A Cask of Laughs
By Sarah Bennett
It’s two days before Christmas and Brad Grider and Steven Isaak are rolling a large canvas suitcase full of audio equipment through a dark parking lot in Rancho Cucamonga. Grider holds two 22-oz. bottles of craft beer that neither friend has ever tasted.
It’s only 8 p.m., but the streets are quiet and the nondescript office building they parked outside of is entirely empty. Isaak and Grider roll their mobile workspace inside the building’s marble lobby, onto the elevator and, eventually, through a locked door into a small conference room off a real estate office on the third floor.
They unzip the suitcase and begin methodically unloading professional-grade mixers and microphones onto the table, plugging in cables and setting up the laptop to record their podcast like they do most weeks (sometimes, this process is done at their favorite bar or brewery). Grider’s girlfriend brings in a bottle of a stout called Velvet Merlin from the break room fridge and portions it out into a few red party cups.
“I remember the sentiment the first time we ever did an episode,” says Grider, sitting at the round table, sipping on stout. “We recorded about 45 minutes and once we were done, we were like, ‘Wow, that was so much fun.’ It was exhilarating. We couldn’t get enough of it. We started meeting on Saturdays and one day we made three episodes in one day. The original plan was to do two to three a month, but it wasn’t enough for us. We wanted more and apparently, the fans did too.”
By day, Isaak sits at a desk just outside the conference room—managing properties for his employer’s company—and Grider works at a local Sprint store. But at night, the two twenty-somethings are the affable-and-often-offensive hosts of Beer Geek Radio, the Inland Empire’s most popular craft beer podcast, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this week.
While beer is still known to many in the IE as the fizzy, yellow carbonated liquid commonly found in cheap cans or on draft special at a local sports bar, a growing number of local drinkers like Isaak and Grider are rejecting the Bud-vs.-Coors macro-beer ultimatum, flocking instead to smaller-batch beers made by specialty brewers such as Stone near San Diego and The Bruery in Placentia.
And as the craft beer movement gains even more ground this year—national sales of microbrews were up 12 percent for the first half of 2012—drinkers are discovering even deeper versatility in the world’s oldest beverage, opening their taste buds to new flavors which are increasingly finding their way onto everyday taplists.
In the Inland Empire alone, estimates say there are nearly 20 breweries either open or planning on opening in the next year, making the region one of the fastest-growing brewing areas in the country. Four years ago, there were less than five, including Upland’s Dale Bros., Redlands’ Hangar 24 and Riverside’s Inland Empire Brewing Company—the last of which is releasing Beer Geek Radio’s first anniversary beer at the show’s anniversary beer festival and bottle share, being held at the brewery on Saturday.
It’s Just Beer
“I grew up hating beer because I didn’t like light lagers like Budweiser. Pyramid Apricot was my introduction to craft because there wasn’t anything available that was local and good,” says Grider. “This area might be a hotbed now, but there was nothing out here then.”
With Beer Geek Radio, Isaak and Grider cater to both new and knowledgeable craft beer drinkers in their signature style of brash commentary and relatable humility. By producing conversational episodes that center around everything from beer reviews and new brewery love to interviews with some of the local industry’s top names, their sometimes recorded-on-location show makes the most intimidating aspects of the movement approachable—a feat in the niche market’s media, which is quickly becoming oversaturated with pretentious beer-review blogs that are either dense with superfluous flavor notes (“A crazy amount of licorice and dark fruits on the tongue and a bit of cardboard that mutes the flavors,” one recently wrote) or brag more about how a limited-release bottle was acquired rather than explain what the liquid inside actually tastes like.
“One of the messages I like to get out there with Beer Geek Radio is that it’s just beer so have fun with it,” says Isaak. “We often make fun of how people review beer because it’s so ridiculous sometimes. I don’t care if you get oak wood shards or Del Taco chicken or paper bag flavors from a beer. It’s not like you’re closing a real estate deal—it’s beer. Just enjoy it and don’t take it so damn seriously.”
Beer Geek Radio grew out of everyday beer-fueled conversations on Isaak and Grider’s couch. The two roommates discovered craft beer around five years ago—a love Grider learned in part from his father, who has been drinking beers from Karl Strauss and Sierra Nevada since the ’90s—and thought maybe if they narrowed their Neapolitan conversations down to just beer, those in the greater beer community might want to listen. A friend, Jeff Green, was also around for these living-room talks and being music-loving audiophiles, the three decided to buy a hosting site and start recording some of their banter.
In the show’s first episode ever—which was recorded after four hours of “technical difficulties” and posted on both iTunes and their more-comprehensive PodOmatic site in February of 2011—the three friends describe the term “beer geek” as one used to describe somebody who enjoys beer more for what’s in the bottle rather than the label.
Even more refreshing than their self-ascribed title was their admittance that they are not experts—just guys with a sense of humor that have lots of experience with craft beer and a passion for sharing it with others.
“I think one of the great things about craft beer is that we’re all in learning mode, really,” Grider says. “Once you get to a point where you know everything, it loses its fun value I think. For some, craft beer is a world where people need to uphold a certain image, but you don’t have to be a part of some elite club to be a part of it.”
A Legitimate Weekly Radio Show
At first, promotion for Beer Geek Radio entailed printing out some Microsoft Word business cards on nice paper and passing them out whenever they stopped by Hanger 24 or IE Brewing Company for a drink. Grider put cards in boxes of beer he would send around the country for bottle trades. And though Green soon left the show amicably to work on other projects, Isaak and Grider carried on with their “let’s sit around a table and talk about beer” podcast concept, which to their surprise was gaining listeners by the week.
As the show gained traction, Isaak and Grider started tracking numbers of downloads and plays. They hosted a benefit bottle share and raffle to buy their professional recording equipment. They asked fans for feedback. They created a consistent schedule of when new episodes would be available. And they set themselves apart from other Southern California beer podcasts—such as fellow IEers The Beer Snobs—by not just describing beer flavors into a microphone, but using their platform and personalities to bring deeper beer commentary to the community.
Soon, what began as scattered releases of the guys bringing a few beers to the table and tasting them on air turned into a legitimate weekly radio show complete with episode themes, seasonal beer tournaments, “Get to Know Your Beer Geek” segments, discussions of hot-button beer issues and interviews with special guests. They even gave their show a new, well-earned tagline: “The weekly craft beer podcast for the thinking drinker.”
“It started out as our opinions about beer and as soon as we got listeners, we thought, ‘What are their opinions about beer?’” says Grider. “We talk about things happening in the beer world, breweries we like, don’t like, hate, love. If we need to do an episode but don’t have one planned, I can always go to the store, pick out a few beers and build a theme around them, But either way, I like to have subject matter because subject matter is always engaging and everyone can relate to it.”
Finding a Path Through the Hype
The show’s biggest month yet was October when episodes included a pumpkin beer tournament and in-depth interviews with two Stone Brewing Company big wigs, Greg Koch and “Dr.” Bill Sysak. Grider and Isaak are planning another big tournament for January, this time with winter warmer-style beers appropriately called Winter Warmer-Land. They will taste test dozens of sweet and malty (and occasionally spiced) seasonals over the course of the month, moving each one through a bracketing system until one is deemed victorious. Bottles are being donated by Total Wine and More, a sponsorship that not only signals a new step in the podcast’s market value, but also ensures that all the beers featured on the show are readily available to interested listeners.
“We could do a barrel-aged stout competition, but those are all rare beers and once its done, no one can get the bottles, so what’s the point?” says Grider. “I’d rather have a situation where somebody’s walking down the beer aisle at the store, they can say, ‘Oh, there’s Jubelale. There’s Winter Solstice. There’s Anchor Christmas. Those are the ones they were talking about on Beer Geek Radio—let’s try it.’”
Grider and Isaak say there are enough beer-geek blogs that perpetuate hype on hard-to-find beer releases from around the country and enough podcasts dedicated to perpetual taste tests. Beer Geek Radio aims to fill in the gaps, round out the coverage and provide a voice for quality brews that may get lost in the hype—all without an elitist attitude that begs listeners to think about what beer they like and wonder what else is out there like it.
Future goals include having a live Beer Geek Radio show where listeners can call in and chat on-air with guests as well as creating a craft beer radio network where other beer broadcasters can come to have their own shows. But for now, the boys will continue to roll their mobile radio station suitcase around town, recording relevant beer conversations across the Southland, eventually landing back at the quiet office building in Rancho Cucamonga where it all started.
“It’s insane to think this has gotten as big as it has,” Isaak says. “We’ve done interviews with people that are famous in the beer world and we have listeners in Ghana and the Netherlands. It’s really crazy and still kind of weird that it’s come this far.”
Airwaves 2013: Beer Geek Radio’s 1st Anniversary at Inland Empire Brewing Company, 1710 Palmyrita Ave., Ste. 11, Riverside; www.facebook.com/airwaves2013. Sat, Jan. 5. 1pm-5pm. $30. Attendees encouraged to bring one special bottle to share.