by Nick Rees Gardner
While at a residency last month, I sat with a group of artists and writers circled on adirondack chairs sharing some of Vermont’s finest IPAs. At my feet was a fresh four-pack of The Alchemist’s iconic Heady Topper and in my hand I held a Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine. I had only known the people I was with for about a week, but each evening, after a couple hours and a few brews from Foam or Burlington Beer Works, we soon loosened up and were comfortable enough to share our stories.
The pleasure I get from alcohol these days is tightly linked to stories. Stories are what brought me back to the alcohol industry after my MFA. Rather than following the traditional tracks of teaching or publishing, I picked up a job as a beer and wine salesman in Maryland. Over the past ten years I’ve done everything from ordering beer, to slinging cocktails to pressing wine. Though, I must admit, I’m a sucker for a dry martini or full bodied red blend, my more recent passion for alcoholic beverages has less to do with intoxication, and more to do with the history, tradition and the anecdotes that surround it.
The flavor profile is a story in itself, such as a wine with dark fruit and a full body that leaves a hint of tobacco on your tongue. But there are other types of stories which alcohol evokes. When I speak with a guest about a specific brewery or brew, we share anecdotes about our experiences with a specific beer, or discuss the growing conditions that produce Côtes du Rhône grapes. The stories may seem surface-level, but, I would argue that each alcoholic beverage contains the possibility of epic depth.
Here is a list of some depths such stories can reach:
Depth 1: Story
After three beers, a friend and I work up the courage to explore an abandoned factory. This is front story, cause and effect, a series of events. But it’s probably not enough to grab a guest’s interest.
Depth 2: Characterization
Before our expedition, my friend and I share beers at The Phoenix Brewing Company. My friend tells me about when he was arrested for breaking into the Westinghouse factory. This is an anecdote and characterization. As Jerome Stern says in Making Shapely Fiction, “A character is also directly created by what she says.” Through his story I learn about my friend’s “ideas and memories… fears and hopes.” The story has intrigue, but might not be enough to sell a guest on the beer.
Depth 3: Specific Place
Duncan, the head brewer at The Phoenix Brewing Company, finishes his batch of The Ferryman Oatmeal Milk Stout. The name of the beer is inspired by the building where it was brewed: a former mortuary. This kind of story is evocative of what the late Barry Lopez referred to in his essay “Landscape and Narrative” as “specific American geography, [which] requires not only time but a kind of local expertise.” This might be the push the guest needs to make the purchase.
Depth 4: Region/Geography
Before he can brew, Duncan sources the hops, the flaked oats, the chocolate and roasted malts. But maybe the brewer doesn’t have direct access to such ingredients. Or maybe they use old pretzels from a local bakery (kudos to Fonta Flora’s Todd Boera’s “Pretzelweis”). In his essay “Writer and Region,” Wendell Berry declares that “every writer is a regional writer.” It is the same with any good brewer. They are affected by their geography. They are who they are because of the landscape available to experience. This is the depth that catches the attention of many a beer nerd.
Depth 5: Econarative
The farmer plants the hops but maybe there’s a drought that year, or wildfires. In viticulture, vines are transported from the old world to the new world. Like Richard Powers’ The Overstory, this is the depth of the story where the lives of all characters become intertwined in a root system that spreads across the planet, that reaches from the dirt in which the vine is planted to the tongue the wine touches. This may be a bit much to get into for an alcohol sale, but there are those beer lovers who track the growing conditions of hops and can taste the difference between a good and bad year.
Depth 6: The Epic Aspect
We could track the history of alcohol back to 7000 BC in China when residue in clay pots reveals fermented rice, millet, grapes, and honey. We can see how alcohol has affected us politically, socially, psychologically, etc. Cormac McCarthy is quoted saying: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books… the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Similarly, each beer depends on its predecessor. Such chains of a beer’s evolution are the subjects of many a beer nerd blog.
What I’ve found working in alcohol is a positive and mostly passionate group who relish in stories and story-telling as much as many writers do. I become inspired by barroom brags, and many a boozy yarn over pints at a high top table has woven its way into my fiction. The history and ecology are fascinating. The hours work well too. I have time to write in the morning and when I clock out at night, I’m done. No grading, no catching up on reading or planning. When I’m done, I crack a saison and turn back to my stories.
Alcohol never fails to inspire me to see those deeper narratives open up in my own work, to write beyond the plot, character, or even place, and see the narrative that lies beneath. As Lucy Corin says, “The story… is always smarter than you.” As much as we try to imbue our stories with studied meanings, their true depth may surprise us when it finally spills out. I would argue that all of the “depths” I’ve mentioned above (and more) appear in some way in most truly delectable tales. A final anecdote: Once, after a long shift at the winery, my friend showed me the 150 year old tunnels uncovered across the street. We found the stash of broken bottles from pre-recycling days along with other detritus. At the site of a future winery, there were tales buried in those sandstone caverns. In that place, a story opened up to me, much too unfathomable to fully plumb.
Read more of Nick’s work here at Reckon: