Brian Hunt on Death & Taxes
Brian Hunt on Death & Taxes
Death & Taxes. It just works for me on so many levels. I’ll never forget one night printing tap handle graphics at a Kinko’s and having a woman look over in disgust, sneering, “Death and Taxes, why would anyone name a beer Death & Taxes???” I didn’t know how to answer her.
I’ve been asked so many times why I would name a beer thusly, and I’m not really sure. It just felt right. I do more often want a dark beer when I’m in a pessimistic frame of mind, and I think it must have something to do with that. But why is that? I could claim it’s the antioxidants from the malt roasting process … but can you explain why coffee feels like a favorite old friend in the morning?
Around 1991, I was working for a brewpub in Napa, California. One hot summer’s day, I had a hankering for a beer. A particular beer. I could taste it vividly. But it didn’t exist.
While it may seem odd in 2021 to imagine a beer that hadn’t already been made, this was a beer that I had no example for in my memory. The beer I wanted, really needed, was black. Black in the way that the roasts of coffee bite and grip your attention. Clean and crisp, like how a true lager can snap your palate to attention. Neither strong in alcohol nor sweet, because one isn’t looking for calories when you’re overheated. (Note: Stepping out from an Alpen blizzard into a gasthaus would require something exactly the opposite!) Further, a beer brewed intentionally with character and personality, unlike the limp wet cardboard-flavored beers that we have all endured.
This craving haunted me, so I sat down and wrote a recipe, and then brewed it. I don’t recall that the original recipe needed any tweaking, because I already knew what I needed the beer to taste like. I knew the malts to get there, as well as how my yeast worked. A short time later, in 1992, I squeaked open my own little brewery in the barn behind my house. This recipe was one of the first among the three beers I initially made at Moonlight Brewing Company.
I knew as much what I was doing as does anyone with two young kids and two full time jobs, one with an hour commute. As far as I knew, I was brewing to support my habit, especially since I was spoiled on fresh beer (specifically beer to my liking), and I had a drive for self-determination. Regardless, it was as if I had struck a nerve. Death became my most popular beer, and the people who loved it were as spellbound about it as was I.
I love the memory I have of one bartender at the Inn of the Beginning, who told me of a woman in a suit who walked into his bar and asked for Death & Taxes. He said he was sorry but that he was out. Much to his consternation, she turned around and walked back out. He hollered that he had twenty other taps, but to no avail.
This is far from the only time I heard such stories from bartenders, and that is the thing that I apparently created. Clearly these people either had not read, or had ignored Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer. They didn’t know, or maybe care, that this beer didn’t belong in any legitimate beer style, it resonated with them, and in a way that any 20 other taps just could not.
So often I have heard people tell me they don’t like beer, but love Death & Taxes. So then I must wonder, what is that about?
When the BJCP and Cicerone programs became the new standard in beer circles, Death & Taxes still didn’t fit in any convenient box. Some wanted to call it a Schwarzbier or dark lager. Even though you might find a gerrymandering shoehorn that would squeeze Death into the Schwarzbier or dark lager category, both styles intend to be entirely different beers for different situations. They are made for other cultures, other climates, and most certainly other cuisines.
Death is eminently comfortable on a hot California day with tacos or just solo by the glass to brighten one’s day. After enough demands to know what this beer is, I learned to answer that it is a San Francisco-style Black Lager. The phenomenon was clearly something, and since it was a thing in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has its unique climate and cuisine, would that not be the definition of a beer style? Furthermore, if barley had originated in the Americas instead of the Middle East, and beer then flourished instead as a New World beverage, would a beer like Death have become one of the definitive beer styles from here?
I still don’t have the words to explain why Death & Taxes works. But I do love a glass of it, and I’m apparently not the only one.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.