Not quite two years ago, I found myself hosting a seven course beer dinner at a country club in the charming Alpine-style town of Blumenau in the south of Brazil. I was the guest of the Mendes family, brewers of the Eisenbahn line of beers, authentic German-style beers harking back to Blumenau’s German immigrant roots. The dinner was sold out, and all ninety guests were elegantly dressed, the jackets were hand-stitched, the silk flowed freely. The chef had been flown in from Sao Paolo, and the food was excellent. A bossanova band, grooving hard enough to blow any New York group off the stage, played in the corner of the room.
Beer, like any other great enthusiasm, is a journey.
Bruno Mendes, who works with his brother Juliano and his father Jarbar at the brewery, turned to me and said “Life is beautiful, isn’t it?” “Yes, it is”, I replied. I had another sip of excellent Brazilian weissbock. At the end of the evening, following Brazilian custom, I had to hug and kiss all the guests as they left. My hosts had a chuckle at my expense, watching the comparatively stiff American deal with the outpouring of local warmth.
Nine days later, having emerged from the smoke sauna on the edge of a frozen lake north of Helsinki, I stood naked in the snow drinking Finnish sahti from a traditional wooden cup. My host, the sahti brewer Pekka Karainen, gestured to a hole cut through the ice. “Now we jump in,” he said with a grin. “Right. You first,” I parried, but it didn’t save me—in I went. It was February. You have no idea.
Beer is like that, it seems. Over the years I’ve experienced the hospitality of brewers, princes, abbots, chefs, bar owners and beer enthusiasts, and I never cease to be amazed at the bonding power of beer. Last April, I was in South Africa, speaking at a wine conference in Cape Town. Wine, it seems, is not quite like that. I met a lot of very nice people, but as I suspected, in vino there may be veritas, but in beer there is friendship.
These days, even though I still work in boots and drag hoses in the brewhouse, I’m no longer the young upstart—elder statesman status is gaining on me in the rear-view mirror. When I was a homebrewer in the 1980s, I worried that becoming a professional brewer would ruin everything I enjoyed about brewing, that beer would just become a job. Fortunately for me, I could not have been more wrong. I haven’t had a boring day yet. I work with great people and we try our damnedest to brew great things. We try to brew the truth.
The brewhouse is a trapeze act—you drop from the bar and someone grabs you before you fall; you let go in thin air, and the yeast grabs your hands and swings you back up to the platform. One thing goes wrong, and everyone falls, each hoping for a net. How I ever thought that such a thing could fail to be thrilling, I can no longer remember.