Q&A: Phil Farrell

In the January/February 2012 issue, writer Joshua Bernstein profiles beer geek Farrell, who has traversed the globe in the name of craft beer, all with his wife and bronzed rubber chicken by his side. Here, Farrell chats about the strangest beer he’s ever tasted, which brews he makes a beeline for at festivals, and the abandoned cans he found while stranded in the middle of the Pacific.

Imbibe: What’s the strangest beer you’ve ever tasted?
Phil Farrell: I’ve had some strange, wild brews around the world. Belgium has the biggest collection of micro-flora-inspired beers per square mile, but American craft brewers are experimenting at an unprecedented rate that impresses even the Belgians. I never get tired of sour beers aged in a second barrel with fruit added. As far as odd, I’ve sampled native chicha beer in Peru that uses enzymes in saliva from the brewer chewing the corn grist. But the all-time strangest beer for me was a homebrew I had at the AHA convention in Minneapolis in 2010. The beer was named “Coon Pecker Scruffy,” which described the active ingredient in each bottle of the dark ale. Let’s just say you got a raccoon anatomy lesson in every bottle.

Do you have a home-away-from-home brewery where you always feel welcome?
My local Atlanta breweries have some of the friendliest brewers in the world, and I could happily live out my life in the 404, especially at any of the three 5 Seasons. When I’m not traveling, I hit all the Atlanta and Athens breweries pretty hard. When I’m on the road, I have special places in San Francisco (21st Amendment), Portland (Hair of the Dog and Full Sail), Seattle (Elysian, Big Time, and Pike), San Diego (Lost Abbey, Green Flash, Ballast Point and Stone), Colorado (Wynkoop and Left Hand), and Asheville (Highland and The Wedge) that I always visit. The one brewery that really sticks out with special sentimental meaning to me is Midnight Sun in Anchorage. I know the entire crew there and have followed them through a move and expansion. Everything keeps getting better. Even though I miss the days when everyone was huddled around the beer cooler like they were in someone’s basement, the new loft tasting room has a lot of character and always a great supply of outstanding beer. I’ve pitched in during brewing days and played wiffle ball in the parking lot (with a beer in my hand and my good friends running bases). Whether it’s dark all day and snowing or sunny for 19 hours and warm, that is one brewery I could stay at forever.

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled to drink a beer?
I once flew down to Buenos Aires to help with a beer judge exam and landed at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. I’ve also been to Cape Town and Manila. In terms of remote locations, I once packed beer into a gold camp north of the Arctic Circle along the Yukon River. We met the miners in Fairbanks, and it took 130 miles of driving on dirt roads then another eight on atvs to find the camp. It was the mining season (summer), but we could lay the beer in the moist ground and the permafrost under the thawing muddy mulch kept it ice cold. With 23 hours of daylight, you couldn’t tell when happy hour was, and you had to keep your wits since there was heavy equipment and grizzlies. I also once got stranded on Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific when I was in the Air Force. There were seven people assigned to the island, as well as 10 contractors and 10 of us from my squadron—all hundreds of miles from the nearest inhabited island. We took a hike to explore the three-and-a-half-mile, three-island atoll and found the old Officer’s Club that had been reopened after Vietnam and closed 10 years earlier. We found some old bottles of whiskey and abandoned cans of Carling Black Label. Needless to say, the Black Label didn’t age well in the tropics, but I did try it.

So if the Carling Black Label doesn’t make the cut, which beers would be in your desert-island six pack?
If we’re talking a hot, stifling, desert island with just sand, I would want something cold and refreshing like my lawnmower beer of choice, Session by Full Sail—that is a great hot-day, thirst-quenching beer. If the island was more tropical than desert, I would go with Orval or Nodding Head Berliner Weisse, but that’s assuming I thought I would be rescued. If I were stuck forever, I would want six different beers from Russian River—I don’t think you could find as wide a variety of interesting tastes under one brewery roof (although Midnight Sun is a close second). I would work through Vinnie Cilurzo’s brewing resume from Pliny (Elder and Younger) to get my hop on, then move to the Belgian-style and wild brews like Damnation, Mortification, Supplication, and Consecration. Oh, that’s 6 already? I guess I better hope I crashed with a few cases from Santa Rosa.

Speaking of Santa Rosa, what do you think are some of the best beer cities in the world?
In no particular order in the U.S., I have to go with Portland [Oregon], Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Anchorage, Greater Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago. For small cities, I love Asheville, Athens and Eugene. There are some “factory towns” like Chico (Sierra Nevada), Juneau (Alaska), Tampa (Cigar City) and New Glarus where you go to see the brewery and taste the spectacular beer. In all these places you’ll see inviting pubs with eclectic beer menus that feature a wide variety of locally made beer. A brewer can’t stay in business without customers, and the growing base of good beer drinkers enables the variety you see in these local markets and across the country (and by extension, the world). A foodie would think nothing of seeing a hundred small restaurants in a great food city. The same thing on a smaller scale is happening with small batch beer in the beer cities. In fact, it’s happening around the globe—American innovation has crossed the Atlantic and Pacific with places like Japan and China exploding with craft beer. The great European beer cities like London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Prague, Brussels, Munich, Cologne, Berlin and Düsseldorf are seeing an invasion of American ideas and innovation. It’s these collaborations and sharing of ideas that will only make the beer world that much more fun.  Editor’s Note: See more on this subject in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue.

When visiting brew fests, which beers do you go for first?
I always start with beer from the new breweries followed by beers I’ve never tasted, vintage beers (both new and old), old favorites and the highest-rated beers—in that order. The new breweries need to be sampled since a lot of breweries survive because of the buzz created at a festival. I love trying new things, so even if I think I know what a beer will taste like, if I haven’t tasted it, I’ll look for it. And the vintage beers are always a pleasant surprise—many age well and in surprising directions. Just because you tasted a 2009 vintage last year doesn’t mean it won’t be even better in 2011. Brewers mix it up, so their 2011 batch may be a departure from the previous versions. My old favorites change, as do my taste buds and my expectations, and what better way to figure that out than to try them yourself?

What have been some of your favorite memories from all of your beer travels?
I would say the fondest memories involve all the great beer people I’ve met over the years. Some of the most memorable times involve the rubber chicken. I remember in 2005 when Charlie Papazian proposed I take pictures of people with the chicken to document the whole journey. I enjoyed inaugurating a new rubber chicken with Charlie four years later in Oakland by pouring Tomme Arthur’s AHA convention beer into it and both of us toasting the moment. I remember sharing a couple of beers with Michael Jackson after finally getting his picture taken with my latex drinking buddy. I vividly remember the night Don Younger and I drank pints at the Horse Brass Pub as we tried to solve the problem of the rapidly wearing-out original rubber chicken. Don’s idea was to bronze it—problem solved: another round barkeep! I would tell everyone to make the most of the time you get to spend
with your friends in your favorite places because some things just end without warning. I remember my last beer with Don, Michael and Greg (Noonan). Enjoy the good times and be sure to share them with oth