Interview with Lew Bryson
Nate McBloodyfoot interviews Lew Bryson
December 15, 2005
Written by Nate
Lew Bryson: Author, traveler, family man, beer drinker - in search of good beer in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. Actually, in search of good beer just about anywhere he goes. An enviable but difficult task! I first met Lew at the State College Microbrewer’s Festival in July 2005, though I’d known about him for several years after his first Pennsylvania breweries book and PBS special. During the festival, he was signing new copies of his Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Breweries and giving a seminar on wheat beers, which I quite enjoyed. I approached him about doing an interview for RateBeer, and he enthusiastically agreed to answer several questions - about his work and the beer scene in the Mid-Atlantic.
Q. How did you get started doing what you do?
A. I kept a "beer diary," beginning in 1986, and got in the habit of recording what I thought about beers, but more importantly, about the places and people who were making and serving them. The breweries, brewers, bars, and bar-owners/bartenders have proven to be more my forte. I wrote a sample issue of a newsletter for a local beerstore and sold it to them for $30 in 1994; three weeks later I was laid off. I sold a few more pieces to Malt Advocate and Ale Street News while on unemployment, and continued to write when I picked up a temp job. When the contract on that ran out in December 1995, I went full-time writing, and have been ever since.
Q. What’s your background? Were you always in journalism/writing or is this the result of a passion for a hobby?
A. I was a librarian, but I had a BA and an MA in History. That got me started writing, but it was really writing and writing and writing that honed my skills, as with anyone. I’m also a reader with a wide appetite; lately I’ve been reading wine and food writing, looking for ideas.
Q. Are you a native Pennsylvanian? Where did you grow up and how did that influence your decisions to become a beer writer?
A. My family’s lived in Pennsylvania since the 1740s; my sister and I were the first to leave Lancaster County, Pennsylvania since 1745.and we only made it about 50 miles east. I’m firmly rooted here. I think it did influence my decision, because stumbling across the Yuengling brewery one day while a friend and I were out driving around really fired my curiosity. If you were going to have a brewery in your backyard in the late 1970s - on the East Coast! - Yuengling was a good one. I learned a lot visiting that brewery over the years, and part of what I learned was how interested I was.
Q. Family? I can’t remember if you said you were married. Do any of your family members share your passion for beer, or are you the kook of the family, like I am?
A. I married Catherine Childs in 1989, and we have two kids, Thomas (14) and Nora (11). That was a big influence on the decision: writing lets me stay home to be there for the kids while my wife really supports the family. I’ve managed to get pretty much of my wife’s family converted to good beer, especially her three brothers, who are my best friends. My side of the family’s a different story. My sister and I love whiskey, my mother will try almost any beer I put in front of her, and my uncle Don has been a great drinking companion as noted in my books. But some of the family’s scandalized by what I do. Well, they’re scandalized that I converted to Catholicism, too, that’s just the way things go. I’m definitely not the kook of the family, though, more like The Connection.
Q. Do you homebrew?
A. I homebrewed from 1986 to 1993, with some big gaps in there when I lived in two tiny apartments and kept my stuff in storage. I finally ran out of time and patience when my daughter was born. The whole "Relax, don’t worry" part has never worked for me. I tended to be a total pain in the ass to be around when I brewed. So I quit.
Q. How is the third edition of Pennsylvania Breweries doing? How about New York Breweries and <Virginia, Maryland, & Delaware Breweries?
A. The new Pennsylvania book is selling very well, and it should - it’s a much better book than the two earlier editions were. I’ve gotten better, and the format has shaken down into something that I’m very pleased with. Virginia, Maryland, & Delaware Breweries is doing just fine, though it could use some more promotion; I hope to do something about that in the coming year. The New York book did very well the first year, then hit a wall. Not sure what happened there.
Q. Many of us enjoyed your PBS special a few years back. Anything in the works for an updated version, or one to complement the other books?
A. Nope. Looks like that might have been a one-shot.
Q. What are some of the downsides to your work?
A. Oh, God, how much room do you have? For one, I make about 1/3 of what I did as a librarian. There’s a constant concern about DUI, and that’s true of everyone in the business: brewers, wholesalers, retailers. Our business involves drinking, and those of us who are fighting to work our way up are out there working events. I don’t mean to say we’re constantly driving drunk, what I mean is that we’re constantly concerned and mindful of NOT drinking to the point where driving is dangerous to ourselves or someone else. I know a number of folks in the business who have gotten DUIs or had accidents: I haven’t, and I’ve been very careful. There are also inevitable moments when I wind up in situations - rotten two-bit bars on a bad lead, incompetent brewers with bad beer, sick and tired on a long road trip, caught in an interminable conversation with an over-earnest beer geek or lectured by an anti-alcohol raver - that just make me wonder why the hell I keep doing this. But then I think about the crap I put up with when I worked corporate and I smile and keep going.
Q. What are your thoughts on the Pennsylvania three-tier distribution system and how it affects the prosperity of small brewers?
A. The three-tier system in Pennslyvania is what saved our regional brewers as long as they did survive; we still have more than any other state with The Lion, Yuengling, Straub, and Pittsburgh. Lots of beer-lovers curse the three-tier system, but I think they’re wrong to do so. The small brewers I’ve talked to about this all hope it holds together as long as possible. Dealing with wholesalers is not always easy, but dealing with big number-driven supermarket chains, or hundreds of individual mom-and-pop stores, is going to be even harder. Access to market is the key, and three-tier going away will make that harder. It may seem counter-intuitive to the beer purchaser, but that’s the view from inside. That said, it’s going to happen. Period. So what’s going to replace it? Look at food distribution. There are big national companies - Sysco. There are regional suppliers, and there are fairly small ones. The fairly small ones are specialty providers: fresh seafood, dairy, fancy produce. That’s what’s going to wind up happening with beer. My concern is that it’s going to take too long, and we’re going to lose good breweries.
Q. Do you see Pennsylvania ever changing their system to allow the average consumer to purchase direct from brewers via mail order? How do you feel about that?
A. Yeah, I think we should be able to mail order directly, and I think that eventually a way will be worked out to allow it. I don’t think it will amount to much, though. It works for wine because wine goes for $20 or $60 a bottle; the margin the winery makes on shipping a case by mail-order makes it worthwhile. Beer generally doesn’t cost that much. Beer’s more fragile than wine. It weighs more per dollar. I believe the wine mail-order issue is hastening the end of the three-tier system, so I’m not nuts about it. I believe the beer mail-order issue is a lot of smoke and light without much heat. The volume’s just not there. I don’t want to hear about how much you and your friends want to buy; you and your friends are not even a drop in the bucket. Beer by mail is never going to be as big as wine by mail. The mechanics just aren’t there.
Q. You traveled quite a bit. Do you have a country/state/city that you would consider a favorite?
A. Tough question, particularly because there are so many top beer places I haven’t yet been to: Belgium, England, Scotland, Köln, Düsseldorf, Poland.I guess right now my favorites would include Bamberg, Pittsburgh, Munich, Madison, and Philly, not in any order. Depends on how I’m feeling. I’m on a long lager kick right now.
Q. Do you have a favorite brewer? Brand?
A. Not really. Sooner or later everyone does something to piss me off.
Q. What are your favorite styles? Do those change throughout the year? What would you consider a shining example from your most preferred styles?
A. They definitely change through the year, but not in a seasonal sense. Right now? Baltic porter, hefeweizen, American pale ale, and I’d say Okocim, Weihenstephan, and Sierra Nevada as examples. I know a lot of people think SNPA is passe these days, but I couldn’t agree less. That beer’s still got it, and if you think it’s underhopped, or boring, you need to go on a hops diet and get re-calibrated.
Q. What was your best experience as a beer writer/traveler?
A. Two I’ll have to give equal weight to. Edgefield, the McMenamin’s joint outside of Portland, was just glorious, a beer amusement park for adults. And Andechs, one of the top beer experiences of my life - Andechs doublebock - coupled with the fantastic experience of drinking in their beergarden, followed by an accidental hookup with four Berliners that was a blast.
Q. What was your worst experience as a beer writer/traveler?
A. No question: Chiefs, a Pittsburgh bar that has since closed. When I was planning the research for the second edition of the PA book, I put out an Internet request for suggestions on bars, and Chiefs came back as one. If I could find the guy who sent that one... Bad section of town, and an armed bouncer should have been a hint, but Uncle Don and I went in. It was dark, and freezing cold, and the radio played through a broken speaker. The bartender had a coat on, and didn’t speak more than absolutely necessary. Draft beer was limited to Iron City or Busch, both served in 16 oz. plastic cups. Guys were stumbling in and buying shots of rail booze with change, then drinking them with bar straws so they wouldn’t spill any. My dad was waiting outside in the van with his .357 in his hand under his jacket. This was definitely one of those moments when I looked in the mirror and thought, How have I come to this?
But you know, about that time I saw a bottle of Jim Beam Rye, and I asked the bartender for a shot. It was delicious, and a rare find these days. The bartender got interested, and I told him about rye whiskey, and bought him a shot. He turned off the radio. Don got to talking about hunting with the guy next to him. And,it wasn’t so bad after all.
Q. Now that you’ve traveled and written about several states, do you feel the brewpub/microbrew growth is soon to reach a plateau, or is there still room for long-term growth?
A. Oh, God, no, I think the picture for long-term growth is better than it has been since 1996. Things are growing, and we may be reaching a tipping point where more people than ever realize that they want something from their beer other than fizz and buzz. Does that mean more brewpubs? Yes, though it may mean more chain brewpubs. Success rate and cost of capital are going to be king, just like in restaurants. Does that mean more production microbreweries? Yes, though not many of them will make it. Access to market will be the crucial point as the three-tier system inevitably crumbles.
Q. What’s your vision of the future of brewpubs/micros in Pennsylvania?
A. Growth, fairly robust growth over the next five years or so. If that’s so, look for the majors to get interested again; A-B’s already interested. Chain brewpubs will grow, the good and well-managed ones. Micros who have a good business plan and model will grow. The market will grow at an expanding pace. Beer’s not dead. Craft beer and light beer are thriving, and ain’t that weird?
Q. What are some of the main reasons that brewpubs/micros close? Bad beer? Distribution woes? Bad food? Bad management?
A. Very few close because of bad food. I’ve seen places that make truly bad beer stay open remarkably long, over five years and even longer. The three major things that close breweries are bad management, bad location, and lack of capital, and you could easily argue that the latter two are results of bad management as well. People get into this business with no experience, just a lot of ideas and enthusiasm, and those are no substitute for experience, will, and deep pockets. You can make it work on a shoestring, but those who do are beating steep odds. It’s also very hard to make people come to you if you’re off the beaten track. I’ve seen it happen - Custom Brewcrafters in Honeoye Falls, NY comes to mind - but I’ve seen a lot more places go under trying. It’s not an easy business. It requires real capital investment, thought, innovation, and plain sweatin’ hard work. You have to be an artist, a manager, a salesperson, a plumber, and an electrician, and it doesn’t hurt to have some cooking and welding experience. There’s easier ways to make a living. It’s like writing. If you don’t feel like you just have to do it, you probably shouldn’t.
Q. Any advice to people who hope to go into the brewpub business or the beer writing arena?
A. Yeah, don’t go into beer writing! The pay sucks and I’ve got enough competition already. If you want to go into brewpubbing, get some experience first on all sides of the house, or get a partner you trust who already has the experience you lack. Decide on a firm idea for what you want your pub to be, and stick to it. Put a lot more work into your business plan than you think is necessary. Try to be prepared for disasters: no brewpub ever failed because of too much capital.
Q. Anything in particular you would like to share with the members of RateBeer?
A. Yeah. Don’t get overfocused on the beer. Sometimes I worry that we’re too busy looking for flaws or details, and the big picture - enjoyment of the beer, the surroundings, the company, the moment - gets lost. Beer’s part of life, maybe a bigger part in some lives than in others, but it’s only part of it, even for people like me who make a living at it. Step back occasionally. Breathe.
Lew can be reached at <a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected], and he maintains up-to-date information on breweries and other places listed in his books at <a href="http://www.lewbryson.com">www.lewbryson.com.
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Guys were stumbling in and buying shots of rail booze with change, then drinking them with bar straws so they wouldn’t spill any. My dad was waiting outside in the van with his .357 in his hand under his jacket.
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