Fred Eckhardt May 10, 1927-August 10, 2015
As one prominent Portland, Oregon craft brewing pioneer observed, “Before the pioneers, there were the explorers.” Fred Eckhardt was a craft beer and homebrewing explorer. In the beginning there was Fred. On August 10, 2015 Fred passed away and it may have appeared that Fred left us, but not in spirit.
Fred Eckhardt was ground zero for our current era of craft beer and homebrewing. I can personally attest that Fred’s book, A Treatise on Lager Beers, was my first homebrew book – ever. It was a beacon, encouraging Americans to explore the world of real beer and pursue in a journey that would take all of us where few had ever gone.
As so many other homebrewers have experienced, I too had the privilege to hang out with Fred. In September 2011 I visited with Fred and we toured a bit of Portland, talking of our lives. Fred told me stories about his life that helped clarify for me Fred the rebel, Fred the teacher, Fred the creator, Fred the friend and Fred the kid.
Fred the kid
Fred was born Irish-American and was adopted by German Americans. He was named Otto Frederick Eckhardt, Jr. after his adoptive father. “I had a good mom… and my father homebrewed. His beer would explode every once in a while, especially if you knocked on the caps. Every time I got into trouble with my mom I’d smack the top of one of my dad’s homebrew bottles. My mom would get distracted [from my disobedience] and get on my dad.” When his mom (“bless her heart”) caught him stealing engine valves it was decided it was time for him to go to a Norwegian children’s home. For a while he says he spoke “German, Norwegian and a little bit of English” at the time.
Fred the rebel
Fred grew up in Everett, Washington, then a very small town north of Seattle. There he noted that the Army, Navy and Air Force all had a presence in Everett. Fred wanted to see the world. The U.S. Marines were the only branch where he figured he’d get stationed elsewhere. So he joined the Marines.
As a Marine, Fred fought in both World War II and in Korea. He has several stories he tells of his experience. I recall a few of them. When he landed in Okinawa, he noted that some of the first orders of business that they were engaged in was 1) Get the mimeograph machine (“the printing press”) up and running to publish dirty jokes for morale and 2) start the fermentation process to later be able to distill alcohol. That was his first realization that one could make booze.
Fred vividly recounted one of his mission returns on Okinawa. “I was flying in that bubble at the bottom of a plane. The only gun I had was a pistol. The walls were paper thin. One time we came in for a crash landing on Okinawa and I looked out to either side of me as we landed and the wings were falling apart. When we finally stopped, I was still alive. Someone came to me and said “Are you all right?” I said, “Yes I’m alright but I can’t get out. Get me out of here.” The guys reply was “Unbuckle your seat belt…[knucklehead.]” Fred was all laughs at the end of telling his stories.
Fred told me he always remembered April 12, 1945. It was the Day Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. He was in Okinawa and recently given a gun while on KP [kitchen] assignment, even though he was a radio operator. On that day he was taking an exploratory hike in the north end of the island, where fighting wasn’t happening (he got 1 day off for every day on KP – “I thought that was a pretty good deal”). He was alone and decided to shoot off his gun which he had never done before (“I don’t know why they gave me a gun – I was on KP”). It was a browning automatic… He got into trouble for shooting off his gun later. But Fred laughed as he finished his story and carried on. Stories such as this helped define Fred’s jovial and convivial nature. He digressed often, but he always led us back to our glasses of beer and we got to know Fred like no other beer personality.
Decades later the legacy of his war experiences continued to revisit him, “When I drink too much, even now, I come down with malaria.” One never ever saw Fred inebriated; he seemed always smiling, laughing open to new friendships and having a great time, but never over doing his enjoyment of beer.
Beer & homebrewing in the U.S.A.
In 1980 I first met Fred at the Home Wine & Beer Trade Association Conference in Minneapolis. In 1981 I invited Fred to the 3rd annual American Homebrewers Association National Homebrewers Conference in Boulder, Colorado. It was at this event that I first met Michael Jackson. The three of us laughed, schemed and discussed the sad state of American beer affairs and the promise of homebrew enthusiasm. We developed a triumvirate friendship that lasted to this year.
How did he embark on the homebrewing journey that would become part of his legacy? Fred told me that in 1969 Anne McCallum who owned and managed Portland’s then Wine Art asked him to decipher and rewrite English homebrew recipes for publication. In 1970 Wine Art of Canada published the first edition of the 50 page A Treatise on Lager Beers. On the back cover there is a distinguished photo of Fred (actually every photo I’ve ever encountered of Fred portrays him as distinguished) with a short bio. At the time Fred was a professional photographer. For many years he also worked as a swimming instructor for children.
During the rise of American homebrewing Fred was instrumental in introducing the American homebrewing community to the various aspects of beer styles. He discussed beer styles initially in his Treatise and later self- published The Essentials of Beer Style in the late 1980s.
I recall that Fred also led us to temptation and to fear no evil by introducing the world to the combination that always brought smiles: chocolate and beer. This in a time before the emergence of artisanal chocolate, his M&M and beer tastings became legendary. Soon thereafter Fred led us to putting vanilla ice cream and brownies in our stout.
Fred became a visiting fixture at the most high spirited homebrew events in the USA. His humor, his authenticity, his knowledge, his wackiness, his humbleness inspired thousands of homebrewers to celebrate Fred and his whereabouts. We came to love Fred. His laughter was infectious; so much so that I for one remain incurably infected with Fred. He taught us many lessons. His spirit will always be present in every batch of homebrew I make. And I will take heart of his legacy as I continue my own journey.
Yes, in the beginning there was Fred and so it is at the end Fred remains forever with us.
Next: Bryon Burch – He moved our world