That’s what I kept thinking as I watched Blake Horsburgh, a co-founder and the brewmaster at Fifty West Brewery in Mariemont, peruse beers.
The way Horsburgh views beer in general is different than other people, even other brewers. They all share a passion for their craft, but few have the sense of wonder Horsburgh does.
I asked to join him on his next shopping excursion to get a closer look at his process.
“The majority of the time I walk into a bottle shop, it’s to get inspiration from commercial examples of beers,” he said. “It’s research, right? I’m trying to put myself up with the best of them. I brew beer for a living. I’m excited by what’s out there.
“It’s daunting to look at the variety. Why would I pick one over another?” he said. “But it’s great to see how much beer is out there, too. I go through a range of emotions when I’m beer shopping.”
Horsburgh said he visits a shop like this once a month or every other month. In between, he will buy a six-pack here and there, but he said he normally has something specific in mind for that. He said he prefers buying beer cold over warm, as in certain styles it will last much longer, up to 10 times longer.
Horsburgh looks at the complete package. He picked up cases to check the quality of the boxes in which they were shipped. He checked the glass manufacturer marks on the bottom of bottles, pointing out the ones he knows, remembering to look up the few he doesn’t. He noticed the art and vocabulary used on labels and packages, why they work and why they don’t.
“I look at a beer and appearance,” he said. “It’s the complete brand of their beer. A lot of times, I’m almost surprised by what I buy.”
“Troegs just rebranded,” he noted. “It makes me want to spend time with that beer. Lagunitas, Tony Magee, is delivering experience through vocabulary. You’re spending time with a character. You get lost in the story, and that’s great. Dogfish Head is the complete package. The bottle, the cap, the consistency, the packaging — it’s all world-class.”
Horsburgh was a philosophy major at Ohio University in Athens. He worked at Jackie O’s, the highly regarded brewery there, while he was in college. Both experiences shaped his views. He credits Jackie O’s founder Brad Clark with shaping how he views beer — as an experience. He called Jackie O’s' Dark Apparition imperial stout “arguably the best stout on the shelves” while at Jungle Jim’s in Eastgate.
That philosophy has carried over to Fifty West, so much so that when the brewery releases its first regularly packaged beer, it will be sold only at the Production Works. The theory behind that is that Horsburgh, co-founder Bobby Slattery and their team want their beer to be tied to an experience, not just be a random bottle on a shelf.
“Authenticity comes up in our brewery a lot. We’re always seeking a connection,” he said. “The intention of beer is pleasure-seeking. It’s for an experience.”
Another thing Horsburgh looks for in beer is freshness. While it matters more with certain styles that don’t hold flavors as long, it can work the other way as well. At Cappy’s in Loveland, we looked for the oldest bottle on the shelf, to see how it had aged. The flip-side was finding a four-pack of Founder’s ReDANKulous, its imperial red IPA.
“This was bottled seven days ago. I’m about to buy this,” Horsburgh said. With aged beer, he said, “it’s a gamble. You can have confidence in a brand, but you don’t know.”
We rotated into imported beers, a section I’ve largely left alone the past two years since immersing myself into local craft beers. He picks up a bottle of Orval, his bucket list and “go-to” beer. He pointed out a ridge running around the middle of the bottle.
“You can tell the bottles are recycled by the line. A lot of European breweries do that,” Horsburgh said. “It’s a cultural thing. It’s cool to think others have drunk from that same bottle.”
He left Cappy’s with Atlantis, a seaweed and oyster shells from German brewery Freigeist, a four-pack of ReDANKulous and Old Stock Ale from 2015. His recommendations for me, after discussing styles and learning my tastes, were Little Fish’s barrel-aged Woodthrush, which won a gold medal in a world competition, and Liefmans Goudenband, an aged Belgian.
At Jungle Jim’s he also showed me a bottle of Deus, from Brouwerij Bosteels in Belgium. At $30 a bottle, it’s a bit steep for my budget.
“I drank this five years ago at my wedding,” Horsburgh said. “Recently I just bought a bottle for our anniversary.”
Of course he did. Beer is all about the experience, after all.