Crafting Brands: A Tasting with Beer Expert Randy Mosher
INTERVIEWED FEBRUARY 3, 2016
AT HOPLEAF – CHICAGO
If you've been following the craft beer scene for any amount of time, you've undoubtedly come across the name Randy Mosher. As an author he's published some of the most influential books on beer, including Tasting Beer and Radical Brewing. As a graphic designer, you may have seen his work on bottles from Metropolitan, Berghoff, and Three Floyds.
Since his college days in Cincinnati, Randy has been exploring beer and honing his craft. If that doesn't keep him busy enough, he's a partner at 5 Rabbit Cervecería where the focus is on Latin inspired beers. Most recently, he's been collaborating with the folks at Forbidden Root as they bring botanic beers to the Chicago market. Even with all these projects going on, Randy made time to grab beers with us at Hopleaf and loop us in on what he's been working on recently.
Tell us about your background? Chicago born and bred?
I grew up in Indianapolis, stayed there through high school. Went to Cincinnati for college and lived there for 15 years. I guess at one time Cincinnati was a really big brewing center. When I got there in 1970 there were four local breweries. My college buddies and I would go down and pick up our kegs for parties. I think that was the beginning of my awareness of breweries.
While in Cincinnati, I got the bug and started homebrewing in 1985. There wasn’t much information then. We had this weird little shop that was a bottle shop and wine shop. There was this big goofy guy, Homer, and his mom, but they had some homebrew supplies in there.
We ordered a kit from the mail and the first couple batches tasted like shit. Just wretched. We figured out that maybe the packet of old yeast melted together into something like Turkish taffy stuck to the top of the rusting, bulging can of malt extract might be the problem. We eventually got fresh yeast. By batch seven or eight we went all grain. The Cincinnati library had a great selection of technical brewing books. I started mining that stuff for information. We brewed 50 batches that first year and a half.
What are your thoughts on all the beer rating sites? Are they good or bad for the brewing industry?
I’m not a fan of numerical ratings. As an artist, a commercial designer, graphic designer, creative director, or whatever, the idea that you take everything that goes into a bourbon, wine or beer and just say that’s a 91... like what the fuck? It’s absurd on the face of it. I understand why people want those numbers. Wine got so complex. In order to cut through Burgundy, Bordeaux, or California wine, there’s just too many things coming and going each year. So people were like, just give me something. Now beer is getting like that. You go over to Binny’s and there’s something like 4,000 beers on the shelf. I used to be the guy who knew it all. But nobody can do that anymore so you fall back to the ratings.
Do you always need the top rated thing? That’s the symptom of a corrupt culture in some ways. All this talk about whales and trading. It ceases to have value for what it was intended and now it has value as some kind of object of lust and prestige that is really separated from what the actual stuff in there is. The beer itself is very much secondary. It’s like trading Pokémon cards.
That’s one thing about beer that it always has prided itself on, being down to earth. I’m happy there are crazy beers; I’ve been pushing that for years. In some small way I may be responsible for that.
How does your background as a graphic artist help you visualize these flavors into a picture?
For me, this is some of the most fun work that I do. I struggle with these things too, but when you put it on a page it kind of jumps into focus. It points out things that maybe you hadn’t thought about.
When it comes to beer and food you’re always looking for harmony. Find things in beer and food that go together well because they relate to one another somehow. Some things relate to each other because they’re the same. So citrusy hops, put it with key lime pie, they’re basically the same chemicals. There are also things that have affinities even though they're not the same — they are chemically different but they go together. It's all about flavor compounds.
What else can you tell us about flavor and how we perceive it?
The first place the signals from your tongue go to is your brain stem. Sea Slugs have brain stems — it’s the most primitive part of the brain. It controls respiration and heart beat, yet the brain stems decides if you like it or not. It’s the lowest possible level of mental activity which is really amazing to me.
Then aromas are processed through these emotional centers. There have been tests using perfect strawberries. If you put a perfectly ripe strawberry on both a white and black plate, your brain will tell you the white plate strawberry is sweeter. Same with round and square plates. To your brain, round equals sweet.
Forbidden Root opened last month and has some beers with very unique flavors, what can you tell us about the beers at Forbidden Root.
You've got to figure out a way to keep your traditions but move them forward. With Forbidden Root, we’re trying to do things that are inspired by this great tradition of botanic inspired brewing which include things like root beer and ginger ale. But we’re not trying to make historic beers. We’re trying to make modern beers.
When using all these unique ingredients have you ever had a batch that just didn't work out the way you expected it to?
If you can't afford to dump beer, you should get out of the business. We have had no qualms about dumping stuff. You can never be so desperate that if we don't sell this one batch, we are out of business. You're really on the edge there. You need to be quality minded. You should never brew beer you are not super proud of. What's the point?
How do you think American craft beer has influenced things across the globe?
It's interesting because we, being a former colony, even 300 years later, still have this sense that Europe is better somehow. There's this insecurity of our own value, about our own ability to produce great things. It's going away though, and I've even seen in my lifetime a change there. It used to be, you want to go to a good restaurant? You have to go to a French restaurant. You want good beer? You have to buy an import.
That was Heineken's whole strategy. Pay an extra buck, you can stand at a bar and you'll know you won't look like a total loser. Back then people were not capable of making that decision. They'd rather put the extra buck down for European and wear that on their sleeve.
That strategy no longer works on white audiences. So Heineken has become more of a minority brand — a Latino brand, an African American brand — because those markets are where White audiences were 20, 30, 40 years ago. They're attempting to move up, but they're insecure about their own ability to make those choices and differentiate. So for them, that gives them that confidence. That's what those brands are all about.
That's Heineken's dilemma. There's a huge chunk of the market that's fallen away from them. That's why they're buying breweries like Lagunitas. They're trying to get their mojo back. They know that their original brand will probably never be in the US what it was at one time. People just don't care anymore, it's not that great a beer. And now it's like, oh you're from Europe? Big deal.
That’s been a great thrill over the past decade or so. To see how much craft beer in the US has influence around the world. I do a lot of work in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico doing a lot of judging and beer festivals. They're so fired up, it’s really cool to see. Even traditional places like Germany and England look to what's happening in the US. The only place that doesn’t seem to care is Belgium.
With over 4,000 breweries in the US now, it cannot possibly all be good. What's your impression on how the market will evolve?
I think it's the same as it always has been. Quality in brewing is always really hard. The smaller you are, the harder it is. I hear stories from Michael Roper here, who has people coming in every week saying that he should support them because they're local. His response is "No, no, no. I'll support you if you are good, and if you are local I'll be extra supportive." High profile places like this are gatekeepers. They are curators of quality. People come here because they know there's no shit here. It's all really good beer.
For me, what is just as terrible as bad beer is uninteresting beer. If you want to start a brewery, and make an IPA, you've got two ways you can do it. One, you can compete with Lagunitas, which is damn difficult. Or you can be the "new" guy, but obviously that's a short term solution, because next month there is another new guy. I think people who are starting breweries, and are like "we are just makin' IPAs," ... I dunno.
There is certainly bigger and bigger demand for IPAs, but the way I see it, the demand for them is coming from the broader segment from outside of the inner circle that has always driven craft. That's why breweries like Lagunitas and Ballast Point are being bought by larger entities because they see it as an opportunity to move craft beer further out from the center. There's just much more volume out there.
When you get out onto that area, it's less driven by knowledge, and more driven by what's convenient. Those brands start to be a little more interchangeable. What that means to bar owners is they can start to play one against the other. They start to have customers who just say "Give me an IPA." Like they used to say "Give me a Beer."
Once it becomes generic like that, you have to be like Firestone Walker or Ballast Point, and just make superb beer. Or you have to have a lot of scale and muscle and work the market pretty aggressively. Lagunitas, I would say falls into that category. Their beers are ok, but I don't think they're Firestone Walker either, in terms of the pure elegance and loveliness of them.
How do you feel about these wave of buyouts?
I dunno, it's just business. It's inevitable. I think the Goose Island one is a good example because John Hall has been an absolutely stellar example of how to be a great guy, support the industry, and treat people well. He was always straight up. He's been personally helpful for myself and a lot of other people I know. Helpful to the club, helpful to the industry, helpful to other people getting started. So everyone loves John. He's a fabulous guy.
For John, he retired early to start Goose Island. This was never going to be his life's work. It was just something he got interested in and wanted to pursue. I think there were things that he didn't really have much interest in doing, and Greg [Hall] certainly didn't either.
So there wasn't really anyone there to do the marketing or the sales stuff. It just wasn't how they wanted to spend their time. They got another company involved to help with that, and then AB started coming around and getting interested. They offered them this opportunity to plug into their enormous network of distribution, which is this huge, huge thing.
Then they were at the point when they needed, 20, 30, 40 million dollars to make that next jump. We're at that point right now at 5 Rabbit. We're trying to get about a million bucks in there to buy some new equipment. It's a little baby step, but when you get to the point where you need tens of millions of dollars, that's not friends and family money.
Now the people lending you that money are going to want control. I know John Hall hired people to go out and look for venture money, and the venture guys were like, "Yeah we will buy the company," but they wanted to buy it, period. At least AB offered Jim and Greg the opportunity to stay on for five years, and as long as things are going well you can keep everyone in place, and we will not try and mess around with it.
So what about from a Chicago perspective? Anyone you could see being the next buy out?
Oh, I dunno. I'm not really a prognosticator. I'm not sure anyone here is big enough to go. Wouldn't that be some irony though, if a brewery called Revolution ended up being part of a giant corporation. By name alone they can't.
For the breweries you're involved with, what would be your impression if one of them were be approached with a buy out?
That's certainly not anything that's in the wings. We're pretty small for someone to take us on. I'm a minority partner in them — I own like 7.5%, so it certainly is not my call. I'm 64, I don't want to own that company for 30 years. At some point, I'm going to want to get out of there. We didn't start the company to pimp it up and get bought out. That was never the idea.
It's hard to say how I could feel. I'm not crazy about those big companies. They're not evil, they're just big companies. They can be pretty unimaginative. But they can be stifling to creativity too. They let a lot of other people do the hard work of coming up with new stuff and then swoop in and say, "Thanks, we'll take it from here."
Craft beer fans are loyal in the fact that they will get mad if you sell your brewery, but disloyal in that they will drink your beer, and that guy's beer, and the next guy’s beer. Do you it's unfair of them to voice that anger against someone who sells their brewery for a billion dollars?
Who wouldn't take a billion dollars? How can you say no to that? How the hell did they do that? That is the question everyone's asking. What the fuck? How can that brand, who is selling $14.00 six packs, how are they doing it?
On the one hand, it's important that people care where their stuff is coming from. I really think that if you let the big brewers, or any large company in any industry, have their way, they would squeeze out everybody.
Back when I started drinking, there were a handful of companies that owned the market. Everybody was making the same product. There was no creativity, no variety. It wasn't that the beer was bad, it was that it was all the same. It got to the point where it was so horrible, people had to start brewing it on their own. After 40 years of this, we now have this flourishing craft beer thing.
The big guys can't own half the sku's at Binny's, and they know that. That's their dilemma. If someone they buy can't be as large as Sierra Nevada within a year, it's not worth their bother. They have to find a different model to run their business. Finding breweries that are big enough, and take advantage of the national network and all the stuff they do well.
If you feel you don't like big corporations and want to support the local guy, by all means come along and do it. Get to know them. That's what's appealing with craft beer — we are knowable. They come to the brewery, they come to parties and meet the brewer, they can take the tour. You can't do that with the big guys.
You say in Tasting Beer, "Finally, bad information abounds a lot of bad information." What affect does that bad information have on the industry?
Honestly, I don't think it does that much harm. Sometimes bad information can have good outcomes. We have this phenomenon right now called "Farmhouse beer." You read Michael Jackson's book, and there's nothing about Farmhouse beer in there. I actually went back to the World Guide to Beer to look up Saison, to see what he said about them. Saisons now, that's a style. In that whole entire book there is one sentence that says, "In southern Belgium, some people call their blond beers Saisons." Period. That's it.
The whole concept of Farmhouse beer conjures up something so beautiful, so lovely, and so perfect for this moment in time. It's just a term that was born to be here right now, and it makes everybody happy. It's great creatively, artistically, and it's a great thing to rally around and make beers from. Everyone likes them, the brewers enjoy them, the customers enjoy them, but it's not history. It comes out of nothing.
If you think about what a brewery was a hundred years ago in Belgium, even a small brewery had 20 people working for them. You had brewers, a couple people who haul shit around and clean stuff up, a cooper and his assistant, a guy to manager the horses, drivers of the horses, people who take care of the horses, guys to do the fire for the boiler, women to feed the men and the wash, and people to sell. They weren't brewing on farms. There's no evidence of that. Sure, 500 years ago they were probably brewing on farms. Yet, today, Dupont considers itself a Farmhouse Brewery. It's not a farmhouse, it's a factory. A factory that's in the country.
This misunderstanding of history gives rise to artistic things that actually can be quite good. It's good to know the real story, and a lot of time the real story is more interesting than the made up one. As a practical matter, sometimes getting it wrong can be alright.
Regarding information in the beer world, you knew Michael Jackson really well. What is his legacy as far as the information that's out there today?
His legacy, really, is everything you see. This place, every craft brewery in the country, the Brewer's Association, The Great American Beer Festival... it all would not have happened the same way without Michael. He was the first guy to take beer seriously as a writer.
The story I heard, was he saw Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine. It's a very famous book, lots of pictures, lots of maps, really lavish coffee table book full of information. He thought he should do one on beer. It paid him a flat fee of fifteen grand to do that book. It's been translated into a dozen languages. He never made a nickel on any of those.
That book though was like sticking a finger in a socket. For me and my buddy who were brewing beer, there was no access to Belgian beer. So we were making beers only based on what we read about. Wit beers, Abby Dubbels and Tripels — the first beers of those styles I ever tasted were ones that we brewed. We were brewing to get access to those beers.
If you could only have one style of beer for the rest of your life where would you go?
I refuse to answer questions like that because for me it is all about the variety... but I do love wit beer. When I was doing a lot of my own homebrewing that was a huge deal for me. We've won multiple colors of medals with 5 Lizard, which is basically my homebrew recipe with a couple of twists.
I will say, if I was opening the Randy Mosher Brewing Company it would pretty much be all wheat beers. We do a lot of work with it at 5 Rabbit and make Sublime Ginger at Forbidden Root. I love wheat, it's a great ingredient.
If we were to go to Rogers Park today and go to your house, what's in your fridge?
There's always 5 Rabbit beer because I get it whenever I want it. There are some big bottles of Choco Fruit. We're working on a hot chocolate beer right now, or a Mexican chocolate beer kind of thing. It has a pronounceable symbol for a name. I dunno, it wasn't my decision, but it is going to be pretty awesome.
There's a bunch of IPAs that we had bought for one of the breweries to do a survey to see what was good out there, like Deschutes Fresh Squeezed, some Sculpin, some Firestone Walker, which is mostly gone. Also, some beers I picked up in St. Louis. I was over there in December and bought a few beers from 4 Hands and Urban Chestnut.
Also a few bottles of New Glarus Cherry. That's our breakfast beer when I get together with my Cincinnati college pals. We always have fruit beer for breakfast.
With your hands on so many different projects, how do you fit it all in?
It's fuckin' nuts. I'm involved with these two breweries, doing recipe stuff and team stuff. I do events and graphic design. I have several freestanding graphic design clients that I still do work for. I'm trying to get Tasting Beer revised and expanded. And I'm dealing with emails from guys like you!
Well, thank you!
I don't mean that negatively, just trying to figure out what the events are, what the next trip will be. I'm trying to work out a trip to Spain for the Barcelona beer fest and talk about my new book. It's a great life, I won't kid you. It's a great thing to be doing, I'm the luckiest guy on earth.
Photography by Robert Battista.
A big thank you to Randy for finding the time to fit us into his crazy schedule and share his wisdom over a few pints. Also, thanks goes out to Hopleaf for being a gracious host and always having one of the best tap lists in the city.