A-hem, Judges with Benefits
Q: Can a bunch of graying beer nerds find salvation locked up together in a dark cellar?
A: Don’t you worry about that!
After a long day of stoically judging cream ales and English milds, we judges make our way to Rock Bottom. There’s a reception upstairs for the World Beer Cup judges. Also present is the essential cadre of organizers and stewards.
Beers pour freely and buffet tables encourage mingling. Pretty soon our little table has judges from three continents rubbing shoulders. On the left, Michael Müller, high up technology guy at Weihenstephan. There’s George from one of the premier German hop growers. Self-described English beer maven Glenn Payne is about. (Glenn is not the dead gospel singer, but he and I do like to sing Jerusalem whenever there’s an audience.) Some Japanese guys tuck in.
The evening is just moving along when we see Pete Crowley, the Rock Bottom brewer. Crowley’s good with barrel-aged beer. It isn’t a new gimmick for him. He was one of the early bourbon barrel guys ten or fifteen years ago.
There’s a subtle vibe beginning to form around him. Surreptitiously, people from around the room are coalescing near him. Despite that chaos that is a hall filled with a couple hundred thirsty souls, Pete Crowley is like the drain in a bathtub – some of these people seem to be circling him. Are they aware of what force acts upon them?
Pete seems a slim and impish fellow. He is excited and engaged. How often is the World Beer Cup three blocks away from you? With a bird-like exuberance he welcomes us into his bower. It is one of those times when you say good things happen to good people and it isn’t just a platitude to help us get over inequity.
Off to the side of the room and looking out at the crowd, we notice this gravitational spin that has Pete Crowley as its nucleus. Michael and I consciously decide to participate, partly by instinct, partly out of experience. We cluster close. We try to avoid being too obvious. We only suspect that this agglomeration is going somewhere. We overhear the word cellar.
Pete looks around and announces to the huddle, “Okay, we’ll go down.” So we go down the drain that is Pete Crowley… into a freight elevator.
We squeeze into the box as if it is a Tokyo subway car. Trained noses and all, there was someone wearing a wool jacket that smelled of the countryside and another had Italian food smells lodged in his beard. You could smell anticipation, too. Anticipation is made up of a pleasing armpit sweat commingled with a man’s deep exhalation, glimmering eyes, and nervous laughter.
Some don’t make it into the car, but they are assured that they will be retrieved. We are going down, all the way, beyond where the lowest button can take us. Two frayed wires emerge from beneath a switch plate. Crowley asks if we’re ready, more so to warn us. He finds room to reach down and twists the wires together, the car jolts, the sickly light overhead flickers off and then back on. We fall slowly as the car wags back and forth. It’s as if we’re in a bucket being lowered into an old well.
When the door opens we can smell the strange confluence of wet, old masonry and brewery disinfectant. Pete flicks on an unseen switch and a string of solitary light bulbs appear along the ceiling, disappearing around a corner. He advises us about watching our step. But in this dreamy moment we float over unseen obstacles. We arrived in the place as from a dream. We did not know how, exactly, or where, certainly, we had come to be.
Shortly we are there, crowding around what seemed just a few wood barrels. The tiny space was filled with murmurings in strange tongues, like a deep meditation where one meets their spirit guides. This was Pete Crowley’s inner sanctum. It was a private and personal place. He was letting us inside him.
Soon small plastic cups of a viscous black brew were handed out amongst us. It was black coffee and bitter chocolate and vanilla extract and cookie crumbs. It was forged in an Aztec crypt and a Belgian café and a lost, forested island. The elixir went down so smoothly. The murmurings became louder. Pete Crowley had done something.
What must have been the second carload of supplicants join us. It includes Brad Kraus, a man cast in the likeness of Buffalo Bill Cody, and Chris Swersey, the competition organizer. He is the humblest and bravest man of the day. He is the one who has deftly juggled judges’ skills and beer styles and numbers of tables and who does what.This was a different Chris Swersey, he had taken off his officer’s cap and mingled in the trenches. He saw the camera and said to me, “My pictures are always blurry. No one can take a picture of me without it being blurry.” It was a poorly veiled challenge. Looking back, it was a miracle my camera captured anything. Chris Swersey in focus would have to wait.
In seeing him we remember that that we are here with a job to do, to fairly and soberly judge lovingly made beers from around the globe. That would be tomorrow. It was a thought that, for a moment, brought me to the edge of dreaming, to the place where one realizes what bed they’re in. But quickly enough we are back in the swirling moments.The cups come around again. This time we see how they were being filled. Pete has a small stainless nail in the barrelhead. He pulls it out with a pair of pliers and the beer pisses out of the barrel in a tiny braided strand. The cups moved through in a bucket brigade fashion. If you are standing nearby you see what needs to be done and you hand cups forward or back.
More laughter. Brad Kraus helps, his basso chortles are infectious. The cups go around again. A German beer princess is here now, she asks for a glass of wine… and Eric Toft is in lederhosen. Another round circulates.
For the second time now, Pete says it is the last round. We enter the time of the night when alcohol and heartfelt goodness collude. Pete’s normally Puckish playfulness takes on a serious note, nearly lachrymose. He toasts to those in this dream with him. It is his moment and we are there and we feel it.
In the morning, we wake up refreshed. Knowing glances flash between some of us… between those of us who let go and flowed down the drain into the rusted dungeon of our collective beer subconscious. TPJ.