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David Keenan, February 22, 2023

Hopsickle: My Life in Beer

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
Hopsickle: My Life in Beer

The first alcohol I ever consumed was a can of Strongbow that I split with my mate Stuart Geddes (Gekkie) while walking round Craigneuk to celebrate a painting we had just completed of Captain Britain on the wall of his bedroom. We both agreed it made us feel a little dizzy. The next was a can of Red Stripe at Splash One on 46 West George Street in Glasgow (the building is gone now) while watching, I think, the BMX Bandits. I was never much of a drinker as a young man; I made a point never even to swear on account of all of the illiterate motherfuckers I grew up around.

The first beer I ever loved was Pilsner Urquell and I used to order it by the case. The sight of the big bottles still gives me a nostalgic thrill and reminds me of growing up and falling in love and eventually moving to Philadelphia where I was introduced to Yuengling by the family who still brewed it because they thought I was Irish. I got into real ale along the way too, but it wasn’t until a trip to Texas with my girlfriend Heather to meet her parents that I had my true beer epiphany. It was a pint of Stone IPA, till then the motherfucking hoppiest thing I had ever experienced in my life. With me it’s always instant obsession or nothing, and I was immediately in deep. I started logging on to Beer Advocate and reading reviews and I began drinking my way through their top 100 beers, which back then (mid-2000s) was massively different to what it is now, with much more of an emphasis on ‘west coast’ style beers, i.e. beers that were hoppy and resiny and piney and really bitter, which is still my dream style of beer, preferably circa 7% ABV. We would travel back and forth to Texas regularly and I began to pick out my favourite brewers; Stone, of course; Ballast Point; Oskar Blues (we would regularly visit their taproom outside Austin); Moylan’s (whose monster triple IPA Hopsickle remains my all-time favourite brew, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it in years); Russian River (whose legendary Pliny the Elder we finally got to try in a bar on the Haight while Heather and I were on our honeymoon on the west coast)…

But back in the UK it wasn’t happening. The craft beer revolution hadn’t hit yet, and we were so desperate to get back to the hops that I recall one weekend we travelled through to Edinburgh because we heard a certain pub had a guest keg of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap (the same beer we had at our wedding reception). We were that desperate. Then BrewDog opened, and they changed everything. And I know how you feel about BrewDog, believe me, but I don’t give a fuck. Thanks to them, I was able to drink all of my new favourite brewers in Scotland and they (almost) single-handedly set the seeds for the UK craft beer revolution. For a while we had a mad squad that would meet up at the original Glasgow BrewDog across from Kelvingrove Art Gallery, a crew of people inspired to make their own beers (and cure their own jerky) and who you could talk hops and process with all night. Plus, we began to meet some of the brewers behind our favourite beers, Greg and the crew from Stone, a memorable night getting rat-arsed with the guys that ran Ballast Point… so much so that I began to dream of being a brewer myself. But then I went and got published, and that was that. So when Verdant Brewing asked me if I would like to brew a beer with them, how the fuck do you think I felt? Of course, it was always going to be a West Coast IPA, but I was kinda extra delighted when the team suggested adding a little Nelson Sauvin in there, as a tip of the hat to the original BrewDog Punk IPA. I love the smell of hops. I remember some story of some mad alcoholic going on a wine tour in France and of him dropping to his knees and just dunking his head into the spit and slops pan on the ground right there and then. That’s how I felt in the Verdant Brewery.

Beer has meant so much to me in my life. My favourite bars and taprooms are a map of my movements around the world, desire lines that link my disparate friend groups: Pachamama and 77Craft, tiny breweries near Fontainebleau in France both run by old friends; that amazing craft beer bar set on top of an industrial car park in Tijuana that I love to drink in with my Mexican writer buddy Carlos Velazquez aka The Hippo; the Euston Tap, where I drank a pint of my beloved Stone IPA before jumping on the train only last week; The Rake, at Borough Market in London, one of the first London bars to totally embrace craft beer; Burp Castle, in New York, where the servers all dress like monks; Grunting Growler, in Glasgow, a cool US-style bottle shop and bar run by my good buddy Jihad; as well as new finds like the Verdant taproom, naturally, which reminds me of another favourite, the Oskar Blues taproom in Austin; and last but most holy to me, The Whip Inn, in Austin. Caveat: the place changed owners a few years back and is now a shadow of what it used to be but for me and my wife Heather Leigh it remains a holy place of pilgrimage, indeed, I dropped in to pick up a six pack from them just last Thanksgiving and it still felt like walking into church, or maybe an ashram, more like. Their slogan back in the day was South Austin Mood/South Indian Food and it was run by an Indian family who cooked amazing food and who ran, well, forty plus taps at least, with all of the good shit on there. They had these wide wooden counters that you could hang at and bar staff that were totally passionate and enthusiastic about beer and we would sit all night at the bar drinking these beers I had always dreamt of trying, young, in the early years of our marriage, such happy memories, plus we would spend every new year there and every single time we came away with new friends from all walks of life, pilots to pyromaniacs, but that’s another whole bunch of stories and I got no one right now to hold my beer. We eventually took to getting an Air BnB round the corner in Travis Heights, just so we could walk there and back every evening.

The author DBC Pierre told me the story of how Niels Bohr, the physicist, was gifted a house from the brewers Carlsberg with beer permanently on tap. He drank beer all day while making the quantum breakthroughs that redrew reality itself. Having written seven books on the good stuff, all I want to say, at this point, is Amen brother, now pour me another. I owe beer so much.

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