nelson and Merideth Canham-Nelson, those festivals were only a fraction of their Year in Beer, an odyssey that had the couple drinking pints in five European countries and seven U.S. cities throughout 2008.
The two first became interested in beer exploration during the ‘90s when Merideth got a job waitressing at a pub in Oakland, California that had 28 rotating beers on tap. She found it hard to keep them straight and wanted to know beer better.
Says Canham-Nelson: “We decided that the best way for me to learn and remember the beers was to go to the source, the breweries themselves. That was 17 years ago. The idea of beer travel has snowballed for us. At first people would ask us if we went to any breweries on our trips. Now they ask how many.”
Chris and Merideth started out small, planning day trips and weekend getaways to nearby breweries, and soon started keeping tabs on how many breweries they had visited.
Though the idea for a travel show detailing a year of beer never took off, the couple made their dream a reality in 2008, relating their travels to fellow beer lovers through blogs and videos posted to their website, The Beer Geek.
GoNOMAD recently caught up with Chris and Merideth, who are planning a book chronicling their year of beer travel, to reflect on their experiences:
Isadora Dunne: Planning the Year in Beer must have been daunting. How did you choose the twelve destinations?
Chris Nelson: There were certain beer events that we had to go to like St Patrick's Day, Oktoberfest, the Great British Beer Festival, the Great American Beer Festival [in Denver, Colorado], and the Oregon Brewers Festival that had specific months.
Then there were destinations like San Francisco, Seattle, Ireland, San Diego and Belgium that we knew we needed to visit but had to find events. For them, it was a matter of research to find events in those destinations during the months left. In the end, Seattle and Ireland didn't have specific events.
ID: Once the itinerary was set how did you find the best bars in each city? Did you make local contacts?
CN: There are plenty of resources on the web for locating breweries, brewpubs and beer bars. It just a matter of doing the research. And there are also books. For example, on the last trip to Belgium, Campaign for Real Ale's Good Beer Guide to Belgium was an invaluable resource.
We did make some local contacts. Over the years of beer travel, we have friends in some of the destinations. A friend in Seattle was key to our visit there because he showed us the locals’ beer scene... got us away from downtown Seattle and showed where Seattle-ites drank beer. We also have a friend in London who is a cellar man at a real ale pub and he was helpful setting up some brewery tours for us during our London stay.
On several occasions, I have contacted the local beer writer to get some insights.
ID: What makes for a better beer traveler's experience, a brewery tour or the local pub? Or both?
Merideth Canham-Nelson: The best beer traveler experience comes from being open to new things and a willingness to be outgoing. Tours of world famous breweries can be very interesting and you may get to see special things, like the wooden vats of Rodenbach or the lagering cellars of Pilsner Urquell.
They also provide a controlled way to meet new people if you are a little shy. Otherwise, for the more outgoing, if you just start talking with locals at the pub, you get an incredible view of life from their perspective and they may even steer you towards other locals’ hangouts.
ID: I have to ask: what is the best beer that you've tasted?
MCN: A great beer experience depends not only on the quality of the beer, but the atmosphere and the people. We have had some beers that may not have been the best, but the people and the good time we had at the brewery/pub made it memorable.
There is nothing like drinking a German lager in a German beer garden in the summer. The weather is beautiful, the crowd lively and you just feel part of a fun, happy thing. On the other hand, drinking a Guinness in an Irish pub in the winter can be very cozy. The weather is cold and rainy outside, the pub is warm, smells of burning turf, and the beer is wonderful.
CN: I try to avoid the word "best" preferring to talk about beers that have tickled my fancy... Recently, these would include: Pliny the Elder from Russian River, The Dissident from Deschutes, Hop 15 from Port Brewing, Rodenbach Grand Cru from Rodenbach, Orval, Westletverern 8, Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze, and Dark Star Hophead.
ID: How did the Year in Beer change your view of the world?
MCN: I don't know if it changed my world view per se. We have discovered over the years that beer makes the world smaller. Beer may bring people together, but then they discover so much more about each other and lasting friendships develop. I do feel incredibly blessed that I have a job and the means to have embarked on such an adventure.
ID: The Year in Beer covered Western Europe and the U.S. pretty extensively. Where are you going planning to go next?
CN: We would love to be able to travel as much as last year but financially, it's not possible. But we will travel and 2009 is the year we will reach 500 breweries visited.
We do have two trips to Europe planned, Ireland in April for an Easter beer festival and then Germany in July for our friend's 50th birthday party.
As for the U.S., our 20th wedding anniversary is in June and we would love to spend it Alaska for summer solstice.
We have also entertained thoughts of doing a coast to coast and back RV trip with the dogs, but that is looking like less of a possibility.
And the plan is to finish the year in Australia for Merideth's birthday. Our first beer trip outside of North America / Europe.
ID: You must have met some really great characters during your travels. Any stand-outs?
MCN: From a friend in London, we met a man who is what they call a 'ticker.’ He records every beer he has ever had, including the date, the beer, the alcohol content, and I think some sort of rating system. At the time we met him, he had had over 9,400 different beers. He let us know that his doctor instructed him to have no more than 5 pints a day. And he was having trouble abiding by that warning.
ID: What were some of the highlights of the year?
MCN: A new experience for us was volunteering at beer festivals. I especially enjoyed volunteering at the Great British Beer Festival. For the most part we were not familiar with the beers or breweries and we still had to turn over every coin to determine the denomination of the money. That made it a challenge all the way around in serving beer.
Plus, with the accents, I had to ask most people to repeat what they said. I think I always got it on the second try.
Another great experience was spending my birthday in Bruges at one of the most famous beer cafes in the world, Brugs Beertje. I even got a picture of myself with the owner, Daisy, behind the bar.
Plus, we went to Chimay that day, one of only seven Trappist breweries in the world. It couldn't have been a better birthday.
CN: Being in Alaska in January, pouring beers at Great British Beer Festival, playing skittles (an English pub game) at a pub in Somerset, visiting all seven Trappists [breweries], visting Arthur Guinness' grave, and all the amazing beer bars we drank beer in.
I talked to this German kid about the Year in Beer at the Bergkirchweih beer festival in May and he came up to me at Oktoberfest in September to say hi again.
ID: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
MCN: The only thing that would make our travels better is if we could take our dogs, Porter and Stout.
CN: The year went by so fast; I wish I would have savored the special moments more when they happened. I think December's trip to Belgium was my favorite because I realized it was the last month of the Year in Beer, so [I] appreciated each brewery, each beer bar, and each beer more.
ID: What's the best advice you could give someone looking to embark on a beer-themed trip?
MCN: With the internet, it is easier than ever before to find breweries, brewpubs and accommodations, and much easier to make bookings for non-English speaking countries.
Research and then make at least a rough plan (depending on your travel personality) and go for it. Be open to meeting new people, eating new foods, and trying local beers.
CN: I would add two things: first, harking back to the earlier question, try to make local contacts both before the trip and during. Talk to people. They are the best resource about the local beer scene.
Second, be adventurous. Don't be afraid to try an unknown beer. Of the soon to be 500 breweries we have visited, there are probably only three to five that I would say never go there.
Isadora Dunne is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts. She studied abroad on the Semester at Sea Spring 2008 Voyage. She travels as much as her waitress tips allow and is a former editorial assistant at GoNomad.com.