Day 45: Beer
“Are ya lost, hon?”
I looked up from my guidebook, surprised, and gave her a smile. “No ma’am, I just want to get a beer!”
“Yeah Annie,” chided one of the locals seated at the bar, “he just wants to get a beer, give him a break!”
“Well I’m sorry,” she replied in a delightfully endearing countryside voice, “I figured nobody comes in here, this is a nowhere place!”
She wasn’t wrong — Smith River, California is one of those barely-noticeable, instantly-forgettable crossroads towns surrounded by ranchland. The Bank, as the little tavern I’d stumbled into was called, sat on the northwest corner of the town’s one intersection. I stretched my sore legs before sitting down, noticing framed black & white photos of the old-timers, loggers and cattlemen. But I wasn’t here for a history lesson — it was Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, and I’d walked hard all day to get here and reward myself with a beer. I pulled up a stool next to Mike, who wears a greasy ballcap and works at a nearby utility company. Mike asked me about my story, and seemed to admire my big walk and ideas for education and research in wild Alaska, but he was very insistent that “you gotta make money. Here you done spent all this time gettin’ an education, and now it’s payoff time — you gotta make money. Believe me, I been there!” But his wife was the real talker. One cigarette at a time (they don’t exactly follow California state law in these small towns), she told me tales of bear hunting in Idaho: how she’d bred dogs and trained them to track down the black bears and chase them up trees for the shootin’, and how she kept a chainsaw and a crowbar in the truck so she could clear a path to follow the dogs. “But goddammit, if the truck got stuck, we’d chase after the dogs on foot!” Mike nodded at this, mm-hmm. Stumbling on her words, she told me about the righteousness of logging, and then with no trace of irony, proceeded to tell me how dumb we people are for screwing up our oceans by taking all the fish. I listened and nodded and drank my PBR, checking on the game out of the corner of my eye, all the while thinking, these are real people. Real, wonderful people.
I must admit, I’ve kinda been doing this trek from pub to pub. Partly, it’s a great way to meet people — pubs are where people gather after all, and the patrons are often up for a conversation. Some might invite you to crash on their couch; one nice guy even invited me to a shower and meal at his place, even though he wouldn’t be there (“the back door’s always open“). And partly, I visit the pubs because I’m a huge basketball fan, and the NBA playoffs have been in full swing since I left Palo Alto. There’s something comforting, when you’re lonely on the trail, about walking into the next town and sitting down at the bar to watch the game — a thread that connects me to the big world when I’m lost in my own, a calendar when I’ve lost track of the days.
And partly it’s because I love drinking beer. It’s one of my favorite things to do with just about anyone, and I’ve had the chance to drink beer in many corners of the world. My most memorable beer, of all the thousands, was probably drinking Carlsberg on the icebreaker Oden in Antarctica with the Swedish crewmen and my soon-to-be girlfriend Emily, the portholes closed to create the illusion of evening where there is none. Back at Stanford I was a mighty “Beer Czar,” organizing the weekly Friday Beer event. My role was less as a bartender, more as a facilitator — a provider and eager fellow participant, a leader by example when it came to letting loose with friends after a long week. And with so much practice drinking beer, I’ve gotten really good at it: I’m a formidable opponent in a chugging contest, an able partner on the beer pong table, and I can shotgun a beer in 4 seconds flat. But lately, there’s nothing like keeping it simple and drinking a few good beers with friends in the evening.
What exactly is beer? What’s it made of? The German Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, of the 15th Century is the gold standard — it holds that true beer may only contain 3 ingredients: water, malted barley, and hops (today we know that a 4th ingredient, yeast, is necessary for the fermentation process). By this stringent ancient edict, true “beer” does not include the many specialty brews incorporating flavors such as berries, honey, or pumpkin (in my experience, the latter tends to haunt refrigerator doors for months after the Halloween costumes have been put away anyway…). For that matter, true “beer” also wouldn’t include our major American brands such as Coors, Miller, and Budweiser, as they partly substitute “adjunct” cereal grains such as corn and rice in for the barley — presumably to save money when shooting for the lowest common denominator, although there seem to be disputes online (as with everything) that the corn and rice also help create the “lightness” and retain the fizzy head of the beer. Of course, there are many who never considered “the Nationals” to be beer to begin with (anachronistic German law aside), preferring other choice names (“watered-down cat piss” comes to mind).
Way too briefly, here’s the process: First, malt your barley (allow it to germinate), then dry and/or roast it (the more roasting, the darker the beer). Next, crush it up and heat it in water — this process of mashing is complicated, with different times and temperatures used to activate different enzymes and convert the malt starches into sugars. Now strain (lauter) the liquid (wort) from the spent barley grain. You want to boil the wort in a kettle, using hops the way a chef uses spices, dashing them in to add aroma and bitterness (the more hops you add, the more bitter your beer, measured in International Bitterness Units or IBUs). Now add your yeast and wait awhile (maybe 3 weeks) for the whole concoction to ferment. Finally, remove the yeast and cool the beer down (let it condition for a bit), and you’re pretty much ready — you may decide to filter out the remaining yeast and particulates and add some extra CO2 for fizziness before you serve it up.
Of course, the active ingredient in beer is ethanol (a.k.a. ethyl alcohol, or just plain alcohol), which doesn’t need to be digested to take effect — it crosses readily into the bloodstream and reaches the brain, where it inhibits neurotransmitters, causing the classic, much-ridiculed signs of drunkenness like stumbling and slurring (which I never do). Ethanol is produced, along with CO2, by yeast feeding off the sugars in the wort under oxygen-deprived conditions. This fermentation process is a lot like the production of CO2 that causes your bread to rise, albeit done by different strains of yeast. Blessed are our microscopic yeasty Saccharomyces friends for giving us bread and beer, my blessed sacrament, my body and blood, my engine power for the last 800 miles! (And Dr. Atkins can shove it.)
The other day I stopped in at Rogue Brewery in Newport. This wasn’t the downtown tourist trap restaurant — it was the waterfront industrial warehouse, the business end of the brewing enterprise. Forklifts crossed in front of me as I approached, carrying pallates of kegs of beer and stacking them in mouthwatering towers. Inside, the path to the tasting room led through the vats — massive, two stories high, like grain silos gathered from a vast prairie. “It’s beautiful!” I said to nobody in particular, in revelation, the way Mugatu says it when he first sees Magnum. I sat down for a pint of their famous Dead Guy Ale, figuring it’s past noon, so I’m alright. Rogue is a craft brewery (or micro brewery), meaning they produce a limited amount of beer and tend to maintain a high standard of quality. My favorite craft brewery (no surprise) is Alaskan Brewing Company up in Juneau — I get its signature, Alaskan Amber, whenever I see it on draught along the trail. Alaskan Brewing is notable not just for their delicious brew, but for their innovative techniques. They pioneered the world’s first steam boiler fueled entirely by spent barley grain, thus reducing their need for fuel oil and eliminating the grain waste that would otherwise have to be shipped away. They’re also the first microbrewery to install a CO2 recovery system — they bottle up the excess CO2 seeping out from the fermentation process, and use it to carbonate their beer.
These inventive steps weren’t originally taken out of some kind of environmental ethic — the simple fact is, buying and shipping a bunch of fuel oil and CO2 to Alaska is damned expensive. It just makes good business sense to figure out how to reclaim the by-products of your craft that would otherwise go to waste. This happens often, in many venues: if you’re willing to challenge convention by using less and wasting less, there is money to be saved. The environmental benefits are just an added bonus.
I hope this kind of inventiveness and self-sufficiency will characterize Inian Islands Institute as well. In the remote microcosm of the Hobbit Hole, I hope we can challenge students with questions of practicality — how can we use less diesel? how can we import less food? And as we look closer, and as these questions take on notes of sustainability, I hope we can redefine that word together, feeling empowered to be creative, to try new things, to find solutions. We’ll talk together about it over a good beer.