Josh Schaffner, founder and director of NY Craft Beer Week, is one busy guy these days, but lucky me, we’ve become friends. You’ll likely hear more about him, because he’ll be teaching us all about craft beers, but we figured you’d want to know a little more about him, this cool and laid back guy who just loves craft beers. Unless you’re waiting for his autobiography (no plans yet), you won’t get more details than this unique and in-depth interview.

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Foodmayhem (FM): Lon and I have been eating food since before we can remember, but assuming you weren’t raised on beer, how did you get so into beer? Was it love at first taste or did beer grow on you?

Josh Schaffner (JS): When I was eight years old, my family was visiting my Uncle for the first time since he moved to San Francisco, and my mother had made my sister and I promise that we would be open to trying any and all new foods that we encountered. So it was that midway through the trip, we all went out to a very traditional Chinese restaurant. My father ordered a beer. I believe it was Tsing Tsao, but I can’t remember for sure. He had his beer every now and then, but it was always something much darker, something that looked completely unappetizing. I now know the beers he favored to be Black and Tans. But this beer didn’t look like what I associated with the word beer, something that I understood was not for children. This beer looked like soda, and I liked soda. So after I had tried all of the food on the table, I asked to try the different drinks too. After all, that was just me keeping my end of the promise. I pointed to the beer and was rebuffed by my mother. But my father wanted to teach me a lesson, so he readily passed it my way to have a sip. By this point, there was quite a commotion created by my request for a taste of beer in the midst of a large family meal so everyone looked my way while he raised the glass to my lips and offered me a small taste. I didn’t like it much, but swallowed anyway because I felt I had a point to prove. To me, it just tasted like funny soda, just as it looked. It was carbonated, which was familiar to me, but it wasn’t sweet like soda, or milky like egg creams from my neighborhood. Instead it tasted to me like I imagined the brown water might taste that came through the pipes after they were being worked on in my apartment building. That was my first taste of beer, and clearly it was not a positive one.

In high school, when my friends and I started drinking, we drank whatever we could get our hands on so long as it had alcohol. It was a typical adolescent drinking experience with races over who could finish their forties first, or who could somehow produce the most exotic looking, sounding, or foul tasting spirit. I soon eschewed the Old English 800 preferences of my friends and sought after anything I didn’t recognize or hadn’t tasted yet. The world of introducing myself to alcohol was just like exploring new foods in San Francisco. If someone else liked to drink it, then I was determined to try it for myself. Whenever someone would make a beer run, I would ask them to bring me the most obscure beer the bodega offered. Soon enough, I was one of the first in my group to be able to grow facial hair and I took full advantage of the situation. I boldly overtook the duties of the One who bought the beer, and I loved every element of it. I used the opportunity to try every new beer I could find, and made loyal allegiances towards seeking out the ones that I actually liked for the taste. At 18, I moved to Montreal for university. Having reached the legal drinking age, a world of possibilities was opened to me.

FM: How did Craft Beer Week get started?

JS: In all my drinking and traveling since, I have always sought to drink what is local as much as possible. Not only because it is fresher, but because it is often a uniting bond with those that live in the area. I have not found locally notable food to be nearly as ubiquitous as locally distinguished beers. Given the rise of better and better beer in North America almost precisely in stride with my coming of age into beer appreciation, my continued beer exploration has been rather easily enabled.

I took a job as a flight attendant midway through my university career. While ultimately being very little of what I thought or hoped that it might be, the experience did provide me with a completely unexpected wealth of knowledge. Eventually I realized that there was a way to taste something distinctive about each of the places I went to. While the greasy burgers were all cooked to the same, less than stellar condition, the beers they were served with often rotated in concert with the regional area. My extensive travels through North America yielded an opportunity to try local beers in many, many different places. As I grew more and more familiar with the destinations, I began to preference for layovers that placed me in cities with beers I loved, but were unavailable elsewhere. Eventually I would even befriend locals who could take me to visit the breweries whose products I so desired. I came to understand the unique position that breweries hold in connecting their local communities to a sense of place in a culture of increasing uniformity. Small breweries were to me the Mom and Pop enterprises that I enjoyed giving my business to, instead of fearing the affects of their profit margins with each purchase that I made.

In March 2008, I arranged to meet a close friend in Philadelphia for their first beer week. It was merely the latest in a long-running series that I had begun to string together for beer and food destination excursions throughout the world. From Italy to Belgium, out to Argentina and around to New Zealand and Australia, I never imagined that of all the festivals and special events I managed to work into my schedule, it would be the one closest to home that made the biggest impression. I think much had to do with the experience that I gained with each prior festival and my ability to use them as reference points, but it was also the inherent familiarity that Philadelphia afforded me which made it so appealing. Here was a city where I spoke the language (for the most part), recognized the vast majority of the beer and food products, had a variety of friends and acquaintances to meet up with, and should a reason arise, I could be home by the end of the next hour. However at the same time, my friend and I had very little previous experience with the city and looked forward to exploring it.

Four days later, and more beer events than I could imagine squeezed into each one of them, we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. More importantly, we felt that through the lens of beer we had managed to really discover what it was that Philadelphia had to offer. Sure, we consumed an inordinate amount of phenomenal beers from all over the world, and ate more than our fair share as well, but we also managed to take some breaks in between. We walked the city’s streets, visited a handful of galleries and squeezed in a museum wander or two. It was an incredibly packed in stretch of time, and I’m not sure I could manage it again. But no one forced us to attempt to handle that much. The entire opportunity of the beer was all about biting off just as much as you might want to chew and experiencing the best the city had to offer, all through the pretense of pleasure imbibing.

I was sold.

FM: How do you see Craft Beer Week expanding in the future? Give us the 2-year plan and the 10-year super duper dream plan.

JS: The mission of NY Craft Beer Week is to raise the profile of craft beer. While many people consider craft beer to be a niche product today, we will consider the Beer Week successful when New Yorkers come to expect that every neighborhood and every good neighborhood drinking hole has a selection of craft beer available. Already, we have seen many bars convert their taps over to craft beer, and some altogether new beer bars open in neighborhoods that have never featured craft beer before. If in two more years, one can reliably find a decent pour in every such neighborhood of all five boroughs in the city, then NY Craft Beer Week will certainly have a lot more to celebrate. In ten years, it would be my dream to have craft beer so well understood and appreciated that every single restaurant had a beer list to rival their wine list, and that the two were featured on par and presented together when diners are seated to the table.

FM: Seeing the trends in food, some fads are so over-rated, like foam (which I’m glad to finally see less of) and Pinkberry. Do you feel that way about some well marketed beers? What’s the most over-rated beer?

JS: I think that for the most part, the excessive hype of the craft beer industry has faded. Many new breweries were opened, and new beers released, in the mid-90’s, solely for the reason of capitalizing on the economic hype of the industry. But the economic climate is no longer conducive to such marketing campaigns that have no basis in the quality or flavor of the beer. The incredible growth of “microbrewery revolution” bottomed out at the turn of the century, and the growth that craft beer has seen in the aftermath is remarkably even keeled. The costs to establish a new beer or brewery these days is so prohibitive, that a company needs to be really serious about what it is that they’re selling. I would like to believe that such seriousness can only be achieved when the people behind the product truly believe in its potential success because of the intrinsic value and quality that they offer through that product.

As well, I think consumers have become more educated in the last several years, not just about beer, but about products and marketing in general. The establishment of organic food as a key player in the agricultural industry and the aftermath of NAFTA on our manufacturing industries have taught the country’s consumers that price and marketing do not always reflect quality, value or related long-term costs. I think that many people are now attempting to pay more attention to where their products come from and how they are produced, which makes it less likely for a product to succeed based on good marketing alone.

Nonetheless, there are still fads in the craft beer industry. The difference is that many of these fads originate with the innovation of a new beer style that others pick up on and being to make their own as well. Double IPAs, hopped-up Barleywines, and whiskey barrel aged beers and other “extreme” beer styles are all examples of beer that has taken on fad-like status in the last few years. However, these styles are largely American innovations, and while seen by some as fads, they can also be taken as a part of the natural progression of our craft beer evolution.

FM: On the opposite side, we find such joy in sharing great products with people, like L.A. Burdick Chocolates, the Chistorra from Despana, or just recently, the Pecorino Fresco from Dancing Ewe Farm. Is there a beer that you want to shout from the rooftops and tell the world about?

I get pretty excited about any beer I taste that is of exceptional quality. There are a great many beers out there that are flavorful and just an absolute pleasure to drink, but then there are a few that meet the expected style so well, or are so original in their interpretations of a given style, that you just want to have everyone you know get to taste it too. For me, those discoveries tend to happen a lot more frequently when I am traveling. I think that because I know the local market so well, and many others that I interact with can say the same, such big-time discoveries are much more apt to occur in areas where I am less familiar with what is locally available and carry fewer expectations as a result. I have the good fortune of being able to travel quite frequently, and it has become one of my greatest pleasures to bring people beer or foods that I enjoy which they cannot get locally themselves. I think it has a lot to do with always wanting what you can’t have, there’s just something that is a little bit more exciting about such an out of the way product.

FM: I find that the price of coffee in the city does not really reflect quality. After all, Starbucks stinks and it’s dang expensive. How closely related to price is the quality of beer?

I think the same is true about beer. The markup on most macro brewed beers in the city is so tremendous, that craft beers have to be sold at significantly lower profit margins in order to remain competitive. For better or worse, both macro and craft beers are still known as beer, and as long as they are considered within the same product category, their prices will often be compared against each other. Macrobrewery offerings are much cheaper to produce than any craft beer produced by any craft brewery. The macrobeers are produced in a manner that is specifically tailored to save money, and they are made in extremely large and efficient breweries. Craft beers are created for their flavor first, and are more often than not produced in smaller scale breweries. Even though craft beers almost always retail for a little bit more than macro beers, their price difference does nothing to adequately distinguish the difference in quality or value between the two types of beers.

The issue comes down to economies of scale as well as recipe creation. A beer that carries a cheaper price than others in the store may not be because it is of inferior quality, but merely because that brewery has the ability to produce with better economies of scale. Similarly, really expensive craft beers are often produced with the lowest profit margin of all because they are made in such small quantities that the price reflects the economy of scale of their production rather than the presumed higher quality of their ingredients. Were such high-end craft beers to be sold at a profit margin that was comparable to normal business expectations, the price would be so prohibitively high that very few of them would ever be sold. Instead, many higher priced beers, particularly those from the same breweries that make other more reasonably priced beers, are simply labors of love and offered because that is how the craft beer industry developed. Craft breweries cater to consumers who appreciate great quality, and their brewers are more than happy to provide those dedicated beer drinkers with new and innovative products.

FM: Foodmayhem reader’s love learning as much as possible about food and beverages. How can we learn more about beer? Do you recommend any books, websites, or classes?

Well first and foremost, they should pick up a NYC Beer Passport, gather in all the info, and make the most of NY Craft Beer Week. We have really strived to create event options for everyone, with interest levels from non-beer drinker (so that they can learn more about why others love it so much) to master brewers (so that they can revel in seeing their beers presented in new ways).

Beyond the Beer Week itself, there are a number of other things. I would strongly suggest that those with a growing interest in beer attend a tasting festival or similar special event at a nearby beer bar. These festival events are specifically geared to help people experience new styles of beer and expand their palates, and the bartenders at good beer bars are usually more than willing to offer up a sample pour for the same reason. If they are getting into homebrewing, there is the NYC Homebrewers Guild, whose members will gladly help show the ropes or provide helpful commentary – they meet once a month at Burp Castle. Then there is the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, which also meets once a month at Mugs Ale House. MBAS also has a couple of homebrewers in regular attendance, but the crowd is much more geared for discussing anything about beer, homebrewing or commercial.

Some good websites are the communities of and, as well as for various official reports and statistics from the Brewers Association, and finally to find where to buy the beer you now love so much after discovering it at a tasting festival. A lot of the beer bars around town will carry free copies of Ale Street News or the Brewing News, and you can also subscribe to the magazines, All About Beer and Beer Advocate (both of which tend to offer a more involved perspective than some of the other subscription magazines in my opinion).

Lastly there are two books, which I think every person into beer should get around to reading. The first is Travels with Barley by Ken Wells. It is a very readable travelogue from a former Wall Street Journalist contributor, which takes readers on a tour of beer as he encountered it, from one end of the Mississippi to the other. It’s not going to serve as a master educational work, but it will certainly entertain you and help answer a lot of the introductory questions that people may have about the culture and industry of all beer. The second book is The Brewmasters Table by Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster. The book is written more as an encyclopedia and is currently the definitive tome on all things food and beer, when it comes to the pairing of the two.

FM: What’s your favorite food to pair with beer?

Any food with a bit of a kick; the chili heated dishes of Thai, Vietnamese, Indian or Mexican foods as just a couple of examples. Not so much because they are my favorite group of foods (because I’ve actually been known to avoid excessively spicy foods – I like a lot of flavor but have never equated spice to mean flavor…), but because beer is the only beverage I know of that pairs so well with them. The assertive hop flavors of big IPAs have the ability to stand up to the spice, and the carbonation of beer is capable of cutting through the fat that such spices are often embedded in.

FM: I went to a beer and cheese tasting at Brooklyn Brewery once and loved it. Here are some of my favorite cheeses: Humboldt Fog, Shropeshire Blue Cheese, Morbier, Chaumes, any triple cream brie, and burrata. Could you give me a beer pairing for each?

Beers are commonly divided into styles, much like cheeses, or foods within their ethno-cultural provenances. Within those styles, each beer is interpreted by different brewers differently. As a collection, they are so versatile that there are many different beers that can go with a particular cheese, or its broader style of cheeses. Generally speaking, just as with any other food, the goal of a pairing is either to highlight the flavors of a beer that will complement the dominant flavor or spice of a food, or completely contrast it. So you never want to have one flavor in the pairing be declared the clear winner to your taste buds. It wouldn’t be good to have the beer dominate the paired food, or visa versa because then you wouldn’t be able to taste one half of the pairing and what would be the point? Therefore, with stronger flavored foods, you want to provide a stronger flavored beer (regardless of whether it is complementary or in contrast), and for more subtle flavors, the same holds true.

FM: Friends often ask me about gift giving for foodies. Can you give us some ideas for great gifts for beer lovers?

Obviously there’s a range. A great gift might be a bar tab at a great beer bar, or a gift certificate to similarly well stocked beer store. Given my propensity to travel, I would recommend that those gift certificates be in destination places encouraging the recipient to travel for their beer. A similar thought would be to give a certificate to a destination restaurant with a well developed beer program.

Somewhat more tangible gifts are tickets to beer festivals (the Great American Beer Festival held yearly in Denver being the grand-daddy of them all), or perhaps a NYC Beer Passport…but there are great festivals taking place throughout the year across the country. For aspiring home brewers, a great gift would be a starter set, or maybe a good introductory book such as Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Home Brewing. Another nice thought would be a subscription to either of the beer magazines mentioned previously.

FM: Finally, the Foodmayhem question we ask everyone: For us, food is life… love… religion even. Where is your food Mecca? Where do you travel to for food and beer?

I lived for almost six years in Montreal, and I thoroughly enjoy heading back to check out the latest in their food and beer scene. Due to a variety of legal, cultural and linguistic divides, Quebecoise beer is virtually unheard of here, so it feels like I’ve entered a whole new alter-universe when I’m checking out some of their latest releases. The presence of French-inspired bistro food is also a really wonderful incentive to try new beers because so many of the restaurants are BYOB. Beyond my regular excursions north of the border, I’m a big fan of the beer scenes in Portland (OR), Northern California, Wisconsin, Chicago, and what have become my yearly sojourns to Denver (GABF) and Philadelphia (their Beer Week). Then there’s always Belgium, where so many new and wonderful flavors can be discovered all at once even though there are a growing number of excellent Belgium interpretations being created here at home.

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