If Honest Weight Food Co-op is our home grown grocery store, then Lee Wilson is in exactly the right place, as perhaps the most authentically home grown employee and member-owner ever. Lee has lived his entire life within a few miles of the place where he was born in Colonie and has been at the Co-op for almost 20 years, first as a member, then as a Grocery Department employee, and eventually stepping adroitly into the role he is currently known for:
The Co-op’s Beer Man.
The excellent, ever-expanding and changing selection of local craft beers that we have come to expect on our shelves since the new store opened is brought to us largely through the efforts and expertise of The Beer Man, AKA Lee Wilson.
The road to the Beer Department began near home, during the Christmas shopping season at Latham Circle Mall sometime in the 1990s, to the best of Lee’s recollection. When he happened to see an intriguing new offering, a home brewing kit, he impulsively bought it for himself and began making his first batch right away. Happily discovering that it was potable, he began to experiment with more interesting styles and recipes.
Around the same time that Lee was expanding his brewing knowledge, he had worked a variety of jobs that were adequate for basic economic sustenance, but fell short in the area of personal fulfillment. When an opening at the Co-op presented itself in 2001, Lee joined the staff of about 40 at the store on Central Avenue. With the move to the present location, it seemed like just the right fit as Lee worked with the Grocery Manager to stock and maintain a home-grown section offering local libations, to please the growing customer base and keep them coming back for more. Lee says that the craft beer market has mushroomed and continues to grow by leaps and bounds. New breweries start up every year, and established breweries are enlarging and expanding their product line. Limited editions and seasonal brews are central to the Co-op’s Beer Department. The distributors are an invaluable resource for informing buying patterns.
Especially intriguing to Lee is the knowledge that beer has been used as a delivery system for medicinal herbs since ancient times. He had been cultivating his own keen interest in growing, harvesting, and preparing medicinal herbs before he first started brewing. In fact, he has more than enough knowledge of wilderness survival to teach courses to adults and children at Dyken Pond. Edible plants and medicinal herb identification are part of the course he teaches. Lee doesn’t mind sharing recipes. He has a favorite spring tonic made from dandelion root, burdock root, yellow dock, and maple syrup. The recipe is from Maude Grieve’s Modern Herbal. Lee also recommends Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Herrod Buhner.
When he isn’t at the Co-op, Lee is at home on his farm in Colonie, which has been in his family for centuries. He even has an original deed that identifies the land as part of the VanRensselaer land grant. He raises vegetables as well as chickens and turkeys for his family’s consumption, and he has an antique tractor, which is in working order, reminiscent of the ones his father owned. Lee finds some time for wood carving, too. It’s a hobby that leads him to create beautiful art for gifts and home decor. That’s a lot of activity and work for one person! In addition, Lee and his wife have a baby on the way in August, beginning the next generation on the farm.
When asked about the social value of beer, Lee said, “I don’t know any better way for people to bond than to converse over a glass of beer.” Then he referenced a poem by Edgar Allen Poe:
Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain —
Quaintest thoughts — queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.