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Joe Stange, the accidental beer writer

Added: Saturday, July 30th 2016

Joe Stange

Joe Stange is not a crusty old beer bore but he’s a long way removed from being a modern “beer geek”. A fresh-faced 39 year-old who looks a good 10 years younger, he describes himself as both a conservationist and a traditionalist.

He’s joint compiler with Tim Webb of the seminal Good Beer Guide Belgium, which details all the beers and the best bars of that remarkably bibulous country. The next edition, due out in 2017, will feature him as chief writer and after that he will take over writing and research on his own as Tim Webb concentrates on other books.

Joe is an American from Missouri and, based in Berlin, he’s developed great respect for Belgian and wider European beer cultures.

“I’m excited by the heritage of European beer,” he says. “They are the castles of the beer world. I want to convince fellow Americans to make life-experience trips rather than paying exorbitant money for craft beer.”

Beer may be in his blood, for Stange is a name of German origin. He pronounces it with a soft “g” when he’s back home but he’s Stanger with a hard “g” in Berlin. In this age of discursive bloggers, Joe is a true professional journalist who knows how to present a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and to let the facts, not opinions, regale the reader.

He was the editor of his school newspaper and then went to journalism school. From there he joined the mighty news agency Associated Press where he covered everything from politics to baseball.

He took a break from journalism to study politics at graduate school where he was awarded a Masters in international relations. His studies brought him into contact with a woman who became his wife. Kelly Stange is a foreign service diplomat for the United States government, which explains why Joe and Kelly, with their two young children, are currently based in Berlin in a charming villa in a leafy suburb surrounded by embassies and fellow diplomats.

Before he took up residence in Berlin, Joe worked in Brussels as a freelance journalist. He did editing work, wrote features...and drank local beer.

“Beer was fun, not work, but I found there was a lot to write about,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by the variety of Belgian beers. I gave scores to beers and accidentally became an expert. Tim’s Belgian guide was a great help – the bible.

“Kelly and I would hop in the car with Tim’s book and GPS and go looking for beers and breweries.”

At the time, there wasn’t a good guide to Brussels beer and bars in English. Joe heard Tim Webb was planning a book called Around Brussels in 80 Beers, got in touch and was hired on the spot. Joe wrote the first edition with Yavn De Baets but he’s the sole author of the second edition.

He cemented his writing relationship with Tim Webb on a trip to northern France where Tim needed help in compiling his World Beer Atlas. As a result, Joe joined Tim on the Belgian beer guide.

“Tim is very opinionated, funny and insightful. I was honoured to become part of his writing world,” Joe says.

Kelly, in common with all American diplomats, is moved on every two years. As a result, Joe found himself working on the Belgian guide while he was stationed in Costa Rica.

It was possible because, with Tim Webb, he has built a formidable team of correspondents who feed them up-to-date information about Belgian beer.

“My job is to organise all the info we get from other people. There’s also a lot internet research,” he says. “A guide book has a short shelf life. As soon as one edition is finished, we have to start all over again.”

As well as the Belgian guide, he’s planning an e-book on Berlin and is also a contributing editor to Draft, the beer and culture magazine based in Phoenix, Arizona. In a recent polemic in Draft, he attacked the latest American craft beer fad known as “sours”, which draw their inspiration from Belgian Lambics, beers fermented by wild, air-borne yeasts.

“I hate the word sour,” Joe says. “It gives the wrong impression.” He quotes Frank Boon, one of the most respected Lambic brewers, who says his beers are acidic, not sour.

“American craft brewers have to crank everything up to 11% but their sours are crude and often undrinkable,” Joe adds. “They spoil the image of Lambics, which have been refined over the centuries.”

He admits that Kelly doesn’t share his love of Lambic. On a visit to Drie Fonteinen in Beersel, she described the beer as like “mouldy onions in gym socks.” But Joe likes it so much he buys it by the case.

Costa Rica was a long way from Belgium, but now he can drive there from Berlin in a few hours. At present, Kelly has no idea where her next posting will be. Joe is a great fan of British cask ale and visits the Great British Beer Festival whenever possible but he wouldn’t be keen to live in London as it’s such an expensive city.

Wherever he’s based, he will look out for traditional beer styles and trace them back to their roots. He says his favourite beer is Saison Dupont, a farmhouse beer from French-speaking Wallonia.

“It’s hoppy but drinkable. It fits any mood and is good with food,” he says.

And how will he celebrate his 40th birthday? “In a beer garden in Franconia,” he says, with a glint in his eye that suggests he won’t mind too much being dubbed middle-aged.