Badass Interview: BioWare And THE BEER DIARIES’ Dr. Greg Zeschuk
The call of Beer can be powerful. We capitalize it here, only because it deserves our respect. It’s the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage, according to the European Beer Guide, and third most popular drink overall, coming behind only water and tea. It’s a fabled beverage to us in our youth, coming from the moments we first find out about it, to trying so hard to procure it when we aren’t legally allowed to purchase or consume it, to binge drinking, and later (hopefully) to reaching a refined palette when we look beyond the Budweiser, Coors and Miller offerings.
It has caused many a man and woman to do crazy things, and in some cases changed the course of their lives forever. Case in point is one Dr. Greg Zeschuk. Known to millions as one of the founders of the video game developer BioWare, and having worked on franchises like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic among many others, Zeschuk now has a new passion he is working on, and as you might have guessed, it involves beer.
Last September, BioWare co-founders Zeschuk and Dr. Ray Muzyka announced that they would be retiring from the company they created and leaving video game development behind. Both of them were ready to move on to other endeavors, with Zeschuk remarking, “I’ve reached an unexpected point in my life where I no longer have the passion that I once did for the company, for the games, and for the challenge of creation.” So what do you do after you’ve packed up a successful career developing a slew of beloved video games? If you’re Zeschuk, you make a show about beer. Thus is born The Beer Diaries.
Welcome to The Beer Diaries.
Our goal at The Beer Diaries is to Celebrate and Promote Craft Beer Around the World!
To do this we are creating:
Web-shows focusing on beer and craft beer culture
Apps to help craft beer enthusiasts find and discover great beer
Specialized guides covering seasonal beer and deep dives on beer styles
Watch for these exciting projects in the very near future.
In fact The Beer Diaries premiered last week at our beloved Alamo Drafthouse Village, and they have another premiere coming up on February 11 which will include three news shows, and you can still buy tickets for it.
But what’s it all about? Why beer? Why a show about them? Watch the first full episode of The Beer Diaries right here and then grab a draft and read on for our full interview with Dr. Zeschuk (oh how we wish he had a doctorate in Beerology) and find out all about his love of the brew and The Beer Diaries.
For those of us who might not know you from video game development, can you give us a brief background about yourself?
Absolutely. I'm actually a former medical doctor that switched from medicine to a video game company which I founded with a couple of other noted doctors almost twenty years ago called BioWare. Over the course of those twenty years, BioWare made a lot of the most beloved and celebrated and sometimes vilified role-playing games ever made. So we had an amazing run making video games, and then retired late last year.
I have a real passion for beer, and I started making these mini beer documentaries that are interview based. So historically I've done a lot in video games, and have now decided to try my hand at something new.
What prompted the decision to leave BioWare and then go in a completely different direction?
At the end of the day, I just didn't have the same passion for gaming as I did when I started. It's always really multifaceted, and I've been trying to explain it to people, but at the end of the day, doing the same thing for so long ... and it's really tense, making games, like any creative venture. It's a super intense, high stress, high pressure environment, which is largely created by ourselves as we try to strive for excellence. Then you end up in this situation where you look back and say, "Okay, I think I've done what I wanted to do, and now it's time to find something different.
Do you remember your first introduction to beer beyond Budweiser and Coors? Or in your case, Molson or Labatt?
I distinctly remember that. I couldn't tell you what the exact date was, but I remember what the beers were. There's actually an extremely early craft brewery in Calgary called Big Rock, and they had beer called Traditional Ale which I think they called a brown ale, but I look at it more as a red ale. It's funny, because I pretty much skipped Molson and Labatt to start with a really early craft beer. They also have a Porter and a Scotch Ale and all these Irish extra ales.
So I was actually able to sort of cut my craft beer teeth really early, and it set the stage for what my expectations were. I was literally in my late teens and twenties, since you can drink beer in Canada when you're 18, but then I kind of forgot about that for the next fifteen years or so and just drank core craft stuff, like Sierra Nevada, which was a craft beer back in the day.
It wasn't until I got to Austin that I first discovered the explosion of the craft beer, and how much it had progressed during that time. Really in the last ten years, it has just blown up massively.
I lived in Austin during the early and mid '90s, and really the only craft brewpub I can remember was The Copper Tank. Of course, it's really exploded there since then.
The Copper Tank tanks are actually in the Austin Beerworks Brewery and a lot of those guys who used to work at the Copper Tank, like the guys at Real Ale and others, they are actually still in the industry, and they are the ones who have founded a lot of these new, hot breweries.
As a beer aficionado, have your tried brewing you own beer?
I am too lazy for that. I actually drafted off a friend who is a really serious homebrewer, and so I'll find out what he's brewing and go hang out with him during the day and be like his assistant. I've never actually started a batch myself because I think I've realized that I'm really bad at doing chemistry experiments, and beer is like an extended chemistry experience where you get to drink the results. So, I thought I'd avoid that.
I have a great respect for homebrewers, because they can make great beer. Some homebrew beer is as good as anything you can buy, and it's pretty amazing that they can do that at home. That friend of mine is that good, and it's just amazing watching him, hanging out with him, bothering him, asking him questions in order to learn more.
So tell us about The Beer Diaries. What's the format, are you traveling, what have you done so far and what is yet to come?
The first thing we're doing at The Beer Diaries is deep, personal interviews with brewers. Talking with them, talking about the beer, talking about how they got into the business. We did that first in Austin, Texas. We haven't talked to all of the brewers here yet, but we have about twenty interviews done and still have a couple left to do. We're going to finish doing those in Austin, and then we're going to move to Colorado and bounce between cities like Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins... there are obviously some huge names in brewing there. We'll probably have to limit the number of breweries because there are just so many. We'll have to figure out some sort of mechanism to choose, like we pick and the fans pick.
We're planning on a lot of fan involvement with the show. We want beer fans to help us pick where to go, and to be involved with the interviews and things like that. I want to make it like a beer community effort to learn more about beer and who makes it. We want to make the brewers the star of the show and have them upfront talking about what they make and how they make it.
Will we see you on camera in these interviews?
Oh yeah, I'm on camera. I'm the host of the show, and I sort of jokingly call it Charlie Rose with brewers. It's kind of a good fit, and it's sort of that tone as well, you know? It's a mature, jovial, and personally focused talk with the brewer finding out about how they got to where they are. In Austin, we talk about how quickly it erupted, and how do you fit into it. When we get to Colorado, we'll have to focus on a different theme, like "You guys are super established. What's next?" or something like that.
There's a lot of b-roll cut in, and we have some animation we do. The show duration is like twenty to forty or fifty minutes. The initial ones were a bit shorter, and then we started doing them longer as we flushed out what we wanted to ask folks. We'll be evolving it as we go, and it might get a bit travel-ish, as we explain to people that these are the places you want to go, and stuff like that.
How did it come about that you had the premiere of the show at the Alamo Drafthouse?
Ironically, it happened over a beer! We met up with Bill Norris (Badass contributor and Drafthouse beverage director) and John Gross (Alamo Drafthouse creative director) and it was one of those things that was such an easy sell that it was almost silly. When we were making the show, we kept saying "It would be really neat for us to premiere this show in Austin at some sort of public format to get some momentum behind it." The fact that it's happening raises our show beyond just some sort of show about beer on the internet. We try to put a lot of production value in our show to make it something that would look good on a big screen, it's all shot in HD and it's really well lit and color corrected and professionally done.
We thought it would really be cool to team with the place that is truly an Austin landmark, and so that's what we did. We approached them and had a beer at the Whip In and we said "Let's do this," and they said, "Okay!" It took a little while to work out all of the details, but we're pretty happy with the results.
Do you have a favorite craft beer, or does it depend on what you're doing?
I will seldom have a beer twice. For me, beer is a lifelong journey of exploration, simply because there are so many varieties. I think that's the thing that's kind of amazing. I look at the world of beer and see how many brands and types there are out there and kind of equate it to style. My favorite beer might vary like style does. You know in the summer, I'm a more lighter beer guy like pilsners and pale ales, and then in winter I'm more into imperial stouts, barley wines and full IPAs and double IPAs. It really varies.
I'm just an enthusiast. I call myself the chief beer enthusiast, and I think I have a decent palette. I can usually pick out what a good beer is. For me, it's all about finding a great beer and letting people know about it. I don't have a go-to beer, but like for example, here in Austin I'll have a lot of go-tos for people that are new to town. Like my brother came into town for the premiere, and he likes darker beers so I got him a 512 Pecan Porter. Another friend likes lighter beers and Hefeweizens, so I gave him a Live Oak Hef.
There are certain iconic beers here that are pretty awesome, and then you of course have newer ones like Hops & Grain, which has become a real favorite. For a year-round favorite, I really love saisons and sours. So I'm a big fan of Jester King as well. Austin is such an incredibly target-rich environment for beer, there are so many good beers and so many good breweries right now. You could go out every day of the month and have a new beer, and you'd still have 50 more beers out there that are worth trying.
Some craft beers reach a level where they are so big that larger companies pay attention and buy them out. What do you think about that trend?
That can definitely change the nature of it. At the end of the day, if they can continue to make really, really great beer and stay true to their nature, that's awesome. Shiner is sort of an interesting example for me. Generally the beers that they make aren't as personally flavorful as I like, yet they just won a bunch of medals at the Great American Beer Festival. So clearly the Spoetzl Brewery is doing something right, and they are now owned by The Gambrinus Company. If a larger company can take over a craft brewery and not push them into bad behavior, there's the opportunity to get that beer out to a larger market.
Another good example is the Unibroue Brewery out of Canada, who are owned by Sapporo. They've been able to maintain their quality and they are growing and doing well. I go right to the quality of the beer itself. Is it well made? Is it good? When I look at the reviewing categories for beer, it's either: Good, Great, or World-Class, or not. That's sort of my philosophy on beer. Very few are world-class, but an owned brewery can sometimes be good or great. The worst is when a large company comes in, buys a smaller brewery and just sort of steals the label and brews the beer elsewhere without telling anyone. So you think you're having this authentic beer, but the reality is that you're having a fake version of that beer.
If someone is looking to become a "Beerie" what you recommend that they do? What should their next step be? You know, other than watching your show.
[laughter] There are two areas I would say. Books are one place to look. Michael Jackson has many books out there, of course not the singer but the famous beer hunter, he does a really good job explaining beer. There are tons of things out there to read about beer, so if you like to read check out some books. On the internet itself, there are lots of beer sites out there. Rate Beer and Beer Advocate are rating sites, but they have some background information as well. You can go to a lot of beer blogs as well, there's a lot of stuff out there.
But one of the most effective ways to do it, which is what we're trying to illustrate with what we do, is having someone who knows beer shepherd or mentor you. That's what happened to me. I had this friend from San Francisco that had been a homebrewer and into craft beers, and that was who got me back into it about five years ago here in Austin at The Ginger Man. I hadn't tried real craft beer in a number of years, and I was knocked off my feet by the new stuff I tried. So try a friend who is really into beer, or some of the really good beer bars will have very informed staff. You can tell the server what you like, and they can help get you started on the journey.
Is becoming a beer lover sort of embarking on a quest for the holy grail? Are we constantly trying new beers to find the perfect beer?
I think that's absolutely true, and I think there's another dimension to that which is that beer is such a social drink. For me, I was more of a wine guy before I got back into beer, and I would drink wine with a lot of friends. But wine always stuck me as sort of elitist. I'm just speaking frankly here and I don't mean to diss the wine people, but in a general way it's not as approachable as beer is. Cost comes into it in a huge way, as some bottles of wine can be $4000 a bottle, it's just ridiculous. Beer seldom goes about $20 or $30 bucks a bottle. So the social element of beer for me is sharing it and enjoying it with your friends. The kind of time you have when you're sharing a beer with people is different than the kind of time you have when you're having wine, and that's a huge part of the enjoyment of the beer.
The holy grail concept fits in sort of with the "the right beer at the right time." Half of it is the beer, and the other half is who you're hanging out with. That's one of the tenets we're trying to illustrate. It's approachable and available to everyone, and there's no elitism about it. Certainly there can be, like with the people who line up at the brewery at 6am to get the first release that comes out and take it home in a growler, but that's something you do only if you want to. There's nothing preventing people from enjoying great beer.
For me, I'm searching to be surprised. There's something about trying something you've never tried before, and having that epiphany. The search is all about trying to recreate that.
How geeky do you guys get into the art of making beer?
The shows themselves are meant to be fairly consumer level. I try and steer stuff away from talking about grains and gravities and stuff like that. I want to have something that's kind of widely appealing. That said, I also see the value about the geeky side of the chemistry of beers. What yeast did you use, what temperature did you pitch it at and all of these kind of crazy things that you can explore. I think that as this evolves, we'll have different threads of information.
First up will be the interview show, and then we're planning on doing some sort of homebrewing show which would be in a similar format. But then we could add some semi-instructional elements to it. Moving on, I want to have style guides for beer styles and talk about the ingredients and what you should look for. We're starting consumer, but will probably move to be more structural and more geeky at the same time.
What's your goal with the show?
To have fun doing it! I don't really have a real goal, and I'm in a fortunate position where I don't have the standard pressures about creating a show. These things are fun, and they aren't very expensive to do, and we can do them at our own pace. I think the history of television as the be-all, end-all might not be as relevant anymore. I'm not against TV for The Beer Diaries, but the interview shows I've done are not right for it. I like the fact that I'm programming our "channel" with the guys from the team, which is something we wouldn't be doing if we were working for a network.
I want to maintain intimate control over it and manage it. I've been a part of the big company rodeo with a big corporate entity, and that's not as enticing to me. I don't see the need to do that. If we can figure out a way to monetize and build a strong business that supports making more shows, we'll do that. Right now we're doing what we love to do, which is making these shows.
What's next for the show, beyond Colorado?
After we round out the interviews here in Austin, which we just haven't gotten to because of schedules and timing, and Colorado will be after that. And then, the world is literally our oyster. There are so many place we would love to go, like Belgium and Germany, and to the major beer places. And we would like to document some of the beer culture events, like a beer lover's documentation of Oktoberfest, for example. After talking with more and more beer people, we get more ideas about the kinds of shows we can do. In a way, the concepts are limitless. We're not in a huge rush to do everything, we're just trying to do a really good job with what we've been doing.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you as well!