Report from the Mahogany Ridge
I’ve sipped beer on mountaintops, drunk it while straddling a surfboard and enjoyed it at ballparks. I also like a big, beefy stout while sitting around the fireplace in the winter. But still, at the end of the day, the place I really like to drink my beer is in a good, old-fashioned neighborhood beer joint—what more polite people call a bar, tavern or pub.
To me, beer has always been the most social of drinks, the most suitable beverage with which to unwind or celebrate with friends and family, and a beneficial elixir for breaking the ice and meeting people you don’t know (but would like to). Long before I set off across country in my 14-month journey to report my book, Travels with Barley, it occurred to me that the beer joint really functions as a micro-community, a gathering place of fun and ritual, a kind of communal cache where a great deal of local knowledge and lore is stored and traded in amiable conversation.
My Barley travels merely confirmed this. I visited dozens of beer joints and honestly never saw a single person getting drunk (which doesn’t mean people don’t abuse beer in bars. Of course it happens). But I did see legions of people sharing pints (or longneck bottles) and stories, while swapping jokes and camaraderie. And in the better-beer sorts of places, I overheard highly intelligent discussions about trends in American IPA and what those talented Belgian monks are brewing up these days. Thoreau even said “the tavern shall compare favorably with the church.” No, people don’t normally get religion in bars. But they do get fellowship and the blessings of friendship.
The beer joint is of special interest to me for professional reasons, as well. As a career journalist, pubs have proved a reliable place to deconstruct stories that I’ve written, because bartenders are notoriously honest barometers on the Everyman take on issues. Beer joints are also a great place to gather ideas and tips and take the pulse of a community (what we scribes call “reporting from the Mahogany Ridge”).
Indeed, during a three-year tour as a London-based foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal (covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East), beer joints were utterly indispensable to my task. Where else could you figuratively parachute into a strange country for the first time and gather reasonably good intelligence on what was actually going on there? The local beer joint, of course. In fact, I snared one of my favorite all-time assignments—spending the day in a Congo forest with juvenile gorillas undergoing rehabilitation after being freed from poachers—because I became friendly with some Congolese environmentalists over nightly bottles of beer.
A more recent personal affirmation of the beer joint’s value came when I flew from New York to cover the dispiriting aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in my home state of Louisiana. I grew up near New Orleans and though I’ve lived in Miami, San Francisco, London and New York, New Orleans has endured as my favorite city on earth—surely the last unselfconscious place in America, where food, fun, and booze are far more interesting to the locals than fashion, status or politics.
So, after touring some of the catastrophically flooded ramparts of the city for the first time, I found myself in a rented SUV bumping along the eerily deserted streets of the French Quarter. Luckily, Katrina had spared this historic and lovely part of the city, where I’d spent many a memorable night in my youth. It was the only bit of cheer in a day that had tested my normally unruffled reporter’s demeanor—I was pretty much shell-shocked by what I’d seen. That’s when a colleague riding with me spotted a tonic for my grief, asking “Is that an open bar?”
It sure was. In a place that Katrina had turned into a ghost town, save for a few red-eyed and wary cops and newly arrived National Guard troops come to restore order at the Superdome, Molly’s on Decatur Street had pried itself open for business. We pulled over and went in. The place was dark; there was no power. The air smelled of stale beer and tobacco smoke. But the proprietor was serving beer (warm, it turned out) out of an Igloo cooler to a clutch of survivors who had ridden out the storm.
It was our first, tiny taste of optimism. Those gathered around the bar, though they had experienced awful things and trying days, had come not just to share their stories but to share a view that Katrina may have batted their hilarious old city around but she had not knocked her out. So we ordered beers, too—I chose an Anchor Steam—and we toasted and drank to the old gal. And it was as good a beer as I’d ever drunk.
Ken Wells is a journalist and novelist and author of Travels with Barley: a Journey through Beer Culture in America. He won the Brewers Association 2005 beer print journalism award for his beer pieces in The Wall Street Journal. Wells has spent much of the last three months helping out with the paper’s coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in his home state of Louisiana.