Sam Adams’ Ghost and the Past, Present and Future of Beer

Once again, as I sat in my favorite beer bar perusing the long list of drafts available to me, I heard the familiar rattling chains, felt the eerie cold spot and sensed the room become a little darker. A low, tortured wail echoed from the woodwork.

“Goddamnit,” I muttered as the spectral anomaly slapped my shoulder and slid a pint glass before me.

“Drink, good sir!” said the spirit, “For I hath perfected a black IPA!”

Some creative cursing erupted from me before I declared, “Goddamnit, Sam! Every time! Just once, and I mean once, I’d like to drink a beer here in peace without you shoving some new concoction into my face. And a Black IPA? Bit late to the buggy on that one, aren’t we?”

The spirit of Samuel Adams did frown upon me. “What dost thou prattle on about?”

“Oh my God, seriously? Listen, Mr. Adams, please understand, I respect you both as a founding father and as the corporate logo for a major player in the craft beer world. But come on, black IPA’s are passé. And I swear if you slide another white ale concoction in front of me, I’ll call Dan Aykroyd on your translucent, pantaloon-clad ass!”

Then, just when I expected a raging torrent of rejected vaporous anomaly and impotent rage, the extremely late Mr. Adams began to sob ectoplasmic tears into a phantom glass of brew.

I deflated fast. I guess I’d been a little harsh on the old bloke. I mean, had I become so cynical that I could depress the dead? I began to re-examine my own life choices when the phantom face turned to me.

“It’s true. I can no longer keep pace. Once there were but a dozen or so styles of brew, but now… now it has become a confusing labyrinth of new hop varieties and yeast strains. A humble founding father can scarcely keep track.”

I attempted to pat the poor apparition on the back, earning me a chilling sensation up my arm not unlike being tazed (don’t ask, I was in college, and the girl was a freak).

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I get frustrated myself. I mean, these new trends baffle me, and I’m still topside of dirt-town. I shouldn’t have expected a displaced soul with no tangibility to be able to keep pace with a younger, livelier crowd.”

That earned me a quick, founding-father, tazing bitch-slap across the cheek, which haunts me to this day.

“Thou speakest in puns! Cease!” The specter boomed, standing suddenly over me, jabbing an accusing non-corporeal finger at me, eyes blazing an eerie white light of pure non-human rage. “For thine insults, and for thine previous column … this night, thou shall be haunted by three spirits.”

“Oh Lord,” I said. “Not this old hat. I thought you were going to slap the Dickens OUT of me.”

This earned me another bitch-tazing. “The first shall come at happy hour. The second shall come at beer o’clock. The final shall emerge at last call!”

“But spirit,” I exclaimed. “Might I not have them all at once and be done with it?”

“No! Pace thyself, living fool! The potency of the spirits must be respected!”

“Now who’s speaking in puns?”

With that, he was gone, and I sat alone on the floor feeling like I’d just indulged in a very long, drawn-out game of hand-buzzer slap-betting. With nothing else to do, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, then reclaimed my bar stool.

Happy hour arrived, and the bartender before me was a stout fellow, sporting the same translucency that all specters do. He appeared to be attired in some sort of ancient Germanic armor, and slid a frothy mug of something yellow at me.

“I am the ghost of styles past,” he boomed with a voice brimming with a German accent. “Drink of this brew, and understand.”

“We’re really going to do this?” I replied with a sigh, then acquiesced. I sipped the brew, and visions of ancient brews filled my mind. At a time when beer and ale were two different drinks, when the world was coming off of mead and discovering how to turn their own crops into a delicious, heady brew. A time when beer was safer to drink than water.

I realized that beer has been with us since the dawn of civilization. Like fire and the wheel, it may have helped primitive man in his infancy. Some speculate that producing beer was one of the reasons why ancient man developed agriculture. Forms of beer, or any drink made from fermented grains, appear in ancient civilizations all over the world, from Egypt and Mesopotamia to the ancient Aztecs who would chew and spit corn into a large bowl to attract wild yeast.

In ancient times, ale was a distinctly bitter, herbal drink that was often imbibed for nutritious reasons. It would have a low alcohol content, just enough to act as a preservative. At the time, the boiling of beer during the process of brewing would make it safer than drinking water, as they had yet to discover germs (though inadvertently discovered yeast). Beer is a much older beverage, traditionally without any bittering agents, and enjoyed for its alcoholic content as much as anything else.

Over time, this distinction became less and less, as beer and ale became indistinguishable. The addition of hops in brewing centuries later continued to change the nature of the beverage until it became the styles we recognize today, like pale, brown, golden and barleywine.

By the Renaissance, some clever Germans discovered a process of fermentation that allowed a slow aging of stored beer, a lagering, if you will, that further enhanced production of the zymurgy arts, bringing us Pilsners, Märzens, Bocks and Dunkels.

I awoke from my vision with the odd taste of a Belgian ale in my mouth, and a strange desire to conquer the land and wear animal fur. This odd sensation faded quickly, as I’m fairly sure most law enforcement would frown on my trying to annex my neighbor’s swimming pool at broadsword-point.

I staggered to my stool, taking a deep breath. Potent spirit, indeed! Before me was an attractive spectral girl, not the typical scantily dressed, empty-eyed college girl looking to blitz her brains, but a sharp-looking, smartly dressed woman with lips crooked in a knowing smirk.

“Have a good ride?” she asked me.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Spirit of Beer Styles Present?”

“And accounted for,” she said, pouring a draft.

“I wasn’t expecting a woman,” I said as I began to recover my presence of mind. Apparently hallucinogenic spirit journeys take a little while to shake off.

“No one does, but here we are. Actually, brewing used to be considered women’s work.”

“Then what happened?” I asked, intrigued.

“I think it was football,” she said with a shrug, “But now, much like with video games, science fiction, fantasy, comic books and other once male-dominated subculture forces, brewing is becoming as much a woman’s domain as a man’s. Just ask Carol Stoudt.”

“I did ask Carol Stoudt. And Martha Paquette. And-” I was interrupted before I could continue.

“It doesn’t matter. Drink up,” she said, sliding the glass before me.

“I’ve barely come down from the last one. You spooks realize I drove here, right?”

“Phone a friend,” she said with a light shrug of her shoulders. “I’m just following orders here.”

With a weary sigh, I held up my glass. She toasted with her own frosty mug. I proceeded to sip an incredibly hoppy brew with the perfect IPA profile, a surprising lightness and a crisp finish. I found myself at a beer festival, where many a brewer was sampling their wares. Beers of literally every conceivable style and configuration were there. The spirit stood beside me, beaming with pride.

“Wow … if I drink while I’m drinking … hang on … something about drink-ception … I got nothing.”

“These are but shadows of what is,” she said. “You can’t physically drink the beer. Look, explore, I’ll be right here by the bourbon barrel stuff. I gotta say, I’m really starting to like bourbon.”

“I gathered that,” I said as I stepped away into the maze of beer.

I saw how modern beer styles have undergone such a revolution. Since the Craft Beer Boom that began in the ’90s, America has seen a resurgence of art in its brewing. Today, the myriad brews available to the average person are unprecedented, which has bred both a competitive market and a close-knit community.

Today, twists on old styles from the past have brought about American IPAs, black IPAs, white IPAs, red IPAs, even wheat IPAs and Belgian IPAs. America, once a land that shunned hops, has flown in the opposite direction, embracing the humble little flower cones and their effect on beer. New strains of hops have been developed, changing the flavor profile of modern beer significantly. Experimentation with new grains like rye and sorghum have brought about some interesting brews, even some very good brews. Gluten-free beer has appeared for those who suffer from Celiac disease, and with many breweries creating their own proprietary yeast strains and revolutionizing the brewing process itself, we’re seeing the emergence of a whole world of possibilities once only dreamed of in the minds of mad brewers.

If you’re looking for a honey stout, someone’s made it. If you’re looking for a strawberry pilsner, someone has a recipe. The rise of craft beer has also given rise to the homebrewing movement, a hobby (or more) that allows for unparalleled creativity and experimentation. Because beer has nearly unlimited variables and combinations to work with, it may be the single most versatile beverage in our culture.

The spirit suddenly grabbed me by the shoulder, turning me to face her.

“We’re not finished yet,” she said, and spun me quickly around. I found myself standing in the middle of a trendy grocery store. I frowned, then looked back to the spirit.

“What? Are you out of patchouli-flavored yogurt?”

“No,” she said with patience. She gestured to a display near the gourmet coffee and my jaw fell to the floor.

“Homebrewing supplies?!” I gasped. “Here? What? How the … What?”

“Simple single-gallon kits,” she said, nodding. “What do you think?”

“What?” I stammered, “I mean … but …” I attempted to lift the box, but my hands went right through it. “Well at least I know where the hallucinogenic beer probably came from.”

“You’re not hallucinating,” she said, still patient. “This is a vision. Listen, my time’s almost up here. There’s one more thing you need to see.”

Suddenly the world whirled, and I found myself standing in what looked like a brewery, but I’d never seen it before.

“Where are we now?” I asked.

“The soon-to-open Proclamation Brewing Company,” she said.

“Wow, another nano?” I marveled. “When did this happen?”

“It’s happening now,” she said, then patted me on the head in an almost condescending way. “You’ve really got to pay more attention to the brewing world.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Suddenly she was gone, and I was alone in the bar. I looked at the clock and saw we were but minutes from last call.

I swore as I bolted to the men’s room, desperately needing to break the seal before the next ghost showed up, and if I remembered my Dickens, it would probably make me empty my bladder one way or another.

Emerging from the linoleum-lined restroom, I stepped into the last thing I would ever have expected. I found myself, not back in the bar, but walking down Main Street … every Main Street where every corner bar and dive had their own specially brewed beer on tap. Either by contract brew, or using tiny nanobrew equipment, the world around me was full of taps of specialty beers, all done by men and women dedicated to the art.

Is this the future of craft beer, I wondered? Some say the market is flooded already. Some believe we may be reaching a tipping point for craft beer where it can expand no more, and may even begin to recede. I respectfully disagree, and here as I stood among the myriad offerings, I saw the beauty of the vision.

Once upon a time in this world, every little pub had its signature beer made either by a local brewery or by their own in-house brewing system. In those days, beer was more of an art than either a science or a business. I am hopeful that such days are coming once again.

Just imagine if your favorite local bar started making their own proprietary brew. Maybe they’ll even make several different kinds, or special-order them from brewers who are committed to the cause. I can walk into any decent beer bar and find five home brewers willing to answer that call right now, not including myself. The only thing stopping your average home brewer from selling their fare is the three-tier system, which forces brewers to use distributors. While I don’t think this will change in the near future, there’s plenty of room to move for beer bars, restaurants and pubs who would like a signature beer of their very own.

Then I saw the danger. I saw the peppermint lagers, the beef bouillon bourbon barrel bocks, the cinnamon shandies, the conflagration of flavors that should never be as every lunatic with a stove began producing beer. No art, no love for the craft, no dedication to style … just randomness and a psychopathic drive to make something unique.

There, I saw the hooded figure. It raised a pale finger at me, and pointed down the road.

I saw … me. Old, hunched over, balding, shaking my cane ineptly at some poor kid wearing a Samuel Adams t-shirt.

“In my day, we used hops, boy!” the old me cried. “And we had to walk 15 miles through the snow, with no shoes, just to get grains! No extract! Couldn’t afford that fancy stuff! Why… we used to have to re-engineer our own equipment and learn to solve problems on the fly! Not like you kids with your iBrew apps and infrared thermometers, and those damned fermentation-powered cars!”

I turned to the specter. “Wow, I’m an ass,” I said. It nodded its concealed head and shrugged.

“So this is what I’ll become if I don’t lighten up a little? Begin accepting these new styles as part of the natural evolution of craft beer? Maybe learn to give white ales another chance?”

The figure shrugged.

“You’re new at this, aren’t you?” I asked. It nodded. “Fine,” I said, sighing. “Tell Mr. Adams I’m sorry I yelled at him, and I’ll be more open minded in the future. Okay?”

The figure nodded, then held out its hand. I took it, and found myself back at the bar. The regular bartender looked at me with irritation in his eyes.

“Okay, buddy, time to clear out. You’re not gonna drive, right?”

“What? Drive? God no…” I said, stumbling confusedly out into the night. Actually, I felt oddly sober, just disoriented. What time was it? I stopped in for lunch and a brew! Some college kids were wobbling up the street, and I called after them.

“You there, boy!” I said, “What time is it?!”

“Closing time!” the boy sang, and his friends joined in the chorus.

“Closing time? Damnit… I was supposed to be at work 10 hours ago!! Damn you, Sam Adams!!” I called out into the night sky. I then began my slow walk back to the car.

I do believe I learned something, though. Never, ever ever drink anything a ghost puts in front of you, and always have a designated driver through time and space, especially since I found a parking ticket on my car, and I’m fairly certain Scrooge wouldn’t have learned his lesson either if he had to deal with Providence parking.

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