By John Foyston
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Even a cursory survey of why Portland is a great beer city turns up Fred Eckhardt's name — which was actually Otto Frederick Eckhardt, though I never heard anyone call him Otto — early and often. Eckhardt died peacefully of congestive heart failure at his North Portland home August 10, three months after the death of his partner of 60 years, Jimmy Takita. “He wasn't in much pain,” said friend and caregiver Tom Reese. “He just ran out of steam and went to sleep.” Eckhardt was 89, and the beer world he helped build will never be the same without him.
He helped foment the good beer revolution by educating brewers and beer drinkers with his books, columns and monthly tastings. His pioneering "A Treatise on Lager Beers" educated thousands of homebrewers in the late 1960s, and he and homebrew guru Charlie Papazian started America brewing.
His beer columns for The Seattle Times and The Oregonian talked about good beer back when most beer was pale gold, flavorless and brewed in large factories. Of course, as he put it, he was just writing about beer to inspire the fledgling craft brewers of the day to make something he wanted to drink so he would no longer have to write columns about Rainier Ale, aka "Green Death," a nickname partially inspired by color of the can.
He knew all about beer, about beer styles, about brewing techniques, about beer history, but the fact is that Fred Eckhardt was not a beer geek. Beer geeks rarely inspire and Fred did just that: He made Good Beer a club we all wanted to join, and having a pint with Fred was as much fun — and as educational — an afternoon as a person could ever hope to spend.
Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, where Fred wrote a regular column, put it this way: "Fred was the cosmic giggle of beer. Everything was filtered through Smedley, his imaginary alternate persona, who took nothing seriously and suffered no fools gladly. How did a World War II Marine morph into perhaps the earliest craft beer authority with his first publication in the late '60s when craft beer wasn't even a concept?
"He wrote about homebrewing 10 years before it was legal. We traveled together in the early ‘90s to raucous homebrewer events in southern California where I first experienced his amazing speaking style. Sly, witty, off the cuff and just plain hilarious, he left his audience both shaken and stirred. He wrote for Celebrator Beer News for many years to the chagrin of our uncompromising copy editor. 'Dean of American Beer Writers?' she'd scream. Together we'd turn his disparate rants into something resembling English and the beer enthusiasts loved it. He was Fred. And there is a huge hole in the beer cosmos that will never be filled."
Eckhardt was a U.S. Marine in World War II and Korea, a photographer and a swim instructor well before he was a beer guru. His epiphany came with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s: If the nukes did hit the fan, as seemed likely at the time, the post-apocalypse world would have little need for either swimming instructors or guys who took portraits of cute babies.
He remembered when he was a Marine, the mess sergeant always had a still going within hours of hitting the beach. "That sergeant was much loved," Eckhardt said, "and I realized people who make booze always are." That's when he set out to teach himself and others how to brew at home and take beer back from the mega breweries that had made it a bland, fizzy commodity.
Check with almost any American craft brewer or homebrewer and you'll likely find a copy of Eckhardt's groundbreaking "A Treatise on Lager Beers" (1969) and his "The Essentials of Beer Style" (1989) on the book shelves — and maybe even a copy of his 1992 book “Sake (U.S.A.)” on the history and technique of sake brewing.
He also wrote hundreds of columns for beer magazines around the world, as well as a newsletter for craft beer fans, "Listen to Your Beer," and for homebrewers, "Talk to Your Beer."
"It's important to remember that Fred was a voice alone in a sea of boring beer," says Alan Sprints of Hair of the Dog. "When breweries were closing or consolidating and beer was becoming more bland, Fred urged people to look for beer with real flavor. He was the spark that helped ignite the craft beer revolution."
"Fred will be missed by both all of us fortunate enough to have known him," said Carl Singmaster of the pioneering Portland bottle shop, Belmont Station, "and by those who never were so lucky, but who benefited from his championing what has come to be called craft beer.”
Karl Ockert was the first brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing and made his first homebrew from a recipe out of Fred's book. “When we were preparing the BridgePort brewery in 1984, Fred came over to check us out,” said Ockert, who's now with Deschutes Brewery. “I was awestruck to meet him. He was so kind and disarming you could not help but embrace him. Once we got the brewery running he came by with an old golf bag carrying his camera gear and in between liberal beer sampling, proceeded to shoot the BridgePort brewhouse in its primitive glory. I remember him wobbling out the door later that afternoon, cautioning Matt Sage and I about the dangers of working in a brewery and over-imbibing on the job. We were in our 20s and indestructible, but I was scared to death he wouldn’t make it home.”
Fred as mentor and inspiration is part of his outsized influence.
"It's such a loss that words seem irrelevant at best," said Mike McMenamin. "Fred was the complete package and a very funny one at that. As beginning brewers, he wanted to know what we were doing and, most importantly, why we were doing it. He was willing to taste whatever we were into, whether it be spirits, wine, beer, et cetera and find something positive to say about it even if there might not have been much to merit it. Fred was a great friend and mentor to us, along with his partner Jim Takita, who together were one of the world's great treasures. Fare thee well!"
Kurt Widmer of Widmer Brothers Brewing credits one of Fred's beer columns in The Oregonian for inspiring him to become a brewer. "Fred was always an enthusiastic member of the brewing community,” Widmer said. "Whenever he wrote for local or national publications, he invariably found positive things to say. I don't recall Fred ever writing an unkind review of any craft brewer, and that was so helpful to us in the earliest days when we were so desperately striving for awareness and credibility among local beer drinkers.
"On a personal note, it was one of Fred's columns in The Oregonian that inspired me to take up home brewing 36 years ago. Fred also continued to be a fan of our Altbier even though it seemed a bit much for local beer drinkers. He was a great guy to have a beer with and I will miss him."
The Widmer brothers repaid the favor: In his wallet, Fred Eckhardt carried the only “free Widmer beer for life” card that ever was or ever will be issued.
In 1997, Alan Sprints began brewing a beer called Fred in honor of his mentor. "Fred has been a big influence on my life, both in the beer world and as an example of how to be a good person," said Sprints. "His outgoing and compassionate personality, his desire to share his knowledge with others has made me a little better person. He inspired me to brew Adam (the first Hair of the Dog beer and based on a historical recipe Eckhardt found) and to create a brewery that is not afraid to be unique and different. I will miss his stories, his ability to wander through related subjects and still come back to the point, but most of all, I'll miss his smile. Cheers to you, Otto."
Sprints brings up a salient point. Fred was a Buddhist at heart, and he lived perhaps the most joyful life of any I've ever been privileged to know. He was happy, exuberant, irreverent, interested in everything, humble and above all, kind; and that's the legacy for us to perpetuate.
"Yesterday's news about Fred's passing brought me much sadness," said Chip Walton who did a fine interview with Fred for Brewing TV, "but also a great night remembering how awesome Fred was and how important he was and still is to the homebrewing/craft brewing world. My heart breaks for you, Fred's family and friends, Portland and all of American craft beer for our collective loss. May we hear Fred's laughter with every beer we enjoy."
Fred the Buddhist would want that; he'd want us to laugh with friends and enjoy the bounties of this beautiful world; and good beer, good friends, good stories, heartfelt laughter and a good long life well lived are chief among those bounties. Which is why Fred Eckhardt will remain an inspiration to all who knew him. Maybe we can even aspire to living in Fred's world, Tom Dalldorf said.
"I've pretty much given up on giving Fred assignments," Dalldorf said several years before Fred's death, "because he writes on whatever interests him and ignores the tedious requests of unenlightened editors. That's why we call his column 'Fred's World.' He's comfortable in it, and you can only hope that someday he invites you in as well. It's a pretty cool place to be."
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
With the explosion of craft beer, so too has come an explosion in beer writers who are celebrating the industry through the publishing of books, articles and blogs. One of those beer writers is Fred Eckhardt, who started tackling the subject when the founders of the craft beer industry were still homebrewing. His "A Treatise on Lager Beers" was published in the early 1970s, followed by books on beer styles and sake. His extensive career also includes writing for The Seattle Times and The Oregonian as well as magazines like All About Beer.
Before he began his writing career, he was in the Marines and one of the impacts the Bay of Pigs invasion had on him was to make him ponder life after a nuclear holocaust. According to an interview with John Foyston, Fred said, "I realized that if you could brew alcohol you would be welcome in whatever shreds of civilization might remain after a nuclear war, so I took a good homebrew recipe and made my first batch of beer." Whether he was being entirely serious or not, his early forays in homebrewing were the beginnings of a career that would impact the craft beer world for decades.
Since those early days, beer writing has gathered steam with technical books like Fred's to ones telling the stories of the folks living their brewing dreams. The stories behind how each person came to be a beer writer are as varied the number of beer styles. Brian Yaeger, who wrote "Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey," didn't know he was going to write a book until he announced it to a classroom during the pursuit of his master’s in professional writing. Once it was out of his mouth, he couldn't take it back. And before he knew it he'd secured a media pass to the Great American Beer Festival. From there he embarked on a six week road trip across the country. He describes the book as being "about the people, less so the beer."
Brian knew he'd write a second book but it wasn't until his publisher proposed "Oregon Breweries" that he knew what it would be. As luck would have it, he had already created the outline for it during the road trip that brought him and his wife from California to their new home in Portland. After retrieving the handwritten journal, he began two years of work during which the number of breweries in Oregon was growing exponentially. In the end, he had gathered the details on 190 breweries and brewpubs and was even more qualified to show visitors around, one of the things he loves most about being a beer writer.
Pete Dunlop, author of the 2013 book "Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana" started writing for the daily paper at Washington State University during graduate school. He went on to teach high school journalism and then had a career in marketing communications before going freelance. As opposed to Brian's books that are more contemporary, Pete's book is primarily historical in nature, no doubt influenced by his master’s in history.
When asked about his favorite part of being a beer writer, he replied that, "Beer people are easy to talk to," noting as well that he enjoys being able to write about the good in the industry (and sometimes bashing AB InBev). On the flip side, he noted that making money as a beer writer can be challenging. For him, publishing articles and authoring a beer blog were steps that led up to the realization that getting a book published was an important next move to make progress in this career. He's found magazine work easier to come by after publishing his book and is looking forward to writing a second historically based book.
Newer to the craft beer world is Steven Shomler, author of the just-released "Portland Beer Stories." Before 2007 he was not a beer drinker, having tasted the "crap beer" his dad drank and hating it. It wasn't until he was filming a hop harvest that he experienced what he described as "a life-changing experience." Smelling the hops in the field, during processing and in the drying room, opened his eyes and "stupid palate" to a world he didn't know existed. Later that day, he tried his first triple IPA and a whole new world opened to him, a world that he was able to write with a newcomer's perspective. However, he was new only to craft beer, as this would be his second book, following one about Portland's food cart scene. The realization that he was not going to be able to do a comprehensive piece was his biggest challenge so instead he focused on a mix of the old (McMenamins and Widmer) and the new (PINTS and Culmination). Finding stories to write about was easy as the brewers made themselves accessible, a sharp contrast to his experience with the wine industry.
The forthcoming "The Beer Bible" by Jeff Alworth is a product of his travels during two years visiting an array of amazing breweries overseas. It wasn't something that he had planned on writing; instead it was at the request of Workman Publishing, who had turned down his pitch for another book. They were looking for a follow up to "The Wine Bible" and sent him a copy, requesting he submit a table of contents as his "pitch." It was perhaps an unconventional way of finding the right author, but Jeff "didn't have anything to lose." After all, they were approaching him instead of the other way around and so he didn't stress about it.
Workman was happy with the table of contents Jeff submitted and after more than a year in contract negotiations, Jeff began the task of researching and writing his book that is broadly divided by beer styles. Since beginning work on the book in 2011 he has accumulated countless hours of stories about brewers all over the world, facilitated largely by making contacts with importers. Some countries he could have navigated on his own, the ones where English is commonly spoken, but it was destinations like Italy where he would have struggled without help arranging visits and translating.
Unlike Steven, Jeff had been a huge beer fan for years, having downed plenty of Henry Weinhard’s back when it was big, attending graduate school in Wisconsin when New Glarus Brewing opened and producing his own beers. That background, and having written ever since he was a kid, was the perfect combination that helped him begin his writing career, which started when he took over the beer column at Willamette Week following William Abernathy's departure. He went from there to write countless pieces for other publications.
Whether you prefer shorter pieces or books, historical or contemporary topics, there's something for everyone when it comes to beer writing. The best part is that they celebrate the day in and day out work that brewers do to fill our glasses. Cheers to the pioneering writers who first took it up and those who have followed in their steps!
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