Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Blessing of your heart, ye brew good ale!"

Two Gentlemen of Verona Act III, Scene 1

Even when I didn't have a family, a business, a niche carved out of the suburbs, I had a routine. I'm not sure I would have recognized it as such, however. I always considered myself something of a free spirit, ready to leap up out of the seat in the coffee shop and jump into life, but I pretty regularly found myself in the coffee shop. After work I would pretty regularly find myself in the brewery, too, even though sitting there with a draft night after night I would wait for the opportunity to leave town. Leave it all. Something you only do once, and takes years to rouse the courage.

Specifically, the Crown City Brewery in Pasadena. When I was nineteen or so a friend of mine (older, of age) came around one night raving about a bar that served beer from a tap that was connected directly to the conditioning/storage tanks -they brewed it right there! I didn't start getting into beer until years later, but I was fascinated by the concept. It was the first I'd heard of it. Ten years later there would be a microbrewery at cat-swinging distance from every street corner in Southern California.

As the serendipity of life played out, I ended up living a block from the Old Town, brick-studded Crown City Brewery for a few years. I would go because the beer was good, and because they all recognized me when I came in. None of them knew my name, as the song goes, which was fine with me. If the bartender knows your name you most likely have a drinking problem (and if everyone else in the bar knows your name you excel at it.) At the coffee shop I would write, but at the brewery I would talk. And drink. It was a fun place. Friends would exchange stories until closing, all the while sampling exotic brews. You were rewarded for drinking an extensive selection of beer at the place -they would ring the bell, announce your name, and put it on a plaque. Waiters and waitresses there met and were married. When flat screen TVs were invented, they hung ten of them around the place. "Beers from around the world!" boasted the menu, which listed a finely greased pub grub that no bachelor could ever be ungrateful for.

I was there on September 14th, 2001. It was the Friday after 9/11 and the impact of those events were sinking in around the country. On my way down to the brewery I saw people holding candles and waving flags on every street corner. The TVs in the place were tuned to the news and it was a loud, bustling, packed house, like any ordinary Friday night. I remember a guy walking in with a set of bagpipes. I saw him lean over to the bartender, who nodded and rang the bell. The place went quiet and listened intently as the guy huffed and squeezed out The Star Spangled Banner. No one spoke. Some people put their right hands over their hearts. Some people cried. It was that kind of place.

I moved away after that and kept some distance. Though I love good beer to this day, (you can take the man out of the microbrewery, but not the microbrews out of the man) I think everyone in the place was becoming much too familiar and the routine was becoming insistently pathetic, I mean, can't we all just move on? Do we have to? A year later I told my buddies to meet me at the place and I announced my engagement to Mrs. Ditchman. She showed up. I showed everyone the ring I bought her, worth nearly as much as the amount of cash I dropped on hearty brews there over the years. (A lot!) I told the guys they would be in the wedding, and then I never went back.

Okay, I went back. Last summer I was in Pasadena and convinced some friends to go there for dinner for old time's sake. It was like returning to your old high school: everything seemed smaller, and without the energy of your youth. Filled with strangers who treated me as one, the place had fallen on hard times. The brewing vats and fermenting tanks were gone, as they had succumbed to disrepair and were consigned to kingdom come in some far off Raiders of the Lost Ark-type warehouse, I imagined. They were moved to make more room for patrons, but the patrons didn't come, I guess, and the placed now looked rather threadbare. The menus were the same old menus that had been there when I had last seen the place, but they were now a cracked laminate on old ketchup stains and with the grimy patina from the fingers of a thousand beer swillers. The brass had gone unpolished. The smell of recently cooked hops had been replaced with the ugly stench of spilled lager on concrete, dried and perpetually stood on. The food had taken on a similar miasma, and it may have just been me who changed, with my newly refined taste for a home-cooked meal from my wife. It was a sad scene. Mrs. Ditchman said the place was always like that, and she may be right, I did change, but if so, why then has it come to this?

I believe that when they gave up brewing beer at the place they got out the nails to hammer the coffin shut. For all the BJs and Karl Strausses and Yardhouses and Gordon Bierschs in the world, it's those down-home, unfranchised breweries that make the good beer and have a nifty label that are charmed for a lifetime. An obituary for an alehouse begins with "the brewing equipment broke down, and because it was too expensive to replace..."

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well... a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."

Hamlet Act V, Scene 1