[Every five or so years I remember that I was on the forefront of people realizing that American beer was in need of a drastic overhaul. As the old joke, best told by an Englishman, goes: “How is American beer like making love in a canoe? … both are fucking close to water.” But you can’t say that anymore, especially here in Vermont, which has more breweries than Jersey cows. Not quite true, but this is undisputedly a Beer Nirvana. So, being so far ahead of the curve, why did I not become rich, famous, and a patron saint of all things fermented? That’s the eternal question. Click on the title of this article to link to a website I developed to proposed a new, updated Beer Trek. SB SM]
In 1978 at the age of 29, I set out with my wife and dog on a quest to learn everything there was to know about beer and beer drinking in America. At the root of my quest was to discover why beer in America was, in terms of diversity and choice, so bad. So off we went in our trusty, beater van in search of “the secret of the suds.”
Unbeknownst to me was that beer trekking has a long and rich history as a means of learning about life, while experiencing it to its fullest. And so it has been in my life.
At the time of our journey the commercial brewing business in America was consolidating and industrializing. Of the 1500 breweries that had started up by the end of Prohibition, only 42 remained. 90% of beer production was in the hands of three companies (Budweiser, Miller, and Schlitz). The American beer drinker had the choice of thin, yellow, fizzy, lager beer or even-thinner, yellow, fizzier, lager beer. Home brewing was not an alternative, but a felony! Imports offered more flavorful alternatives, but often were adulterated to survive issues of transit, storage, and slow turnover. Even draught beer was on the endangered species list.
It was a grim time for adventurous beer drinkers (although a great time for mega-beer manufacturers). Fresh from a year in England where we were exposed to cask-fermented “real ales” served in warm and friendly pubs, we wanted to find out why the American beerscape was so bleak. The only was to do this, we thought, was to hit the road.
The story of my journey, The Great Beer Trek: A Guide to the Highlights and Lowlites of American Beer Drinking, was published by Stephen Greene Press (then an imprint of Viking/Penguin) in 1984, six years after the actual trip. By this time glimmers of hope had appeared on the horizon of suds. Home brewing was now legal, and an intrepid Californian named Jack MacAuliffe had dared to open a tiny “micro” brewery in defiance of the near monopoly of the brewing behemoths. That his business was short-lived and ill-fated is insignificant. The revolution had begun.
I had my requisite fifteen minutes of fame. I was interviewed on All Things Considered, and profiled in US Magazine, alongside Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. I did hundreds of radio interviews and scored admiring comments in both Playboy and Penthouse magazines. I was the guy who observed America through the suds-streaked bottom of a mug.
The book sold 20,000 copies. A revised edition, again published by Viking/Penguin in 1990, sold an additional 12,000. The book was translated into Japanese in 1995. By this time much of the information was obsolete, but the Japanese regarded The Great Beer Trek as the book that had started the worldwide revolution in microbrewing.By this time, however, the Great Beer Trek was a distant memory in a world of brewing that was evolving, and continues to evolve, at warp speed. Now, nearly forty years since the original trip, I want to revisit the experience in light of the most significant current trends in the world of beer.
(All illustrations in the original book are by Vance Smith.)