Writing About Beer: Almost as Good as Drinking It

By Bob Townsend

I’ve been writing about beer for a daily newspaper for 15 years, or so. It’s a really good gig. Though when people find out what I do, they almost always feel compelled to react in some way.

Sometimes, they’re just surprised. Sometimes, they snicker like they’ve been let in on a naughty secret. Or they raise an eyebrow and tell me they only drink wine. Mostly they wonder how it happened.   

The truth is, I really don’t know, except to say I was born into it.   

I grew up in rural northeastern Ohio, among an extended family of farmers and factory workers. Besides animals, machines and hard human labor, life revolved around the union hall, the Grange hall, the Methodist church and the beer joint.

From an early age, I was fascinated by the Bugler’s Inn, where my father and grandfather would drink at the bar, hoisting heavy-stemmed, bowl-shaped chalices of lager they ordered up with two magic words, “Big Beer.”    

We usually stopped at Bugler’s on the way home after a Saturday morning trip to the feed store or when some other errand was done. My father would pull his pickup into the parking lot and say, “Don’t tell your mother.”

Then we’d slip through the back door, and I’d sit beside him on a bar stool, drinking a 7-Up and marveling at the strange glow-in-the-dark colors and floating shapes in jars of pickled eggs and Polish sausage, while regulars like “Fat Bastard” and “Florida Fisherman” bullshitted and shook salt in their beer to make it bloom with bubbles.

Sometime, long before Jimmy Carter made it legal, my father started brewing in the basement, boiling in a kettle he rigged near the furnace, and fermenting in hefty crocks stashed under his workbench. When it came time to bottle, he’d let me operate the capper.

Inevitably, some of the bottles would be over-carbonated and suddenly explode, much to the chagrin of my mother, and the delight of my younger brother, especially when it happened like fireworks in the middle of the night.

In the ’70s, my family sold the farm and moved to Florida. I graduated from Florida State, dropped out of law school, and moved to Atlanta.

None of my good friends from Florida and Georgia would consider me a Southerner. But I love it here. And it’s been a delight to be involved in the food and drink scene, while chronicling all the growth and change.

Obviously, craft beer is booming everywhere. And though it lagged behind other regions for a long time, the South is catching up fast.

From New Orleans to Nashville and Asheville to Tampa, new breweries are sprouting quick as kudzu, and beers with Southern flavors are becoming a part of the culinary culture.   

I’ll be getting into all that and more, with eye to the unusual and exceptional, and in the words of my friend from Tallahassee, Diane Roberts, I hope to “make the familiar strange.”