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Is There Romance in the Brewer's Beard?

“I find it disconcerting that Garrett Oliver, in his comprehensive encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Beer, did not have an entry for “Brewer’s Beard.” Granted, not all brewers in the beer world have beards. Most woman brewers, for instance, do not sport burly facial hair; nor does the Brett Pack – Rob Tod, Tomme Arthur, Adam Avery, Vinnie Cirluzo, and Sam Calagione, although Sam’s legendary face often displays the “hot” look of a 5 o’clock shadow. Jim Koch of Boston Beer is clean-shaven. But Beer Fox estimates indicate that 62.7% of the craft brewing community manifests some kind of distinctive facial hair.

My personal belief system rejects stereotyping any segment of our culture, so I stop short of ignorant statements such as “What a beard, Dude! Are you a brewer?” But I do find it intriguing that creative beard sculpting reigns as a common theme among the mashers of malt. Is this practice immersed in tradition or has it developed through some mystical evolutionary process?

New York Times writer, Mark Oppenheimer, attempted to shed some light on the beard in his August 2011 essay, “Behold the Mighty Beard, a Badge of Piety and Religious Belonging.” He wasn’t talking about beer, but seemed to hit close to the profile of the independent craft brewer. “What do they have in common? Beards,” he wrote. “And not neatly trimmed beards, but, in the popular stereotype, long, unruly beards, which connote piety, spiritual intensity and a life so hard at study that there is no time for a shave.”

John Martin, Rocky Mountain philosopher from The American University in Washington, DC summarizes the issue. “It’s a small sub-culture with high standards,” he states with marked precision. Craft brewers tend to be immersed in their work as independent artisans with a penchant for the creative. Some continue to uphold strict and traditional guidelines set forth in the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, the Bavarian beer purity law that limits beer ingredients to barley, hops and water (with yeast as an implied component). Others stray far from the rules, cutting their own path with extreme hops or wormwood, wild yeast, or aging-barrels that impart their own distinctive flavors to each batch.

Might the Brewer’s Beard be anchored in true purpose? Amongst the rafters, walls, sculleries and bakeshops of the Zenne Valley in Belgium, an untamed microcosm of wild flora has populated the air for centuries, creating pungent cheeses, sourdough breads, and Lembeeks, or Lambics, of world renown. Some insist that beards among brewers had traditions anchored in these Lembeek brewhouses. As the boiled wort was channeled into the cool ship, brewers would purposely splash it onto the walls and rub it in their beards, in the hope that these wild yeasts would populate the beer at every turn. An ethereal mist would rise into the air like a roiling cloud, and a chunky layer of bubbling yeast would obligingly populate the surface. “God is good,” they would say.

But how many old wives tales get resurrected while sweeping out the mash tun? Does facial hair trap the aromas of well-crafted beer, allowing the partaker to enjoy the elements on a higher plane? Do beards make beer taste better?

Or do brewers need to follow hockey’s Playoff Traditions of sprouting facial hair until they get edged out by a better brewer or win the elusive Gold Medal at the World Beer Cup?

Perhaps it is just too damned dangerous to shave when drunk…

Research shows that the average shave uses approximately five gallons of water. Among craft brewers who practice sustainability in their brewhouses, it may be a sound business decision that parallels their efforts at environmental stewardship.

Lightly bearded Tony Simmons captured national acclaim when he designed Poor Richard’s Ale, chosen as the celebratory beer for the Ben Franklin Tercentenary. As Owner and Brewmaster of Pagosa Brewing Company in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, he sponsors an annual Mutton Chops Contest each February. My own inquiring mind wants to know how close bearded ladies have come to capturing the crown.

Some of the finest beards in the industry can be viewed at the Great American Beer Festival. Over the years, my personal favorites have included Beer Hunter Michael Jackson of London; Charlie Papazian, President of the Brewers Association and Gary Glass, Director of the American Homebrewers Association in Boulder, Colorado. Mat Falco, Publisher of Philly Beer Scene Magazine on the East coast has growth that could shame a lion back to his den.

If you’re on the watch for more notable beards in the industry, check out this mini-list of my top ten: Dave Buhler of Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle, Washington; Sean Paxton, The Homebrew Chef from the Napa Valley, California; Fred Bueltmann and Dr. Joel Armato of New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Michigan; Ron Jeffries from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan; Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, California; Curtis Holmes of Alaskan Brewing Company in Juno, Alaska; Fal Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville, California; Matt Allyn of VooDoo Brewery in Meadville, Pennsylvania; and beerwriter Lew Bryson of Philadelphia.

So get out the binoculars and do a little Beard-watching. While you’re at it, quench your thirst with a pint of Chuck Norris’ Beard from Iron Hill Brewing … and send me a list of your personal favorites.


Take care of your brewer's beard:
Wahl Lithium Ion All In One Trimmer

Electric Travle Shaver:
Braun Mobileshave Electric Travel Shaver "Silver"

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