Interview with Dr. Bill
Hey_Kevin interviews famous beer lover Dr. Bill
February 12, 2004
Written by heykevin
The following is hey_kevin’s interview with famous beer lover Dr. Bill.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with you, could you introduce yourself?
My name is Bill Sysak and I was born in Garden Grove, California (about three miles from Disneyland). Usually the first question people ask me when I’m introduced as Dr. Bill or doc or the beer doctor is: Are you really a doctor? No, I am not really a doctor. I was a medic in the military almost 20 years ago and acquired the nickname "doc", as so many of the medics do. As I became known in beer circles it became my handle so to speak. Ironically, I’ve been in the medical field ever since and in the emergency room I work in I’m known as Doc or Dr. Bill, even by the actual Drs., lol. I’m a few credit hours short of a Masters degree in History and have considered getting a Ph.D. in the subject, but for now I’m just the beer Doc. Now on to important subjects, like beer. I would say I’m known in the beer community primarily as a beer afficionado/hoarder, lol, and for what has been called a remarkably retentive palate. I’m constantly subjected to blind tastings, where I am expected to guess the style, the brewery and the beer itself, I’ve even been known to pull a few vintages out of my hat.
What initially sparked your interest in/passion for beer?
I started out very young, and at 41 years of age, I already have 25 years as a "beer hunter" (he doesn’t have that copyrighted, does he?) under my belt, literally. In the summer of 1977 my father caught me and two friends drinking, I believe Lowenbrau Dark (Stroh’s, not the Munich or Swiss variety, sorry) in our backyard at the tender age of 15. Luckily three important factors came into play at this critical moment in my beer life. Firstly, my dad had become acquainted with quality beer, both British and German while serving in the Army during WWII. British ales while waiting the 9 months for the D-day invasion to commence and after surviving that horrendous day many German lagers were consumed during and after their fight to Berlin. Secondly my two buddies’ dad (the buddies are brothers) was my father’s single malt scotch drinking companion. Finally, my father was familiar with the "Liquor Barn" a chain of very large liquor stores that populated Southern California at the time. This place had an extensive import beer selection along with the first few bottles being brewed from the fledgling American microbrewery industry.
With those factors in place, instead of getting a belting - that was still done in those days - we were given a challenge by our oh-so-wise fathers. If we promised not to drink excepting with them and never to drive afterwards, as that 16th birthday was coming up, they would show us what real beer was and how to enjoy it responsibly. Thus started a weekly tradition where we would all head down to the Liquor Barn and pick out a dozen or so beers for us to taste that Saturday night. Over the next four and a half years my father and I filled a spare bedroom with our beer bottle collection, almost 1,200 beers in all, and by the time of my dad’s death in ’91 it contained twice that number, all enjoyed together. I think my dad was more proud of that accomplishment than I was. Obviously we didn’t find all these beers in one place, but whenever he would visit me abroad we would taste beers and he would lug them back to So Cal. In the military I actually chose my duty stations for the beer. Four years in Germany from ’86-’89 allowed for beer hunts all over Europe including visits to 180 different German breweries and over 30 trips to Belgium. Followed by three years in Seattle where I became familiar with Fal Allen of Pike’s and later Anderson Valley fame, Bert Grant, Hales, Redhook and one of the first great beerpubs in the area, Engine House # 9 in Tacoma. After my dad’s death in Dec. ’91, I moved back to So Cal to be nearer my mom and currently live in Orange when I’m not off on my beer travels.
Tell us a little bit about your cellar both in terms of what you have lying around and how it is stored.
I currently have somewhere between 1,400 to 1,600 bottles in my so-called cellar right now, this fluctuates on a monthly basis. I would say 400 different beers or vintages. I say "so called cellar" because there are very few actual cellars in Orange County. To adjust for that I store my beer and wine in various temperature stable areas throughout my house, with about 500 at my mom’s, a fifteen minute car ride away. I’ve taken over half of my garage, which is well insulated, I’ve installed cabinets on the interior walls that hold about 700 bottles, and this is also where I keep much of my breweriana, including glasses. Various areas in the house have become incorporated into mini cellars holding many of my larger format bottles. All of these areas either have fixed hygrometers and thermometers or are checked randomly during weather and seasonal changes. The temperatures stay between 50 to 65 degrees and most if not all vary no more than 5 degrees seasonally.
Actually one of the benefits of having all these micro cellars is it allows me to store certain beers in certain areas. I have one area that never goes above 55 degrees this area I tend to keep beers that are either not bottled conditioned or that I want to slow down the aging process. I have another area that varies from 58 to 64 degrees where I store beers that I want to keep the little yeasties on their toes. I’ve stored identical beers in both areas for 6 month periods then done side by side comparisons, it’s amazing how a few degrees can accelerate the maturation of a beer. Of course all the areas are dark.
Also all of my beers are stored upright especially the crowned and corked bottles. I am a firm believer in this. The idea of laying down your beer to keep the cork wet is nonsense. The inside of the bottle has its own humidity level so the portion of the cork inside the bottle should not dry out. Cork cells have a waxy material called suberin, which makes them almost impermeable to liquid. This is also the cause of the corks buoyancy as air is trapped in the sealed cells of the cork. The risk of drying out is higher if the cork goes through a series of wettings than dryings, especially cheaper corks like Dany used to use at Fantôme. Proper temperature and humidity control is of more importance for long term cellaring. Agglomerated corks have a much shorter life span than the real thing. Side effects from laying down beer is a much bigger concern for me, the yeast ring that can form from laying your beer horizontally allows for unsettled yeast, I much prefer it to compact down at the bottom allowing the drinker the choice of not touching it or agitating it for the final pour (which I prefer). Storing the beer upright minimizes the amount of beer exposed to oxidation, greater surface area on its side. Also prolonged exposure to the cork can add unwanted tastes. Vertical for my verticals I say!
And just what do you do with all this beer?
I acquire approximately 2,500 to 3,500 bottles annually, of these I’d say 10% are purchased with the thought of keeping them for over 5 years, while about 75% of the rest will be gone in under a year from acquisition. Many of these I drink myself at dinners, tastings, and fests. Concerning tastings and fests, I must confess I’ve been stricken with a terrible disease "Notenoughbeeratfestitis" I’m told I’m one of the few people in America that brings extra beer to events. Now I’m not talking a bottle or two, I’m talking a dozen or two 75cl bottles or more. Dave Keene (Toronado) calls me "a publican without a pub" and Peter Z. (Alesmith) says I’m "the most generous guy in the beer world", usually after sampling a few of my goodies, lol. Now I know many readers think that bringing beer to organized events or places of business is just rude and is inconsiderate of their fiscal welfare. That would be true if I didn’t insist on certain basic concepts. First I always make sure that it is okay with the organizers or proprietors, if I’ve never been to a particular establishment I always discuss it with them prior to the event. Certain places I have a long standing tradition with; Toronado’s BW fest Sunday backroom tasting, or the first night of the fests at Pizza Port to name a couple, where it is assumed I will bring beer.
At pubs I always make sure that the publican and staff are always taken care of. Here is an example: Chris Black, the owner of the fabulous Falling Rock Tap House in Denver, had to put up with me, my crew and a number of fellow babblers (Burgundian Babble Belt) for four consecutive nights last GABF. Chris would put us in his downstairs tasting room each night where I would (with the permission of all the tasters) play the sommelier and orchestrate an extreme tasting. I brought numerous bottles each night that we opened alongside many selections pulled from the darkest recesses of Chris’s cellar. By the end of each session Chris would be assured of a profitable evening and his diligent wait staff would have received a very generous tip. When the wait staff hugs you when you leave and tells you next year is too long a wait, you know there are no hurt feelings. I also trade 100’s of beers a year with fellow beer aficionados in Belgium, England and at least a dozen U.S. states, not yet Canada, (you hear that Josh) so I purchase many beers with that in mind. Then of course there is the annual fest my friend Steve and I put on - this coming August will be our 8th - lovingly titled "Dr. Bill and Steiny’s 8th Annual 12 hour Belgian beer and Barley Wine Birthday Bash and Barbeque." This event alone accounts for over 1,000 bottles coming out of our cellars. Beer Advocate’s extreme fests have nothing on us. We open a Belgian Ale and an American Strong Ale (at least 8% or stronger) every 10 minutes for 12 hours straight. Last year we served 160 bottled beers with over 100 people in attendance. That’s a lot of bottles. By the way, I hand select every beer, no Piraat or Lindeman’s at this tasting. We also had 20 kegs donated last year including SPF 15 and Hop 15 from Tomme Arthur, Missionary Pale and Colossus 15% BW from Tom Nichols (Oggi’s), Iced Frank from Kirk at Carlsbad PP, to name a few.
Any treasures you are afraid to open?
Not really. I have some very rare bottles, ’68 Thomas Hardy’s for example, but they are all acquired to be enjoyed. The Hardy’s will be consumed at the most extensive TH tasting ever held. Tom Nichols and I have acquired every vintage of TH ever produced and will conduct a vertical tasting in the near future. I have many rare Belgians and aged American micros including S.N. Celebrations, Bigfoots, Old Foghorns and Anchor’s Our Special Ales going back to the 70’s. I have every Samichlaus including the extremely hard to find ’87 Pale. Two of the beers that I’m running low on that will be tough to say goodbye to, are Rodenbach Alexander (less than a dozen left), and Fred from the Wood, an oak-aged Fred that Alan Sprints bottled for me. At one time I had 24 magnums now I’m down to three. All these beers will be consumed at events over the next few years. Of course, I am always hunting for replacements.
Who are your favorite brewers/breweries? Anybody you find criminally underrated?
American- Pizza Port, Russian River, AleSmith, HOTD, Fish, Elysian, Flossmoor Station, Bells, Southampton, McKenzie’s, Heavyweight. A brewery that I feel is consistently underrated would be HOTD. Alan has been brewing great beers for 10 years this July and because he never successfully produced an everyday session beer (Ruth not withstanding) he has had a hard time infusing capital into his brewery. It has been a struggle for him over the last few years. Did you know he actually was the first commercial brewer to create and serve a 20% beer? Before Jim K. or Sam C., he produced #29 now called Dave, an Adam beer that he froze in ’94 (if you remember the 1st Triple Bock was only 17.5% in ’94) it spent two years in a bourbon barrel after that and weighs in at a hefty, you guessed it 29%. I bet this will surprise a lot of RateBeerians at his place in the history of strong ales.
Belgian- De Dolle, Cantillon, De Ranke, Paeleman, Fantôme, De Regenboog, Anker, Rodenbach (pre palm), Ellezelloise, Dupont, Brasserie d’Orval
Other- Hitachino, Harvey’s, Freeminer, Hop Back, Tim Taylor’s, Gale’s, Brauerei Strauss, Schneider Brau Aventinus
You frequently bring your own beer into nice restaurants, any tips on bringing your own beer, as not to offend anybody?
First item of business is seeing if the restaurant has a corkage fee, usually a 10 to 20 dollar charge for bottles of wine that aren’t carried by the establishment. Once I’ve determined that they do I let them know that I plan on bringing a number of bottles of "rare Belgian ale" this usually catches their attention. If the sommelier is available I like to go over the order of presentation, appropriate serving temperatures and glassware in advance. If not, the wait staff at time of seating is informed of my wishes in these areas. I tend to bring 75cl, 1.5L, 3L bottles, whether Belgian or American, as these sizes tend to be more appropriate for restaurants (more bang for your buck). Once opened, I like to keep them in champagne buckets at tableside. The sommelier or waiters are usually quite interested in my explanations of the complexities of the beers I bring. At the least they smell the bouquet, and if allowed by the management they are more then happy to try these previously undreamt of beers themselves. I even gave an impromptu beer appreciation class to the wait staff one evening at Ruth Chris’s at the request of the manager and sommelier. Many times the corkage fee is waived, rarely because "its only beer", usually in appreciation of my generous tipping habits for quality service.
Do you have a local? What are your favorite world beerpubs?
I’m very lucky in the fact that I have decent local 200 yards from my hospital. Hollingshead Deli is easily in the top 5 pubs below S.F., in my opinion. They have all the key components for a great pub: A quirky family who are quite entertaining to the locals but sometimes quite scary to a first timer (they yell A LOT), 15 of the cleanest taps you could want, 300 bottled beers including 40 Belgians that can be enjoyed either there or off premises and some of the best pastrami this side of the continent. My other locals are Lucky Baldwin’s, The Stuffed Sandwich, and O’Brien’s, if you consider 35 to 60 miles local.
My top 10 favorite American beer pubs in ever changing order:
1) Lucky Baldwin’s
5)Horse Brass Pub
7)O’Brien’s (San Diego)
Special mention: Delilah’s, The Gingerman, Blind Tiger, d.b.a.
2)Le Bier Circus (please visit their website and sign the petition to save this wonderful pubhttp://www.biercircus.be )
3)’t Brugs Beertje
8)White Horse on PG
Anything else you’d like to say to the Ratebeer crowd?
First off let me say that I have actually used Ratebeer for over a year now. I think you are all performing a great service to the beer community with the beer reviews and general beery atmosphere that you foster. I can’t tell you how many times the site has come in handy. I don’t know if I will ever post reviews, though. If you couldn’t tell from the interview I tend to do beer things in a very large way, I couldn’t see myself posting 50, or even 500 reviews, I would have to post every beer I’ve ever had and since I can’t afford to take three years off work, lol, it doesn’t look promising. I’m somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 right now.
Secondly this may sound overly sentimental but we have access to more and better beers than at any other time in the history of brewing. Brewers are creating new exceptional variations of beer styles everyday. Even 10 years ago if you weren’t on the east or west coast, with a few exceptions, great micros were few and far between. Every year the number of amazing beers that are being brewed from almost every state continues to grow. There will always be microbrewery chains that continue to propagate bland ambers, stouts, browns, and pales. These are a necessary evil that allows the mass market swillers a transitional phase into the beer nirvana that we find ourselves today.
There also will continue to be closures and takeovers of much revered breweries and beer styles both here and abroad. The history of brewing (I consider myself somewhat of a beer history nut) has always been one of change and transition, we should all continue to support real ales and true lambic producers and do everything in our power to prevent the loss of the great classics. On the other hand lets not condemn brewers for going outside of style guidelines. They serve a purpose, but I find few things more disgusting than some overblown beer judge who styles him or herself as a keeper of the style commandments picking apart a fabulous beer because it falls outside certain guidelines. That to me is beer fascism at its worst. So keep an open mind, don’t be afraid to say what you think of a beer or style. Foster this with the new beer drinkers you bring into the fold. Let them know not to be afraid to say how a beer’s bouquet or flavor presents itself to them. Enjoy all the great beers we have in front of us, I know I will. Here’s to tipping a few with you someday!
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I currently have somewhere between 1,400 to 1,600 bottles in my so-called cellar right now, this fluctuates on a monthly basis.
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