Charlie Papazian Looks Backward – and Forward
By Tony Forder
This interview was conducted in Boulder, CO in January on the occasion of homebrew guru and craft beer instigator Charlie Papazian’s independence (retirement) from the Brewers Association.
ASN: Did you ever imagine that home brewing and craft brewing would progress this far?
CP: Yes and no. I would say dreaming or drinking too much beer I probably had hazy visions of wow wouldn’t it be cool to have homebrewers in every neighborhood and a brewery in every town. That was a vision that I had. I kinda dreamed that…but I couldn’t have imagined the impact that kind of evolution happening would have on everything else. How many jobs, economic impact…those are all buzzwords but really it’s all about people’s lives and what they do for a living and relating to each other in an environment that continues to be collaborative for the most part …positive and fun…and appreciated by so many people beyond the number of breweries that were then and the number of breweries there are now.
ASN: Any part of the craft brewing evolution surprised you particularly?
CP: I would say that all these imaginative kinds of beers that have emerged that weren’t conceived or conceptualized, that weren’t even imagined 30 years ago. Whether you call them fruity hazy or triple bocks or, you know, super stouts or extreme beers, or beers made with unusual ingredients, you know all that stuff probably happened in other times and places years ago before our time…because nothing really seems to be new…you can always find some reference somewhere in history that people were doing the things we invent now, they were doing them before our lifetime…but the dizzying world where it’s happening now…so many choices, so many directions people are going…seemingly enjoying it for the most part.
ASN: Anything you can put your finger on that you’re most proud of – accomplishments?
CP: Been asked that before…I would say the more or less positive and collaborative spirit that continues to this day. I think that was my resolve in the early days of the American Homebrewers Association. There was certainly a lot to be pissed off about as far as the choice of beer…people were pretty angry…and used some pretty derogatory words about the beers that were available. They were outright pissed off at the lack of choice and they were ready to go to battle. I recognized early on through my beermaking classes, and also being introduced here and there to professional brewers, that people who make beer are not caught up in the marketplace antics and economic antics of the beer business….and I always emphasized that there’s nothing to be gained by trashing out anybody else for whatever reason – in this case beer. Sooner or later you’re gonna need people as friends…you’re gonna want to be their friends again. If you burn your bridges you’ve cut off some valuable resources for whatever you’re pursuing.
It was always a collaborative thing…I couldn’t have done it by myself. I didn’t have any notion that I could do it by myself. I just surrounded myself with people who were enthusiastic and wanted to share and wanted to help out. That was kind of the foundation…and it continues from what was a volunteer organization to meagerly paid employees to what it is now…the emphasis of being positive and not going to the extreme extent of getting nasty with each other. There’s certainly a tendency in this day and age for people to say things that want to drag you in to being nasty yourself…but you just kinda keep that goal in mind…do what you do best…and you’re going to succeed.
ASN: With the maturation of the business, the big guys take craft seriously now. Even if they’re on the other side, they want to be a part of it?
CP: They are a part of it, they’re just not small and independent, let’s face it. They don’t pretend to be. A digressive thought that I’ve always had – why wouldn’t big companies take pride in their brands and stand behind them and tout that they made them. If you don’t have that pride in your own products…your own beers, you don’t have anything. It’s kinda strange to me that some brewing companies don’t take that pride in their product, they disguise it is something else.
ASN: Any particular turning points in craft beer that you think really accelerated progress?
CP: The first brewpub was certainly a milestone. I could say legalization of homebrewing…that didn’t really affect things as dramatically as people would like to believe I think. It was iconic that Jimmy Carter signed a bill that included the legalization of homebrewing. People point to that as significant, but was there a flood of new homebrewers because of that? No. It was all about understanding and believing and wanting to make good beer.
The gradual shift of producers of ingredients whether that be malt or hops…the gradual understanding of the needs of craft brewers…that was a process…likewise the education of craft brewers understanding what farmers and growers and buyers were dealing with.
The availability of fresh hops – that was a turning point. A dependable source of quality yeast – Wyeast , then White Labs…allowed small breweries to really branch out…all brewers really.
For me the surprising success of the Joy of Homebrewing in 1984. I was really hoping that people would get it. They did get it.
ASN: How have you dealt with the adulation, the almost godlike figure that you have become? Was that ever difficult?
It was for a while…I didn’t know how to deal with it…but you know…this is going to surprise you. I cut out this quote and stuck it on the bulletin board. A quote from none other than Kathy Ireland (yes, she was on the cover of Zymurgy and Sports Illustrated and now she has a multi-billion dollar business)…I can’t quote it directly but, ‘When people thank you, and tell you how much they appreciate what you’ve done…a heartfelt thank you is all you need to do to recognize it. Just, you’re welcome.’
A really good friend who helped me found the AHA told me ‘Don’t let anybody market you and make you into something that you’re not.’ I’ve always remembered that.
ASN: The incredible volume of new breweries over the last few years, I think most of them were homebrewers. Do you think that homebrewing is still the building block of craft beer?
CP: Yeah, yes. I’m always asked that. When I’m visiting breweries people tell me, ‘Your book that was how I got started.’ If it’s not my book it’s somebody else’s book, everybody always seems to say it was my book – whether it’s true or not it doesn’t matter.
ASN: When people look back on this era of craft brewing which you can say is a part of the farm to table, grain to glass…
CP: I think it’s vice versa. Craft, homebrewing came first. Back in the early 80’s late 70s people were doing it, they were struggling to get people to understand this is local, this is unique – me to you.
ASN: Do you think it really has staying power into the future or do you think that power and money will prevail and people will go back to macro?
CP: I think it has a future. I think it’s pretty well positioned right now…because from what I’m reading and hearing and listening to, the generation that’s coming up right now is much more interested in planting seeds in the ground literally, gardening and taking a little bit more interest in the foods that they eat and experiencing that process a little bit more…although we live in a packaged food society….there’s kind of that full circle that we were in back in the 70s…the independent hippy alternative lifestyle thing…that was what now 40-50 years ago and it’s about time that’s going to re-emerge and probably going to develop even more over then next 10-15 years.
That theme is still going to be relevant…where beer’s going to be is going to depend on how brewers position themselves….of course the local small taproom – that works pretty well if you can figure out the business end of it and not make silly mistakes.
Larger breweries approaching 100,000 barrels or more, they have more of a challenge. They definitely have some challenges, but I don’t think they’re any more severe than the challenges that larger craft and microbreweries had back in the 80s and 90s. Those challenges seemed impossible to surmount then. There’s always been challenges throughout the history of craft beer and homebrewing.
There’ll still be macro beers around. Light beer will still survive. But I don’t think it’s going to capture the volume and imagination of most beerdrinkers in the future. That beer style is struggling to survive. It certainly doesn’t seem to be surviving on its own merits. It takes millions of dollars of propaganda to get people to drink it. People don’t talk about the coolness of drinking those kinds of beers.
ASN: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing craft brewing as an industry right now?
CP: The crosswinds that the larger regionals are having right now, that probably is the biggest challenge – how they’re going to figure out, navigate and succeed…the potential is great if they can somehow take market share from the big brewers.
ASN: What’s next for Charlie?
CP: Not going to rush into anything or make any commitments, or sign on to any big deals…there’s a few projects I’m hoping to continue. A documentary film that we hope is the first episode of a series, we hope to be able to get wider distribution with.
ASN: Is that based on a lot of the archive material?
CP: The spirit of what’s in the archive – a lot of the ideas came from the archive for sure. Film is a pretty powerful tool to tell the story of what really is this craft thing about? Rather than be told what it’s supposed be about with definitions or marketing…just trying to convey through film what the spirit of craft is….so that people get it, they can relate to it, within their own lifestyles because I think there’s a lot of commonality between what goes on in any person’s mind, what they dream about, what they want to be and what they want to do and what craft brewers have done as an example of what people can achieve if they just put their minds to it.
ASN: You’re not walking away completely from the Brewers Association I imagine.
CP: Well, there’s free beer at the bar, they said to come by at 4:30 any day, so that’s a destination.