18. How to Fall in Love with Beer Again, Oktoberfest(ish) Edition

How German and Belgian classics can ignite the spark; plus a shotgun challenge with rice lager.

Verliebe Dich Wieder in Bier

I’ve seen a lot of versions of the “how can I fall in love with beer again?” question floating around the greater beer community both online and irl. The fact that even the once most ardent beer enthusiasts are currently feeling a bit indifferent about the whole thing is hardly surprising. We’ve spent varying amounts of time holed up in our homes, if we’re lucky, demanding beer to be more entertaining than it’s ever had to be before. “Thrill me!” we cry at an eager assortment of cans that have just arrived from our delivery or shipping system of choice. “We’ll try,” your beer replies, “but we’re used to being a complement to the good times, not the entire source.

Again, if we were lucky, beer may have recently become more available than ever in terms of our daily lives, now that it can simply arrive on our doorsteps whenever and so is less about a big excursion to a taproom or beer bar. Time that with growing frustration over trend stagnation and over-saturation from various corners of the craft beer community—yes, we all know hazy double IPAs are tired; but Untappd apparently makes the rules now so until they don’t promise better sales numbers, we have to learn to live with them.

And time that with the past year and change’s slow-burn revelation that evils like racism and sexism lurk not so covertly in the craft beer scene. A scene that many prized as much for its big ol’ community-minded heart as its hop innovations. If you’ve spent years coddling craft beer for its kind spirit, recent events obviously have you questioning how you proceed. And, if you even want to.

So, if you do want to, how do you fall in love with beer again? Well, I think the more important part of that is embracing the people, breweries, organizations, and initiatives that are keeping the whole big heart thing alive. The ones tirelessly fighting for change, the ones who see the potential of this industry to demolish barriers of entry and start from scratch with diversity, equity, inclusion, representation, visibility, and safety woven into every move. From the Brave Noise collaboration and fund to The Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling to Beer Kulture, for example, there are so many people and movements in beer to be excited about, to make you love it again.

As far as the reason there is an industry and a community, though, in the first place? The actual liquid? There are definitely ways to find that spark again. I think one of the easiest roads back to that honeymoon phase is to revisit beautiful, traditional, time-honored styles that far predate exploding smoothie sours. Most people I talk to who are around my age or older came to non-mass-produced beer via Belgian imports, and then as craft beer exploded here in the States, many of us became almost permanently distracted by all things local and new. Reuniting with lambics and gueuzes and dubbels and tripels and saisons and grisettes…it brings all those excited new love feelings rushing back. The same can be said for German styles, and because it’s Oktoberfest and I’m personally more obsessed with German beers than maybe ever before, I’m looking back to when I started rediscovering them in the fall of 2019.

I haven’t done much of the press trip thing. It’s very complicated for me. First there’s my own social anxiety and impostor syndrome. Then, and aided by that impostor syndrome, there’s the fact that while I would never let any of this affect my actual work, I feel this sense of guilt accepting anything from a free beer to a free luxury trip when I’m not sure I can or will cover it. No amount of guilt could ever sway me into covering something I don’t organically see a story in, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it when interacting with a well-meaning brewery or PR agency. Additionally, even if I happen to actually see a story I want to write that maybe a press trip could help with, as a freelancer, I can’t promise an editor will want that story, too. So, most of the time, I decline. But one particular trip happened to both play into a story I wanted to write and be organized by an agency I actually had a good relationship with, so in September of 2019, I headed off to the Black Forest to get to know a high-end gin brand.

At this point, it had been a year and a half since my mom had died, so I anticipated no issues with searing sadness or breathtaking loneliness or anything of the sort while traveling in that weird solo-with-strangers capacity. But lol I was wrong! The trip was an embarrassment of riches. The hotel was a mammoth 18th-century destination for skiing, hiking, and spa-ing in Baiersbronn, across a tiny street from the famed and Michelin-starred Schwarzwaldstube. As I was shown to my room, essentially a luxury apartment that could fit two of my own Brooklyn home inside of it, I felt like I should have been having a very “first time Annie walks into Daddy Warbucks’ home” experience. But instead, my broken brain decided to go the “such intense emptiness uh oh is this a panic attack?” route.

As I’ve previously discussed here, I’m pretty okay on my own, and sometimes even like it. But left on my own with about eight hours until our group was all supposed to meet for dinner, in a foreign country, I felt alone in a way I never had before. After freshening up, I wanted to distract myself, and figured a walk to the nearby village would do it. Because, surely there was a nearby village, right…? I asked the front desk where I could walk to and what there was “to do,” and the concierge looked perplexed. “Uh…there is…a stream?” A stream! Oh, good. There’s no town, but surely staring at a stream will help me forget my current existential crisis. I returned to my room and had a full meltdown, without even being able to comprehend why. All I knew was that I wanted to call my mom.

I very much did not want to be a future tale publicists told, “the writer we flew first class to Germany only to hole herself in her room for three days,” and I knew I had to get my shit together. I wandered down to the bar, which was, super helpfully, completely empty and eerily silent. I got a seat by the wall-to-wall window overlooking miles and miles of the Black Forest, views you can’t even believe you’re really seeing. And I ordered a Kostritzer, mostly because I couldn’t concentrate on the menu and thought, huh, haven’t had that in a long time. And I sat and stared at the Black Forest, really just marveling at the fact that it existed, and sipped that roasty, bittersweet schwarzbier until I kind of felt myself actually return to my body. Suddenly, instead of obsessing over how strangely alone I felt and how I didn’t know what I was doing with my life and how much I missed my mom and how I was nervous to be around strangers for three days, I just luxuriated in being in this remote, stunning part of Germany, drinking this time-honored German beer, that absolutely tasted better in Germany.

After dinner, the group congregated back at that very bar, which was livelier now. There were no other beer writers there, and everyone set about ordering cocktails. I stuck to my Kostritzer, and it helped finally break the ice between perpetually awkward me and the other lovely, cool, talented, smart, personable humans on the trip. The next few days obviously revolved more around gin, but I took breaks with clean, crisp, rejuvenating lagers, realizing I’d never been more present than I was starting to feel on this adventure, savoring every aroma and every flavor of every German beer I was drinking among new—if temporary—German friends in a new-to-me German town.

It was technically Oktoberfest, but that felt a million miles away in the Black Forest—even if was actually only about 169 miles between Munich and Baiersbronn. In Baiersbronn and the surrounding towns we visited, the experience was so much quieter. It felt like a personal, intimate experience between me and whatever beer I drank. I had been drinking craft beer for about 12 years at this point, but I’d never felt so truly, fully in love with it. At one point, I took a solo half-day trip to Baden-Baden, and I sat at Löwenbräu sipping a dunkel and feeling like all was right in the world. What a departure from just a couple of days earlier (and also, of course, what a soon-to-expire feeling to have in late 2019!).

Only about six weeks later, I returned to Germany with my friend Jen, and I felt like a little kid heading down to Disney World. I could not wait to get back to those simple, pitch-perfect beers. In Munich, we drank dunkels and doppelbocks at old beer halls, and my Tegernseer Helles Lager obsession started at Fox Bar. In Heidelberg, we sipped bocks at Kulturbrauerei and I went back to Kostritzers at a sort of metal-vibed bar called Karl.

In the haze of the pandemic’s onset, I again got distracted. It was too easy to order big ol’ juice bombs from Tavour or whatever. But when I felt that milkshake IPA fatigue, I masked up and gloved up and went to St. Gambrinus Beer Shoppe to fill up on Belgian and German classics. And this fall, it has for some reason felt even more thrilling to remember that fall beer is much, much more than pumpkin brews. I’m happy to report that I’m firmly back in that honeymoon phase with beer.

Beer Tarot!

This week, I pulled the Knight of Wands.

Wands speak to intuition, communication, and travel. Our Knight of Wands is about speed and action, in particular.

Just by looking at this card, you get the “full speed ahead” vibe. Things are about to start moving. Decisions that either you’ve been struggling with or waiting for someone else to make, obstacles that had been blocking your path toward a goal or getting something done, news you’ve been eagerly awaiting: it’s all happening, baby. On the possibly less than positive side, you might find yourself being tested, and our Knight is telling you to stay strong and you’ll persevere—keep your eyes on that prize. More directly positive, though, is that this card could mean you’re moving, finding a new job, getting a promotion, making industry connections, and/or traveling. It specifically speaks to creative endeavors. This card is also telling you that you’ve got great ideas, but you can be impulsive and make snap decisions, so despite this forward momentum, make sure you’re thinking about things and making the right choices for you.

This might fly in the face of all that wise and thoughtful decision-making, but I can’t fight the urge to link this card with shotgunning a beer. It’s just all about the rush, the drive, the thrill, the speed. You’re feeling your badass self, you’re making moves, and you want to celebrate that pace. Well, this is the classic beer move to do that. Shotgunning means you’re not going to be enjoying flavors and aromas so much, so you can totally go ahead and do it with any mass-produced lager you want. If you did want to keep it craft, I’m thinking a rice lager would be light, crisp, and clean enough for this mission? Newsletter pal Hannah Kiem, host of Brews with Broads, recently documented some stellar rice lagers on Instagram, so follow her lead and try the Seoul Taco Seoul Lager from 4 Hands Brewing Company. Just, you know, get two so you can actually taste and enjoy one.

This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec

Do you need a little bright spot in your day? I loved this piece by the brilliant Robin LeBlanc, The Light Is Within Us, on her blog The Thirsty Wench. Robin confronts the fears and bleakness of the past year and a half, but reflects upon all of the good that has been bubbling up in spite of it all. The people who are starting conversations, making shit happen, and fighting for change. And the light at the end of the tunnel, however long the tunnel is, that all of those people are keeping ablaze for the craft beer industry.

A note that there will be no newsletter next week, as I will be drinking Chicagoan interpretations of German and Belgian beer styles in the Windy City. Until then, here is Darby at Strong Rope’s Red Hook taproom (I mean, how dreamy is this space?).