I knew this time would come. Eventually, I thought to myself while walking, there would be a drug or alcohol “issue” that I’d be forced to deal with. But so soon? I’d only been president for half a year and, let’s face it, we weren’t going to make Playboy’s list of top ten party schools. I never expected beer to get in the way of human ecology.
But the call came. 8.15pm on a Sunday before Martin Luther King Day — a strange and, frankly, dorky time to have a party. The Associate Dean of students had fielded the call from a neighbor who complained not of loud music or unsightly vomiting in the street but of the pungent, overbearing smell of fermenting malt. As I quickened my pace down Ledgelawn, my nose hairs beginning to freeze from the biting cold of this eventful night, I tried to piece the forthcoming scenario together but couldn’t.
Sasha Lasa — we called her Slash-ya for her cuts-like-a-knife approach to handling difficult students and difficult student situations — Slash-ya was the Associate Dean of students and would normally take charge in this kind of scenario, but two things sped through her head when she got this call: One, throw Collins in and let him get his hands dirty on something like this – knock him off his pedestal a bit; Two, Collins — he’s Irish, isn’t he? He knows the ins-and-outs of beer. He’s a subject-matter expert and will handle the situation. Hence, now I’m walking toward the dump on a freezing cold January night, missing Ricky Gervais’ monologue at the Golden Globe awards. How did I get roped into this? I’m a college president for Christ’ sake.
I’ll tell you how. Lasa was right. I did grow up knee deep in beer. My father, son of Irish immigrants from County Cork and County Roscommon, had the genius idea to start an Irish pub back in my hometown when I turned the ripe old age of one. That move did great things for his marriage, as you might imagine. I wound up pouring my first lager at three as entertainment value to the regulars at Collins’ Pub. I’ll never forget seeing my first puddle of vomit on the bar room floor – not a pretty sight.
Those early years could have had devastating consequences to my affinity for alcohol, but it turns out I love beer. In all the fancy cocktail parties I go to in my new role as president, in all the parties where wine universally trumps malts and hops, I love asking, en voz alta, what do you have on tap?
But I know the dark side of brew too and stand ready to crack the whip on the human ecologists who’ve had a bit too much. Walking, and quickly approaching the house-in-question, I decide that I’ll take a fatherly, “we’ve all been there” approach. Stern, but compassionate. I’ve got two little kids and I know that every moment is a teaching moment.
As I approach the home I DO immediately smell that witches’ brew. It’s a pungent and humid odor that has somehow survived the cold, dry air of the night. But no music. No fighting. No vomit (thank God). They must be in the basement doing beer bongs and calling spirits on a Ouija board.
I take one, last deep breath of cold air, knock on the door and enter.
There’s beer everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like this. Volumes of beer. I went to Tulane as a graduate student and saw massive quantities of beer at frat parties on Freret Street — but nothing like this.
And there was music, but that was my first clue that this wasn’t going to be the bust and lecture I’d expected to make and give. It was a live Simon & Garfunkel piece. It was coming from a turn table — an LP. The beer wasn’t dripping from crushed cans of PBR or from ill-fated attempts of keg tapping, but was in big, beautiful, ornate glass five gallon jugs. Big white burlap bags of barley and hops were the sofa and love seats of this brewer’s den. No black light Black Sabbath posters. Instead, poster-sized excel sheets full of, full of data damn it!
I had intended (and practiced on the walk) a “What the hell is going on here!” rhetorical for my entrance to the party. That approach got muffled to a “What in the hell is going on here?” question I let percolate in my own head.
“Darron – come on in. Have a seat. Can I get you a glass of ‘Skull Cracker’?”
I, as any good beer-lover would have done in this situation, sat down on my barley sack, cleansed the pallet with a bite of pretzel, and reached for my glass.
“Skull Cracker is from the Orkney Islands and has a medium, creamy, beige head and a hazy, apricot color, with particulate matter floating throughout. The aroma is of dark fruits, figs, and prunes. Taste is of sweet, dark fruits, prunes, figs, chocolate, and there is some spicy hop presence. One gets a strong alcohol profile with this, and it is reminiscent of brandy. Mouthfeel is medium, and Skull Cracker finishes fairly dry, rich, and smooth. Overall, this is a fabulous beer. You’ll enjoy it.”
That’s Osiris Mateo, fourth year COA student, brewer extraordinaire, and the reason I’ve left my wife at home to laugh at the TV alone while I investigate this debauchery. He’s flanked by his mistress and several of his cronies.
“Darron,” Osiris continues, “I’m going to be very busy with a week of decoction mashes, so we’re going to have to move through these beers quickly so I can get to bed and wake up fresh and ready. You’re more than welcome to stay, but try not to get in the way, ok?”
I love this college.
We move to a classic Czech Pilsner. We drink to an LP of Stan Getz.
I come to find that the brewing is part of a senior project and I immediately begin to poke and prod about the educational value of brewing. Is it human ecological? Is it, well, is it ‘academic enough’? – I cringe when I hear those words leave my mouth, because they don’t feel right.
Nink, Osiris’ housemate, a tall, lanky fellow with the legs and arms of a climber jumps in, pours a Dortmunder Export and says “Tell me you don’t taste the beer of industrial city, of labor — light and refreshing but real and dense. This is a working man’s beer and brewing is about history, it’s about culture and it’s about human creativity.”
“It’s ultimately human ecological.” Again, Osiris. “I brew as a chemist and as an artist. I brew and come to know the life and times of a Trappist Monk. I brew and feel the oxygen building strong cellular walls before going anaerobic. I don’t read chemistry, I live chemistry. I am a farmer. I cultivator of yeasts. I KNOW fungal reproduction. I am a sculptor of fermented foods. I’m an economist and entrepreneur. I am a conservation biologist and environmentalist, concerned by grain crop fertilization and the need to add sulfur to kick back the level of nitrocyanamide.”
I expected such a response but felt good for checking — this was, indeed, more than just brewing beer as a weekend, what-the-hell hobby. I was starting to feel the effect of the high-alcohol Dutchess de Bourgogne Flemish Red Ale and thought I’d better limit my participation in this event, so asked to try one more and then head for home.
“Well, Darron, why don’t you finish the night with a German beer. I’m focusing on German beers. Have a Weinstephaner.”
The Weistephaner goes down smoothly. Chocolatey. It’s rich – as rich as the mid-70s Yes bootleg that now spins on the turn table.
“Think about the German Beer Purity Law,” Osiris chimes in. “I love brewing German beers holding to these purity laws. I’ve come to know and explore the philosophies of purity and of quality. By placing constraints on the beer brewer’s palette, you inspire innovation. And isn’t that a life lesson!?”
To that, I stand, thank Osiris and his group of merry men and women, and ask politely that they try to minimize the brewing when the wind is coming from the northeast. Should that northeasterly neighbor call again, I’ll pay them a visit directly and ask for a bit of leniency. That neighbor is amongst a colony of brewmasters, of artists, of human ecologists. It could be a learning moment for them.