In college John Brandel majored in microbiology, so maybe that’s where his interest in all things fermented was borne. Maybe. More likely it began in the early 80’s when he and his four best buddies began visiting craft breweries which, at the time, were something very few even knew existed.
He’s written and self-published a chronicle of his worldwide travels and tastings of all things fermented, including beer, cider, sahti, wine…pretty much any “liquid whose chemicals are broken down by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat, or whose sugars are converted to ethyl alcohol.”
“The book isn’t exclusively a compilation of drunken tales of me and my friends,” Brandel said “those are included (laugh), but it’s also about geography, and history of the towns we visited, the breweries, a review of beers we drank, although this also is not a hyper-critical breakdown of any one beer and why it was better than another. It’s not, ‘This place had the best IPA I ever tasted.’ It’s more, ‘The beer was really good, you’ve got to one day visit Pembine, Wisconsin and see the brewery they’ve wedged into about 30-square feet of building, and there was a cute waitress there that night.’”
History is woven throughout as Brandel has visited 18 countries, sampling and writing, writing and sampling.
“Believe it or not, there’s a brewery not far from where the Spandau Prison was in western Berlin,” Brandel said “where Rudolph Hess was imprisoned.”
This book is the first of what may end up being a series.
“After a visit with a teacher of mine from high school, Mr. Cooper,” Brandel said “who has self-published a book of his own on 8-man football, he suggested to me that what I have is more than an interesting hobby, and that maybe I should ‘pick up on it.’ So, every night I’d start writing about a town, or a beer, and suddenly I had chapter after chapter. I’ve managed to get 350 breweries that I visited into De-Fermented Mind, it was originally 694 breweries, but my editor said I needed to rein it in.”
His second book will be about the balance of the 694 breweries, and Brandel’s third will be about 300-plus breweries that took him beyond the 1000 mark.
This fascination began while working for 3M, and living in Dallas, Texas. Brandel joined a beer tasting group called the Bavarian Stein Club.
“Just a bunch of us like-minded people would get together every Saturday,” Brandel said “and we were from all over the country. One friend from Maine had been tracking his beers, and taking notes, and he asked me what my ‘life-list’ of breweries looked like? Hell if I knew! I was already a couple hundred breweries in when I decided I wanted to visit breweries in every state. I traveled a lot for work, so I started plotting trips with my frequent flier miles. Any one weekend I’d hop on a plane for example to say…Hartford, Connecticut and hit 15 breweries. Jot some notes, and cross that state off the list. The next trip was to Kiln, Mississippi, Brett Favre’s hometown, which isn’t far from New Orleans…so, why not do both? Suddenly I was obsessed with going to new places.”
Soon Brandel’s wanderlust turned international.
“There were some beer festivals in Canada,” he said “I found one in Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg, and from there I found one in Halifax, so I went there. I started clicking off the different provinces, and thought, ‘Well I have to get up to the Yukon.’ So that’s where I went.”
One day Brandel read a story about sahti, and how it’s made with Juniper berries.
“I was off to Finland,” Brandel said “for more research! (laugh) And my family background is Belgian, German, and Polish, so I started doing some genealogy visiting those countries, and visited breweries. Everywhere I go I make it a point to seek out breweries. And they keep popping up. There are something like 4000 craft beer producers in the United States, so to have reached more than a thousand on my own, I’m barely skimming the surface. For me it’s the experience of going to these places, not judging one beer over another, rather to find these entrepreneurial people who maybe gave up on corporate America to follow their dream, and brew beer.”
Many of the trips Brandel set out on his own, but a good many were also shared with his mother, Virginia.
“After my father, Arnie passed away in 1985,” Brandel said “my mom, who was more a cocktail drinker who liked her Old Fashioned’s, was suddenly alone, and as a way to get her out of the house, I’d sometimes take her along. And suddenly she started getting into the craft beers, and she loved being out with new people, and the next thing I knew she was becoming a fanatic about it, and started jotting her ‘life-list’ and taking her notes, like what was on the food menu, or who she talked to this or that particular night, and her anecdotal stories became part of the book. A month before she passed away we had gone to a couple breweries together in Illinois. We counted, and she had gone with me to fourteen different states, and 230 breweries before she passed.”
John’s circle of friends with whom he gathers for many fermented sojourns are Jim Davies, Pat McBride, Nick Bell, and Larry Cohen.
“I’ve known these guys since childhood,” Brandel said “and us getting together, because all our lives have taken us on different geographic paths, usually happens over the Thanksgiving holiday. We’ve been all over together. Nick got married in Italy, so off we went.
We aren’t all always able to make it, we’ve been doing this for 34 years, and with marriages, kids, and curve balls life throws, sometimes it’s only a couple of the ‘gang’ that get together.”
A De Fermented Mind is part travelogue, part historical, cultural, stream of consciousness, a memoir of stories from the beer soaked road, sort of a Hunter S. Thompson meets Norm and Cliff at Cheers.
“Each chapter is a ‘tour’ of breweries,” Brandel said “but they segue into trips to museums, historical sites, strip joints (not with my mom), there’s foolishness, laughter, maybe you’ll learn something. It’s not so much about the beer as it is about the people I’ve met, and the life experiences I’ve enjoyed along the way.”
John Brandel is currently selling his book out of the trunk of his car.
He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org