AHU: A man for all Saisons… and IPAs, and Bocks

McGill Grad starts his own big city beerfest

At your average beer festival, a ticket gets you a plastic mug and some tokens allowing you to join a few hundred like-minded individuals in two-ounce samples from more breweries than you can count – all under a tent in some park. Nothing about the experience jibes with the way beer is meant to be drunk.

Enter Josh Schaffner, McGill grad (’06, Geographical urban systems) and wavemaker on the New York beer scene. At just 24-years-old, he has conceived and brought to fruition NY Craft Beer Week, featuring 95 beers from the northeastern United States and happening right now in New York. The festival is organized around a number of events, including bar crawls in nine neighbourhoods, partnering craft beer with specific watering holes that exemplify that neighbourhood. The result is a festival where it is as much about where you are drinking as it is about what you are drinking – championing the local allure of craft beer.

I caught up with Schaffner at the height of Craft Beer Week to talk about the work he’s done and how his motives relate to beer culture, and specifically that of Quebec.

The McGill Daily: Did your affinity for beer have an outlet during your time in Montreal?

Josh Schaffner: I never lived in rez, but instead made a home at Dieu du Ciel. I lived only a couple blocks away in each apartment I moved to over the years in Montreal; an unintentional circle around the place was a side benefit.

MD: What challenges do you see for craft beer culture, both in general and in Quebec?

JS: There’s the main challenge of craft beer being relatively new and so successful that it’s creating its own hurdles. It’s a crisis of identity for a small brewery to ask, “What does it mean to have national distribution? How does that change the identity of your brand and your product?” [Ed. Point of Reflection: How does this crisis affect a brewery like Unibroue, now available all over the U.S., but with roots in rural Quebec?]

MD: Could Craft Beer Week happen up here?

JS: I think it would happen in a different format, but with the same goal of promoting the idea of better beer. I got the idea from Philadelphia, adapting it to fit New York, and since then San Francisco has a beer week slated for February. More and more cities have expressed interest. I think that one of the motives for me doing this is that there is no reason for it to be specific to one place. There are so many places with great beer culture and there’s always room for more.

MD: How do you see the role of geography, your field of study, in beer culture?

JS: Actually, it’s rather profound. In the U.S., and also internationally, beer has a history of being extremely regional. At its current stage, it is at this point of transformation where you have beer identified as being local distributed nationally, and beers that are found to be regional distributed internationally. There is a strong association and identification of place with beer. As much as certain breweries being distributed nationally has blurred regionalism, it is still rather definable and stark.

MD: How does this feed the “local appeal” of craft beer week?

JS: I am rather proud of the expression of “local” in this festival; be it the local neighbourhood, be it the local community, be it the local brewery, be it the local food that is being paired with the local beer. My over-arching goal, though, is simpler: to promote better beer to more people. Bringing the concept of enjoyment and flavour behind beer to as many people as possible.

MD: Given the amount of time and money you have expended getting Craft Beer Week off the ground, would you say it has been a success?

JS: If you mean that after devoting thousands of dollars and hours, I’ve turned a profit, then no, but in terms of my over-arching goal, yes it has been a success. Beer has been brought to the table, both literally and figuratively, and I think Craft Beer Week will be around next year.

For a roundup of some bars, featured in Craft Beer Week, not to missed on your trip to New York, see here.

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