Who first came up with the idea of selling cans of beer in six-packs in the 1940s? An Illinois brewer, after he carried out some market research and found out that the six-pack was the right size and shape for housewives who needed to carry one home. And who knows the story of Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who banned the sale of coffee in order to bolster sales of the world’s favorite amber nectar?
This isn’t some tale from the ‘Strange but True’ column in a culinary magazine. It’s just one of the thousands of anecdotes and pieces of advice that Dr Bill posts each day on his Facebook page, or talks about in one of his numerous podcasts (number one on the iTunes download chart), recounts at his tasting sessions, or tells to diners at the restaurant Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido, California, where he is in charge as ‘beverage supervisor'.
Any technical name we might give to the king of hops might seem reductive. «I’m the man who chooses what you drink,» Bill Sysak announces quite simply to people who ask what it is exactly that he does. And you can be sure that, given the chance, he’ll recommend a good beer for you.
Those who have met him add that Bill, for each dish and each flavor, will pick out the right beer to accompany it. He’ll also remember the twist of lemon added by the chef to the custard at the last minute, or the nutmeg in the vegetable quiche. And thanks to that little detail, and a little imagination, he’ll arrive at the perfect choice between a pale ale, a Weiss beer, a pilsner or a lager flavored with a hint of fruit.
His choice is always biased: «Beer has many advantages over wine and other alcoholic drinks when pairing them with food,» he said in a recent interview. «First, it has carbonation, which is like scrubbing bubbles for the palate. Then it has malts, which accent roasted meats and vegetables, bitterness that cuts through fat, sweetness that matches with spice. I love to get people with a pairing to that wild moment when they just get that happy smile on their face».
Dr. Beers’ passion began in his youth. Discovered drinking poor quality supermarket beer when he was 15, his father made a deal with him: they would drink a variety of excellent beers together once a week. But there were two conditions: he was only to drink in his father’s presence and, given that he was nearing 16 and would soon be able to get a car, he would never drink and drive.
From the first week and for the next four years, father and son, together with friends and their sons, sampled beers from the world over and kept the empty bottles in Bill’s bedroom, eventually building up a collection of around 1,200. The realization and confirmation that he now had a palate capable of recognizing a wide variety of tastes came when he moved abroad. Bill isn’t nicknamed Doc because he gained a degree in agricultural studies, but because of his training as an army medic.
In the four years he spent in Germany, for example, from 1986 to 1989, besides looking after American soldiers, Bill found time to visit 180 breweries and taste every beer produced in the country which boasts the longest brewing traditions and the oldest brewery in the world (which began operating way back in 1040).
Doc tells of how, while living in Germany, he made around 30 trips to Belgium, a small state, but which has a very high concentration of beer production: around 500 different types (including the ‘white’ specialties), and a fascinating history of beers produced by monks in their monasteries. This beer marathon continued after his return to the United States, when he settled in Seattle, and also after the death of his father and his return home, to southern California.
Despite the fact that he abandoned medicine, Bill’s nickname of Doc has stuck: legends are told about his cellar at home – 1,600 bottles, 400 of which are vintage beers, and another 500 at his mother’s home (due to space restrictions) – and the private ‘festival’ which attracts hundreds of visitors every year.
It’s apparently the world’s craziest tasting festival: at one of the most recent editions 162 very rare beers were tasted, including some of the world’s most sought-after Belgian varieties. Those lucky enough to be invited are advised by him to never to regret missing out on a good wine in favor of a beer, and can vouch for his infallible palate. It’s true, Doc: “This is the age of hops”.
This article was written while sipping a Weiss beer made in Munich, in Bavaria, Germany, and nibbling American peanuts. I’m not sure that Dr Bill would approve.
Photo by [email protected]/flickr