You may think you know what good beer tastes like, but Dan Shelton ’81
begs to differ. Shelton says that the best beer is ripe, raunchy and
reminiscent of an open latrine. He says he has become the Larry Flynt
of the beer business, importing strange and wonderful brews from the
remote corners of Europe and introducing them to unsuspecting American
audiences. In the process, he has become one of the most respected
collectors in the country.
Shelton’s Rebellion Or, The Beer Insurrection
By Paul Statt '78
“You can’t die from beer,” Dan Shelton says.
Shelton isn’t unaware of the dangers of dipsomania. A tall, slim and
very busy man wearing faded Levis with a worn black turtleneck and a cashmere
scarf, Shelton is merely explaining that spontaneous fermentation—more
on that later—poses no risk to a beer drinker’s health. He is a
Shelton tosses back his longish brown hair and answers the phone again—London
calling, or Kulmbach or Brussels—in the cluttered offices of Shelton
Brothers, Importers of the World’s Best Beers, a jumble of beer bottles
and invoices itemized in German and Flemish, in downtown Amherst. It’s
been more than 20 years since he graduated in 1981, and Shelton has been to
law school, traveled the world and tried to save it, joined a law firm and
Beer collecting is, of course, hardly unique. In a window in Peter Pond Dormitory
at Amherst College, less than a mile away, enterprising undergraduates have
homage to an ancient tradition by erecting a pyramid of Miller Light cans.
But in the intelligent acquisition of ale and beer, Shelton Brothers “has
easily the best collection of any importer in America,” according to
Ed Behr, the fanatically opinionated editor of an elegant quarterly, The
Art of Eating. What makes Shelton Brothers the best? What sets Dan Shelton’s
beer apart from your beer or mine?
Behr met Shelton in 1999 at Stoney’s, a seedy pub at the falls in South
Hadley, close to Holyoke in location and ambience. Behr wrote that Shelton
was “impulsive and enthusiastic about beer.” Shelton recalls, “We
Shelton is a connoisseur of fine beer, but something of a gourmand as well.
He has realized a dream of many of us: making his avocation his vocation. “I
hate this business, actually.” Dan says he took a break on Thanksgiving
Day, to “take a bath and drink a couple of beers brewed by monks.”
Shelton tried to be a lawyer. After Amherst, he went to
a prestigious law school (although he tried to transfer to graduate study in
history at Yale), then clerked for a judge (on a tropical Pacific isle, of
all places) and finally secured
a position at a venerable firm in Washington, D.C. (but convinced Shea & Gardner
he needed to spend a year bumming around Africa before starting.) “I
come from a family of nonconformists, and I kind of took that into hyperspace,” he
“My Amherst education has not been wasted at all. I use it more in this
business than I ever did in lawyering. I never was completely comfortable with
of being a lawyer, anyway.” Shelton expounds on beer as a liberal art. “The
more you know about the beer you drink, the more fun you’ll have drinking
it,” he opines.
“My father brewed beer in a garbage can,” Shelton
recalls, when asked about his early experience of beer. The Shelton family
moved to Amherst when he was in the fourth grade. Dan is the eldest of three
brothers: his younger brother Joel was the first to “really make a study
of beer.” All three are now in the beer business. The parents, incongruously,
were both ministers. They raised the young Sheltons to go their way, eat their
bread with joy and, most of all, drink their beer with merry hearts. “Now
I’m a kind of evangelist of beer,” he says. “Although my
folks would probably not be thrilled with the ‘evangelism’ thing.” They
accept his work.
Photo: Frank Ward