Profile: Beer Talk with Ben Keene

By Lee Havlicek.

All photos by Bethany Bandera.

Ben Keene is a guy who knows his beer. Or rather, Ben Keene is a guy who knows his beer, your beer, the beer down at the other end of the bar, the beer the guy sitting next to you is drinking but not enjoying and why, the beer with a name your friend can’t remember, though she can definitely describe the color, the flavor, and the label.

The Inn at Turkey Hill & Brewing - Bloomsburg, PA

This January, Ben, a seasoned beer and travel writer who has previously written two travel books will release his first on beer: The Great Northeast Brewery Tour: Tap into the Best Craft Breweries In New England and the Mid-Atlantic. And anyone and everyone who likes beer (or the Northeast) should be very, very excited.

Though the book reads, as you may have gathered from the title, as a tour of the greatest craft breweries in the Northeastern United States, it’s also filled with so much information on beer—everything from how and where magnificent brews are born to the history of breweries to details on various beer styles to tasting methods—that it’s not just for people going to the described locations. (Though it is especially fantastic for that, too, since Ben includes all the information you could possibly need to pave the way for a successful and stress-free visit.) It’s for beer lovers. Anyone with an interest in beer is going to love each and every page.

Packed with Ben’s skilled insights and information on 62 of the country’s most amazing breweries across 12 states alongside hundreds of Bethany Bandera’s gorgeous photos, The Great Northeast Brewery Tour is as much of an entertaining and satisfying read as it is an informative one. If you’re looking to learn more about the beers you already know and love, or even if you’re just looking to get started on building a beer knowledge-base, you’ll want to get your hands on a copy come January.

Ok so, some beer-speed-dating questions first. Let’s talk about what everyone will want to know from a beer connoisseur like yourself. What do you look for in a beer? As a drinker, I would say I like to be surprised. I always say my favorite beer is the one I just poured, the one in front of me. I like trying new things, I’m not someone that’s super loyal to a certain beer or a certain brewery. I look for a beer that pours with a lovely head and a beautiful color and has some aroma to it—your first impression kind of thing if you’re doing speed dating: Does this smell delicious and do I want to take a great big sip? Something I haven’t tried before is always fun. Different ingredients are great but they should be used well.

As a writer, I try to pay attention to details more. The appearance is important right off the bat, but then . . . What’s the mouthfeel like? Is it highly carbonated or not? Does it lean towards the sweet side or does it fall into that hoppy, IPA end of the spectrum? Can you pick up the spices that might have been used, if any? And at the end of it, it’s kind of about trying to perceive the aftertaste or the finish. I know a brewer that says a great beer tells a story: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The opening is the aroma. Then, there’s that first taste. And the end of the story is what’s lingering here at the end, what stands out to me, what do I remember?

Captain Lawrence Brewing - Elmsford, NY

Is there anything that lands a beer on your no-drinking list or any beer fads that you don’t like? Well, I don’t have any food allergies and I’m not picky, so I’ll try anything once—or twice, actually, just to be sure. The best beer is one that’s well-rounded. It has everything working in concert. Some beers out there, whether they’re made by newer places that are still figuring out their recipe or a brewery that’s been around forever that just wants to get everyone’s attention, can come on too strong. Other beers just destroy the enamel on your teeth with bitterness.

I do like sweet beers. I’ve had chocolate beer, which I enjoy if it’s done well, but I’ve had some that just tasted like carbonated Hershey’s syrup. Or sometimes, with fruity beers in the summer, you can taste a syrupy extract and it dominates your taste buds. . . . Those beers are just harder to do really well and they’re not always successful.

Flying Dog - Frederick, MD

So, you said you aren’t really loyal to any one brewery or style of beer, but do you have any favorites that kind of stick around year after year? The great thing is that right now—and this is part of the inspiration for the book–it’s such an awesome time for people who love food and drink. You have a billion choices, it can be overwhelming but on the other hand, I think it’s awesome. And I think it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. In any big city, you can go to a wine, beer, liquor store and have tons and tons and choice and that’s just fun.

If it’s an I’m-on-a-desert-island kind of thing, I like darker beers, stouts and porters, the “meal-in-a-glass.” There’s something comforting about them when it’s cold in the fall or winter. They can also be lower in alcohol and higher in flavor, so even in warm weather, I enjoy them.

Are there always some unpredictable, more alchemistic factors in brewing that can be surprising or is the process pretty cut and dry? Yeah, on the one hand, the basic process is pretty straightforward. Historically, people were able to make various fermented drinks without really having a super strong grasp of what was going on at the microscopic level. The steps are few and the ingredients are basically malted grain, water, yeast, and some kind of spice, which usually, these days, is hops. But [with] the craft of it . . . you definitely want a little more control—from managing temperature and timing, to other processes that people have invented over time to make better beer. And like anything, there are people who are just really gifted at it. That counts.

Pan American Grill & Brewery at The Lafayette - Buffalo, NY

The process of fermentation isn’t totally understood in terms of every little flavor produced and every chemical reaction so there is still a bit of magic: “We followed these instructions and got it as close to what we imagined as we could but then we put this fungus in there and we’ll see what happens.” So it’s really both.

Your upcoming book, The Great Northeast Brewery Tour, is pretty awesomely expansive. What was the research and writing process like? How did you even begin to create a list? The goal was to make something that anyone would enjoy browsing, no matter how much they know about beer to begin with. [My] other two books I was commissioned to write but this one I shopped around to publishers myself, so my investment in it was much more. . . . It was a lot of road trips to breweries and none of them were drunken or debaucherous (to dispel anyone’s misconceptions about writing about beer).

Delaware - Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (Milton)

It would usually be four, five, six days and the photographer, Bethany, and I would try to get to eight or 10 breweries at a time. We’d turn up, make small talk and introduce ourselves, then there would be a tasting of different products, tons of photos of the property, of the people.

Apart from those visits, there was also a lot of digging around that I did to find out about each brewery. Also, in selecting the places that I eventually included it was hard to narrow them down. And I certainly did have more breweries that I wanted to include, but I had to make cuts. It’s subjective. It’s my, I like to think, well-formed opinion of something: the most interesting brewers and breweries in the Northeast.

But I spent a lot of time thinking, “Ok, why should I include these people and not others?” I spent a lot of time reading up on them, talking to them. From the very beginning when I put together the initial book proposal until now was almost two years. Not all of it [was spent] working on the book but a good chunk of my time.

Southern Tier Brewing - Lakewood, NY

Do American beers or breweries tend to have any regional traits? Or do some things even vary on a smaller scale: Are there any characteristically New York, Vermont, etc. beers? That exists to a degree. Number one, there are more places in the Northeast and on the West Coast where you can actually grow the things used to make beer. There are people who are certainly producing hops and grains and there are breweries that are trying to at least once or twice a year to make a totally local beer. Your average person wouldn’t necessarily be able to say, “Aha! This is a Massachusetts beer!” But if you lined up a few and sampled them you’d at least be able to say these are from different places.

Flying Dog - Frederick, MD

Also, brewers often will use a local ingredient. In Vermont, it might be maple syrup, in New York, it might be local honey, it might be chamomile or locally roasted coffee. They’re adding a little touch of whereever they’re from the but the average beer won’t have that terroir, that taste of place, because the problem is that hops and barley only grow in certain parts of the world. So if you’re in Florida, it’s just not going to work out for you.

I think there’s some loyalty among beer drinkers to support their local spot but then I think that people who are maybe a little more knowledgeable are also paying some attention to what goes into their beer and where it comes from.

Maine - Allagash Brewery

What about beer drinkers? Have you found that people in different regions of the country tend to favor different types of beer or is it a pretty mixed bag across the board? I think, to some degree, yes. . . . On the East Coast there maybe was a preference for English-style beers because many of the first brewers who opened business, that’s what they liked and brewed. A lot of breweries, that’s how they come up with their personality. The owner says, “Hey, I can’t find this thing I enjoy, and I like it and my buddies like it and I’ll worry about selling it later.”

Crossroads Brewing - Athens, NY

Out on the West Coast, that’s where the kind of hoppy, IPA craze started. Down South where it’s hotter, people might gravitate towards light-bodied Pilsners or maybe wheat beers—kind of refreshing drinks. There’s some regionalism going on but everybody’s experimenting all over the place, too, so it’s hard to be super specific.

Have you discovered any great new beers or breweries lately? There are always new breweries, so I’ll spare you that long-winded answer. Right now, there about 2,500 around the country and amazingly, that number keeps going up. So I would say, probably two years ago I’m guessing, there were maybe close to 2,000 and I think by this time next year, I’d be shocked if there weren’t 3,000. Many of them are tiny, but it’s just crazy how quickly people are getting into it . . . that’s a little bit of what led me to write my book. There are so many great places opening up and I think that the majority of people aren’t aware of them, so I kind of wanted to introduce people to what I think are some great spots in the area.

New Hampshire - Woodstock Inn & Brewery

New beers that are intriguing and raising eyebrows are sour beers. It’s fun for brewers because it’s such a departure from what people have been making for such a long time. The sour beers rely on different yeast strains that are less predictable than the typical ones used in brewing. You kind of let them into your beer and you’re not entirely sure how it’s going to turn out. Sometimes, it might be a mildly tart beer and sometimes it attacks your taste buds with tannins and pucker power.

Are there any beer misconceptions you’d like to set straight once and for all? I’m not the only one with this opinion, but I’d like more people to know that beer isn’t just for chugging anymore. You can savor it. It goes great with food besides pizza or wings or a burger. I don’t think people think of beer if they’re going out to a nice meal or a dinner party. You don’t always think, “Oh, I’ll find an interesting beer.” But there are so many different varieties out there and so many different things you can do to beer to make it exciting. I brought a spicy beer with sage in it to Thanksgiving and no one was thinking let’s crack open a bottle of beer, but everyone loved it.

Maine - Allagash Brewery

Also, I think a lot of people don’t understand that the color of beer by itself doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. You could get a jet-black beer and it could be actually really light-bodied and crisp and very low in alcohol. Or you could get a nice, bright amber-colored beer that has a ton of alcohol in it and is creamy and almost thick. Don’t judge a beer by its color alone. I’ve met people and asked what kind of beer do you like, and if I suggest a dark beer they say, “I don’t like Guinness” because that’s what they’ve had. But there are hundreds of dark beers that are nothing like Guinness, so keep an open mind.

Is there something you’re excited to drink this fall? I’ll admit something that beer nerds will hate: I like pumpkin beers. Not all of them. But I do enjoy pumpkin beer. I haven’t had one yet, I’ll wait until it gets a little more fall-like outside.

Hopshire Farm & Brewery - Freeville, NY

I also enjoy wet-hop beers but they’re harder to track down than pumpkin beers. “Wet-hop” just means the brewer uses hops in the beer that have been picked in the last 24 hours or so. They’re usually made around September and come out towards the end of fall. They’re that much more fragrant and have that much more of the oil and resins in the hops that give the beer bitterness and flavor because they’re as fresh as you possibly can get. It’s fun when you find a place that has one of these beers because it’s a once-a-year, one-time chance type of thing.

Is there anything with which you wouldn’t drink beer? There’s nothing I wouldn’t try a beer with. I’d be willing to bet there’s a beer out there that goes with you name it.

Roy Pitz Brewing Company - Chambersburg, PA

Do you have a favorite food and beer pairing? I had a birthday once and I asked people that were coming to the party to bring some sort of cake or some sort of beer. That’s really all that I wanted. Or you know, serve yourself a beer and put a delicious scoop of ice cream on top. On our tour, one of the breweries we went to in New Hampshire asked us if we liked mint. The brewer goes to the back and we hear the buzzing of a blender and she comes back to the bar with a shake made of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate mint stout. It was amazing.

Roy Pitz Brewing Company - Chambersburg, PA

Details

The Great Northeast Brewery Tour: Tap into the Best Craft Breweries in New England and the Mid-Atlantic by Ben Keene

Ben’s blog Where and Back: http://whereandback.blogspot.com/

Ben’s books: http://www.amazon.com/Ben-Keene/e/B004H3JP1Q

Bethany Bandera’s website: http://www.bethanybandera.com/

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