Do you remember your first beer? Maybe it was a Guinness at the brewery in Dublin when you were studying abroad. Maybe it was a Corona at the Jersey shore on your 21st birthday. Or maybe it was a warm Rolling Rock bottle that you “adventurously” drank in someone’s basement in high school. Whatever your first beer was, chances are you wanted to try and learn about more. Many more. Nowadays, especially in the Greater Philadelphia area, drinkers are blessed to choose from a plethora of beers, even at select supermarkets and specialty stores where you can mix-and-match your own six pack. Choices of American craft beers and European delights are abundant. But where to begin? How far will your search for new beers go? And what in the heck are you supposed to eat when drinking a smoky German Rauchbier anyhow? Meet Ryan Mullins-Hudak, In Search of Beer blogger and beer writer extraordinaire. Ryan drops knowledge about beer and food based on firsthand experiences. Ryan waxes poetic about his Philadelphia area, Canada, Europe and beyond.While Ryan is a serious beer and food voice in the Philadelphia area, sharing sound advice, beer recipes and useful travel tips, his “search for beer” is not conducted alone. His wife LeeAnne loyaly helps out with photography and editing (and eating and drinking, too), which helps to accentuate that Ryan’s “search for beer” is a family — if not, love — affair. I’ve been privileged to become friends with Ryan and LeeAnne through the Philadelphia beer and food lovers community. Together, we’ve sipped suds and vino at sunny, summer beer gardens, slurped oysters and delicious Maine brews at Sansom Street Oyster House, shared many a joke (often about Philadelphia and Cleveland sports) and even celebrated the holidays wearing “merry socks” at parties. We recently caught up with Ryan and LeeAnne and shared some (chocolate covered) memories …
How did you find yourself in this food blogging niche of the industry?
On some level, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I have a degree in English Literature and have always tried to write. I didn’t have the patience or drive for fiction, so I’ve always stuck to the short and quick medium of blogging. As my wife and I got more and more into food, I tried a few food blogs with minimal success that I ended up losing interest in after a few months. About two years ago, it finally occurred to me that I loved writing and I loved beer, so why not combine the two? Thanks to the ever-evolving beer scene in Philadelphia, my beer blog has been able to keep my attention, and I’ve developed enough of a readership to keep me from slacking off too much.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
Though I was lucky enough to have a stay-at-home mom who made dinner almost every night, she usually stuck to the same 20 or so dishes. So there isn’t really one meal or occurrence that sticks out. My favorite memory, though, was always coming home from school around Christmas when my mom was baking cookies. She would bake dozens upon dozens. Coming home to the smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies is the food memory that sticks with me from my childhood, which is odd because I am not a lover of sweets by any means.
Where does your love of food stem from?
It really began more as a love of eating. I’ve always been a quantity-over-quality kind of eater. And — not to knock my mom’s food, because it will always hold a special place in my heart — that’s the kind of cook she was. There were six of us, so there was never a small meal. And when there is that many people and money is tight, you have to be sure to fill up as fast as you can.
I can think of two watershed moments, though, that set me on the path I am today. The first was in college, when I was lucky enough to study in Sicily and Italy for six weeks. Eating there made me feel like my whole life [up to that point] had been in black and white and then it was suddenly in color. Dishes I had never heard of — and sometimes could only guess at what I was ordering — served in small towns by someone’s grandmother who had been making those dishes for longer than I’d been alive. That was something special. The second was when my wife LeeAnne and I had first moved to Philly and she took me to Morimoto for our anniversary. The quality of the food, the preparation, and the overall experience was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I wanted that experience more and more.
What foods remind you of childhood?
As I’ve already mentioned, the smell of chocolate chip cookies — anytime, anywhere — brings me back to my mom’s kitchen. Growing up with predominantly German/Slovak cuisine, dishes like stuffed cabbage, pierogi, and German potato salad always remind me of those family dinners around the table..
Ryan, did you always love beer more than wine? Your wife, LeeAnne, is a wine lover. Do you taste each other’s drinks? Any fun stories about how you guys make your loves for different beverages work as a couple?
Ryan: I have always been more of a beer drinker. Before I met LeeAnne, I think my main wine experience involved my grandmother’s jug of Paesano. So, needless to say, I had never tasted anything of quality. I think, living in West Virginia for all of my teens and early 20s, beer — and decent beer at that — was just more accessible. My brother also started exploring beer at the same time. So, we had a buddy system that kept us going.
LeeAnne and I do taste each other’s drinks, but 98% of the time, LeeAnne has the same grimace after tasting mine. “It tastes like … beer.” I’m a little more agreeable to wine than vice versa. To make it work, we’ll pick a place like Tria that can offer the best of both worlds, but, since most of our friends [in Philadelphia] are beer drinkers, a lot of the time LeeAnne bites the bullet and goes to a good beer bar and deals with the crappy wine. If we’re on vacation, though, we’ll try to split things up. We’ll usually take a day to go on a wine tour and then another day to visit breweries.
LeeAnne, did you always love wine more than beer?
Ryan’s wife LeeAnne: I’ve had a love affair with wine since the first taste. I never had to acquire a taste for red wine — it just worked. The same wasn’t true for white, and it was actually Ryan who got me drinking white wine. He hasn’t mentioned it, but he’s a sucker for sweet white wines and dessert wine. Ryan’s preference for white wines during many winery visits and tasting rooms while traveling actually encouraged me to try more whites of different varieties. As for beer, I’ve never been a beer drinker. I can’t pinpoint what I don’t like about it, exactly, besides how full it makes me feel and the bitterness it leaves in my mouth. I can find redeeming qualities in most beers, I just don’t want to have more than one taste of it after the first. There are some exceptions, of course, especially when it comes to sour ales and Saisons. As an oenophile, though, that might be cheating.
As for making it work, Ryan has already pointed out that I’ll usually end up at a beer bar with completely horrible wine and not the other way around. However, Ryan’s weakness is food far more than it is beer. It doesn’t take much convincing to get him to a place with a not-so-great beer list if the food sounds fantastic. And then there are those nights when I encourage Ryan to have wine instead of beer because he gets completely sauced and silly, which tends to be wildly entertaining on my end.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
Ryan: I don’t know if I was a picky eater. My mom made foods we liked, and we ate them. I became more of a picky eater when I left that shell, not necessarily because I didn’t like something but because I didn’t know I liked something. The more we’ve gotten into food, the more things I’ve come to enjoy and even love. Even things I didn’t like until recently — namely, beets — I’ve grown to like. I’ve also developed a desire to try weirder and weirder things. For example, the squash I would avoid before seems like child’s play now. The one thing I can’t abide, though, is carrots. They are absolutely vile.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Did you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular? How about now as an adult in Philly? Any benches you love to eat on?
I’ve never been a big fan of eating outside. If there’s no table, holding everything can be awkward, and there are bugs besides. When I was younger, eating outside was mostly relegated to a McDonald’s parking lot at 2am. And while I don’t have any favorite benches, the back patio at Interstate Draft House (Fishtown, Philadelphia) has become a local favorite, as well as Memphis Taproom’s courtyard (Fishtown, Philadelphia). Nowadays, our eating outside is mostly wherever we can walk to with our dog, which is either Memphis or the tables outside of Kraftwork (Fishtown, Philadelphia).
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like Olive Garden, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
The modern food world has both its pros and cons. While the prevalence of cheap, industrialized food is worrisome, there is definitely more of a focus on local, artisanal, conscious food choices that weren’t around when I was growing up. Whether that is because I never cared about it and therefore didn’t notice it, I don’t know, but the trend definitely seems to be leaning away from processed foods to something you can feel good about eating. There seems to be a farmer’s market every day, and every second restaurant wants to be as local and fresh as possible, which I think is a great thing.
There appears to be more of a place for everyone in the food world today, whether you know your stuff and curate a blog, or you just want to give your two cents on the local fast food joint on Yelp. Food has also become much more of an entertainment industry, with probably as many reality TV series as any other brand of television — and you could probably rename the Travel Channel to the Travel For Food Channel. While some people scoff at the idea, it’s hard to argue against shows like Top Chef or No Reservations for opening peoples’ minds and making them want to experience new things, which can only have a positive effect. One of my personal mottos is “eat well, travel often,” and if there is something that makes people want to do that, be it a Groupon for a restaurant they’d never usually try or a show that makes them want to get off the couch and go somewhere, I would be hard pressed to argue against that kind of result.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
My grandmother’s German potato salad (though, having been to Germany, I would now question its authenticity) has been a staple at family gatherings my entire life. It’s always the most-requested food whenever anyone is in town to visit my mother and probably the recipe she’s given out the most. Since my family couldn’t make it into town for Christmas this year, LeeAnne did her best to give me a traditional Hudak Christmas Eve dinner, and this, of course, was included. Everyone loved it. The recipe is presented in bulk, because that’s the only way my mother knows to cook. Enjoy my grandmother’s German potato salad!
Ryan Mullins-Hudak has been running his blog In Search of Beer since 2010 and has also written for Beer Advocate magazine, Philly Beer Scene and The Town Dish. His wife LeeAnne has also written for In Search of Beer and The Town Dish in addition to doing all the editing and much of the photography for Ryan’s blog. As a couple, while they love to eat and drink their way through Philadelphia, they both have been bitten by an intense travel bug and are always looking forward to their next food adventure. Follow them on Twitter at @insearchofbeer and @leeanneeats.