Interview with Justin Kennedy | The Bucket List: Beer
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book, with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Justin Kennedy: I’m Justin Kennedy, and my latest book is The Bucket List Beer.
Suzy Chase: Whether you’re planning a pub crawl, a weekend in the country or a long vacation, this book is chock-full of ideas for exploring the world’s best beer destinations. I have to call attention to how comprehensive this book is. Over 400 pages, it’s so heavy.
Suzy Chase: You list 1,000 of the best beer experiences around the world, so what’s your background in beer and where did you begin to dig into this beer exploration?
Justin Kennedy: My background in beer probably predates my college days, unfortunately, but, in college, I really started getting interested in beer and maybe beyond your usual sneaking your dad’s six packs or whatever, but I started really getting into beer when I went to grad school in Cleveland, Ohio, and there was a bar around the corner called Le Cave De Vin which… it’s a weird little bar that opened… I think it’s… It opened at eight o’clock and stayed open until about 4:00 in the morning, and there was this subterranean space that had all these crazy nooks and crannies, and there was vintage beer and fresh beer from local breweries, and I was just amazed by all the different stuff that was going on.
Justin Kennedy: After that, I moved to Washington, D.C., and it’s another great beer-drinking town with a lot of great bars, at the time, not a lot of breweries, but it was a good place to get into beer, and I started writing about beer when I was living there, freelancing for the Washington City Paper, which is an all-weekly that came out, a free little paper, and I was covering beer for that, and then I moved to New York about a decade ago, and I enrolled at… in the NYU food studies program and, from there, I started traveling a lot and writing more and more about beer as a real thing, so that’s my background in beer exploration.
Suzy Chase: You mentioned vintage beer. What’s that?
Justin Kennedy: Vintage beer is beer that’s aged somewhat. It can be aged for a few months. It could be aged years. It could even be aged decades. Typically, it’s aged in a bottle. It’s aged on purpose most of the time, but sometimes there’s vintage beer that’s discovered in the back of someone’s closet or something like that, and then not all beer is meant to… I would say 99.9% of beer is meant to be consumed fresh, but vintage beer is beer that has some kind of characteristic, either high alcohol or high acidity or something like that that can preserve it for a long period of time.
Suzy Chase: I’ve never heard of that, so talk about the numbers of breweries in the United States now.
Justin Kennedy: The early 1900s, there were about 2,000 breweries in the US, and that number slowly declined up until Prohibition and, for 13 years, we had no breweries at all, and then, after Prohibition, people started making beer again, but there were only about 700 breweries, and then, from post-Prohibition up until 1979, it slowly declined until the number dropped to 89 in 1979, so there were fewer than 90 breweries in the entire country, and then, in 1979, Jimmy Carter repealed the ban on homebrewing, and that got a lot of people interested in making beer themselves, which then meant they were taking their hobbies and making them a profession, so, between 1979 and then the mid-’90s, it got up to about 1,500 breweries. From the mid-’90s until now, it’s more than tripled, and the number today is 7,000 breweries.
Suzy Chase: In terms of styles, let’s say German-style beer, can you get that in the Midwest? Can you get that everywhere?
Justin Kennedy: You can get pretty much any style of beer anywhere. A good example of a German-style brewery in the Midwest is a very called Urban Chestnut, which is in St. Louis, and they make some of the best German-style lagers in the country, and it’s the type of beer I would put up against any actual German beer. It’s really that good.
Suzy Chase: I love that in each description you state why this pick is important. Why did you include that?
Justin Kennedy: I think we wanted to highlight why each entry was in here in the first place. It’s a thousand small entries. They’re short descriptions, but we really wanted to highlight why this place is better than the other places in its region.
Suzy Chase: Let’s go over some terminology. What’s the difference between microbrewery, craft brewery, and a brewpub?
Justin Kennedy: This is a little bit of a gray area, but most of those terms are defined by the Brewers Association, which is the craft brewers sponsor agency or whatever you want to call it, so, a microbrewery… It’s all based on production numbers. A microbrewery makes a certain number of beers. I think it’s 100,000 barrels or less, something like that. A craft brewery is defined as an independent brewery that doesn’t have much outside investment, so a good example for a brewery that used to be a craft brewery and is not anymore is something like Goose Island, which got acquired by Anheuser-Busch a few years ago, and then brewpub is, strictly speaking, a brewery that’s on-premise at a restaurant, so it serves food and it makes beer under the same roof.
Suzy Chase: When beers like Goose Island get acquired, does the quality go down?
Justin Kennedy: That’s a really good question. In some ways, the quality is improved because it’s more consistent, but a lot of the character is washed away from that, so it’s hard to say. I think the reputation definitely is somewhat lowered, but it’s a tough call, and there’s been a lot of these acquisitions over the last few years mainly by Anheuser-Busch, but also by some other companies. MillerCoors has a couple.
Suzy Chase: Can or bottle?
Justin Kennedy: For me, a majority of beers I like in a can, but a few beers I just can’t drink from a can like traditional Belgian ale. Saisons, Trippels, things like that I think have to be in a bottle.
Suzy Chase: Same here. I feel like the can is colder.
Justin Kennedy: Yeah, that’s one thing. It does get colder. It feels colder. It feels better in your hand. It’s easier to recycle. It’s lighter. I do a lot of bikepacking and camping, and it’s easier to transport that stuff than bottles.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, I love Saison Dupont, and I would never think of drinking that in a can.
Justin Kennedy: Same. A lot of those beers have… They’ve tried to put them into cans, and even like Rodenbach is now available in cans, and I just think it’s not the same.
Suzy Chase: I wanted to chat about a couple of spots in this book. First is McSorley’s, the oldest Irish tavern in New York City. They have two beers on tap, dark and light, and it was a men’s-only establishment up until 1970 when Barbara Shaum, owner of a leather goods store right down the street, sauntered in for the first time. Talk a little bit about McSorley’s.
Justin Kennedy: Yeah, it’s this traditional Irish tavern along East-7th Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue, and it’s just a storied place that’s… It’s weathered. It really looks haggard, but it’s also like one of the coolest places to drink. Instead of a single beer, you’re served two mugs, two eight-ounce mugs, which I think is really a cool, quirky little thing. There’s a great cheese and onions plate that they serve. That’s strange, but also just fits in perfectly, and it’s like this touristy spot, but also has some real history to it. It was one of my favorite places and the first… one of the first places I drank when I moved to New York 10 years ago.
Suzy Chase: It’s funny, because I moved to New York in ’96 to do cookbook publicity, and I was looking around for an apartment, and my real estate agent showed us apartments, and then he said, “We have to go to McSorley’s,” and I was like, “What?” It was awesome.
Justin Kennedy: Everybody loves it. It’s one of those places that brings everyone together. It’s not just a certain type of clientele. Everybody goes to McSorley’s, and it’s awesome.
Suzy Chase: You also include the Blind Tiger Ale House, one of New York’s first craft pubs, which was on Hudson and West-10th for years and years, and now it’s on Bleecker. The space to me doesn’t feel right because, over on West-10th, there’s a Starbucks where the old Blind Tiger used to be, but the new place just doesn’t feel right to me.
Justin Kennedy: I’m sorry to hear that. When I moved to New York, the Tiger had already moved, so I had never been to the original spot. The new spot, it’s just consistently a great place to drink. They always have some of the newest beers that are available in town, and they also have this deep cellar of vintage beers and other special kegs that they put on pretty much every week, so, every time you go in there, you’re bound to find something new and also something really special, and I think it’s evidenced by their regulars. They have a huge regular crowd there, and it’s a gathering place for a certain beer geek of a certain age in New York City.
Suzy Chase: My husband and all of his squash friends that play squash go there.
Justin Kennedy: That’s great. To me, the Tiger is one of those places where everybody goes. I started going there because I was going to NYU and it was right down the street, and we would gather there and it was just… It’s an awesome place to drink.
Suzy Chase: Now to Fraunces Tavern, way downtown in New York City, can you share the George Washington story?
Justin Kennedy: Sure, so Fraunces Tavern is way down the tip of southern Manhattan. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, and it was a tavern and a… It’s like a restaurant-and-inn type of place, and, as the story goes, I think it was in 1783, George Washington was hosting a dinner for his officers of the Continental Army, and they were having what was called a turtle feast, so it was a dinner that was based around lots of turtle dishes, and it’s a legendary spot, and it’s where he said farewell to his officers of the Continental Army, and so now it has this. It has a museum. It has a Tavern, and there’s even a brewery that’s associated with it called the Porterhouse Brewing Company, which is, oddly enough, actually based in Ireland, but it’s their outpost, their American outpost for their beer now.
Suzy Chase: I didn’t know that.
Justin Kennedy: Yeah, it’s a very strange setup.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, I’m part of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and we used to have our DAR meetings down there, and I would always…
Justin Kennedy: Cool.
Suzy Chase: … sit and think, “Did George Washington sit here and drink or did he sit over here and drink?”
Justin Kennedy: I mean, it’s a great place to drink, too, because it has a huge whiskey selection. It’s on the Whiskey Trail. It’s a really cool bar, but the Brewery Association is… It’s a little bit of a head-scratcher, but I think it’s an ownership thing.
Suzy Chase: Lots of good beers coming out of the Midwest. Talk about Boulevard beer in Kansas City, my favorite.
Justin Kennedy: All right, so Boulevard is one of the original Midwestern craft breweries. It was founded in the late ’80s, and it makes some of the most totally reliable, what I call crushable beer, so beers that are easy to drink, but they also have this line of really interesting barrel-aged beers like Tank 7 Saison, which is one of my favorites, and the brewery is actually… Speaking of acquisitions, it was actually sold to Duvel Moortgat, which is a Belgian company, a few years ago and is now part of this umbrella company that includes Ommegang here in New York up in the Finger Lakes and also Firestone Walker in California.
Suzy Chase: I know. I’m kind of bummed that they got acquired, but good for them.
Justin Kennedy: To me, that’s one example of a brewery that has… The quality has not gone downhill since acquisition. They’ve continued to do the same cool stuff.
Suzy Chase: Prairie Artisan Ales is out of Tulsa. I love them, too. Describe the crazy Bomb! Imperial stout.
Justin Kennedy: Bomb! is… It started off as a specialty release, and now I think it’s year-round, but it’s this huge Imperial stout. I think it’s about 12 or 14% alcohol. It has all kinds of ingredients added to it, spices, cinnamon, I think even chili peppers, and it’s just this big, thick, viscous beer, and they have a few different iterations that are sold throughout the year, including Christmas Bomb!, which is one of my favorites, and it comes into this short little stubby bottle, and it has a really funny artwork on it.
Suzy Chase: See, my problem with the 12 or 13% alcohol is you can’t drink that many.
Justin Kennedy: Now, it’s a sipping beer, so, I think, a few ounces, even a small bottle like that, you’re supposed to share with friends.
Suzy Chase: Oh, no one told me that. That’s good to know. Oregon seems like a good beer-drinking state. Talk about them, how do you pronounce it, LABrewatory…
Justin Kennedy: LABrewatory I think is how you say it.
Suzy Chase: … in Portland.
Justin Kennedy: Yeah, so LABrewatory is a nanobrewery, which is they’re making beer on a keg-by-keg basis, so it’s really small production, and they’re also known for never making the same beer twice, so each batch is different. It’s maybe not necessarily a new beer, but it’s… It has a different hop and a different yeast strain or something like that, but it’s a small brewpub in Portland, and, you’re right, Oregon is by far one of the best states, if not the best, beer-drinking states in the country right now and has been for a long time.
Suzy Chase: Now to outside of the United States, describe the fermented maize beverage, how it’s made and where you drink it.
Justin Kennedy: All right, so I think you’re referring to chicha, which is fermented blue maize that’s a specialty of Peru and a couple of other parts of South America, and, traditionally, it’s chewed by humans. The maize is chewed and then spit into these communal vats like little balls, and it’s said that an enzyme that’s in human saliva is what activates the maize and makes it… convert it to fermentable sugars, so it’s not really a commercially available thing, but what you can do is, if you’re visiting especially like a touristy area like Machu Picchu, there’s these houses that have red flags or flowers lining the area outside, and, typically, these are what are known as chicha bars, but they’re not really open to the public, so you’ll probably need a local guide to help you get in. It’s like going into someone’s house and drinking what they’ve made, the home brew that they’ve made straight from their tanks, and, what I’ve been told, it doesn’t really taste like beer at all. It’s more like a cold corn soup.
Suzy Chase: No, thanks. No. No. No.
Justin Kennedy: Yeah, it’s a little strange.
Suzy Chase: That’s gross. Is that the grossest beer you know of in the book?
Justin Kennedy: That’s probably the gross beer right now I feel.
Suzy Chase: The Middle East section really piqued my interest. You call the Birzeit Brewery, or Shepherds Brewery, which is north of Ramallah, Palestine, one of the Middle East’s most exciting breweries. How come?
Justin Kennedy: I think, there’s not a lot of breweries in the Middle East in general, and this is one that’s really doing modern craft beers there. They have modern technology. They’re making pilsners, lagers and other things, but they’re also doing beers like stout with coffee, and they do a Christmas ale that’s infused with cinnamon, so they’re really doing what I think of as more modern styles rather than just your traditional pale ale and blonde ale and all that stuff, and they also do what’s become this kind of big beer festival. It’s a two-day fest, which is one of the only beer festivals that I know of in the Middle East.
Suzy Chase: The term African Guinness caught my eye. What’s that?
Justin Kennedy: It’s very different than the Guinness that we know from our local Irish pub. It’s really boozy. It’s about twice the alcohol content of regular Guinness, and it’s also made with sorghum and corn, so it has this bitterness, but also has a real smooth mouth feel, so it’s like high ABV stout, and it’s not nitrogenated like the Guinness that we have here as. It’s like a totally different beverage, but it was originally brewed to be exported to these countries, to Africa and also to some parts of the Caribbean here, and it’s just this big, boozy stout that you wouldn’t think of as being very thirst-quenching in these hot regions, but that’s why the… The exporting is why it was originally sent there.
Suzy Chase: Over in Tokyo, they have karaoke haunts and record bars. Describe those.
Justin Kennedy: Record bar is like stepping into someone’s house. There’s typically only one or two people that work there, and it’s your bartender who’s also your DJ, and they spin records, the actual vinyl, and they can get really niched. I mean, some of them are jazz and blues bars, but others only play hiphop from 1986 to 1989 or something like that, and then there’s others that focus on a certain subgenre of heavy metal or something, so there are all these kind of really niched places, and they typically serve one or two beers, and it’s really about the experience. With the cover charge, it’s a small operation, and you’re supporting one or two people. It’s a really cool, unique experience, and then karaoke bars are the opposite of that. They are these big, massive halls where you get pitchers of cheap, cheap rice lager and just drink all night long and sing, and they’re just a lot of fun.
Suzy Chase: You include a North Korean microbrewery, one of the last frontiers of the craft brewery world. Talk a little bit about this.
Justin Kennedy: There’s a lot of beer that’s made in North Korea, but most of it is not the type of… it’s mass produced adjunct lagers, but there are… This is one of the things. I haven’t been there myself, but I had one of my freelancers that worked on this, and he said there’s a hotel, a few hotels that have brewpubs on premise, and it’s like McSorley’s in some way. Your choices are either yellow beer or black beer, and that’s all you’re given, but it is fresh beer and it’s made right there on premise. I would say, compared to… especially compared to South Korea, there’s no real comparison, but there is a small microbrewery scene in North Korea itself.
Suzy Chase: Now, I want to hear some of your personal opinions. What do you look for when you hit the pub?
Justin Kennedy: I like places that have a tightly curated selection of beer. I don’t like walking in and seeing a hundred different choices because, if you see that, you know that most of the beer or maybe half of it is probably not going to be very fresh. I like a place that is doing a lot of the picking for me ahead of time.
Justin Kennedy: I also like places that are more fun. I don’t like a lot of pretension when it comes to beer. I like places that you can go and hang out and actually talk to your… the people that you’re there with, have a conversation that’s not overly loud, not overly crowded. I’m a dad. Lately, I’ve been hanging out at a lot of places with other families, other dads, so it’s really changed for me over the last few years, but that’s what I’m looking for when I go to a pub these days.
Suzy Chase: What’s your favorite bar in the book?
Justin Kennedy: Let’s see, my favorite bar in the book is probably a bar called Novare Res up in Portland, Maine. It’s a geeky beer bar that’s off this little alleyway. It’s hard to find. It’s in downtown Portland, but it’s not something you would just stumble upon. You have to go down an alley and then you come upon it after you make another turn, so it’s… but it’s this cozy little space, and they always have local beer from Portland, but also some really cool imported beers. They have another vintage list with just some really bottles that you’re probably not going to find anywhere else. That’s probably my favorite bar in the book.
Suzy Chase: What’s the quirkiest bar in the book?
Justin Kennedy: I think the quirkiest bar in the book is… It’s really hard to pronounce. It’s in Belgium. It’s called In de Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst, so it translates to-
Suzy Chase: Close enough haha.
Justin Kennedy: It translates to in the insurgence against great thirst, so it’s a bar in Belgium. It’s only open on Sunday mornings and then on certain church holidays. It’s associated with the church. It was built in the mid-1800s and it’s been operational ever since, but it specializes in something called lambic, which is traditional to the region. It’s this spontaneous fermented beer, meaning, there’s no yeast that’s added. It’s just whatever is in the air is inoculating the beer and creating the beer, so they specialize in that. There was a woman that owned it for 50 years, but she tried to retire in the ’90s and sell it off. Two brothers took it over, and today it’s run by them, but it’s just this quirky little, weird place. It’s only open for a few hours every week, and I think people go there after church and drink lambic and hang out on the town square. It’s really cool.
Suzy Chase: The sober curious trend is so big right now. Are there any nonalcoholic beers that you like?
Justin Kennedy: Yeah, so, earlier this week, I actually had the first ones I’ve had of the new wave, and it was from a brewery in Connecticut called Athletic Brewing, and I’ve got to say the beer was pretty good. It wasn’t great. It had a tea-like quality. Some of it did, but they had a coffee stout that was really good, and it’s completely nonalcoholic. I think it’s interesting. I don’t think it’s something that I’m personally going to pursue, but I think it’s also part of this trend of wellness and looking more towards low calorie, low ABV, low carb “beer.”
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Favorite Cookbook. What is your favorite all-time cookbook and why?
Justin Kennedy: This was a hard question for me, so I have hundreds of cookbooks in my house, and I love a lot of them, but I think, my favorite cookbook, it’s a book called Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray. Do you know her?
Suzy Chase: No. What is that?
Justin Kennedy: Okay, so it’s this strange little book. It came out in the ’80s, and Patience Gray was this kind of an English food writer who ended up marrying later in her life a Belgian sculptor, and they lived all over the Mediterranean part of Europe, so they were in Provence, they’re in Italy, they were in Catalonia for a while. They were on a couple of Greek islands, and then they finally settled into this abandoned farmhouse in Apulia in Southern Italy. They spent the rest of their years there, and she started working on the book I believe soon after they moved there in the ’70s, and it’s like a document of every place they lived and recipes that she’d gathered, and it’s also like very of-the-moment at this point because it’s about foraging and wild edibles and stuff like that.
Justin Kennedy: It’s just a very strange, esoteric book. There’s no photographs in it. It’s all just drawings that she did of plants and fish and other animals. It’s more of a document than anything else. I keep a copy on my bedside table and just flip through it a couple of times a week. It’s so interesting.
Suzy Chase: I love that. That’s so cool.
Justin Kennedy: You got to get a copy. It’s really cool.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Justin Kennedy: I’m on Instagram, @justinxkennedy, and you can find my website. It’s www.justin-kennedy.com.
Suzy Chase: Thanks, Justin, for chatting with me on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Justin Kennedy: Thanks for having me.
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