IN THIS WEEK'S column, we ponder the greatest mystery in beer: Why do so many brewers wear beards? (I mean male brewers, naturally, not female, which perhaps is a column for another day.)
I've been noticing this for the last couple years, but it came into full light at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia this month. You couldn't walk three steps without encountering a fur-face.
Now, just so we're all on the same page, I'm not talking about perfectly groomed Bradley Cooper starlet-magnet stubble. I mean the Full Grizzly. Chin carpet. Whiskers out the wazoo. Gnarly hair hedges that bring to mind Will Forte in the TV show Last Man on Earth before Jason Sudeikis sheared half his face and scalp.
This question has been pondered from time to time. All About Beer magazine tackled it in November and suggested brewers are creative types, and, well, think about all those painters and sculptors with beards.
With all due respect to the many artistes sloshing mop buckets around brewhouse floors, that sounded like a reach. Clearly, this question requires deeper insight, of the sort one can find only on . . . Facebook.
I put it to my so-called friends, who jokingly suggested everything from "a surfeit of chins" to "it's stipulated in the Reinheitsgebot," the German beer purity law.
Several said "hipster cred." That might apply to some, but not graybeards on the other side of 50. Lancaster Brewing's Bill Moore was grooming his before the term "hipster" was even coined.
Matt Gundrum of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant offered one plausible answer: "I hate razor burn, which I always get when I shave," he said, wondering aloud whether working around mash tun steam makes his skin more sensitive.
And Eric Boice, who brews at Stewart's in Bear, Del., said his beard protected his face from a violent surge of boiling wort. "I thought to myself, 'Well, that's as good a reason as any for a brewer to have a beard,' " he said.
Maybe it's just that the craft-beer world isn't as button-down as other workplaces.
"It's one of the only industries that accepts it completely," said Free Will's John Stemler. "Now when I shave, I'm asked to leave the brewery because nobody recognizes me."
Not surprisingly, several among the social-media commentariat called me out for stereotyping the industry and pointed to the many well-known brewers without facial hair.
"I could rattle off a long list," said Steve Mashington, formerly of Rogue Ales and now a general manager at River City Cannery. He cited the likes of Tom Kehoe of Yards, Brian O'Reilly of Sly Fox, Brett Kintzer of Stoudt's, and Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing, all of whom have faces as bare as a baby's bottom.
To which I answer: Bill "Red Beard" Covaleski of Victory and co-founder Ron "Van Dyke" Barchet, Bob "Rasputin" Barrar of 2SP, Evan "Galifianakis" Fritz of Manayunk Brewing, and Greg "Castaway" Koch of Stone.
Heck, the beard on John Maier, Mashington's former boss at Rogue, is so fertile he actually harvested yeast from the undergrowth and - I kid you not - famously brewed an ale with it.
But that's anecdotal evidence. What about statistics?
Josh Weikert, a university lecturer and local homebrewer, noted one study that said 17 percent of American men wear beards. When he looked at a random image of a brewers' conference seminar, it appeared only about a quarter of the attendees had beards - not much over the average.
"I think this is a confirmation bias situation rather than a real phenomenon," he said, which is another way of saying I had my head up my glass.
Of course, I couldn't let that accusation stand. So on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I spent two hours examining 150 photographs posted at the conference website. I counted every single freaking male whose face was visible - 402 of 'em, 231 with beards.
That's 57 percent, a rate more than three times higher than in the general population.
Of course, the stats still don't answer the question why? I'll take another stab at it in an upcoming Bar Talk Podcast with co-host Glen Macnow. He and I will stroke our own mange and try to come up with something profound. Listen in at my website, below.