Call me uncultured, but my favorite poem starts with the line, “There once was a man from Nantucket.” I find that poetry -- often pretentious, humorless, or intentionally vague -- isn’t exactly the most accessible form of literature. It’s not something I usually seek out. But when my editor told me to check out Sam Wagner’s The Poetry of Beer, I figured I’d give the book the benefit of the doubt.
Turns out, it wasn’t only not bad -- it was actually really funny! Even when I didn’t agree with Wagner’s opinion, I still found his writing incredibly entertaining. I figured I should give the fella a call to find out more about the art of “beer poetry” and this strange book he’s written.
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A beer poetry book begins with working in the beer industry
Wagner began fostering his love of craft beer while working at F.X. Matt Brewing Co. (you might know it as Saranac). “I had a job there writing beer copy,” says Wagner, who now -- coincidentally -- produces all the social media content for FX Networks. “I’d come up with names and labels for some of their beers, which was right up my alley.” This job inspired him to amass a collection of more than 3,500 beer labels -- and eventually, venture into crafting beer poetry.
“My college [Hamilton, in Clinton, NY] had a grant for student creativity, so I pitched them a book of beer poems,” he explains. “I was applying one art form to another to appreciate both. I budgeted a little money for publishing, and a lot of money for drinking beer. I wanted to try the good stuff -- to go into a craft beer store and buy them out. And they approved it!”
I know what you’re thinking: and yes, this man is a genius. Anyone who convinces an institution of higher learning to buy them this much beer deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant.
Wagner modestly calls the resulting book “a little coffee table/toilet read treat.” I think it’s much more than that. He has since read his book alongside the Poet Laureate of California, Dana Gioia, at Iron Triangle Brewing Co. Many of the poems are written in different styles: there’s an homage to Dr. Seuss, sonnets, couples, and even a biographical poem called a clerihew (which he wrote for Mötley Crüe, of course). Just like beer, poetry can be enjoyed in a multitude of styles!
Here’s one of my favorite poems of Wagner’s:
A bartender once told me, in reference to an over-zealous beer, “When you mix too many different colors together, you end up with grey.”
Kumquat, coffee, poppy seeds?
They’re fucking up beer like you wouldn’t believe!
I didn’t ask to drink my meal
So take out the fucking orange peel.
From craft to trash, who gave you the power
To infuse a fucking elder ower?
Basil, oyster, grapefruit juice?
Beer already came in different hues,
It was seasonal, artisanal, in numerous styles,
So save the fruit for a fucking child.
Hemp, nougat, peppercorn?
That’s not beer, it’s fucking avor porn.
Coconut, pineapple, and horchata?
Just brew the beer the way you oughta!
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Why poetry about beer is worth reading
When I first read the above poem, I actually didn’t agree with it. I thought it was funny, sure -- but the point he was making was wrong. My favorite beers end up being those with ingredients I never thought I’d like. And yet, unlike that gross feeling I get when reading the opinion of an internet troll hating on something I love, I enjoyed reading his rant.
Maybe that’s because it was in the format of a poem. Or maybe, as Wagner thinks, it’s because he clearly thought about the subject. He’s writing from a place of appreciation, even as he hates on the trend.
And as it turns out, Wagner’s opinion about fruit beer has evolved over time. “I don’t 1000% agree with it anymore,” he says. “I did at the time [I wrote it]. I’ve always wanted to try new things. If I’d never had elderflower beer and a bar had 20 of my favorite beers on tap and some elderflower beer, I’d have to try it. I’m loving [breweries] that are getting weird with it.”
He wrote this book for every type of beer lover out there. Wagner told me a few times about how “angsty” the whole project ended up being. But there’s a good reason for that: He was pretty upset that he had to be the one to bring poetry about beer into the world. “Wine has so much poetry [written about it]. Even gin! And beer needed it, too. Why has no one done this before? Why are there no beer poems? I raged through 50 or so poems to get that point across.”
Point well made, Sam.