By John Foyston
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Even a cursory survey of why Portland is a great beer city turns up Fred Eckhardt's name — which was actually Otto Frederick Eckhardt, though I never heard anyone call him Otto — early and often. Eckhardt died peacefully of congestive heart failure at his North Portland home August 10, three months after the death of his partner of 60 years, Jimmy Takita. “He wasn't in much pain,” said friend and caregiver Tom Reese. “He just ran out of steam and went to sleep.” Eckhardt was 89, and the beer world he helped build will never be the same without him.
He helped foment the good beer revolution by educating brewers and beer drinkers with his books, columns and monthly tastings. His pioneering "A Treatise on Lager Beers" educated thousands of homebrewers in the late 1960s, and he and homebrew guru Charlie Papazian started America brewing.
His beer columns for The Seattle Times and The Oregonian talked about good beer back when most beer was pale gold, flavorless and brewed in large factories. Of course, as he put it, he was just writing about beer to inspire the fledgling craft brewers of the day to make something he wanted to drink so he would no longer have to write columns about Rainier Ale, aka "Green Death," a nickname partially inspired by color of the can.
He knew all about beer, about beer styles, about brewing techniques, about beer history, but the fact is that Fred Eckhardt was not a beer geek. Beer geeks rarely inspire and Fred did just that: He made Good Beer a club we all wanted to join, and having a pint with Fred was as much fun — and as educational — an afternoon as a person could ever hope to spend.
Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, where Fred wrote a regular column, put it this way: "Fred was the cosmic giggle of beer. Everything was filtered through Smedley, his imaginary alternate persona, who took nothing seriously and suffered no fools gladly. How did a World War II Marine morph into perhaps the earliest craft beer authority with his first publication in the late '60s when craft beer wasn't even a concept?
"He wrote about homebrewing 10 years before it was legal. We traveled together in the early ‘90s to raucous homebrewer events in southern California where I first experienced his amazing speaking style. Sly, witty, off the cuff and just plain hilarious, he left his audience both shaken and stirred. He wrote for Celebrator Beer News for many years to the chagrin of our uncompromising copy editor. 'Dean of American Beer Writers?' she'd scream. Together we'd turn his disparate rants into something resembling English and the beer enthusiasts loved it. He was Fred. And there is a huge hole in the beer cosmos that will never be filled."
Eckhardt was a U.S. Marine in World War II and Korea, a photographer and a swim instructor well before he was a beer guru. His epiphany came with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s: If the nukes did hit the fan, as seemed likely at the time, the post-apocalypse world would have little need for either swimming instructors or guys who took portraits of cute babies.
He remembered when he was a Marine, the mess sergeant always had a still going within hours of hitting the beach. "That sergeant was much loved," Eckhardt said, "and I realized people who make booze always are." That's when he set out to teach himself and others how to brew at home and take beer back from the mega breweries that had made it a bland, fizzy commodity.
Check with almost any American craft brewer or homebrewer and you'll likely find a copy of Eckhardt's groundbreaking "A Treatise on Lager Beers" (1969) and his "The Essentials of Beer Style" (1989) on the book shelves — and maybe even a copy of his 1992 book “Sake (U.S.A.)” on the history and technique of sake brewing.
He also wrote hundreds of columns for beer magazines around the world, as well as a newsletter for craft beer fans, "Listen to Your Beer," and for homebrewers, "Talk to Your Beer."
"It's important to remember that Fred was a voice alone in a sea of boring beer," says Alan Sprints of Hair of the Dog. "When breweries were closing or consolidating and beer was becoming more bland, Fred urged people to look for beer with real flavor. He was the spark that helped ignite the craft beer revolution."
"Fred will be missed by both all of us fortunate enough to have known him," said Carl Singmaster of the pioneering Portland bottle shop, Belmont Station, "and by those who never were so lucky, but who benefited from his championing what has come to be called craft beer.”
Karl Ockert was the first brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing and made his first homebrew from a recipe out of Fred's book. “When we were preparing the BridgePort brewery in 1984, Fred came over to check us out,” said Ockert, who's now with Deschutes Brewery. “I was awestruck to meet him. He was so kind and disarming you could not help but embrace him. Once we got the brewery running he came by with an old golf bag carrying his camera gear and in between liberal beer sampling, proceeded to shoot the BridgePort brewhouse in its primitive glory. I remember him wobbling out the door later that afternoon, cautioning Matt Sage and I about the dangers of working in a brewery and over-imbibing on the job. We were in our 20s and indestructible, but I was scared to death he wouldn’t make it home.”
Fred as mentor and inspiration is part of his outsized influence.
"It's such a loss that words seem irrelevant at best," said Mike McMenamin. "Fred was the complete package and a very funny one at that. As beginning brewers, he wanted to know what we were doing and, most importantly, why we were doing it. He was willing to taste whatever we were into, whether it be spirits, wine, beer, et cetera and find something positive to say about it even if there might not have been much to merit it. Fred was a great friend and mentor to us, along with his partner Jim Takita, who together were one of the world's great treasures. Fare thee well!"
Kurt Widmer of Widmer Brothers Brewing credits one of Fred's beer columns in The Oregonian for inspiring him to become a brewer. "Fred was always an enthusiastic member of the brewing community,” Widmer said. "Whenever he wrote for local or national publications, he invariably found positive things to say. I don't recall Fred ever writing an unkind review of any craft brewer, and that was so helpful to us in the earliest days when we were so desperately striving for awareness and credibility among local beer drinkers.
"On a personal note, it was one of Fred's columns in The Oregonian that inspired me to take up home brewing 36 years ago. Fred also continued to be a fan of our Altbier even though it seemed a bit much for local beer drinkers. He was a great guy to have a beer with and I will miss him."
The Widmer brothers repaid the favor: In his wallet, Fred Eckhardt carried the only “free Widmer beer for life” card that ever was or ever will be issued.
In 1997, Alan Sprints began brewing a beer called Fred in honor of his mentor. "Fred has been a big influence on my life, both in the beer world and as an example of how to be a good person," said Sprints. "His outgoing and compassionate personality, his desire to share his knowledge with others has made me a little better person. He inspired me to brew Adam (the first Hair of the Dog beer and based on a historical recipe Eckhardt found) and to create a brewery that is not afraid to be unique and different. I will miss his stories, his ability to wander through related subjects and still come back to the point, but most of all, I'll miss his smile. Cheers to you, Otto."
Sprints brings up a salient point. Fred was a Buddhist at heart, and he lived perhaps the most joyful life of any I've ever been privileged to know. He was happy, exuberant, irreverent, interested in everything, humble and above all, kind; and that's the legacy for us to perpetuate.
"Yesterday's news about Fred's passing brought me much sadness," said Chip Walton who did a fine interview with Fred for Brewing TV, "but also a great night remembering how awesome Fred was and how important he was and still is to the homebrewing/craft brewing world. My heart breaks for you, Fred's family and friends, Portland and all of American craft beer for our collective loss. May we hear Fred's laughter with every beer we enjoy."
Fred the Buddhist would want that; he'd want us to laugh with friends and enjoy the bounties of this beautiful world; and good beer, good friends, good stories, heartfelt laughter and a good long life well lived are chief among those bounties. Which is why Fred Eckhardt will remain an inspiration to all who knew him. Maybe we can even aspire to living in Fred's world, Tom Dalldorf said.
"I've pretty much given up on giving Fred assignments," Dalldorf said several years before Fred's death, "because he writes on whatever interests him and ignores the tedious requests of unenlightened editors. That's why we call his column 'Fred's World.' He's comfortable in it, and you can only hope that someday he invites you in as well. It's a pretty cool place to be."
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.