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“A company like Anheuser-Busch is a hundred times our size. They literally spill more beer … than I make all year. My passionate life’s work is their industrial waste.” –Jim Koch, founder of The Boston Beer Company, in the 2009 documentary Beer Wars

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When you think about it, tasting a really good craft beer isn’t all that different from tasting a fine wine.

The process is about the same. You want to know where it’s from and who made it. Once it’s poured into your glass, you examine the color, maybe hold it up to the light and look through it. Next, you give it a sniff to try to pick out notes of chocolate or oranges or coffee. Then it’s time to sip it, swirl it around in your mouth. What other flavors can you pick up?

There is a difference, though, between tasting beer and tasting wine. Unlike wine, beer must be swallowed to fully appreciate its taste. Let’s just say at beer tastings, a spit bucket is a lot less common.

Craft beer, by most definitions, is beer brewed by a small, independent brewery. (See here for a more in-depth explanation.) To put it another way, craft beers come from any microbrewery that strives for creativity and innovation, and have little or nothing to do with Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors.

Henry Joseph, 30, has been bartending at The Pony Bar, a craft beer bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, since it opened in April 2009.

“The neighborhood was underserved for craft beers,” Henry says.

Unlike most bars, where craft beer tends to be the most expensive beer on the menu, The Pony Bar keeps it simple: all beers cost $5. To further entice its patrons to experiment with new beers, The Pony Bar’s All American program rewards anyone who tries 100 different draft beers (not necessarily in one sitting) with a Pony Bar shirt and their name on the All American plaque and on the website.

To date, 440 people have completed a 100-beer cycle.

The Pony Bar’s star attraction is the two-part menu board hanging on the wall behind the bar: a list of 20 American craft beers on tap, which rotates as often as a keg is kicked. Each line on the list has the name of the brewery, the name of the beer, and the alcohol by volume (ABV)—most beers are served in 14 oz. glasses, with higher alcohol brews served in 8 oz. glasses. For non-craft beer drinkers, The Pony Bar also serves liquor and wine, as well as Bud and Bud Light bottles.

Do you ever sell any Bud Light? I ask Henry. “A few on Saturday nights,” he says. How much do you sell them for? “Five bucks. But we’re thinking of raising it to six.”

With an obvious passion for craft beers and the knowledge to back it up, Henry is happy to help his customers select a beer from the menu board, which can be a little intimidating for a newcomer. “It’s fun to see locals come in and to watch their tastes develop and evolve over time.”

Theme nights at The Pony Bar include “Rocky Mountain High,” during which they only serve Colorado beers. They also run “Tap Takeovers,” which feature beers from one brewery all night. Previous Tap Takeovers have included Sixpoint, Lagunitas, Stone, Victory and Southern Tier.

It’s also a good place to find the latest American seasonal beers, such as pumpkin ales during October. Southern Tier’s Pumpking Imperial Pumpkin Ale has been a big hit this year. “We can’t sell enough Southern Tier pumpkin,” Henry says.

The menu board at The Pony Bar (courtesy of theponybar.com).

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It’s an exciting and pivotal time for the craft beer business. According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry was worth $7.6 billion in 2010. Yet craft beer’s undisputed heavyweight champion, The Boston Brewing Company (which brews Samuel Adamsmade up less than 1% of all beer sales in the U.S. in 2010.

This past March, the craft beer industry made headlines when Chicago-based Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch (AB) for $38.8 million. While many craft beer drinkers have mixed feelings about Goose Island’s decision to sell, the deal drew national attention to the brand and shortly after the announcement, Goose Island six-packs started appearing more frequently in the beer aisle of my local grocery store.

What’s your take on the Goose Island acquisition? I ask Henry. “[AB] can’t sell any more Bud Light,” he says. “It was a last ditch effort.” But doesn’t it make Goose Island kind of a sell out? “If the beer continues to taste good, who cares?”

The truth is the lines have been blurred for a while now. Craft Brewers Alliance, which sold its $16.3 million share of Goose Island to AB, still owns smaller outfits including Redhook Ale Brewery, Kona Brewing Company, and Widmer Brothers. This past October, Terrapin Beer Co. sold a minority share to Miller Coors in an effort to fund a $4.5 million expansion project. And Blue Moon, which makes its signature Belgian-style wheat ale as well as several seasonal variations, has been brewed by Coors since its inception in 1995.

Still, Henry points to brewers like Sam Calagione from Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, who have stuck to their guns despite financial pressures. “[Sam] could only brew 60 Minute IPA (India Pale Ale) all day,” Dogfish’s signature and best-selling beer, Henry points out, rather than experimenting constantly with new flavors that are less profitable as he does now. Calagione explains his brewing philosophy in the Beer Wars documentary:

“Big breweries are usually public companies … Their real goal at the end of the day is maximizing shareholder value, whereas our goal is maximizing the flavor of what we’re making for our own enjoyment as the people making it.”

And for other do-it-yourselfers out there, craft beer is more accessible than ever in terms of homebrewing. Amateur brewmasters can replicate their favorite beers just as an amateur baker would follow a recipe in a Paula Dean cookbook. Or, if they’re feeling adventurous, they could put their own unique twist on an old classic.

It seems like every guy I know is brewing his own beer these days, I say to Henry. “Those kids in Brooklyn, now…you can buy one-gallon [craft beer] kits,” Henry says. “The holiday markets in Union Square are selling vanilla bean porter kits. You can put craft beer kits on your [wedding] registry!” They’re even selling craft beer kits at Bed Bath & Beyond.

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When I met up with Henry at another craft beer bar, this one on the East Side, I’d been drinking $2 mugs of light, drinkable, but unremarkable Checker Cab Blonde Ale. (I’ve had it before—it’s the bar’s Sunday football beer special.) When I was ready for my next round, I asked Henry for a recommendation. He peered at the chalkboard menu and seemed excited about a beer from Barrier Brewing Co. I take it you’ve heard of Barrier before? “Yeah, it’s two guys on Long Island, Evan and Craig, who used to work for [Brooklyn-based brewery] Sixpoint.”

You really know your stuff. “Me and [The Pony Bar owner Dan McLaughlin] are pretty dialed in … I’ll come to a bar like this and try new beers, and say, ‘Hey, we should be pouring this.’”

My own beer palate isn’t as developed as Henry’s but I’ve had enough drafts to know when the beer has gone bad, and every now and then I’ll send one back. “The state of draft beer is horrible,” says Henry. “I would not order draft beer outside of a craft beer bar.” He says the lines—those are the hoses between the kegs and the taps—should be ideally cleaned once every two weeks. The Pony Bar does this, but many places don’t clean nearly as often–if ever.

According to Henry, a lot can go wrong if a bar isn’t maintaining its equipment correctly. And he should know: Henry is a Certified Cicerone, the second of three levels of the Cicerone Certification Program, just below Master Cicerone, of which there are just three in the whole country. From Cicerone.org:

“The Cicerone Certification Program offers that independent assessment and certification so that industry professionals—as well as consumers—can be sure of the knowledge and skills possessed by current and prospective beer servers.”

Henry says one part of the certification process has candidates first taste a “control beer” and then several off-tasting iterations of it to determine what went wrong, such as having been served from a dirty tap, or containing too much diacetyl, which at low levels adds a “slipperiness” to the beer but at high levels can give it an unwanted buttery flavor. Was it like the milk tasting competition in Napoleon Dynamite? I ask. “Yes. Exactly.”

When he’s not tending bar, Henry is the director of events and tastings at Civilization of Beer, a company founded by Sam Merritt whose mission is “to promote, through education and appreciation, the responsible enjoyment of high quality, craft beer in the context of our rapidly changing culinary landscape.”

Before The Pony Bar, Henry had gotten his start in the summer of 2005 in Allston, Mass., working at the Sunset Grill and Tap under owner Marc Kadish. It’s there, he says, where “I truly fell in love with the wide world of beer.”

He went on to work for Craft Brewers Guild outside of Boston. Working as a sales rep, he learned the “business of beer,” and met many people in the industry who shared his passion for craft beer.

Henry describes the craft beer community as “a tight knit group—not cutthroat,” and says, “We’re at a point in history where there are more breweries than ever—more than before Prohibition. More people are passionate about making and drinking beer.”

He credits local bar owners Jimmy Carbone (Jimmy’s #43), Dave Broderick (Blind Tiger), and the late Ray Dieter (d.b.a.) for growing the craft beer business in New York City when no one else wanted to sell the stuff. Without these guys, Henry says, “I wouldn’t have a job.” (On a personal note, I’m indebted to Broderick, too: my girlfriend and I shared pumpkin beers at Blind Tiger on our first date.)

“Craft beer isn’t a fad,” Henry says, attributing an old quote to Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Garrett Oliver. “It’s a return to normalcy.”

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