Monday, September 01, 2014

THE PC: Kevin, meet Tony. I’ll just take notes and drink beer.

THE PC: Kevin, meet Tony. I’ll just take notes and drink beer.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Like so many other local beer people, I’ve been reading Kevin Gibson’s new book. It’s called Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft, and I picked it up just as I was finishing another, arguably weightier tome: Thinking the Twentieth Century, by the late Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder.

One is a specific account of beer’s rise, fall and resurgence in Louisville, and the other a series of far-ranging conversations about 20th-century intellectual history. These may seem unrelated, and in many respects they are. However, there are points of convergence; more about that in a moment.

The last book to be written about Louisville beer was Louisville Breweries: A History of the Brewing Industry in Louisville, by Conrad Selle and Peter Guetig. It was published in 1997 and printed only once (I understand Peter is contemplating a revised edition). Obviously, much has changed since then, with breweries coming and going, and Kevin’s Louisville Beer provides ample coverage of our contemporary period.

I haven’t yet gotten to this second, more recent half of Kevin’s story. Rather, it is the first sections of his book that I find compelling, as he seeks to depict what beer really meant, day in and day out, in a place like Louisville prior to the era of Prohibition.

Broadly speaking to post-Colonial times and the early 1800s, beer arguably was of secondary consideration to cider and whisky – until substantial numbers of Germans began coming to this area following the disruptive revolutions of 1848.

Germans brought with them the technological underpinnings of lager brewing, which was about to explode into a worldwide phenomenon. More importantly to daily life in Louisville, they came equipped with cultural proclivities, which included beer as an integral part of social life. Because these immigrants enjoyed their tankards, it was a natural next step for “Know Nothing” nativists to conflate beer with immigration, and to incorporate xenophobia into what evolved as the temperance movement.

In short, there was Carrie Nation-building: God says drinking is bad, but forget that; just look at those non-English speaking, beer-drinking immigrants taking our jobs … and what’s more, we’d all work harder and be more efficient cogs of capitalism if we were sober. Hatchets fly, and nutrition becomes a crime. Rinse and repeat in the here and now.

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And so we see that in the late 19th-century, some Louisville neighborhoods closely resembled the Fatherland, and these areas would have reminded me very much of those German milieus I was so eager to experience a century later during the 1980s.

It should suffice to note that beer was consumed voluminously at work and play, while bowling and playing baseball, during weddings and funerals, and in morning and nighttime. There were dozens of breweries, and rushing the growler meant dispatching one’s 10-year-old to the corner saloon, laden with a metal bucket. Some people succumbed to alcohol-induced diseases, while others sweated out the beer and lived to ripe old ages. Life went on, as it tends to do.

Prohibition came very close to wiping the slate clean. There were surviving breweries after Repeal, and some (Falls City, Oertel’s, Fehr’s) did quite well for a long time, but by the time of the Reagan administration, none remained in operation. Around 1990, David Pierce fortuitously brewed a batch at Charley’s Restaurant on Main Street in Louisville, and then he opened the Silo in 1992. Times began changing.

Since then, we’ve spent countless hours and brain cells debating whether this new “craft” beer era represents a restoration of the past, or a revolution. This consideration brings me back to Tony Judt, the historian.

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During the course of his reflections, Judt asks a question: “What is the purpose or nature of history?” He follows it with another statement, “You cannot invent or exploit the past for present purposes.”

As I think about Kevin’s depiction of pre-1900 Louisville beer as an all-pervasive cultural norm, it seems to me that quite often I’ve done precisely as Judt admonishes. In fact, we all have. We’ve exploited the previous history of local beer to explain our present purposes, and to claim cultural (and mercantile) territory for ourselves. The problem is that by doing so, we consistently fail to account for how pervasively craft- and locally-driven 19th-century beer and beer culture really were.

Yes, beer came from elsewhere in America, floating down the river on boats and later in railway cars. Occasionally, beer came from very far away (see below). But the bulk of the beer produced in the neighborhood breweries of old were consumed nearby, within the neighborhood. Brewpubs of the current era generally have remained true to this model, production breweries of any size, less so.

In the end, it would be fascinating to know more about the business motivations of these 19th-century brewers. Were they content with being small and local, with limited range, or were they open to the idea of acquiring capital through hook or crook, and expanding to ship beer longer distances according to the capitalist export-driven ideal? We probably can’t know, although speculation’s worth a beer or three.

Judt also makes this observation:

“A history book – assuming its facts are correct – stands or falls by the conviction with which it tells its story. If it rings true to an intelligent, informed reader, then it is a good history book. If it rings false, then it is not good history, even if it’s well written by a great historian on the basis of sound scholarship.”

Louisville Beer passes this test. We can quibble over details, and yet it matters less what we know now about brewing methods and stylistic categorization, and more that in olden times, people were not aware of these details. Being a beer drinker in Louisville in the year 1890 was not about checking-in, chasing and hoarding. Rather, it likely involved a healthy dollop of German-ness; came accompanied with a good deal of child-like mystery as to the process; and resulted in prodigious intake in the relative absence of plasticized tap water, smoothies and teeth-corroding “soft” drinks.

In a future column, I’ll survey the “contemporary” section of Kevin’s book. Until then, we close with something posted to the Louisville Restaurants Forum many years ago. It’s a restaurant menu, with wine list and libations, from the Louisville Hotel, circa 1857.


All the essentials are in place, with a purely French approach to cooking, ample quantities of meats, purely dispensable veggies, abundant wine from around the world, and the requisite “correct” imported beer list; none of that new-fangled German beer, and heaven forbid the inclusion of locally-made “Porter and Ale.” Instead, the beer stars are Guinness (then as now, imported from Dublin) and Allsop’s India Pale Ale from the United Kingdom.

Amazing. This still would have been the best beer list in Louisville in 1957, and as recently as the 1070s. We’ve come a long way, baby … and sometimes, not at all.

Photo credits:



Monday, August 25, 2014

The PC: Anti-local craft beer unconsciousness, revisited.

The PC: Anti-local craft beer unconsciousness, revisited. 

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

The Crescent Hill Craft House has opened on Frankfort Avenue in Louisville, and while I haven't yet had the chance to visit, I already know what I'll be drinking first.

It will be a BBC beer from the St. Matthews location. The exact one doesn't matter. My reasoning is that BBC's owner Pat Hagan is involved in the Craft House as well, and the Craft House pours only local and regional beers. It's an elastic definition, as it should be, and the point remains valid: Pat's kept BBC in the game for 22 years, and I'll drink one of his beers to thank him for it, and to celebrate the all-local concept.

It's been a year and a half since I wrote the following column, and in retrospect, nothing's changed for me. Consider it as one dedicated to the advent of the Craft House, and the hope that the concept embraced by Pat and his partners yields solid returns.

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“Art can never take the place of social action … but its task remains forever the same: to change consciousness.”
-- Amos Vogel, from “Film as a Subversive Art”

When will craft beer finally change the consciousness of the American beer-drinking mainstream?”

I’m tempted to answer one question with another: Should mainstream consciousness ever be the desired outcome for craft beer?

But let’s play it straight. Some might say that craft beer consciousness already has arrived. Craft beer’s availability is wider than ever before, and statistically, most Americans live within close proximity to a craft brewer, even if the average measurement is skewed by Michigan as compared to the Deep South.

Slowly, even this imbalance is changing, and craft beer consciousness is penetrating all geographical areas of the country.

More tellingly, America’s copycat megabrewers are quite conscious of craft’s escalating impact. Through imitation and outright, unrepentant piracy – the only recourses for corporate regimes cruelly deprived of the creative gene – mass-market mockrobrews, from Blue Moon and Shock Top to zombie craft beers like those from the late, lamented Goose Island, now are routinely positioned to distract truth seekers. As always, bucket loads of marketing cash are wielded to pull soothing layers of mistruth and gloss over the eyes of the undiscerning.

Overall, my personal view about craft beer’s consciousness is that for all our obvious gains, we’re not quite “there,” at least yet.

Rather, when sociologists and psychologists at last begin studying craft beer drinkers close up and personal, we’ll know that mainstream consciousness has drawn to within a whisker, because there is no more reliable indicator of mass-market impact than the urgent need to understand the behavior of those consumers inhabiting segments poised for profit. That’s how the real money gets made.

While the analysts and shrinks are cogitating, perhaps they can help me with persistent examples of what might be termed cognitive dissonance in craft consciousness.

A prime example includes the inability (read: unwillingness) on the part of credentialed craft beer enthusiasts to tell the difference between craft and crafty as they avert their eyes from the Goose Gambit’s shelf-space-seeking drones, which are intended primarily to shift money to faraway corporate shareholders. It’s the most patently obvious bait-and-switch tactic since door-to-door driveway resealing, and yet it is ignored by many who plainly know better.

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While we’re at it, these battered and blotted Rorschach findings also may help explain the most disquieting aspect of craft beer consumer behavior, at least to me: Anti-local craft beer unconsciousness.

It is my aim to re-situate the burgeoning craft beer movement within a context of economic localization, to revert the revolution to its point of origin, and to describe how the very consciousness of buying local is important both in non-beer terms, and in the specific way it impacts the craft beer ethos. Recently I wrote:

Shift happens. It is perhaps the single, fundamental tenet of emerging economic localism, and when it comes time to have a beer, the concept of shift means putting this principle into liquid practice.

Having acknowledged the efficacy of buying local, as measured by factual indices consistently recognizing that localism keeps more money in one’s community, my household is incrementally shifting toward local sources of goods and services, whenever practical.

Shift is a process, not an all-or-nothing crusade. If my shift to locally brewed beer implied being compelled to drink an inferior product, obviously I would think differently. Fortunately, it does not.

And yet for some otherwise knowledgeable practitioners of the craft beer ethos, “local” and “inferior” remain synonymous terms.

Why?

It is interesting to consider the contrasting reaction to “buying local” that exists, quite apart from the merits of local beer, when we speak of the retail sector: Hardware, groceries, clothing, floral arrangements and the like. I hear it often:

"But wait: You cannot compel me to spend more money than I wish to spend."

The perception is that buying local always entails higher expense to the consumer. Actually, numerous studies have addressed this perception, and the price differences therein typically are not as profound as imagined, if they even exist at all. Probably what doubters mean to say is that they cannot be compelled to surrender the big box, exurban shopping ease of finding all consumables under one roof – and that’s a different topic, one falling outside my parameters today.

But when it comes to craft beer, independent small brewers seldom hear objections about price, because craft beer enthusiasts understand that handcrafted products using higher quality ingredients within smaller economies of scale cost more than mass produced ones do. Consequently, a different and less readily explicable form of pushback occurs in the context of local beer and brewing.

How about some locally brewed beer, guys?

“No, because you cannot compel me to drink poorer quality beer. Only the best for me, you know."

This reply never fails to utterly befuddle me.

I’m a trained BJCP beer judge, and after thirty years in the beer business, obviously I’ve been around the block a few times – just ask my liver.

When I attend beer festivals these days, my samples invariably are drawn from “everyday” beers as made by small, local breweries, if only to remind me that seldom are these beers in any way unsuitable. On those rare occasion when there’s a quality problem, I’m constructively honest in identifying it, and if I can do so, in proposing a solution. Without dialogue, there cannot be a community. Without community, very little about craft beer interests me, anyway. Craft beer consciousness isn’t me against the world.

It’s us against the world.

Unfortunately, there exists a minority of self-identified craft beer opinion shapers for whom it’s never quite enough for local beer to be good, solid or sessionable.

What’s more, for them, local beer by definition simply cannot ever be “sexy” enough to justify a variant of beer enthusiasm sated only through insularity, exclusivity and narcissism, and before readers take me to task for erecting a straw man, permit me to add that I’m well aware of what such snobbery entails, because I’ve spent years now slowly recovering from its debilitating influence.

You’re damned right I’ve sinned, but consciousness is subject to evolution, and so is conscience. When I look back at my career in beer, I’m not always happy with my modes of expression, but know this: Narcissism’s not my gig, and never was. Expertise isn’t about keeping; with me, it’s all about teaching, and my record should speak for itself in that regard.

In my opinion, the breezy and frankly disdainful attitude that local beer cannot be good is a form of misplaced elitism and condescending snobbery ultimately injurious to craft beer’s larger interests. Attack mass-market swill at will; it deserves censure, but craft beer cannibalism is another matter entirely.

Beer as we know and love it does not exist in a societal, historical or ethical vacuum. Rather, craft beer consciousness exists within a community, and if we wish our community to grow sustainably, we must share our expertise broadly, not narrowly.

Consequently, I challenge the shadowy sect of narcissistic beer enthusiasts to help spread wisdom, not hoard it; to enhance local brewing and not detract from it; and in summary, to be part of the solution, not a collection of snarky Wonkas in the making. We have enough of that, already.

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Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I remain a realist. Nothing I write or say in this column can substantively change attitudes that derive from a wide variety of wants, needs and experiences. Life’s too complicated for simplicity and we’re all different as people, but what I can make absolutely clear is this:

I’ve got the backs of local, independent brewers in this region, and when the smack starts getting talked, I’ll be there to answer it. It’s a matter of deeply held principle.

Consider joining me by waving potential craft beer converts into the tent, not erecting barriers to their enlightenment. In such a fashion, consciousness changes – and grows.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Crescent Hill Craft House opens on Monday, August 25.


Looking for a wonderful draft beer list that refutes the oft-heard lament that one must drink beer from elsewhere, not from around Louisville, because our local beer isn't as interesting?

Pfui. Meet the Crescent Hill Craft House,  opening Monday, August 25. It is located at 2636 Frankfort Avenue in Louisville.

From the Crescent Hill Craft House page at Facebook comes the following overview (and the photo).

Beer: 40 'all-local taps' including BBC, NABC, Country Boy, Flat 12, & all the other locals.

Menu: Busy - everything local, from bologna to fried quail $7-19; coca-cola: $2.25; Weekend brunch 9-2.

Kitchen: "Chef-driven-food" from Chef Tim Smith, formerly with Napa River Grill & 60 West Martini Bar. Served indoors & out.

Meet: Brad Culver, owner/partner/GM, started with BBC "Bluegrass Brewing Company Restaurant & Brew Pub, Brewpub, Brewery" in 2003. Beau Kerley, owner/partner & GM, worked at Dark Star & BBC, the out-of-town investor, and Pat Hagan, owner/partner/founder BBC St. Matthews, and last but not least, Gordon, from BBC 4th St, tending a full bar.

Entertainment: Sports on TV. Piped-in, & occasional live music, small sound system.

Decor: Minimalist, quite bare. New patio out back.

Atmosphere: Rough, unfinished ceiling with bare concrete floor & brick; brutal lighting.

Bicycles: Racks in the back alley, but no entrance/exit.

Opening: Monday August 25.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pop-up beer garden: ReSurfaced is coming to West Main Street in Louisville.


This posting includes some previously released palaver.

Yesterday in Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer announced a "pop-up plaza and beer garden" coming to West Main Street in Louisville.

The web site is www.resurfaced.org.

Mayor Announces Vacant Space on Main St. to be Transformed into Arts, Performance Space

ReSurfaced initiative is a six-week project -- Sept. 19-Oct. 25

LOUISVILLE (Aug. 19, 2014) – A vacant block of West Main Street downtown will be turned into a temporary plaza with art, music, movies and craft beer, Mayor Greg Fischer announced today.

The project, called ReSurfaced, will take place Sept. 19 to Oct. 25 and involve local arts groups and architects, food trucks and local craft beer brewers, transforming 615 W. Main St. into a pop-up plaza and beer garden ...

As usual, a wee bit of local history is in order. Once upon a time in Louisville, there was to have been a 62-story skyscraper to be called the Museum Plaza.


It was not built, and the plan has been officially "dead" for at least three years.

In the run-up to Museum Plaza, several infrastructure improvement projects were completed by the city. One of them was on the 600 block of West Main Street, where four buildings were demolished, but their historic facades buttressed and kept intact. This was slated to be developed as the entrance to Museum Plaza from the Main Street corridor.

The space has remained vacant since 2007. Here is the bird's eye view of the hollow cavity.


This is the space intended to host ReSurfaced, and the beer is to be entirely locally brewed, which is a welcome development. The overall plan was discussed during recent meetings of a special committee to advise Mayor Greg Fisher on what the city might do with respect to supporting local breweries. I was happy to be a part of it. Now we'll see what happens next. ReSurfaced is a great idea, but as I've learned, implementation can be a real bear.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Details coming today: ReSurfaced, a six-week pop-up art space and beer garden.

FYI

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10 a.m. Tuesday news conference

Louisville Metro sent this bulletin at 08/18/2014 03:07 PM EDT

MEDIA ADVISORY

WHO:
Mayor Greg Fischer and the non-profit group City Collaborative

WHAT:
Will announce details of ReSurfaced, a six-week pop-up art space and beer garden on Main Street.

WHEN:
10 a.m.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

WHERE:
615 W. Main Street (behind the facades)
Enter the site from the alley in the back


MEDIA CONTACTS:
Chris Poynter, 574-4546 / 396-2015
Phil Miller, 574-1901 / 439-4726

Monday, August 18, 2014

The PC: Slave to words.

The PC: Slave to words.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Words matter, and so I decided to do some brainstorming.

In the amount of time required to listen to the album The Jazz Age by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra (roughly 35 minutes), I’d do some free association, letters A to Z, and compile a list of words in reply to a simple question: “What does the world of better beer really mean to me?”

My only self-imposed caveat was that these freely-associated words had to be non-specific to beer and brewing. The idea was to chart how better beer affects my brain as a concept, beyond its familiar chemical effects. Here are the results.

Authenticity, anti-fascist, agitprop
Broad-minded, breakthrough, bona fide
Community, cadres, credibility
Diversity, development, dissenter, Dionysian
Education, exercise, egalitarian
Foment, fun, feisty
Genuine, gadfly
Heterodoxy, healthy, heretical
Integrity, insurgency, idiosyncratic
Jamboree, jamming
Knowledge, kinship
Localism, leadership, liberal
Multicultural, mythological, militancy
Non-negotiable, neighborhood
Original, openness
Pride, placemaking, passionate, progressive, polemics
Qualified, quantifiable
Revolt, restoration, reuse
Substantive, subversive
Tactile, transformation, truth, timelessness
Unapologetic, underground
Viva la Revolution, validity, venerable
Walkability, work ethic
X
Yummy, yearning
Zealotry, zymurgy

Admittedly, there were times when I caught myself daydreaming, even though the music was chosen quite purposefully to be instrumental, without words and distractions. You’ll notice that the letter “x” was a problem, and yes, zymurgy is a beer-specific term. Exceptions, and all that.

Something else is obvious. I’ve consciously avoided attaching the word “craft” to any of it. Slowly and inexorably, I’m engaged in the process of purging this beer descriptor from written and spoken usage. Like so many other useful processes, doing so involves a steady shift, and there’ll be lapses.

It’s clear to me that as the market share of better beer gets ever larger, and efforts to explain what “craft” actually means in terms of process – say, as a maker of handmade furniture might compare and contrast his hand-driven methods to that of a room-sized machine – are downplayed, we’ll increasingly turn to economic descriptors like those of the “buy local” movement. Consciousness about matters like independent ownership will become necessary to help dispel the craftiness of Trojan Goose.

I’ve been saying it for a long time, and generally find myself heckled for it. That’s okay, because at some point, the pendulum will swing back. To indulge in drinking without thinking isn’t drinking at all. It’s just swallowing.

Which brings me to the point of the exercise: I didn’t get into better beer merely to swallow or “drink” reservoirs of it, although doing so might be a collateral result of proximity for three decades. Rather, I got into it so as to change the world, or as much of the world as I could reach.

Grasp is another matter.

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Perhaps appropriately, the book currently occupying space atop my nightstand is wonderful: Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder. In The Guardian, reviewer Neal Ascherson sets the scene.

In this marvelous book, two explorers set out on a journey from which only one of them will return. Their unknown land is that often fearsome continent we call the 20th century. Their route is through their own minds and memories. Both travelers are professional historians still tormented by their own unanswered questions. They needed to talk to one another, and the time was short.

Tony Judt, author of Postwar, found that he was suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), an incurable degenerative disease. His friend Timothy Snyder, a younger American historian, offered to help Judt create his final work. It takes the form of a series of conversations, recorded and then transcribed for Judt's approval over the best part of two years. Judt died in August 2010, a few weeks after dictating a long "afterword", which is as lucid as anything he had written. He was 62 years old.

I’m only hallway through it, but already the two historians have discussed a panoply of ideas, some still an active part of the political lexicon (Zionism, the Jewish experience), while others (Marxist theory) currently are situated just offstage, perhaps to return some day. George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and Stefan Zweig are among the writers popping up in these chats, along with Communism, Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, Reaganism and Thatcherism.

While reading this book, I’ve experienced much familiarity with the historical contexts, personages and schools of thought therein, but at times it has been necessary to reach for the iPhone and research who a Romanian poet or English trade unionist actually was. Overall, it has been exhilarating, serving as a timely reintroduction to ideas and the life of the mind, these being what inspired me to study philosophy and history at college in the first place.

In turn, it’s probably why I can’t keep various hop varieties straight in my mind, and couldn’t remember a fermentation temperature if you held a Lite to my temple. Science doesn’t scratch the itch. The idea of better beer is what matters to me – the history, theory, sociology, geography and culture of it. If you want to watch yeast mate under a microscopic eye, marvelous. I’d rather draw political insights from Woody Guthrie or find ways of connecting urban revitalization to the ready availability of Porter.

The most important word of all just might be the first one that popped into my head, with an assist from my former co-worker Joe. It’s authenticity, and as ideas go, it’s one of the best. It is my goal to combine authenticity with fun, polemics and localism, and see where they lead in my better beer life these coming months.

As for the Bryan Ferry album, I still go with “Avalon”. It’s the island from Arthurian legend, named for the apple trees located there – and cider’s always a pragmatic second choice to beer.