Friday, April 4, 2008

Interview with Ed McDevitt, Beer Aficionado

This is my discussion with a longtime beer aficionado (by the way aficionado is defined not as a snob but "an ardent devotee; fan, enthusiast"), and my introducer to good beers. I am happy to call him a friend and he has successively ramped up my taste for good beer since our friendship began in 1998. At that time if you asked me the best beer I drank was a black and tan. Ed McDevitt has been a good taste seeker since the 60's, was a home brewer in the early days when it became legal, an adviser and tag writer for local liquor stores, online reviewer of beers, and has a son who is a bartender and aspiring beer bar owner. It also happens to be his birthday today, so keep up the good drinking Ed, quality not quantity, and Happy Birthday!

We compiled this discussion over the past few days -

Q: So what did a good beer bar have in the pre-micro days?

"The only good ones were overseas lagers, like Lowenbrau (which before the 1980's was in its original receipe), other german beers, the local exception (when I was living in Massachusetts)- a brew by Narragansett, was it a black horse ale?, that was it. I was looking for beers with more hops, more flavor than macrobeers had. I remember the first micro I had was Anchor Steam, first had it in the early 80's, and after moving to Illinois I also remember the Christmas beer from Baderbrau ("Winterfest"), the Elmhurst, IL brewery (now gone) and one from the Eau Claire, WI Walter brewery, an all malt lager called Eau Claire All Malt Lager."

Q: When did you realize there were better imported beers from other than Germany?

"Not until a Chimay first tasted at an event in the mid-90's."

Q: When did you get your first piece of glass wear?

"Got a Point Brewery Glass in the 80's."

Q: Recall a few of the best tasting events you've attended?

"At the Village Tap in Chicago, there was a tasting held in the mid-90's by the new representative of B. United Importers, which included Aventinus, Schneider Weiss, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, one of the kellerbiers, a kölsch and a few others. Another was the first Midwest International Beer Exposition in 1996 at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago. It had a big main floor, and there I had my first taste of Unibroue beers, some beers from Estes Park Brewery (Colorado), and many others. In the center of the room Vanberg and Dewulf introduced me to Rodenbach and invited me to a separate Belgian tasting, something I hadn't expected, held upstairs in a 1/2 ball room where I met Peter Celis. In 1997 the second MIBE was held at a big drafty old building, the Morgan St. Market. This was a quieter affair, topped by our getting ready to leave and finding the Duvel table, where there sat several of Duvel's 0.33 liter bottles. So I started to take several of them, when the Duvel rep informed me that we could not leave the premises with beer (other than inside us!), so he opened 4 bottles for us to drink. We had only a few minutes, so we each drank 2 - quickly. Bad mistake."

"Also in the '90s a wine store opened in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I lived at the time. Cabernet & Co. hired a guy who had worked as a rep for Anchor Brewing to manage the store. He and I "bonded" and I became a sort of outside consultant for the store. I had put together a beer review database, with lots of descriptive info. I printed it out and the store hung a copy of it in the beer section for customer reference. It was at this store that I first began to be very interested in Christmas and Winter beers, starting with items like Youngs Winter warmer, Samuel Smiths Winter warmer, Scaldis Noël and many of the American micro winters too - Anderson Valley, Anchor, and many others. This was probably around 1995."

"I hosted a memorable backyard Belgian tasting in Lagrange, with 12-13 beers. I had wanted to pair the beers with Belgian cheeses, but could only find one in the area, and it was mild. So to get the idea of pungency, I decided to include Limburger, a big error. All people did was complain about the rotten socks smell!! As for the tasting, after about the 4th beer, tastings went out the door, people just said, "gimme more of that"."

Q: Describe your history with home brewing.

"I brewed from 1976 to 1979 eclectically, tried to buy good malts, with unknown hops, "brewers yeast", no options here. There wasn't much variety available for the home brewer. My brewing partner and I often used additional sugar to spike it, blew up some bottles this way, had to boil the hops, etc. Our beers were bad, all but one. This was, unexpectedly, a very strong beer. I had a particular guest come by when I was at my workbench in the basement of my house. We sat up on the workbench and I broke out the first bottles of this batch. He drank two bottles. Upon discovering that he had to get back across the street, he launched himself off the workbench and his legs buckled beneath him. He was, unfortunately for the project he was doing, hammered. Overall, I made maybe 6 different beers and haven't brewed since."

Q: What do you look for in a beer now?

"In one word, balance. I really prefer malty, complex, not overly hoppy, beers. I love to see experiments with yeast, the flavors they give off - good balanced but highly flavorful beer."

Q: So that is why dark Belgian's are your favorite style?

"Yes. The good ones have enormous flavor profiles generally."

Q: What do you look for going forward for the American beer consumer? How do you expect the industry to evolve?

"Macros are under pressure, AB has made a lot of micro investments, they see the writing on the wall, mass market lagers are diminishing. In my experience in the '90s you'd bring good beers to parties, and people would say no thanks. Now they try them, might say "hmm, that's interesting", and ask for more. There is a growing market for more interesting beers. And these drinkers are now younger, more diverse crowd, and it's good to see more women appreciating complex beer - and not being condescended to by brewers who used to brew their "chick" beers, usually raspberry wheats."

Thanks, Ed, and keep up the pursuit.

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