America’s founding fathers were a sudsy lot, swinging steins with unapologetic, red-faced gusto. Ben Franklin, one of the gusto-iest among them, famously quipped that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. His tendency to be right on most every issue lends the claim inherent plausibility – but all beer was not then, nor is it now, created equal. There is divine beer, which rightfully inspires fantasies of celestial nepotism. And, there is vile beer, so far removed from transcendent pours that it seems another species altogether.
To Franklin’s credit, most Colonial- era beer rated above average. It was thick, flavorful and highly variable according to season and region. Put simply, the diametric opposite of mass-produced, wan pilsners that would soon enough regrettably wipe them out. Yet thanks to the criminal triumph of corporate beer over the past century, we’ve been taught to think that uniform brews are desirable – egalitarian, even – and that more volume for less money is the highest good.
Enter America’s craft beer movement, to save us from Big Beer’s sins and restore Franklin’s brewing Eden as it was before the fall. In the past few decades, home brewers and small-batch breweries belabored their ingredients, formulas and techniques, trying to make beer more like, well, beer, rather than carbonated water with a drop of alcohol.
Year after year the movement picks up steam, and all for the better. In Providence, quietly but mightily, a semi-exclusive festival dubbed Beervana has become the go-to showcase of the best of the best, taking the temperature of craft beer now and providing an arena for the devout to make merry together. Now in its fourth year, the festival will open its doors at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet this October 19, rewarding 1000 lucky ticket holders with 2 oz. tastings of over 150 meticulously selected brews, some of which can’t be seen anywhere else. Julian’s restaurant will vend snacks, and “beer enlightenment” will be dispensed by scheduled seminars and brewers on hand to pour and edify in equal measure. If this sounds too civilized, fear not: the festival keeps things lively with unexpected quirks, such as a tuba quartet and a Chinese lion parade in years past.
It’s a rumpus, and mostly the handiwork of an enthusiastic triumvirate: Brian Oakley of Julian’s on Broadway, Mike Iannazzi of Nikki’s Liquors and Dan Keating, who’s tied to a distributing company responsible for popularizing a number of renowned craft beers.
Despite a stellar, colorful lineup of draughts at the Julian’s bar, Oakley’s intense passion for craft brews may not be obvious even to loyal regulars, who linger over the restaurant’s stiff coffee and stiffer cocktails. Behind the scenes, however, Oakley is known to give staffers lessons on the industry’s arts, and even passes around a titanic compendium called The Brewmaster’s Table, the handiwork of revered brewer and beer historian Garrett Oliver.
Oliver, the force behind Brooklyn Brewery’s well-respected brews, as well as the Oxford Companion to Beer, a.k.a. the beer geek’s bible, also happens to be a headlining speaker at this year’s Beervana. It’s a major coup for any beer festival.
Dann and Martha Paquette of Pretty Things, a self-dubbed “gypsy” brewing company out of Somerville, Massachusetts, are the second educational team.
The idiosyncratic geekery that inform both Oliver’s and the Paquettes’ work speaks to one of the core principles behind Beervana, which is that beer is something with history and minutiae worth getting to know, slowly and attentively, rather than something siphoned mindlessly from the nearest, room-temperature keg.