Failed Notes from A Beer Tasting and Some Thoughts on 'Drinking with Men'

Eitan Kensky, August 22, 2013

These are my notes from Saturday’s West Coast Beer tasting at Pemberton Farms: “Saison Diego. Undercover 66.6 IBU 9.6 ABV. Anderson Valley Bourbon Stout.”

It was unquestionably a great event. Good and interesting West Coast and Colorado breweries (including: Green Flash, Great Divide, Lagunitas, and North Coast) gave away what felt like unlimited samples under the tent at Pemberton Farms, a grocery store, plant nursery and surprisingly awesome source of craft beer in Cambridge, MA. But those were the only notes I was able to take. The third time someone shot me and my notepad a dirty look was enough to get the message: This isn’t that kind of tasting. Learning about beer is incidental. Let go and see where the shade and cool drink take you. You never know who you’ll meet when you drink in public.

It’s that last one that really surprised me -- though it shouldn’t have -- and that made me think about Rosie Schaap’s intensely good memoir of bars, Drinking with Men (2013). “Memoir of bars” is an awkward phrase, yet it’s the only accurate way to describe Schaap’s book. Drinking happens in Drinking with Men but only because that’s what takes place in bars. What matters to Schaap is the way the space of the bar invites two people to talk, or invites one person to talk and another to listen. What matters is the intimacy that forms over a glass. This is a book about the bar as a surrogate home and its regulars as the family you choose. And like so many nights when you’ve had too much to drink, it’s about the way perception suddenly shifts. Euphoria dissolves into melancholy or anger. The thing you love becomes, and maybe always deep down was, the thing you hate. Maybe there’s meaning in knowing the names and life stories of the people sitting near you. Maybe knowing their names and stories is a way to avoid forming real relationships.

But since the taste of the beer matters, I want to make some BeerGraphs-friendly annotations before I move to the day and the book:

(1) Saison Diego (-.4 BAR) ranks 30th out of 38 Green Flash beers on the BeerGraphs leaderboard. Two other Green Flash saisons, Saison Tart (which Beergraphs lists as a Berliner Weisse) and Friendship Black Brew Saison (-5.1 BAR!!!) rank below it. Green Flash should probably get out of the saison business.

(2) “Undercover 66.6 IBU 9.6 ABV” refers to Lagunitas’s Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale (4.09 BAR). The beer is great, but that’s almost besides the point. Alex Remington once suggested IBU/ABV as a potential Beergraphs metric and it’s obsessed me ever since. I see it a way to quantify personal taste, a numerical shorthand for whether or not you want to try a beer. At this point I don’t know enough to say whether 66.6/9.6 [6.9375] is a weird ratio, or if it only seems like it. What I do know is that I personally liked Undercover more than the higher-rated Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale (8.64 BAR; 64/7.3 IBU/ABV, or 8.7671). Is 7 the high-end of my personal scale? Are there gaps? Say, not liking beers between 7-9, then loving 10s and higher?

(3) Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout (2.77) was the last Anderson Valley beer I drank that day and the point where my notes break down. The note isn’t even chronologically accurate. I wrote it down as something I wanted to try.

Tens of minutes later, I stood in a corner of the tent behind the Anderson Valley table trying most of their beers. Another guy and his mostly silent friend were tasting everything, and we started talking about whether we liked the beer and what we liked. We talked about local beers and what we thought were good. Like everyone else in the area, they like Pretty Things. They offered me Flaming Hot Cheetos and I mock-seriously analyzed their merits as a palate cleanser. The spice also nicely contrasted with the Bourbon Stout, but beer pairings -- and books about beer pairings -- are a subject for another time. We finished running the gamut and I made the mental note to follow Michael Donato’s lead and drink all the Bourbon stouts I could.

But the day only changed at the table for Great Divide. The local rep served me their saison, the Colette (1.22 BAR). I asked him some questions about the trendiness of saisons and he invited me and the Flaming Hot Cheetos guy to sample everything, lightest to dark. Almost each drink was better than the last, defying all my ratios (though not the BeerGraphs rankings). We made small talk about where we lived and where we were from. None of it mattered. Other people tasted and walked away. More words. Then someone said something about brewing an Oatmeal stout and finding a way to preserve the original texture.

Like that awful drink from Clearly Canadian?, I asked. With the gelatin inside?

"Orbitz,” he said.

Somehow this was the opening of an actual conversation, one that mattered. There’s a chapter in Schaap’s book on drinking in Dublin and the Irish way of making talking art. Craic, they call it, valuing the idea of speaking aloud enough to bring the Gaelic word into English.Craic is what intoxicates Schaap about Irish bars, the different styles of sharing, the different stories you hear, the way a fragment of conversation seeps into another, words like music. The idea of tasting beer didn’t fully disappear when we were talking about Orbitz and brewing and neuroscience and Yiddish and generally getting to know each other, but it faded away. We were mainly people outside on a sunny day at the end of summer.

Drink, for Schaap, is the opening into that world of speech. It’s not that alcohol loosens you up and relaxes you enough to talk to someone else. It’s more that wanting to drink in public is the thing that everyone there has in common. Everyone at the bar has rejected the ease of pouring a glass of wine at home and embraced the possibility of something happening. Everyone at the bar is open to the night and where it might take them. Open to new friends and the world. Over several chapters, she takes us into the bars that made her life richer, the places she met the people who became her friends and those she relied on for support.

The scene Schaap sets is intoxicating -- which makes it even more of a punch to the stomach when she decides to collapse it. Doubt enters. Fears of alcoholism. A stray remark causes a personal crisis that’s only resolved in the book’s acknowledgements section. (The book’s lone failure of storytelling). Some of the writing is unnerving. When you stop to think about it, it’s even more unnerving how little the specific drinks matter: drinking is a way to punch the clock, the price of admission. She prefers Jameson and Guinness, but that preference almost comes across as a uniform she wears to do her job, a way of not thinking about what she’s doing.

Schaap, a poet, bartender, drink columnist for the New York Times Magazine and, I should mention, the daughter of the legendary Dick Schaap and the sister of ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, is a terrific writer. Her sentences steadily add up into something beautiful. To her credit, she lets most of her questions about drinking dangle. Neither she nor we can really say when the virtues of being a regular wrap in on themselves and become suffocating. She’s attracted to the bar because she’s looking, endlessly looking, to belong somewhere. And it’s exactly the type of person searching for a community who’ll be let down most by facile friendships, whether they were formed in a bar or anywhere else. It’s a credit to her writing, however, that we reach that conclusion on our own; she never needed to pound the mallet on our heads.

Drinking with Men is a book that all drinkers should read, whether they have one drink a night or ten. It’s the type of book you read as much to enjoy as to challenge yourself. Is this who you are? Is this what you’re looking for in drink? What are you looking for, anyway?

But in the end, something obvious separates BeerGraphs readers from Schaap and the men in her bars: the beer matters. Taste and flavor matter. BeerGraphs is about the love of an object, a drink; Drinking with Men is about the love of place. It’s a huge difference that persists even when the two run together. Drinking because you love the beverage is slower, more mindful. We want to know why and how a beer affects us and apply that knowledge to other beers, and to other things. It’s a way of refining our understanding of who we are. You might drink several beers in a session, but you savor the drink as much as the company.