Beerland, Vice Media’s show about homebrewers across America, could be seen as homebrewing’s crossover moment. Once a hobby practiced in suburban garages is now on regular old television, at least. The show’s success may prove to be a powerful moment for the star of the show as well, though. Meg Gill of Golden Road takes the reins the way only she would.
More people have gone from discovering craft beer, to becoming beer enthusiasts, to daring to brew on their own. New homebrewing clubs are sprouting up, it’s easier to get your hands on kits and supplies, and in the ultimate of growing popularity, the hobby has garnered enough interest to make it to the television screen.
If you go back far enough, it’s all only possible because of Jimmy Carter. Back in 1978, he signed H.R. 1337, a bill that allowed for homebrewing to become legal and tax free up to a certain production level. Homebrewing clubs sprouted up and independent breweries gradually emerged as state regulations continued to adjust to the new laws. Today, some put the homebrewing market value at $1 billion. Many successful craft breweries are now powered by former kitchen warriors.
But as Beerland closes out its second season tonight on Viceland, you’ll also see that the successful show, which focuses on the often quirky individuals who have chosen to make their own beer, takes on additional layers of meaning because of the host.
That host is Meg Gill, co-founder of Golden Road Brewing, a label which rose from humble origins to become ubiquitous in California. Straight-talking with a calm, confident air, Gill is an interesting choice to host a homebrewing competition series in that she personally stands at the nexus of the often problematic interaction between small and big beer, and the power structures they imply to some.
She has turned a business risk into an empire and in the process has raised eyebrows and ire of the small beer community – familiar to any independent brewer who has cut a deal with a bigger corporation.
[Disclosure: The brewery controversially made a deal with AB-InBev, and AB-InBev’s venture capital arm, ZX, partially funds this publication.]
The gregarious host tastes the brew and decides at the end of show which brewer moves on to the final round.”
Things can get complicated when those deals, on the back of her own empire building, then enable a entrepreneur and visionary like Meg a platform like Beerland, which focuses unquestionably on the most elemental, personal, and smallest form of brewing. The irony may be that perhaps that power structure is here, alongside Gill’s own, stoking the flames that will inspire a next generation of small, independent craft breweries.
Gill is her own person, though, and not a place keeper for all of our arguments about independence. For her part, she seems unfazed with how her show or actions play out politically. She gives the impression of being kind yet firm, secure within herself, her business decisions, and increasingly ambitious projects.
She’s also a fun host which is important for a show that otherwise might prove a little too obscure for some. She clearly loves beer and meeting people, and is at ease in front of the camera, sometimes even letting an expletive or two drop after tasting something particularly pleasing to her palate.
Tonight is Beerland’s season finale. It’s sort of a docu-series and competition. Gill visits brewers on their home turf and each episode features a different beer hub – among others this year, the show visited Portland. The gregarious host tastes the brew and decides at the end of show which brewer moves on to the final round. The series finale winner will have their homebrew turned over to the lab at Golden Road, where it will get the full Willy Wonka treatment: a scaled up recipe and limited market distribution. Something that mimics some of Gill’s own golden ticket.
Gill sees this venture as less of promotional tactic and more a celebration of the American homebrewer: the often funny and surprisingly diverse folks who have an absolute joy and pride in brewing beer at home. At a preview of Beerland’s second season, Gill emphasized process and people over profit:
“I mean this isn’t like a ‘Shark Tank’ – is this beer going to make it,” she said, referencing the ABC show that pits entrepreneurs against each other for a chance at starting a company. “What are you trying to accomplish with this beer? Were you able to do it? Was that creative? Creativity, innovation weighs in but at the same time I’ve chosen beers that have been 100% traditional beers without any sort of innovation that have been 400-year-old recipes.”
For the winner, the experience can be if not financially life-changing, then definitely a morale-boost. Last year, premiere series winner Jessica Fierro of Colorado Springs had Doña Nieta, a Bière de Garde made with tamarind influenced by her Latin heritage canned by Golden Road and made available in several Colorado outlets.
Fierro’s win highlights perhaps the single best aspect of the series: it’s emphasis on story and character and inclusivity of the all sorts of people from different cultural backgrounds across America.
You might still see some typical beer characters, but after the first season, Gill realized the key to capturing and holding an audience is to focus on individual stories and distinct communities. What makes this person spend hours presiding over a mash cauldron? What is behind their beer? What makes beer in a particular city special? Do they dream of success like Gill’s? Or something smaller, community-driven, and focused like so many of the new wave of brewers. Each mash tun is like reading tea leaves.
To find the most diverse yet capable homebrewers, Gill and her team first targeted a location with an established beer community. Portland proved to be the perfect kick-off for the second season.
“We said we’re thinking Portland will be our next beer city,” Gill said about the casting process. “Let’s cast the casting net and see what’s out there, let the casting producers go to work and talk to different home brew forums and kind of see who’s interested and kind of go from there.”
Their work definitely paid off. Introduced are characters like an adventurous couple who included a bit of nature in their beer (think a ‘microverse’ of mushroom and berries), a hippie commune brewing in the backyard together, (“We’d be bringing a lot more beer to Burning Man,”) and a man fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease who focuses on the science of homebrewing to take his mind off his condition.
Gill proves to be a sincere and a charming host. Although it only scratches the surface, by focusing on the places and personalities behind home brewing, the show is both fun and informative. It’s also beautifully shot. The first episode opened on hazy, gorgeous sunlight streaming through Portland’s Crosby Hop farm.
My goal kind of all along in doing it is that it can attract people to beer.”
The only downside to the Beerland perspective is that viewer has to rely on Gill’s ability to communicate what she tastes. Golden Road will do its best to remain faithful to the winning recipe, but it’s impossible to replicate a small-batch homebrew perfectly on a grander scale. At least the show has the chance to inspire people to think of another side of beer and perhaps try to brew themselves.
Indeed Meg Gill relishes in the idea of bringing beer to a broader audience.
“Kind of the interesting concept of Beerland,” she thought, “is developing a beer… on the shelf, once it’s created it’s brand new, and you’ve helped in the process of creating something that didn’t exist before. And T.V. is to me, it’s a more impactful moment than a single product because there is so much more complexity and depth in the messaging and emotion behind creating a show and my goal kind of all along in doing it is that it can attract people to beer… whether it’s drinking beer, celebrating beer, celebrating with people and beer and/or the business of beer the way that it brought me in again ten years ago.”
“And that’s all I wish to get out of it. Seeing people’s reaction to it is greater than anything else I can do because you know there’s no ulterior motive for it other than you know just kind of, creating that impact. “
The series finale of Beerland Season Two airs tonight, Thursday, January 4th on the Vice network at 10:00pm pst. Stream prior episodes for free on viceland.com