“Only beer can save us now.” Truer words have never been spoken, unless they were amended to “Only whiskey can save us now.” That might be have an edge on truth. The last place you expect to find truth is on the cover of a book. In the book, sure. But the outside is renowned for not being at all like the inside. I didn’t drink until after high school – I started with meisterchow at my small midwestern college. Didn’t have money for much else. But when I moved out on my own, I transitioned to good beer. Craft brews, micro brews, homebrews. Loved it. That was a happy ten years. That beer would inspire a novel does not in the least surprise me, for in the immortal words of Homer, “Beer, is there anything it can’t do?”
Trying to Wrap a Beer Around a Fish
Sometimes we get thrown into deep waters and don’t realize until after we’ve learned to swim. That’s how this book started out for me: I started a new job. I had been working as a quality analyst at a bank doing some technical writing and editing. I wanted to get more into the technical writing and editing side of things, but…that bank. It was a great place to work, as long as you knew the right people and knew how to keep your mouth shut, but apparently the people who wanted the same job knew better people than I did, probably because I was so good at keeping my mouth shut. So I left the bank and looked around until I found a technical writing job at a military base.
Now, I know that to many people a military base is not the scariest place in the world. But I had no experience with the military, with working on a government contract, or a thousand other things that you take for granted in that kind of world like security fences and eighteen-year-old guards with machine guns. I knew Corporate America. I didn’t know Government America. In Corporate America, you fire people. In Government America, you transfer them into another job and hope they don’t transfer back. On top of that, I was dropped into a vat of ex-military guys. Ex-military guys are not like people who have been working in corporate America their whole lives. They’re more conservative for one thing, but in a way I wasn’t used to coming from the Midwest: one second they’d be talking about states’ rights and the next, they’d be talking about Thai food. Where I grew up it was steak, potatoes, and Jell-O salad all the way: eating as a political statement. I had trouble thinking of these guys as really conservative; they didn’t fit my mold. They’d gone places, you know? The rednecks I’d grown up with didn’t go anywhere and they looked down on people who did.
So here I am, my whole world shaken up, when over the cube wall comes a lot of talk about beer. I mean, months of it. I had to do something with all that information; I’m a nerd, after all. So I started writing this story about a mouthy guy. I guess he’s conservative, but I never really worked that out consciously; who brews beer and doesn’t want to be bothered by anything outside his little world. He’s worked his butt off to get his world the way he wants it, and I could never blame him. I threw in all kinds of characters: from the base, from people I’d grown up with, from people that I hated, from people that I loved. People who had struck me as particularly intense. Then I twisted them up a little, gave them unresolvable problems, and tossed them in with each other. Because that’s what the base was like: a wide variety of people that had to get along, and had to get the job done, and didn’t have a lot of filters. How do you get along with someone you disagree with, who won’t shut up, and who thinks that a drill sergeant is a good role model? You work it out or the group falls apart, and I wanted to capture that feeling. Not to say this is a political book; it’s a book about how people act when they’re in that kind of hothouse where everybody knows everybody else and they’re all trying not to kill each other, yet they’re not polite about it. In the Midwest, everyone’s polite as a strategy to keep from killing each other. There are a lot of things you don’t say. I found working out at the base like a long, cold glass of water: I could swear, I could say my opinions; I could be wrong, yet not be ostracized. I got laughed at, sure, but not kicked out. I loved it.
Ironically, before I started working out there, I didn’t care for beer. Growing up in the Midwest, beer was American and you loved it or else you were a commie pinko. And it couldn’t just be American beer; it had to be Coors or Bud Light. I didn’t care for either one of them. When I started drinking, I fell in love with gin and Jagermeister and tequila (not at the same time) and all kinds of spirits that tasted like something. This beer stuff was for shit, and I wasn’t wasting time or brain cells on it. After listening to hours and hours about homebrew, I finally got the nerve to try some craft beers. I forget what I started with, really. I’m sure I started writing before I started drinking the beer, because I remember thinking, “Well, if you’re going to write about it, you’re going to have to drink it.” I picked up a copy of Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Beer from the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and read it (good book) as research before I started drinking, and I think it was that book that tipped me over the edge. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Calagione didn’t end up as part of the main character, too. I want to say that Fat Tire was the first craft beer I had. (And now I’m thinking, “Does Fat Tire count as a craft beer? It’s everywhere.” But it’s not, my husband went out to DC a while ago and couldn’t find any. One of the good parts of Colorado culture is the beer, and you start taking it for granted.) “Huh,” I said. “Not too bad.” Since then, I’ve tried a lot of different things. It took a long time before I really got into IPAs, but I’m starting to get better at them (it feels almost like acquiring a skill, learning how to drink IPAs).
I walked into the job (and the book) while getting my ideas all shaken up…by the time I walked out of the job (although finishing the book took years after that), I had learned how to drink beer, how to spout my opinion to whoever the hell I wanted, in whatever terms I felt like (and to get away with it, most of the time), and to let my mind get changed about people in a lot of the same ways the main character does. At one point, he talks about how he used to judge people on whether or not they gave him more than they got–even down to the point of whether they liked his beer. He doesn’t really come to any conclusions, but he does stop thinking about “the world” as one little podunk town, and “a friend” as someone who tells him what he wants to hear and does what he wants them to do. I like to think I’ve changed a little in that direction, too.
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