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Meet the brewers: Christine and Steve keep learning at Drop-In

“I heard him before I saw him, and my ears perked right up.”It was April of 1988 when Christine McKeever first heard Steve Parkes’ British accent across a crowded bar room at Kelly’s Bar and Restaurant in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. For almost 25 years, Steve and Christine have not only grown a family and a marriage with staying power, they are the dynamic duo behind the American Brewers Guild and Drop-In Brewing.
“Our strengths compliment each other and don’t particularly overlap,”Steve said. “So there was never any arguing over who was doing what.” They clicked when they met in 1988 and they click now ?after almost 25 years of marriage.
But, let’s start from the beginning. About six months after they were married (Sept. 21, 1991, ahem, stop in and wish them a happy 25th), the newlyweds were heading to Northern California and a new job at Humboldt Brewing for Steve.
When Humboldt Brewing took on two interns from the American Brewers Guild (ABG) ?located in Woodland, about five hours south-east ?Steve realized how much he enjoyed the educational part of brewing. He was invited to come down and give a guest lecture at ABG, which was so well received that the Guild asked Steve to teach full-time in Woodland.
Christine remembers well: “When he came to me and said, ‘They want me to teach,’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, you need to teach.’”
“Having been classically trained in Britain ?within the paradigm of big, flavorless beers ?there was a sense in me that there was more to life,” Steve said. “To go out and teach people and make more of a difference and more of a change really appealed to me. To train a whole army of people who boldly go out and make beer properly, that was something.”
And the beer school business was good. Classes filled quickly. “Very little indoctrination was needed,” Steve said. But after two years, the growth of the U.S. craft beer industry began to slow dramatically. In 1997, a new brewery was opening somewhere in America every day. But 1999, that number dropped to 60 a year. And suddenly, classes at ABG weren’t full anymore. The only other instructor left, and the Guild was offered to the couple to buy.
“We had the distance learning component in place because Steve helped developed it,” Christine, who had been working in the insurance business, said. “So, we bought it.”
Christine and Steve were full-throttle into the Guild. She took care of admissions and administrative work; he taught classes. But it wasn’t long before Steve realized he needed to go back to brewing. So Steve, Christine and their two young children would move, and move the American Brewers Guild with them.
They could have gone anywhere ?Portland, Oregon; Boulder, Colorado; Chicago ?but they came to Vermont, and Steve became the head brewer at Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury in 2002. And brewery owner Morgan Woliver agreed to hire Steve on a flexible schedule that allowed him to teach Guild classes as well.
“We wanted to take the kids to a different place to grow up,”Steve said. “We looked at Vermont, and it looked good. This was a no brainer. It was exciting.” And it was good for the Guild too.
“When we left Woodland, our class size was six,” Christine said. “Our first class here was 20 students.”
For almost nine years, the couple raised their kids and built up the Guild. They used Hoppy Brewing in Sacramento, California for their West Coast Guild classes and Otter Creek for the Vermont classes.
But in 2007, Otter Creek was becoming increasingly full-time for Steve, as the Guild needed him more as well. On Dec. 31, 2008, Steve left Otter Creek to work the Guild full-time. The Guild maintained its long, successful relationship with Hoppy Brewing and owner Troy Paski for its on-site West Coast brewing classes. Once Steve left Otter Creek, good friend, Guild alumnus and Head Brewer Scott Shirley of Harpoon Brewery in Windsor offered his brewery for Vermont Guild students. Steve and Christine continued to run the Guild and it flourished. But something was missing. Steve wasn’t brewing.
In 2011, a space became available in a Middlebury building that would not only give the Guild a brewing home, but allow Steve to do the two things he does best: make amazing beer and teach others how to do it, too.
Steve and Christine signed a lease on 610 Route 7 South on Nov. 11, 2011, in the building that formerly housed Dundon’s Plumbing. They opened Drop-In Brewing the following June, realizing a lifelong dream. “All of my career, I’ve been given tremendous freedom,”Steve said. “But there was always someone there to say, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ Now, there isn’t anyone to say, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’”
Christine disagrees only slightly. “Well, there’s one person,”she said with a smile.
THE EXCEPTION, NOT THE RULE
The wave of craft brewing crested in Vermont at precisely the moment Drop-In Brewing opened its doors, but that is where the similarities between Drop-In and so many other Vermont brewers end.
“I think part of our style is, we just keep our heads down and do our thing,” Christine said. “And so Drop-In has just built up on its own. “In almost six years, Drop-In has grown methodically and steadily, now producing roughly 800 barrels a year, with about 35 percent directly through the tap room. And Steve and Christine are just fine with that. “I think any business, if it’s not a flash in the pan, takes a couple of years to come into its own,” Steve said. “It’s a slow building process.”
As for the American Brewers Guild, roughly 150 students go through the program annually. And, there is a two-year waiting list to enroll. Steve said the essence of the symbiotic relationship between Drop- In and the Guild is not new. In fact, it goes back to the at least 500 years. “It’s been a great journey,” he said. “They are learning the definition of craftsmanship. The American Brewers Guild is a throwback to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages, where craftsmen trained others to do what they were doing. Mentors, apprenticeships and workshops ?it’s what the Guild is all about.” Christine agreed.
“Our mission is to educate and keep the standards,” she said. “It puts us in a position where we can’t put anything out our doors that isn’t perfect.”
But with the mass of craft breweries opening, there is a bit of a pushback to the kind of quality the Guild promotes.
“There’s a new generation of beer-drinkers now who were brought up when there’s always been good beer,” Steve explained with a nod to entitled millennials.
“They think, ‘I can learn everything I need to know from the Internet or from others in the business about how to make good beer.’ And that’s partly true, but we, as an industry of craft beer, are only as good as our weakest link.”
— Elsie Lynn Parini contributed to this article. Click here to read related Independent story on Drop-In Brewing.

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