Lynn Hoffman remembers his first beer. No, seriously.
"I was about 14," he says. "And I started to work out the mechanics of sneaking an underage beer. Back then, we had what was what was called 'the older brother technology.' "
So, after enlisting the help of a family friend named Barry, Hoffman had his first brew in hand: Knickerbocker, formerly the official beer of the New York Giants. Perhaps not surprisingly, he hated it, deciding ultimately to stick to sneaking some red wine here and there at home.
Flash forward to 1980, and Hoffman starts to sing another tune thanks to a fateful trip to Bridgid's in Fairmount. Everyone has a brew that expands their perception of beer, and Hoffman's ended up being a bottle of the venerable Saison Dupont — a farmhouse-style ale known for its fruity character and slightly sour finish.
"It was more than I liked it," he says. "It moved me."
And so began Hoffman's journey from potential wine snob to full-blown Beer Evangelist (his term, not mine). His passion ultimately lead to stints as a critic at the Daily News and Philadelphia Magazine, along with the well-regarded beer-centric textbook, "Short Course in Beer." But all that pales in comparison to his upcoming "Fundamentals of Beer" course running this fall at Drexel.
Brought to us by the school's Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, Hoffman's course was recently opened to the public at a cost of $495 for the 10-week course. That's a serious price, but Hoffman offers a serious education — that is, if you're up for it. And given his passion for the topic, you ought to be.
I recently got the chance to talk with Hoffman over a couple beers about his hopes for his course at Drexel, what makes Philly a great beer city, and why exactly beer seems to be going through a renaissance these days. Check out the interview below — and maybe crack a brew first:
Philly.com: What do you hope your students take away from the course? Besides a new appreciation for beer, of course.
Dr. Lynn Hoffman: When we talk about history, civilization, we think we know what matters. But what really matters is food and drink, and people's daily lives. And because we have this prejudice toward the grand, we tend to smirk at the daily. My intention is to take that perception and give it a bit of a shake.
P: But why now? Has something in the public's perception of beer changed recently?
LH: There's the feeling that beer has meaning now, and it has something to do with a revolt against mass identity. It is us desperately looking for a bit of a core aspect of humanity — the you that makes you, you. I want to have that when I have a glass of beer with you.
P: How did we come to view beer in that way, rather than as simply a vehicle for alcohol?
LH: For the first time in a long time, it's OK to say that what you experience matters. Fun to my grandfather — the very idea — was threatening to good order. We now have permission to say that your sensory life is your life. Beer is now a vitamin for the soul.
P: Sort of like wine, right? How do you explain beer's rise in prominence despite a firmly entrenched wine culture in the food world?
LH: Winemakers' idea is to express what's in the grape — they are very much purists at heart. Brewers are modernists in the sense that they start with the end, the desired result, and think about how to make that. We are living in a modernist world.
P: What about the cost factor?
LH: Absolutely! Let's go to the beer distributor with $20. You can get easily six bottles of beer of such enormous beauty that you take a taste, and you can't speak. Transfixed by the beauty of this beer, and you can do that for $3 or $4 a bottle.
P: What makes Philly such a good beer city?
LH: All good beer cities have a large young population right now in this decade. They have an already existing bar and social scene. And they have to have a pioneer — someone who takes the risk of taking in wild things and saying 'Hey, pay attention!' All those conditions are so in Philadelphia.
P: Who was our pioneer? We've got to have one, right?
LH: A guy named Tom Peters, who worked at bar called Copabanana on 16th Street. He was the manager there, and he started to bring in some interesting beers, and they sold. He was a generous beer evangelist — openhearted, charming, and a little bit off-centered.
P: Typically, we tend to lack self-confidence in our identity as a city. Do we have anything to be concerned about when it comes to beer?
LH: Well, we may not be a destination on your microbrewery tour, but we certainly could be. How many Belgian beer bars we got? The only place I've seen with more is Brussels. If you said to me, 'Where would you like to spend the night with the unlimited credit card?,' it's hard to beat Philadelphia for a beer lover.
P: Improvements are always possible, though. How can we make Philadelphia an even better beer city?
LH: If we had an industrial policy that encouraged a couple more breweries to open, this could be the beer center at least of the country, maybe the hemisphere. The appetite is surely there. There are people going to brewpubs where, frankly, the beer isn't that good. But there's an enthusiasm for it, a kind of tenderness.
P: How do we measure up to to other great beer cities? Should we even bother comparing?
LH: If, in fact, you're truly living in the moment and the experience of having great beer, it doesn't matter what's happening anywhere else. The reality is your experience. The things that you think might validate your experience—ho-f***ing-hum. I mean, be here now, brother.