the museum of americana

a literary review

My Bitter Beer Face—Nonfiction by Michael Dowdy

In Appalachian Elegy, the Black radical writer bell hooks explains that in making mountain “homeplaces,” her Kentucky ancestors “savored a taste of freedom.” My love of beer and my love of mountains are entangled in these switchbacks of contradiction. Because beer companies—from “macro,” right-wing, watery Coors to independent, liberal, hoppy Sierra Nevada—so often sell the mountains, they make a singular claim on my conscience. For I stumbled onto my own taste of freedom growing up in the southern Appalachians. 

I didn’t learn to drink beer as some American men do—not from my father, a fraternity, or an older sibling. “Shitty beer in beautiful and sometimes risky places” is the tagline of my origin story. My first beers were guzzled with friends and near-strangers: in the woods, in old sneakers kicking through creeks, in the riffles below McCoy Falls we called “rocking chairs,” between leaps off fraying rope swings into the New River, with the headlights killed while parked on forest service roads. As the former president of my high school’s S.A.D.D. chapter, I’m ashamed to admit that many cans were emptied in moving vehicles.

I’ve moved seventeen times since leaving my small Virginia town at eighteen. Beer is one constant over those twenty-five years—from the teenager’s Busch Lights, to PBRs at sweaty indie shows in Carrboro, North Carolina, to Brooklyn Lagers in hipster Gowanus bars, to return toasts in a transformed Carolinas, where my partner and I, our kindergartener in tow, frequent the kid-friendly breweries. A few years back I began wondering what I’d learned through becoming an anticapitalist and then a daughter’s father during the so-called “craft beer revolution.” I felt the urge to historicize my habits and to think critically about the culture of craft beer. Or, maybe I simply needed to measure the dimensions of my desire.

To find out how beer makes the mountains, and the country, and how they’ve made me, I’m embarking on a brewery tour, from the mountains down to sea level and back again. My memories, sometimes cloudy under the influence of high-gravity beers, will be my transportation, I’ll be wary of nostalgia, and I’ll tip the bartenders twenty percent.

 

Leg 1: Mountain Beers from the Sierras to the Blue Ridge

The first craft beer I remember drinking came from the foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. This was before I moved to Brooklyn, and before I’d ever eyed those remote mountains. It must have been in 2005 at Tyler’s Tap Room in Carrboro, down the street from Cat’s Cradle, where I’d sweated to The Coup, Interpol, and other bands while “hydrating” with too many blue ribbons. Back then, I sat alone on a barstool on “Pint Night,” stealing an hour away from my roommates and dissertation, halfheartedly watching college basketball, and learning for the first time to appreciate bitter beer. 

Now, I can’t get past the name. Saranac Brewery is named after the Saranac River. Saranac is the Abenaki name for the river. The Abenaki are an Algonquian speaking Native nation. The brewery’s website, including its community engagement page, makes no mention of indigenous peoples, languages, or lifeways. This beer-world erasure nevertheless pales in comparison to the world of sports mascots. No craft brewery, as far as I can tell, so baldly appropriates native peoples: no Redskins Brewing, no Tomahawk Beer, no beer logo equivalent to the Cleveland Indian. 

But maybe I drank my first craft beer before that, when I had no inkling of the movement afoot a few hours west in Asheville. In those final years before the Tobacco state outlawed cigarettes in bars, I might’ve gluggled Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from pitchers amid dense smoke at Linda’s or some other Chapel Hill dive. The craft brewer Sierra Nevada sells the purity of the good ol’ family business, mixing liberal environmentalism and nonpartisan stewardship. Its company motto clunks like a CEO’s haiku: “Proudly Independent / 100% Family Owned, / Operated, and Argued Over.” Most craft beer websites feature an “Our Story” page, and many, like Sierra’s, emphasize their start as humble homebrewers. Yet the tone of Sierra’s origin story renders the family’s “inspiration” in ironically flat prose. Its founders “took inspiration from the nearby mountains—the Sierra Nevada mountain range—and launched Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.”

Craft brewers also sell the mountains, and their pitches highlight my chase of a similar dream triangle. After all, the epicenters of craft radiate from mountain ranges: the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Green Mountains, Blue Ridge, Cascades. Why did the western brewers Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium open satellites in the North Carolina mountains? Nearby hiking, biking, and waterfalls? Cheaper land and labor? Or, are the mountains ready-made for beer culture?

The catchphrase of a recent Coors marketing campaign—“What would we be without our mountains?”—was surely the question on the minds of the Chamber of Commerce in Asheville, in the nineties, when Keystone TV commercials were selling faceless beer, and in the early 2000s, when my education in craft was just beginning. Now, another question is likely on the Chamber’s mind: What would we be without our breweries? Asheville—home of Thomas Wolfe and the Biltmore estate, the Freegan movement and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the manicured alter-ego of my backwoods gallivanting with bad beer—has seen a 750% growth in breweries this decade. Last I checked, the city has forty.

The first, Highland Brewing, opened in 1994, the year of O.J.’s Bronco chase, Beck’s “Loser,” and my departure from the mountains. Alluding to the Scottish Highlands, its original logo was a cringey stereotype of a red-bearded highlander, bagpipes in one hand, massive mug in the other. The name also refers to Cold Mountain, Black Balsam Knob, and the other balds of the Blue Ridge highlands. The brewery’s new focus-group approved logo consigns the independent highlander icon to the wastewater of craft history. All that remains is a sleek wave of sunlit ridges and a starburst H.  

How can a city of fewer than 100,000 full-time residents, tucked into the Blue Ridge mountains, over two hours from a major airport, and without a significant economic base beyond tourism, support forty breweries? The absurdity of this abundance—where proliferating, nearly indistinguishable consumer choices for the wealthy few highlight the paucity of choices for the many—is ripe for satire. In a mixture of revulsion, bemusement, and revelry, the poet Rodrigo Toscano parodies craft beer culture in a supercharged cask of “Fregnator Ten Hop Triple IPA.” To my eye, “Fregnator” combines freedom and pregnant. As in, Our Ten Hop Triple will impregnate your taste buds with freedom. Or, Our Ten Hop Triple will get you totally fregnated.

Traditional and innovative are usually considered opposites, but in craft brewing they somehow coexist, even intertwine, in tropes of backward-looking purity and forward-looking “revolution.” From one angle, the paradox of “traditional” and “innovative” looks like nonsense. In planning my tour, I learned that some brewers have their beer and drink it too. Birds Fly South Ale Project, in Greenville, South Carolina, describes theirs in a word salad: “Progressively Old School Urban Farmhouse Brewing.” Oskar Blues, founded in Lyons, Colorado, also brews its Dale’s Mountain Pale Ale in Austin. The first craft brewer to can beers, Oskar Blues belongs to CANarchy, “a disruptive collective of like-minded independent brewers dedicated to innovative flavors,” whose claim to “independence” is sloshed by its private equity backing.

From another angle, I’ve wondered if these contradictions could be viewed dialectically, as tensions producing novel ways of thinking (and drinking). If so, I’d have to grapple with craft’s claims of “revolution.” Sierra Nevada describes its Pale Ale as “the Beer that sparked a craft beer revolution,” while Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams, claims to have “helped start a craft beer revolution that redefined the way people think about beer.” Craft culture is defined by nothing if not ambition and a  lack of proportion that mistakes tradition for innovation, changing taste for social change, and disposable income for liberation. In this country, freedom is to revolution as the buzz is to the beer. On most tongues other than bell hooks’, revolution, like freedom, is a word not to be trusted. I’ve concluded that one must know what’s in the waters that feed the word. 

Returning to the headwaters, where my beer dreams swirl, I see a small-town teenager heeding Busch Beer’s call to “Head for the Mountains,” with only faint conceptions of “freedom” and “good” beer. In 1994, he sloppily raps Nas’s “New York State of Mind” at a river party, vowing to leave the hills for the city. Instead, he finds himself in North Carolina, ignorant of the “revolution” brewing across the state. In those days, I know now, I was chasing something I couldn’t quite grasp. It wasn’t until I finally arrived in Brooklyn in 2006 that the dimensions of my dream triangle began clicking into place. As I slowly grew mountainsick in the gilded city, my concept of “freedom” came to a head, unable to withstand the heat of unitedstatesian history fermenting into the potent brew of financial crisis, Obama, Occupy, Ferguson, and Tr**p. Now, I’m heading back to the borough where I became a father and a craft-beer nerd and my politics were brewing into an imperial stout.

   

Leg 2: Less Traveled Beers from Rough-and-Tumble Red Hook to the Upper Peninsula

The descent to sea level winds through the foothills. North Carolinians call the foothills the Piedmont, from the Italian for “foot of the mountain.” Unlike mountains, foothills frustrate marketing copy—who heads for the foot of the mountains? Neither mountainous nor non-mountainous, purity is off-limits. In Winston-Salem, home of big tobacco and Krispy Kreme donuts, Foothills Brewing opts instead for the literary. In its People’s Porter, allusion and alliteration; in its Hoppyum IPA, a portmanteau word. Both are stock-in-trade for brewers. At sea level, as I would learn in Leg 2, these literary turns grow even stranger.

When I first visited Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewing in 2007, it was a two-tank workshop, marked only by a small brewer’s star above wooden warehouse doors, and attached to a dive bar whose roof deck had occluded views of the Statue of Liberty. Now, when I buy Sixpoint in the Carolinas, choosing it over dozens of options, I’m revisiting this original experience of my ideal brewery. Although this distribution range shows that Sixpoint has scaled up considerably, they hang tight, as I have, to an origin story. Founded in 2004 “in the rough and tumble neighborhood of Red Hook, BKLYN,” its website proclaims, Sixpoint “was essentially a cult brewery—draft-only, mysterious, cryptic.” 

This description isn’t wrong exactly. There was something of an end-of-the earth vibe to Red Hook, in part because of its geography. The neighborhood is cut off from brownstone Brooklyn by a clogged artery of the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). It also lacks subway access, while its location on the harbor means it’s at dire risk of going underwater. The recent bust of the massive marijuana growing operation inside the maraschino cherry plant, after a nearby beekeeper observed his wobbly bees producing a viscous red honey, affirms Sixpoint’s suggestion of outlaws, tumbleweeds, and empty storefronts.

But Sixpoint’s description is dead wrong in the colloquial sense of the word. “Rough and tumble” seems a racist euphemism for the neighborhood’s public housing complex, Red Hook Houses. “Beer is a living thing,” Sixpoint’s silver cans announce, and their motto is bold, simple, and scientifically astute: “Beer is Culture.” What does this living culture look like? I see gentrification, I see the Red Hook IKEA, with its ferries from lower Manhattan and wealthy Brooklyn Heights. From this angle, craft beer looks a lot like a wholly-owned subsidiary of whiteness. 

The Not For Tourists Guide a friend bought me when I moved to Brooklyn describes my favorite bar, Atlantic Avenue’s Brazen Head, in four loaded words: “Decent beer—mixed crowd.” Echoing Sixpoint’s “rough and tumble” Red Hook, the “mixed crowd” euphemism isn’t wrong exactly, for that’s precisely what I loved about the place: the placid alcoholics, public workers, and paralegals of all colors. On the public solitude of my barstool, for a pint or two, I thought with a clarity I haven’t found anywhere since. Perhaps it was the pro bartenders who never asked what I was reading. Or, how being a new father with a quiet hour amplified my appreciation of time’s passing? Or, how the first beer sharpened my lens for my writing, even as the second clouded its filter? Glancing back to that stool I’m aghast by the bitter beer face I catch in the antique mirror behind the bar. In my reflection, there is a gendered and raced privilege that allows me to sit there unbothered by glares or catcalls.

During those Brooklyn years I was introduced to the beer that surveys claim as the best in the U.S. Produced in a state, Michigan, where I’ve never stepped foot, Two Hearted Ale, Bell’s “American” IPA, refers to the river in the Upper Peninsula. Drinking it, my mind would drift to Ernest Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River.” In that state of mind, the canoe trip conjured on the bottle takes on a darker cast. Nick Adams with a six-pack of craft beer is still Nick Adams of the Lost Generation, still Nick Adams hollowed out by the War to End All Wars. Nick Adams will be a bitter man, and with ample cause, no matter how restorative the ale. 

Even at sea level by the East River or Great Lakes, the mountains exert a gravitational pull. In Grand Rapids, Founders Brewing markets the Backwoods Bastard, its Bourbon-barrel-aged Scotch ale, by using a stereotype of Appalachia, one that still hums on cable TV shows about moonshiners, “mountain men,” and ayahuasca-dispensing hillbilly-shaman. Far from the hills and over beers with flatlanders, I’ve often labored to dispel the bottle’s misrepresentation: a hillbilly elder, axe hoisted over his shoulder, gray beard coating his collar, hangdog look on his drawn face, hat tucked over his squinting, glassy eyes. Faintly resembling my grandfather, the image evokes the potent clandestine still, evidenced in the dizzying 11% ABV. Yet what dominates is displacement and exploitation. What’s that guy doing in Michigan? 

In my decade of teaching in New York, I came across an even more audacious allusion. The logo of Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing features arms crossed at the wrists, fingers pointing in opposite directions. While the logo suggests the ambiguities and self-deceptions of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” the motto atop its bottle labels officially trademarks the popular misreading of the poem’s two indistinguishable roads: “The Road Less Traveled.” For years, like a Price Is Right version of Frost’s speaker, when two beer aisles diverged in the supermarket, I took the costlier one. When my partner and I, now with a young daughter, could no longer make rent in the shadow of Wall Street, we split for the South on my seventeenth move. 

 

Leg 3: Poetic Beers from Cobble Hill to Cedar Mountain 

Sorting through the craft beers of my past fifteen years, I see that some of the most memorable were products of my wanderlust. Take the beers I purchased for the first birthday party of A., our daughter. I aimed to spell her five-letter name in five brands of craft beer, so that our friends would see, when they opened the refrigerator, an acrostic of six-packs. The stunt required trips to three stores in Cobble Hill to locate beers beginning with each letter, much to my partner’s consternation. The fridge poem started with Boulder’s Avery Brewing. Sadly, Avery’s motto—“Beer first. The rest will follow”—didn’t deliver. No one noticed my object poem, and I was too embarrassed to direct our guests to its presence. Was I seeking symmetry under the spell of sleep deprivation? Was Elmo’s alphabet song looping in my ears? Was I testing the geographic breadth of the craft “revolution”? Whatever the case, in 2013 the revolution had already rotted my brain, as consumer ones will. My beer acrostic for A.’s first birthday, like a tattoo that no stranger would ever see, had meaning only for me.          

I realize now that I’d attempted to create order from sensory deprivation and overload, the contradictory raw materials of my parenting experience. My restlessness, amplified by frequent relocations and Brooklyn’s kinetic energy, found in those evening beers a momentary respite and a means to travel to places I’d left behind or would never visit. So it was that five years later we stumbled unexpectedly into my dream triangle beermountainsfreedom. With one difference—what I’d pictured as the base of the triangle had fallen out, like a damp paper bag holding a six-pack that crashes to the concrete. Abstracted from real emancipatory struggle, the idea of freedom couldn’t sustain the weight of my longings for what holds my feet to the earth, for what can be held in the hands and mouth. All those years I’d really wanted to dip my toes and lips into the curative waters, and with my dearest people. 

And that was exactly what we found in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. A few miles from DuPont State Forest, where the chemical giant pulled up stakes decades ago, where we swam in a jewel of a lake uninvitingly named Dense, a little beer garden beckoned by the roadside. Inside, a dozen local beers on draft, delineated in neat script on a chalkboard, six barstools, some random trail snacks, linoleum floors, and the unmistakable whiff of shoddy plumbing. The bartender spoke with an eastern European accent I couldn’t quite place, before learning that he’s Polish and that his American spouse had owned the place for two years. 

Outside, three or four picnic tables overlooked the Little River. Beyond the garden’s split rail fence, a short path cut down an eroding bank to crystal-clear water with a sandy bottom and a slow but steady current. The creek was covered by a canopy of mature and mid-sized hardwoods, and there were a few lawn chairs sunken into the sand, the waters flowing around the rusting legs. My partner and I sat on the plastic, drinking local beers, calf-deep in the frigid stream, our daughter splashing in the riffles with the other kids she’d just met. The bar will surely go out of business. It welcomed a “mixed crowd,” and I was likely the closest the place will ever get to a hipster customer. There were locals and elsewhere folks who seemed like they had no place to be the next day or near-to-ever. There was no cell signal. The owners didn’t mow the grass or tend the planters. We were an hour from Asheville’s siren of sameness. So when my mind wandered to my shitty beer years in similar creeks in Virginia, I glanced into the canopy and saw absolutely nothing but an inverted sea of green.

 

~~~

Michael Dowdy is a poet, critic, essayist, and editor. He is the author of Urbilly (Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, 2017) and coeditor, with Claudia Rankine, of American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement (Wesleyan University Press, 2018). He teaches at the University of South Carolina.