By: Thomas Muhs
Sometimes the coolest opportunities just fall into your lap without you expecting it and this interview I got to do certainly fit that bill. One of the favorite topics of discussion in our office is craft beer and recently one of our interns got a job working on Madison Craft Beer week. He sent me an email saying that he knew I wrote for a beer review website and that one of the co-founders was looking to get the word out about the event to as many different beer blogs and websites as he could and was wondering if I would be interested in talking to him. I said absolutely, just let me know how I can get a hold of him and we’ll go from there.
So we met at a local brewpub in downtown Madison called the Great Dane, made quick introductions, ordered a beer and then just launched right in. I had some questions that I wanted to ask him specifically while he was there but otherwise I tried to let the conversation flow as naturally as possible. We talked about a variety of different topics; some of our favorite craft beer makers, the craft beer website he ran from 2007 until 2012, and what the true definition of being a craft beer really means. It was a great conversation, Jeff is a very interesting and insightful guy in the world of craft beer and I appreciate him taking the time to talk with me.
(Authors Note: The following conversation is paraphrased and re-created to the best of my knowledge and notes I took. I wanted to record the conversation but the brewpub was too loud.)
Thomas: So tell me a little bit more about how the event itself is structured, who participates in it, etc.
Jeff: It’s a 10 day event that always starts the same weekend as tickets go on sale for the Great Taste of the Midwest beer festival. We do that because Great Taste is a big event and tying our event to it in an indirect way helps to generate buzz for Craft Beer week and it stays fresh on everyone’s minds. The kickoff celebration this year will be a cask ale fest with 18 different casks at Madison East Side Club. Tickets are $30. Now we (meaning the organizers of Madison Craft Beer week) are only responsible for hosting the cask ale kick-off event, we don’t directly have a hand in any of the other events that take place during the other 10 days.
Thomas: See I find that really interesting that you guys as the organizers only host the kick-off event and then everything else that takes place during the week is on its own accord. Is there a reason that you took a really hands-off approach and how many events take place during the week?
Jeff: Last year we had at least 300 individual events that took place and the reason we took more of a hands-off approach was that we wanted to remain as neutral as possible to get the word out. And by remaining neutral, it allows for different businesses and organizations to really become a part of it and participate instead of having the event be sponsored by or dominated by a large brewery or distributor. This really allows for not only a lot of different events, but great events as well.
Thomas: What is your timeline as far as how you put this whole thing together?
Jeff: We start planning for the event in October; this is when we set out the schedule for the event and deadlines we need to meet. We start by talking to distributors and brewers who were either involved last year or who want to be involved and we get their feedback. One thing that really helps with planning is that we have a good relationship with the venues that host events during the week and that has been a big factor in allowing the event to grow every year. We start talking to venues in February, and we get their feedback as well and try to take that into account. We start really focusing on getting the word out to the individual consumer by mid-March. We use all different forms of advertising and social media to get the word out; we take out ads in local print news publications and magazines as well as beer specific publications. This year we are expanding our advertising reach to have ads placed in city buses which we are really excited about, radio, TV, posters and we also have coasters which we will be distributing to local bars and breweries to use as advertisement to customers. In April we start distributing official guides which tell you about all the events that will be going on during the week.
Thomas: So what is your favorite part about the whole week if you had to pick one thing?
Jeff: Well besides the beer, I would say that my favorite part about the week is attending an event and meeting someone there who showed up on a whim or maybe went with some friends and didn’t know what to expect and is now a craft beer convert. I see craft beer in the larger sense as a community, but as an idea I see craft beer as being artisanal, creating new things and willing to go outside the mold, but it’s also about being local and being an individual as well. To see those bonds form and to see people understand the big picture of what craft beer means is a really great thing to see.
Thomas: You are obviously very passionate about the subject of craft beer, what was it that really got you into the world of craft beer? If you could pinpoint it to one particular moment.
Jeff: I can, actually. It was back in 2004 and I was spending time with my brother who is six years younger than me. We were in Chicago and at one point he asked me if I had been drinking any craft beer lately, which I hadn’t. At that time I mostly drank a lot of imports. So my brother went out and bought a few different beers for me to try and one of those beers he bought was a 12oz bottle of Dogfish Head 120 minute IPA. We split the bottle between the two of us and I remember that it tasted like nothing else I had ever had before and that was what really sold me on craft beer. Another moment that I remember which really solidified my love of craft beer was when I tried a beer called New Glarus Old English Porter. When it came out, it got universally negative reviews and eventually was pulled from the shelves because it sold terribly in stores. It was a sour porter that tasted a lot like Rodenbach, but the biggest reason I think that it didn’t do well was because it was simply labeled as a porter and when a beer has a label to it, you expect it to taste a certain way and then when it doesn’t live up to or match that expectation, people end up not liking it. We put labels on things because we want a shorthand for what to expect but it also makes me wonder why we have labels for beer styles at all. If you think about it, putting a label on something already gives you a framework for what to expect but in a lot of ways I think it holds back the creativity of what a craft beer can and should be. In a lot of ways, the definition of craft beer is limiting. Because to me it’s more than just creating beer at a small level and it’s more than just any company that isn’t owned by Anheuser Busch or MillerCoors, craft beer has a sense of artisanship, it’s about being willing to try new things and take a risk for something that could potentially be truly great. Craft beer doesn’t neatly fit into any one definition that we’ve given to it and there are a lot of different beers and beer makers that continue to defy definition. So that Old English Porter really reminded me about what being a lover of craft beer really means and I hope that craft beer week continues to explore these different ideas and bring more people into the craft beer community fold.
Thomas: Well I have to say this has been a really great interview, you really have provided me with a lot of insight on things I would have never thought about, so I figured we could end with this question; what is your favorite beer and/or style of beer?
Jeff: My favorite style is an IPA, I am an avowed hophead, and I love west coast style IPA’s. I think the one beer that really embodies that style is Stone IPA. My favorite individual beer however is Augustiner Maximator Doppelbock from Munich. It’s not as dark and muddy as a lot of other Doppelbock’s but it’s also drier and fruitier in taste which I really like.
So I encourage anyone in the Madison/Wisconsin/Midwest area, hell anyone anywhere around the country, if you’re looking to take a beercation (is that a word? If not it is now) come on out to Madison, Wisconsin from May 2nd-11th and take part in as many great events as you can.