For a man who spent nearly two months driving around the country to drink ale and chat with the men and women who make it, author Brian Yaeger doesn’t have much of a beer belly. But based on the insights of his debut book, Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey, the Los Angeles native, UCSB graduate, and San Francisco resident knows his brew better than most and, better yet, is on a first-name basis with more famous brewmasters than any beer aficionado could ever hope for. It seems he’s come a long way from when he used to chug $35 kegs of Natty Light during his days in Isla Vista.
The character-driven, nonfiction book, which was published by St. Martin’s Press in early October, features 14 American breweries and their operators discussing colorful histories, future hopes, and the state of American beer-making in the early 21st century. To hear the hows and whys behind the book, Yaeger met me for lunch one warm October afternoon at the Brewhouse on Montecito Street, where I ordered the brown ale and he went with the wheat while also ordering a growler of milk stout to take home.
Like many of his fellow Gauchos, Yaeger, who graduated in 1996, was more interested in the quantity than the quality of beer when he first came to UCSB. But as a double major in religious studies and Russian, he was able to study abroad in St. Petersburg one year, where he got his first taste of good dark beer, namely Baltika. Upon his return to Santa Barbara, he happened to volunteer at the now-defunct Pacific Coast Beer Festival, which showed off well-crafted lagers and ales from California and Colorado to Iowa and Louisiana. “That was my eye-opener that you don’t have to get good beer from Europe,” said Yaeger. “You could get it from America.” He spent the rest of his UCSB time searching out American microbrews and trying to taste every one of the more than 50 beers that the Isla Vista Brewing Company (also now defunct) had on tap.
Fast-forward about 10 years, and Yaeger was working as a public relations guy for indie bands in L.A. Realizing it wouldn’t be his lifelong career, he entered USC’s professional writing masters program, where students were required to write a work of “publishable material” for their thesis. Yaeger came up with the tour-the-country-and-drink-beer book idea and did that for seven weeks. “Not that getting in my car, driving around the country, and drinking beer was a viable career option,” he joked, “but it sounded like a lot of fun. And no matter what happens in the future, I’ll always have this.”
Lucky for him-and he admits, “I get lucky a lot”-his professors liked the idea, and so did a book editor, a twist of fate that made Yaeger the only one of his classmates to actually publish a book. But it’s not just luck: The book is an easy-to-read, informative, and fairly comprehensive tour through breweries big and small, new and old, traditional and weird, from stalwarts such as Anchor Brewing and Yuengling to up-and-comers like New Belgium and Dogfish Head. “There are about 1,400 breweries in the United States,” explained Yaeger, “and I figured that if I focused on one percent and got 14 stories, that would do a sufficient job of explaining the state of American brewing and where it stands today.” It seems like American beer fans agree, because the book has already sold enough copies to warrant a second printing.
Why’s that? Because of our love for the ale, believes Yaeger. “We love it in a way that we don’t love anything else.”
Brian Yaeger will sign copies of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, December 3, at the Brewhouse (229 W. Montecito St.). Copies of the book will be available for purchase courtesy of Chaucer’s Books. To learn more, visit beerodyssey.com.