(Re)finding a sense of place when writing about breweries

Photo by Will Siss

I recently wrote a brewery profile that was rushed and unpolished. It wasn’t so much written as it was created from notes and observations. The writing was flabby, the descriptions of the brewery basic, and the tone distant. It wasn’t the brewery’s fault at all. I believe the profile simply showed that I am off my game and out of touch with what I remembered to be vivid writing.

I had an excellent excuse for my poor concentration during my time at the brewery, where I was supposed to be soaking in the details and engaging my subject, the brewery’s co-owner: I was expecting my second child and my mind was on the thousands of scenarios for which I’d failed to prepare. In fact, I churned my notes and poorly reconstructed details into a column and turned it in just after my daughter was born about six weeks early. She’s fine.

But this was not the start of my slide away from sharp writing. To be honest, it started years ago.

So now that I’m on a paternity leave, so to speak, from the column, I’ve been thirsty for writing that captures a sense of place when it comes to breweries and other beer-related places (or in contemporary parlance: “spaces”).

I started the way bleary-eyed parents of newborns start when looking for inspiration: a Google search. In my case it was “tips on writing about place,” which led me to this helpful blog post from davehood59, called How to Write Creative Fiction: Writing About Place. Much of it was reminder stuff: I have been writing about beer for 17 years and for newspapers since 1995. But it was meaningful to consider such takes as:

Some creative nonfiction writers view place as character. In recreating the scene or experience, the writer views place as a character in the story. Similar to developing a character, the place needs to be developed.

I looked back at my profile of the new brewery and saw that it lacked in all the ways I was embarrassed to admit. You could barely tell what it looked like, the language was vague and impersonal, and it seems to have been written by a security camera stuck on the wall instead of a person.

Newly energized, I started poking around an unparalleled source for evocative beer writing: Good Beer Hunting. I happened upon the site’s Style Guide and a recommendation from the site itself for strong writing brought me to Claire Bullen’s profile of The Kernel, a well-respected London brewery. Bullen rang all the bells I look for in writing that transports and it elucidates. I didn’t so much see the brewery as felt it (and certainly heard it). Among her masterclass paragraphs is her lede:

Beyond the water sluicing across the floor and into the drains, beyond the gentle whump of spent grain as it’s shoveled into steaming bins, beyond the chirps and clinks of the bottling line, The Kernel is defined by a singular sound.

Every few minutes, a train rumbles by above our heads, its deep percussion overtaking the symphony of background noises. It’s disorienting at first, but the steady cha-chunk, cha-chunk soon becomes as regular and reliable as a heartbeat.

I took comfort and inspiration in David Nilsen’s descriptions of Nordic drinking, in his Pellicle article, “Beer in the Land of Ice and Fire — Finding Comfort Amid a Storm in Reykjavik, Iceland.”

Down a side street just off a hip artery running through one of the city’s nightlife districts lies Kaldi. The bar’s low lighting glowed through the steamed-up windows as we slogged through the stinging rain and snow, and we took a small table by the window with tall tulips of Ægir Brugghús Ljóska Belgian Blond Ale in hand. It’s a lovely beer with expressive but refined Belgian yeast character, soft pale malt, and a kiss of warming alcohol at 8.7%. The rain lashed the window just inches from our faces, but at long last, we were warm. 

Just a few words thoughtfully placed, probably agonized over, but seemingly effortless.

So to get out of my writing slump, I’m going to read (around feedings) more great writers who help the reader experience place, especially breweries. I’ll take any and all recommendations.

The podcast-column connection

I had a chance to sit with Bryan Roth of the North American Guild of Beer Writers to talk about how podcasting is an extension of newspaper column. You can get to the point in writing in ways you can’t with a podcast, and you can go wider and explore more territory in a podcast episode than you can in a column. Hope you enjoy the talk:

Meeting the historian

Author Gregg Smith, photo courtesy of Brewers Publications

When I started my podcast, It Starts With Beer, I figured I’d be doing a lot of solo commentary, and get lucky if I could convince someone to sit in with me for an interview. As it’s turned out, the vast majority of my episodes are interview-based, and I plan to keep it that way. But I had this idea recently to simply do a “book review” of Beer In America (1998, Brewers Publications) by Gregg Smith. I was nearly done with it, and it sounded like the sort of audio piece I could get creative with.

But then I heard that voice I’d been hearing since high school: why not go to the source? I remember the thrill when I was probably a sophomore and calling up a local newspaper to talk to the writer an article that we were reading in class. He was kind of confused, but then got really into explaining what he meant about… whatever it was. My teacher was proud of me and every single one of the other students thought I was a dork for doing that, and then thinking it was worth discussing in class.

So , I got the idea: why not go to the source and interview Gregg Smith himself? It was actually quite easily done, and he gave me some homework to do before our interview. He’s written a much more recent, independently published book American Beer History (2019). So I downloaded that one and it was amazing. So thorough!

About two weeks later, I called his Idaho home and we had a great conversation. He was incredibly prepared, and I had so little editing to do. You could tell that he loves and is passionate about beer history, and not just the big breweries either. He paints a picture of what life is like for the drinkers and brewers of beer throughout U.S. history. You can hear my interview in episode 27.

Why review beers?

Brewheads wide shot
Big Mike, Brando, and Clinton of Brewheads Entertainment.

I’ve had a love/dislike relationship with beer reviews over the past 15 years or so. I used to love them and rely on them. I didn’t know a stout from a porter or an IPA from a pale ale. I didn’t know what a saison was. Reviews let me know what to expect.

I go so into reviews that I started writing my own, but even by then I knew it could be a monotonous process. Even at best, reviews simply broke down what one reviewer considered noticeable about the color, smell, flavor, texture.

Rating beers on their style was interesting at first, too, and I combed through BJCP guidelines to hold brewers accountable. Was this too boozy tasting to be a brown ale? Is the color off on this amber? If the ABV says 8%, is it really an imperial? It got boring.

As you can see on the sidebar, I got really into writing similes for UnTappd, because did we really need another review that said: “Nice cloudy head, pineapple nose, dry on the…” Oof.

The men of Brewheads — the trio Brando, Big Mike, and Clinton — stay true to the beer review in their YouTube videos. They’re silly, but at least edited. After watching clip after clip, you get their rhythm and feel like you know them. Luckily, I got to know them better in an interview for “It Starts With Beer.” Episode 20 is a lot of fun, so check it out. You can view it on my new Podbean podcast webpage.

Witchdoctor’s musical brewer

josh norris Witchdoctor

Josh Norris brings a creative mind to Witchdoctor Brewing in Southington, Conn. Trained as an engineer and a skilled musician, Josh spoke in Episode 17 of “It Starts With Beer” about how his recipes straddle the line between wild and traditional.

A native of smalltown Ohio, Josh moved to Connecticut to pursue his mechanical engineering career. Disappointed along the way, he leaned more into his small-batch homebrewing experience and decided that a brick building in Southington would be where Witchdoctor would find its home.

He’s since created such beers as Bunny Patch Strawberry Malt-Shake New England IPA, Cocoa for Peanuts amber ale, and a gose I can’t get out of my mind.

Enjoy our interview, along with others from the podcast here.



Podcasting to keep connected

They say you need to keep busy if you can while staying home during this COVID-19 outbreak, so I’ve turned to podcasting to create, inform, and connect with people. It’s turned out to be a timely venture, as my main writing outlet at my local newspaper has been placed on hiatus.

Nine weeks ago, I was welcoming my first child into the world. While I was doting on her and learning how to calm and swaddle, everything outside our bubble started to fall apart. It wasn’t long after we were out of the hospital that rules for visiting hospitals got much stricter. We needed to cancel visits from family and friends, and the territory that included my child, my wife, and my 3-year-old mutt closed off.

For the first two weeks I was so tired I couldn’t have formed a proper sentence, much less conducted an interview. But as my body and mind got used to the shocks of new parenthood, I grew restless. I penned what would turn out to be my last column for the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American for the foreseeable future — a financial piece about Connecticut breweries and their new ability to deliver door-to-door — thus putting a pause on a 15-year run. It was done for financial reasons, and I hope the paper can return to a stronger position soon. I bear no ill will.

I’d started my podcast, “It Starts With Beer,” back in January, starting with a few monologues and basically feeling my way in the dark. I had an audio interface from Christmas that was meant for home recording of music, but I figured out how to use it for podcasting.

By turning my podcast into an outlet for breweries to talk about how they were dealing with the coronavirus-related business slowdowns, I felt like I was performing a bit of a public service. I’ve broadened my conversations to include writers and an accountant and as of today I’ve got episode 17 almost ready to go. It’s become such a welcome chance for me to speak with people about a topic that isn’t germs, viruses, or politics (or, for that matter, feeding times and baby development).

I am incredibly privileged to find myself in a safe home with a job that allows me to work here and a family that doesn’t mind if I have high-volume conversations in the study.  I hope to return to writing, too, right here at beersnobwrites.com, even if it won’t see life in glorious ink and paper. If you’ve read this far: thank you and I wish you safety and fulfilling connection.

Beer gets spirited

Brandon Collins of Continuum Distilling.

Spirits, as the name suggests, evoke the magical, intangible and ethereal. 

I’ve never spent a lot of time in the lands of whiskey, rum, or gin, mostly because they send me to a magical place a little too quickly for my equilibrium. 

However, when I heard that a new distillery was opening in Waterbury that extracts alcohol from slushy beer runoff from other breweries, I was intrigued. 

Continuum Distilling has the vibe of a brewery, and it even smells like one. Tucked away just a few doors down from Brass Works Brewing in an industrial park on Thomaston Avenue, it’s got a nice little tasting room with a bar made partly from barrel staves, while the back is filled with containers of viscous liquid. 

There are racks of small casks, rows of blue 55-gallon drums, and a bevy of 275-gallon totes that hold a soupy elixir: semi-solid beer remnants reclaimed from brewery fermenters. Owner and head distiller Brandon Collins has added sugar to keep it fermenting, and it’s destined to become rum and two spirits so new that Collins had to invent names for them: Drops, for beers made with IPAs, and Charred, from maltier beers.

A few feet away, where the fermenters would be if this were a brewery, were two conic pot stills, which turn the sludge into distillates. The beer byproduct is placed in the stripping still, heated 110 gallons at a time until vapor rises through a copper column and mixes with cold water to become alcohol, one drop at a time. After another run through the spirits still, you get a nearly colorless liquid, and the best of that gets aged in casks that have charred black birch and white oak staves, from trees downed in a storm. 

It was the slurry that sat in those giant white totes that all this fuss was about, and Collins, a 41-year-old chemist from Tennessee, walked me through it.

Continuum takes the “trimmings” that brewers usually throw out: the goo that doesn’t make it to the brite tank but still has residual sugars, hops and yeast. 

“There’s a lot of alcohol in there,” he said. “Cloudy, murky liquid with a ton of flavor.”

It’s that flavor that comes from craft beer that makes his product special, he said.

“Upfront it’s a sustainable process,” Collins said. “But what’s exciting for me is the flavor you will get. It’s a finished beer. If I wanted to do this from scratch, it would be astronomical. Plus, a traditional spirit is using a base grain. It might be good, but it’s straightforward: corn, barley, rye. But we have roasted chocolate malts, flaked oats, all these awesome malt bills and impart a lot of flavor.”


The beer run-off comes from seven local breweries currently, but most comes from Oxford’s Black Hog Brewing, whose owners are also partners in the Continuum venture.

It was while working as an intern at Black Hog after being laid off by a major pharmaceutical company that Collins had his brainstorm about collecting and using other breweries’ beer slush for spirits. 

“I was working the canning line and I could see how the bottom of the fermenter runoff was not being utilized,” Collins said. “I thought I had an idea. I went to them and started putting plans together.”

Black Hog co-owner Jason Sobocinski said that when he sampled Collins’ mason jar moonshine over two years ago, he was surprised to hear that its origins were from Black Hog’s beers. “This was amazing stuff,” Sobocinski said. “He asked, ‘So how do I do this?’ And here we are.”

Collins said he did a test batch at Litchfield Distillery in Litchfield in January of 2018, and a year later, while navigating the licensing needed to open his business, worked with Westford Hills Distillers in Ashford.

Opening a distillery in Waterbury was not his first choice; he would have preferred to be closer to Black Hog, but the options didn’t pan out. 

As it turned out, though, Collins and Black Hog were happy to spread into new territory, and being next to Brass Works has its perks as well. They two businesses are already sharing ingredients and making drinks together, and plan to share food trucks, and of course, customers.

I had a chance to taste their three bottled offerings, and I’d say the beer plays a significant role in all of them. 

Their ContinuRum is made with molasses, not beer run-off. However, it does use repitched yeast from Black Hog’s Granola Brown. I found it pleasant and smooth.

With Drops, I certainly got a tropical nose from the IPA. Collins said it’s close to gin, but without the juniper taste. What shines is the hops, and this batch came from three Black Hog IPAs: Ginga Ninja, Hog Water, and Piglet. It’s tingly in your mouth, and the bitterness is smoothed over at the end by sweetness. 

Charred, which comes from the runnings of maltier fare like stouts and porters, is known unofficially as “beer whiskey.” Batches 001 and 002 are made from Black Hog’s Milk Stout during pilot mode, and clock in at 96 proof. Lactose does not ferment out in the brewing process and it’s present in the flavor.

You can check out the distillery yourself this weekend at their grand opening. They offer $10 tastings and tours and buy bottles of their spirits. Starting in July, their license will allow them to serve beer as well.

Until next time, sip well.

Listen to a podcast episode on Continuum Distilling at itstartswithbeer.podbean.com/e/ep-5-continuum-distillery/.


Continuum Distilling

2066 Thomaston Ave., Waterbury

(203) 232-5037


It Starts With Beer – Ep. 2

I’m back!

In this episode, it starts with Greek beer, rambles into Brooklyn, and lands on what the terroir of Connecticut might be.

Referenced in this ep:

Mythos Hellenic Lager

Yiayias of Torrington, Connecticut

Music: “A Little Sympathy,” composed and performed by Will Siss and “Don’t Be Angry” by the Konstantinos Bouzouki Orchestra