Most Georgians probably don't realize a celebrity in the craft-beer world is living in Cumming. Phil Farrell grew up in New York, then traveled all over the world with the Air Force. It was during those travels in the 1970s — to places like Germany, England, Spain, Italy — that he really started thinking about beer. "I was kind of surprised that it tasted different," he says of the stuff he tried abroad.
He settled in New Orleans, worked in the Air Forces Reserves, and became a commercial pilot with Delta in 1987. In 1994, shortly after his wife had purchased him a homebrewing kit, they relocated to the Atlanta area. They eventually started renting RVs for road trips, but after realizing that the thing they liked least about RVs was renting them, they bought their own. "It's all packed up and ready to go," he says of the machine that's taken the pair — and their dogs — all over the country to various breweries and beer festivals. "It's the ultimate freedom," he says.
When Creative Loafing caught up with Farrell this summer, he'd spent three out of seven months of 2013 on the road, but he still calls this a light travel year. "That's less than normal. One year, we were gone 10 out of 12 months," he says.
Farrell has judged a number of major beer festivals, most notably the Great American and Great British Beer Festivals in Denver, Colo. and London, England, respectively. He was named Beerdrinker of the Year in 2011 — a prestigious accolade that has been handed out by Denver's Wynkoop Brewing since 1997. The honor earned him free Wynkoop beer for life, an engraved trophy, and $250 in free beer at his hometown brewpub, Five Seasons North in Alpharetta. CL spoke with Farrell about his life in beer, travels, and what's next.
Describe your first beer.
I was about three and a half years old. I was told to go grab my dad's beer. I carry it from upstairs to downstairs, trying not to spill it. I smelled it, went and tasted it, it was terrible. [laughs] It was a Ballantine.
How did your RV travels come about?
My wife, Susie, liked camping way, way back before we had kids. But the idea of going camping with them when they were young just wasn't going to happen. But as time went on, we rented a few RVs and tried it, and they were the most enjoyable vacations I'd been on. You could wake up in the morning and go, "You know, I don't feel like going anywhere. We're gonna stay here." Or, "I don't like it here, we're leaving." It was so simple, and at the same time, fun.
Did that lead to further beer exploration?
"Well, I was [already doing a fair bit of exploring with Delta]. But once we started traveling with the RV, we were going to a lot of places I wouldn't necessarily fly — or drive — to. For example, for the last dozen or so years, I've been going to the Portland Brewer's Festival. But the last couple years, we've been out there with the RV and we've spent a week or two of vacation.
Given your travels, this might be a tough question, but where's your favorite place to have a beer?
One really cool place is in Malibu, where they have an RV park that overlooks the ocean. You can either back your RV in, which is dumb, or you can nose it in, so even if you're not outside, you can open up and watch the sun set. This particular place, we were looking over the coastal highway and watching the sun set. The weather's always nice. Just having a beer and watching the sun set. I've been there twice.
You've helped out or worked with commercial brewers like 21st Amendment, Hair of the Dog, Wrecking Bar, Midnight Sun, Wynkoop, 5 Seasons, and others. But you're not interested in opening your own place?
I can do this for fun and help out my friends. But anybody who thinks they can just go be a brewer or open a brewpub because it's real easy to do has watched too many of those celebrity chef shows where restaurants just run themselves and then you leave and party with everybody. It doesn't work that way. Businesses are hard to run.