The dotcom bubble busted disastrously, but craft beer remains one of the nation's fastest growing industries. In 2000, Joe Tucker foresaw this future. Having lost his job as the "consumer usability" director at ComedyWorld.com when the San Francisco company folded, he promptly picked up another; he bought a small website just months old called RateBeer.com that was floundering under poor management. It was surely another dotcom headed for its grave.
But Tucker, who lives near Santa Rosa, brought it back to life. A beer fan as much as a tech whiz, he altered several major interface components, creating chat forums and streamlining the processes involved in reading reviews, becoming a member and rating beer. Tucker built a community, and in the years since then the 1,000-member club has exploded into a quasi-social phenomenon of worldwide acclaim, boasting top-of-the-list Google search returns and members who chat online, rate beers with numeric scores and post the results publicly. Just google the name of a beer released a day prior, and RateBeerians worldwide will already be nerding out on its virtues and shortcomings.
I entered the world of beer geeks on an early May weekend at the 14th annual Boonville Beer Festival, during which I camped with the managers, founders and most eminent members of RateBeer.com. The festival, held in the heart of the Anderson Valley, features several dozen breweries and attracts more than 5,000 attendees each year. As the alcohol takes its effect on the masses at festival time, the police stake out the roadways with their radar guns a'blazing, and locals like to joke that the troopers "are going to balance the state's budget this weekend."
But RateBeerians don't drink and drive. They set up camp for two nights in the privileged company of more than 50 breweries and other friends in the trade, all of whom are hosted on the grassy premises of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. (Members of the general public camp at the nearby Boonville fairgrounds.) I traveled by bike from San Francisco and rolled through the gates of the brewery on Friday afternoon. In back among the oaks and the green grassy acres, I sought the RateBeer camp. Dozens of partiers were aggregating, staking tents and setting out kegs of brew beside trucks and vans emblazoned with logos of Bear Republic, Uncommon Brewers, Pizza Port and others.
A banner hanging from a sun tent marked the RateBeer station, where six men and women in their 30s and 40s lounged in lawn chairs or grazed over the fruit, chips and dips on the fold-out table. Beer from kegs and bottles was already flowing, and though the festival didn't begin until the next day, the pre-party had already begun.
As a journalist seeking to understand the ways of these people, my first order of business was to blend in—to discover the flavors and smells of their world. Naturally, I asked for a beer. Ken Weaver of Sebastopol, a RateBeer core member, pulled from his loaded cooler a bottle of Furthermore Brewing's beet and black pepper ale, one of many oddities to be tasted in the hours to come.
I asked head honcho Joe Tucker for an explanation of beer's powerful allure.
"Beer is a different way of looking at the world," he said. "It's about technology and science, putting together something that's interesting. And," he added with a lift of the eyebrows, "beer is intoxicating. We aren't too proud to admit that. We're attracted to high-alcohol beers—even the geeks. We like being high. It's OK to be drunk on beer, just not to overindulge."
This was good news, for I wanted some double digits. I returned to the picnic table and found some unfiltered "Fred" ale, at 10 percent ABV, from Hair of the Dog.
"I hate big beers," journalist Ashley Routson, aka the Beer Wench, told me from her seat in a lawn chair, explaining that moderation and balance are stronger attributes of a beer than its potency.
"Hate" is not a word used freely among beer lovers surrounded by craft brews, for beer geeks generally love beer. They live, pursue, study and worship beer. They have beer deities, often in the form of "hop gods." Beer geeks would breathe beer if they could, they taste it every chance they can, and they always, always smell it first.
"That's one of the best ways to distinguish a beer geek from a beer fan," said Joe's wife Jen Tucker, who sipped an ale in the grass. "They always smell their beer."
It's true. I never saw such a raucous bunch skanking to ska and neglecting to shave yet another day sniffing reverently from plastic cups. There was something heartening in this gentle act of thoughtfulness.
Though a recent trend has ushered thousands of halfheartedly dressed 35-year-old men in cargo shorts and flip-flops into a world of artisan cheeses, the current popularity of pairing cheese and beer seems to be a side project for most beer nerds, and at the end of the equation, everything else cancels out and leaves one thing remaining: beer. As for food, Cheez-Its do just fine.
RateBeerians are nearly mad. They have reviewed thousands upon thousands of beers. Mario Rubio, a Santa Rosa beer writer and editor of Hop Press, RateBeer's online periodical, has rated none. Neither has the Wench, who doesn't believe in reducing beer to numbers. But Ken Weaver has logged over 2,600 reviews. Joey Brown of Novato told me he has scored and posted 2,030. Still, that's nothing. A Danish RateBeerian who goes by the handle "Ungstrup" has rated just shy of 17,000 beers. Three other Danes have filed more than 14,000 reviews, and a Swede, almost 13,000.
Indeed, throughout the world, beer enthusiasts have taken to drinking at the keyboard. Jen told me that her husband receives fan mail from thankful women whose mates no longer drink at the pub. Instead, they log on, sip at the screen and chat with other RateBeerians about the brew at hand.
Ken, Jen, Mario, the Wench and I strolled through the brewers' campground. At the Marin Brewing station under an ancient oak, Arne Johnson opened a bottle of his new bourbon barrel-aged barleywine infected with brettanomyces. We tasted a sample of Uncommon Brewers' barleywine spiced with redwood tips, a 15 percent ABV so long awaited that it had become a legend even before its time.
More cars rolled in through the gates. Rumor had it that Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, a beer god if ever there was one, had arrived, and one exuberant geek came back to camp raving that he had just spoken at length with an older man named Ken from Sierra Nevada. It turned out to be another Ken with the company—a good guy, but no god.
At 7pm, the beer party began in earnest. Brewers and salesmen from other groups joined our camp—from New Belgium, Anderson Valley, Pizza Port and Dogfish Head. Holy bottles of oak-aged ales appeared from hidden coolers like treasures from buried arks. Corks popped, caps came off and rare beers poured like liquid gold as grateful recipients held cups aloft, awaiting just an ounce or two. Spirits soared, checked only by humility in the presence of greatness.
As a bottle of New Glarus raspberry sour went around, voices of reverence and awe thanked the provider. Anderson Valley's seven-year port barrel stout—one of just 150 bottles ever made—went all too fast. Boulevard Brewing's imperial pilsner elicited gasps. Joe told me that overwhelmed beer geeks may be brought to tears when a particularly special bottle is poured. How simple the world seemed that night, and for anyone whose life may be temporarily shrouded by gloom and darkness, despair and heartache, take solace in this: happiness can be found in bottles. I've seen it.
I awoke as the blue and gold shades of dawn smeared the sky. Smoldering campfires spewed trails of smoke that hung silently overhead, like plumes over a battlefield. Bottles half finished sat among a hundred empties. I tasted several, rode into town for coffee and returned to camp around 9am. The gang was up, stretching out lazily in the sun, and for breakfast we had oatmeal stouts, barleywines and other dense malty ales. By the time the Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout found its way to my glass, I had downed at least a pint of strong beer. So had all the geeks, and the festival was still two hours away.
Before 11am, we filled our cups with imperial stout, aged Christmas ale, spiced Belgian blonde and ginger mead. It was noon somewhere. We swirled, sniffed and sipped, and began the mile walk to the fairgrounds to do battle with the masses, to taste still more beer, to queue up in lines 50 long to receive four-ounce pours, to soak up the booze with burgers and burritos, and, at the end of it all, to walk back to camp in the sun and enjoy another night of special bottles, riotous reverie and yet more enjoyment of the world's finest flavors in one of the state's most beautiful valleys. That day, the whole world was a festival.
Along the roadside, halfway to the fairgrounds, one of the RateBeerians announced, "I'm already drunk!"
Who wasn't? Because, for beer geeks, intoxication is just a side effect of life.