D2D Interview: Taylor Knox

When you think of the great power surfers of the world, the guys who ride with precision and dynamism, you think of Taylor Knox. He's one of the purest, old school technicians of all time; the guy who others surfers cite as their number one influence when you ask them who their favorite surfer is. Not necessarily one for fancy tricks or the latest modern maneuvers, Taylor is renowned for his style and strength—he'll charge a wave and draw a pure line through the water, carving from rail to rail with precision and power. Not only the world's greatest and most famous breaks, but also huge, massive waves that would scare the daylights out of most folks. In 1998, Taylor was photographed riding a gigantic fifty-two foot wave at Todos Santos along the coast of Baja—a ride that would quickly go down as one of the most significant paddle-in waves ever ridden. Not only is he incredibly adept, skilled, and influential, he's also fearless. In 2011, at the age of forty, Taylor was inducted into the Surfers' Hall of Fame. In the world of surfing, the man is a legend.

While Taylor definitely has a taste for tequila, his real passion is beer. In 2010, while surfing in Puerto Rico, Knox was approached about becoming a spokesperson for a tequila brand, but found the idea didn't really mesh with his surfing lifestyle. Beer, on the other hand, seemed like far less of a stretch. You surf, you come in from the water, you have a beer. Why not be part of a brewery instead? That's when Taylor, and a group of other action sports stars, banded together to spearhead Saint Archer Brewery in San Diego—a craft operation whose beer we now proudly feature here at K&L. Knowing of his affinity for booze, I decided to reach out to our friends at the brewery and ask Taylor his thoughts on drinking. He was more than happy to comply.

In this edition of Drinking to Drink, we talk about Taylor's favorite surf spots, what to drink at each of those places, and the importance of moderation in both imbibing and life itself. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.

David: How did you get involved with Saint Archer Brewery? Have you always had a thing for beer?

Taylor: I think it all goes back to when I was younger. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico where cold beer is the thing. It’s also the dream of California, you know? You go surf, you come in, you have a fire on the beach, and you have a beer. Drinking has always been a part of surfing—obviously not abusing alcohol, but the enjoyment of it goes hand in hand. Growing up, my father was always very strict with me. He always told me, “You’re not drinking anything until you can legally drink.” So I didn’t really start drinking very much until I was in my late twenties. That’s when I began to understand the difference between good beer and the cheaper stuff you usually get when you’re younger; when you’re just happy to have whatever’s around.

David: What was the revelation for you?

Taylor: Understanding how the ingredients make a difference and who’s making it, of course, was part of the process. When I started to get into it, and the craft beer movement started to explode in California, that’s when Josh Landon—who was my agent at the time—approached me. I had previously been approached to be part of a tequila company, and so he said, “Let me think about this for a minute. A tequila company, eh?” So we thought: there are definitely a lot of surfers who like tequila—myself included—but you don’t necessarily get out of the water after surfing and start chugging tequila. It’s just not something you do, or that I do, at least. On most days when I’m done surfing I have a beer, so we thought: why don’t we start a beer brand based on our lifestyle and the people that we know in the industry? And that’s how it all got started.

David: Would you say that beer is an easier fit for the surfing lifestyle than other beverages?

Taylor: For sure. One or two beers after a long day of surfing is commonplace, especially when you’re travelling. Let’s say you’re in the tropics or down in Mexico where it’s warm: you’re definitely looking for a cold beer more than anything. I’m not looking for a warm drink, that’s for sure (laughs).

David: Plus beer is universal, and it seems that every country has their own version of it. No matter where you are there’s probably a beer close by.

Taylor: Right, it’s just an easier thing to find. You’re not going to drink a shot of tequila after a long day in the water when you can have a nice, cold Tecate or Negro Modelo—which is my favorite Mexican beer.

David: Sports and beer definitely go hand-in-hand. I went and played golf for the first time in a very long time recently and I was reaching for a cold can of Modelo myself. I was not reaching for a warm glass of tequila.

Taylor: (laughs) You and I feel the same there. Plus, you can’t drink much tequila without getting totally wasted. A lot of time you want to have a few drinks, but you don’t want to be totally shitfaced at the end of the day.

David: In 1990, when you were nineteen years old, you entered the World Amateur Championship surf competition in Japan. Was this your first major exposure to the wider world of surfing?

Taylor: Yeah, it was the biggest amateur event that there was in the world. It sets the stage for you as an amateur. It’s kind of the last thing you do and then you’re ready. It’s like in college football: you go to the bowl game and then you turn pro. That’s the biggest bowl game in amateur surfing. If you do well you can go from an OK contract to making double that.

David: And you finished fourth in that contest, which was a big deal.

Taylor: It was a really big deal because Kelly (Slater) was in it and, as you know, Kelly’s the best surfer of all time. I ended up beating him in the semis to make the final—God, that was so long ago! I was definitely an underdog and I don’t think many people were counting on me making the final. It was pretty cool, being able to beat him in that semifinal. I ended up getting called for interference at the end, which was a bummer because I would’ve placed second had that not happened. But, whatever! (laughs)

David: Were all eyes on you after that happened? Did the brands start calling? Did the sponsors start rolling in?

Taylor: It definitely elevated me. The sponsor I had at the time had made me an offer before that contest, and afterward it was twice as much. I was making $1200 a month, which in my world was fantastic because I was making nothing before that (laughs).

David: And you were doing the thing that you love.

Taylor: Right, it’s funny looking back—I was thinking, “Man, what am I going to do with all this money?”

David: That event obviously put you on the map, but you ended up surfing at a world class level for the next twenty years. You never looked back. You retired in 2013, right?

Taylor: Yes, but I’m still going strong. I get paid to be an ambassador now.

David: What do you attribute your longevity to?

Taylor: I attribute it to staying fit, staying in shape, and doing the form of meditation that I started about thirteen years ago. That’s probably what helped me out the most. I was always known to be a guy who trained hard when I was young, and that obviously helped—I still train all the time to this day. I put out training DVDs even—that was awesome. But later I learned that the body follows the mind, and I thought, “Wow, I’ve never really paid attention to that side of things.” Once I started doing this form of meditation—called Kelee meditation—it was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my life. It wasn’t just about surfing anymore. I had some relationship troubles early on, just normal guy stuff, and was dealing with some personal issues, so the meditation just helped me to stay grounded, to stay within myself. It also taught me how to look in the mirror, to focus on what I wanted to change in my life without doing something drastic like becoming a vegan, or wearing a red robe and shaving my head (laughs). I had the misperception that that’s what meditation and yoga were all about.

David: It’s funny that you bring this up because writing this blog has had a similar effect on me. It’s forced me to analyze what I’m saying and why I say it, which has in turn forced me to analyze my behavior. I don’t ever assume that others have gone down a similar path, nor do I want to sound preachy, but it’s great to hear what you have to say about self-realization because, despite the fact that booze is the ultimate guise here, it’s a big part of what these interviews are about for me. How does your enjoyment of alcohol fit into the balance between training and meditation?

Taylor: Moderation is the key to everything. I used to train too much. I don’t want to drink too much. When I come home now I don’t want six light beers, I want one tall double IPA. I’m fine with that, and I’m not guzzling it; I’m sipping it. Life got so much better when I took some of the excess off. Excess means excess in anything. I can’t surf eight hours a day, every day, like I did when I was a kid. My body gets sore after that much. I can do it for a few days if the waves are good, of course, but when I was younger it was all day, every day with no stretching. It’s all about enjoying life at this point; more isn’t necessarily always better.

David: That definitely sums up the way many people feel about alcohol as they get older.

Taylor: Right, that’s why I got into the craft scene. I’d rather have one really good beer than three shitty beers. I’ll happily pay extra money for that one nice beer.

David: That’s been the revelation for many drinkers over the last five to seven years: a lot more people realized they’d rather have one good cocktail than two shitty ones. Rather than five shots of shitty Bourbon, they wanted one nice glass to savor. Because of that mindset, the industry has been able to grow and nurture a new community of small producers who can cater to that desire.

Taylor: It’s crazy. It’s like everything has gone up in quality. In San Diego, craft beer is just the thing now. The people I’m seeing aren’t walking out of the store with lower-level stuff. I see them walking out carrying good craft beer, which is cool.

David: I went to college in San Diego in the late nineties and the only place I ever saw Stone was on the commuter train along the coast going north to LA. Now it’s everywhere.

Taylor: Right, now it’s like a giant multi-million dollar company!

David: How has working with Saint Archer affected your appreciation for beer?

Taylor: It’s been super fun. With wine you have sommeliers, right? So hanging out with our brewers has been such an educational process in a similar way. I had no idea that different types of hops are harder to get than others, and that there are premiums on them. You’ve gotta be on a list just to get some of them. It’s a lot like getting certain grapes for winemaking, right?

David: Or like getting a Cannibus Club card (laughs). All the different strains!

Taylor: Right! The one thing I do have going for me is my palate; I can taste the differences between all these strains and relate them to what our brewers are saying about the beer.

David: And that has increased your appreciation for drinking?

Taylor: Yes, and also learning about what these guys go through. What they do for different mixtures and how the fermentation time affects flavor—all that stuff. Every time I go down there I’m asking all these questions: Why are you doing this, and why are you doing that? So much thought goes into it. It’s so technical. The beer world with all the different malts and then the ciders—it’s a lot to work with! I still have a lot to learn.

David: What’s the coolest place you’ve ever had a beer while surfing?

Taylor: I think one of the coolest places to have a cold beer is at Teahupoʻo. You have to get out there with a boat and it’s a real heavy wave. Do you know where I’m talking about?

David: No, I don’t actually. Fill me in.

Taylor: So on the tour they have a contest in Tahiti and it’s called Teahupoʻo or “end of the road”. It’s probably the heaviest wave on the tour and you can only get out there via boat. Where the boats park themselves, it’s so close to the wave—within like thirty feet of it—that you can actually get spit of the barrel and jump right on to the boat. It’s so unique. I’d say that’s probably one of the best spots—to be on a boat surfing all day with the captain, who’s got a cooler full of cold beer right when you come in. Then you go into the hut, ride back to shore, and watch the sun go down. It’s pretty amazing.

David: Is that one of the spots they visit in The Endless Summer 2? It’s been a while since I’ve seen that movie, but I remember a scene with them surfing right near a boat.

Taylor: Oh, you’re talking about Tavarua in Fiji. That would actually be my second favorite place. It’s just an incredible spot to have a beer; plus you’re out in the tropics, so you’re already hot. It’s boiling outside, you’re overheating, and you get that barrel on your last wave that takes you right up to the boat where you grab a beer. What a perfect day.

David: Who’s someone memorable that you got to have a drink with while doing all this?

Taylor: For me, it’s the local people wherever I’m at. In Tahiti, I have some good friends who are from the area. Getting to share these experiences with them is what I enjoy. Even though I can’t speak the language, there’s still the universal language of a smile, a sunset, and a good beer.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll