Get Outta Town: Ben Keene Discusses His Great Northeast Brewery Tour

Ben Keene’s book “The Great Northeast Brewery Tour” recently hit stands. Fittingly, we caught up with him at Jimmy’s No. 43 to learn about his inspiration and favorite breweries.

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Credit: Facebook / The Great Northeast Brewery Tour

After an appearance on Jimmy Carbone’s Beer Sessions Radio on January 14, Ben Keene left Heritage Radio Network‘s always-crammed studio at Roberta’s in Bushwick and hiked — the subway is between-borough hiking, basically — to the East Village.

This was protocol for Keene, though, whose first book was Best Hikes Near New York City.

His newest book, The Great Northeast Brewery Tour, was just released, so we chatted and pint-consumed, coincidentally, at Jimmy’s No. 43 — a bar owned by Carbone.

[Interview Beer: Other Half Brewing‘s Motueka Pale Ale]

Niko Krommydas: A lot of Jimmy today.

Ben Keene: [Laughs] Yep. It was fun, though. You have like nine people sitting in a small room, chatting about beer. It’s cool.

NK: When did you start writing the new book?

BK: About two years ago. I studied anthropology in college and traveled a lot, and other people and cultures always interested me. Beer just seems to fit into that. The energy and creativity is really exciting, particularly in the Northeast. Until recently, New York only had Chelsea Brewing [Company] and Brooklyn Brewery, but now, the options seem endless. I don’t like labeling it a renaissance, but that works. So yeah, I started the book at Greenport Harbor [Brewing Company] and went from there.

NK: What was your goal?

BK: I really tried to show a snapshot of the region, for people who aren’t particularly knowledgeable about beer. I also wanted to do a very visual book, to show people not only breweries and their beers, but also food and the surrounding landscapes. Beer seems to plug into the local food movement nicely, and people want to have the same relationship with their brewer as they do with their cheesemaker or baker. Anyway, it’s something more inviting than your typical beer book, which attempts to be encyclopedic. I guess it’s a touring book, with the theme of beer. I covered 62 places, so it’s not exhaustive, but they’re all vastly different.

NK: Which breweries were your favorites to visit?

BK: I really loved going to Oxbow [Brewing Company] in Newcastle, Maine. It’s almost midway up the state, and it’s surrounded by pine forest. You’re in the middle of the woods, and you wouldn’t really think you would stumble on great beer in a little barn. I wanted to hang there all day, though. It felt so comfortable. Hopshire Farm & Brewery in Freeville, New York, was also cool. They built the brewery to resemble a hop house from the 19th century. The owner also planted hops and wants to add fruit trees — he’s turning it into a farm. He wants to reclaim that part of history for New York. I don’t think people realize that New York had that.

NK: You’re a hiking guide, too, right? Did that influence how you structured the book?

BK: It definitely had an influence. There’s a big outdoor component to the book, so in addition to introducing people to each of these breweries, I give a recommendation on somewhere to stay that’s not too far, and ideas for activities. I was thinking that, if you’re going to travel somewhere, you might want to do something else other than drink beer all day. Probably half of these chapters have my tips on a nearby place to go hiking, ziplining, boating or skiing. There are so many awesome parks and rivers and mountains, so hopefully I inspire people to explore beer, but then those things, too.

NK: What’s special about the Northeast?

BK: Beer has such a deep connection to American history, especially in the Northeast. Some of the first colonists landed here, and in almost every case, whether Dutch or English, they made beer as soon as they possibly could. There also seems to be this big connection with local food in the region. A significant percentage of the brewers in this book are really interested in working with local agriculture, whether grains or hops, and I think we’ll see more of it. I don’t know how comfortable I feel about using the term “beeroir,” but brewers are trying to instill a sense of place with their beer. Again, it’s that history. People were pretty creative in the 17th and 18th century when they had to rely heavily on imported malts and hops, and sometimes had to brew with spruce tips, corn, molasses and local pumpkins. Craft brewers are doing these same things now, but in a much more sophisticated and thoughtful way. It’s a special thing.

The Great Northeast Brewery Tour is available now from Voyageur Press.

Featured photo credit: Facebook / The Great Northeast Brewery Tour

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Niko Krommydas has written for Tasting Table, BeerAdvocate, Munchies, and First We Feast. He is editor of Craft Beer New York, an app for the iPhone, and a columnist for Yankee Brew News. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.