The Hophead: Beer Class in Session; First Lesson–Enough with the Adjectives

What: Beer Class Where: Greenpoint Why: Because the verbs matter more than the adjectives in the craft beer movement.  

What: Beer Class

Where: Greenpoint

Why: Because the verbs matter more than the adjectives in the craft beer movement.


I was going to give a talk on Oct. 13 at the Black Rabbit Bar in Greenpoint, owned by the delightful Kent and Anne Lanier, as part of what we were billing as “Beer Class.” I would talk about two different beers; people would sample them; maybe even ask questions.

I crammed. I studied the beer styles and brands that we picked, Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and Brooklyn Brewery Oktoberfest. I learned (or, to be precise, re-learned) the beer criticism lingo. I larded my mind with adjectives. I practiced saying,  “bouquet” (BOO-kay, not BOW-kay, like the Southerners I grew up around used to drawl). I rehearsed with friends. After a few days, I was ready.

Then I changed my mind.

I did a clips search for Peter Egelston. Mr. Egelston is the co-founder of Smuttynose. Before that he was a school teacher in Brooklyn, at Sarah J. Hale High. Before that he taught English as a second language in Times Square. Before that he was a hotel doorman. And before that he was a Spanish lit major at N.Y.U.

Then his sister Janet, as Mr. Egelston puts it on the Smuttynose Web site, “passed through town.” She was a concert merchandiser in San Francisco and had tasted some of the pioneering craft beers that came out of Northern California and Oregon (in fact, the entire craft beer movement in America could be said to have started there). Her brother was a nascent homebrewer, cribbing what materiel he could from a wine-supply shop on Mulberry Street in the early 1980s. 

Janet saw something in that hobby, and convinced him to partner with her and a couple of others on what would become the oldest brewpub in New England, the Northampton in Massachusetts.

In late 1993, Mr. Egelston bought at a foreclosure auction the detritus of the defunct Frank Jones Brewing Company, once one of the region’s biggest breweries but felled by the post-World War II consolidation wave that swept the industry and left us all with a choice between an Anheuser-Busch beer or a different kind of Anheuser-Busch beer. (That’s not that much of an exaggeration. Coors until the 1980s was considered a coveted rarity on the East Coast. Something about the Rocky Mountain water. Coors was the good beer option.)    

Mr. Egelston used the Frank Jones acquisition to start Smuttynose in 1994 in Portsmouth, N.H. It’s been going ever since and produces some of the richer, more sought after New England seasonal beers, like the pumpkin ale. I’ve known bars in New York to order as much as possible and yet still run out of it before Thanksgiving.

So that was something: school teacher to brewer. That was a story.

Much more interesting to me and–I hoped–to others than BOO-kay. I quickly swerved my “Beer Class” from mostly adjectival to heavy on the verbs. It would be about craft brewers doing things, the stories behind the beers, and I would leave the reviews to others with perhaps more refined palates.  

Don’t get me wrong—adjectives have their place at the beer table and people should know the basics of what they should look for in different styles (sweet/sour, hoppy/malty, heavy/light). Beyond that, though, we don’t need this movement mimicking wine. We have a good thing going. 

That was it! That was the hook: Rescuing good beer from the fate of good wine. Enjoying it in a simple, unpretentious manner that placed greater value on a personal opinion than on a rank assigned by an expert right upon opening (a rank that might, in fact, be unmoored from anything more than clever marketing or pay-to-play in the wine trade publishing biz).

Craft beer doesn’t need that. It needs the Peter Egelston stories. Or the Steve Hindy stories, he of Brooklyn Brewery fame–our second beer in class would be that outfit’s Oktoberfest  (I’ve written about the redoubtable Mr. Hindy, foreign correspondent-turned-brewer before). Or any number of stories.

Look `em up. Share. Dear reader, I did; and it went well. Details on the next class to come.


Note: There will be no Hophead next week. I will be at the Slow Food International festival in Turino, Italy, sampling beers from all over the place so you don’t have to. and Twitter: tacitelli 

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