Some people know where they are going early on. Take Christian DeBenedetti. He graduated college, received a fellowship and did the logical thing: He used the fellowship to study traditional beer-making in Europe and West Africa. He was then mentored by legendary British beer writer Michael Jackson.
Now DeBenedetti is a respected beer journalist with his first book, The Great American Ale Trail.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Why did you pick West Africa to study beer making?
Christian DeBenedetti: West Africa is a place that subsists with millet and sorghum, two grains that are hearty enough to grow in its dry-as-hell climate. I had friends there working in the Peace Corps who could introduce me to village brewers who were making beer somewhat along the lines of beer that was made in Mesopotamia. I had a chance to venture into villages and learn about beer-making in a way that really hasn't changed in thousands of years. It was absolutely fascinating.
LRK: What if you had a couple of pals and they said to you, "We want to taste really good beer, but we'd like to have a bit of an adventure. We want to go to some of the unusual places off the beaten track."
CDB: Pick a map, throw a dart in it, and make your travel plans, because beer culture is alive and well everywhere. One of the first places I would like to mention is Alaska. It's not easy to get to Alaska, but in mid-January, there is a huge beer and barley wine festival that brings together all the brewers of Alaska and the beer fans. They taste these amazing beers that they make for each other and for their fans. Despite the fact that it's 15 degrees below 0, it's a great time. Then travel to Juneau, where the Alaskan Brewing Company was founded in 1986 by a couple of home-brewing friends who later married and now have the 12th-largest brewery in the country.
LRK: What kinds of beer do they make?
CDB: They're famous for several different styles. Alaskan Amber is kind of the flagship, but one of the interesting beers that they're making up there is based on ships’ logs from Captain Cook. Cook came to shore to harvest spruce tips when he was sailing up and down the western United States. He made beer with the spruce tips. Their winter beer is made in this way and it's absolutely delicious; it really reflects the place that it comes from, which is to me a hallmark of the great beer we have in the country now. It's all about the place.
LRK: What would be the next place you'd want us to go?
CDB: Against all odds, Los Angeles has become a great craft beer center now. In Pasadena, there is a brewer named Mark Jilg from Craftsman Brewing Company whose stories are pretty amazing. He was a NASA jet propulsion laboratory scientist who discovered his love for beer, and he's really one of the groundbreakers who are changing the way people think about beer. So I would head to sunny L.A. when it's cold out and visit some of the amazing beer bars that are opening up now.
LRK: What's so different about his beer?
CDB: Mark's beer is very adventurous in that he is using ingredients that most brewers would be afraid to put in their beer, like white sage and wild yeast called Brettanomyces. That is in the vein of any winemaker, but brewers are putting in wild yeast, which brings really earthy, interesting flavor dimensions to beer. Not all of his beers reflect that, but certainly some of the most adventurous ones.
LRK: You've mentioned some people on the West Coast. Anybody on the other side of the country?
CDB: Shaun Hill is an eighth-generation Vermonter working in the center of the state on a farmstead where his family has been for generations. He's one of the young brewers who is poised to become the next big thing. He is adventurous -- he'll try any style -- and he's got mentors in some of the best brewmasters in the world who have come over from Europe to mentor him. His operation is growing.
LRK: What might I taste if I could find him and could sit down with him?
CDB: I recommend that you do find him, or at least his beer. You can find it in parts of the Northeast. Some of his beers are made with local honey, so you might taste dryness. You might taste wheat from unmalted wheat. You might taste a peppery yeast strain. Some of these things are common with Belgian beers, but they are also taking on a new life of their own here in this country. You may also even taste the effect of oak from wine barrels, which are used to age the beer; they lend some fine tannins and some fine acids to balance out the beers.
LRK: It’s really unusual to age beer, and to age it in wine barrels.
CDB: It is, but it's becoming more common. In a way, it's really a throwback to the way all beer was before stainless steel and before we had these fancy, shiny breweries everywhere. Wood barrels were the vessel for aging beer. They work well, but they do foster some benign bacteria. The bacteria is completely fine to ingest, but it does lend the beer almost wine-like characteristics -- some acids that beers fermented in an ordinary steel do not have.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.