(This month’s session comes to us from Brian, Maria, and their RV, Stanley, over at The Roaming Pint. The topic asks us to walk a slightly different path than normal and not talk about “what” beery places we’ve visited, but “why” visiting them is important.)
Enough salmon crowd themselves into the creek that you think you might be able to walk across their silvery backs to the other side. The sockeye slide and bump in an teeming mass of scales, wriggling onward in nonstop reproductive pilgrimage even when the water doesn’t look wide enough for ten of them, never mind a hundred. Tenacious to a fault, those fish.
A short bus ride and a brief hike past black bear warnings deposits you in front of an alien wall of ice; eerie blue glow and otherworldly jagged geometry like features from a Lovecraft fiction. A glacier cuts slow through nature like a cold, sharp blade, sparing no rock or tree, staring out onto the world in unstoppable defiance. Even when a chunk of ice the size of a monster truck cracks and falls from its face, Mendenhall does not flinch.
The air doesn’t like tourists. It whips and hisses, stinging eyes and ears and anything exposed. The gentle waterfall in Mendenhall’s left hand throws icy mists at anyone foolish enough to get close. Groups of tourists talk about bears and wolves, and best practices to avoid being mauled. If not for the awe of it all, being a spec and blip in front of a force of nature that defies geology physically and temporally, this lake would be a terrible place to visit.
Your throat hurts. You’re pretty sure you picked something up from that guy who was coughing in the buffet line on the ship. The constant blustering keeps you alert, but you want nothing more than to curl back up in your cabin, let the lapping of waves against the hull be your Alaskan lullaby. But you’ve only got one day in Juneau. More like eight hours. Four hundred and eighty minutes to take in the entire spirit of a town, a state, a wilderness; a place you may not see again for a long time, if ever.
So what can you do? Tired and sick but racked by the guilt of potentially missing a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?
Go have a beer.
Your cab driver didn’t know there was a brewery in Juneau. You show him the star surrounding the “Alaskan Brewing Company” logo on the poorly detailed cruise ship map, and he chuckles playfully; an audible admission that he probably should have known it was there. The yellow Ford bobs down Glacier highway, ending between two evergreen-decked hills bigger than most of the mountains of Maryland. The building is quiet; no one moves barrels outside, no steam betrays a boil at roil, even the sky darkens from coming storm. You think for a moment that you misread the hours, that in the fog of fever you’d forgotten what day it was.
But the lights are on, and you seem movement on the bottling line. The door to taproom swings open, and you’re greeted by three employees but no one else. In that moment, you have the brewery, basically, all to yourself. You admittedly don’t know all that much about beer. You just started reading about it, buying, trying different beers, so you feel like sort of an impostor smiling for a picture between two towers of stainless. But it’s all Willy Wonka to you. The lovely barkeep lets you sample everything; the ham and bacon of the smoked porter, the overwhelming hop of the IPA, the crisp just-to-your-taste finish of the iconic Alaskan Amber. For a moment, in the cozy wood-lined room, surrounded by the welcoming warmth of the familiar in a faraway land, your sore throat goes away, you relax, and you feel like you understand a tiny bit more about a place you’d always regarded as rugged and remote.
Why do we visit the places our beer is made? To meet the people who make it. The people who have, by luck or by default, made their living brewing and peddling beer. The people at the brewery are a cross-section of the culture; locals, families, pieces of the town arranged together and presented in a mosaic liquid that’s representative of what it means to live there, now. Sure, you get to wash new tastes across your tongue and see marvels of engineering, but a visit to a brewery isn’t rooted tangible takeaways. The tree’s roots run deeper.
We visit these places to get to know them outside of our preconceived notions. Outside of how they’re represented on TV or the internet. Outside of the polished veneer of marketing and social media posturing. A taproom is real; filled with the actual people behind the beer that brought you there, not field representatives or only tangentially related distributors. To travel for beer is to forge a connection that’s deeper than lips and pint glasses, to learn more about the kinds of people and places that value their product, their business, and making people happy.
It’s fun, yes, to say “I’ve been there” or “I’ve seen that,” but the real reason for our own salmon-like pilgrimage to breweries far and wide is to be able to say, “I met them” and “I get them.”