a strange journey into the perception of alcohol for art’s sake
By Ben Finane
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”
— John F. Kennedy
WE WERE SOMEWHERE beyond the Ed Koch Bridge on the edge of Queens when the drugs began to take hold. In preparation for flight, I had ingested a cocktail of Mucinex D, Afrin, Flonase and coffee — and now my head was lightening as the skies darkened. There was a terrible roar, and paranoia began to set in. My ears popped and I grabbed my head by its jaw and attempted to pull it further down my neck.
We hurtled toward JFK in a black Lincoln Town Car. My driver, Abdul, who went only by “Buzz,” was eyeing me suspiciously in the rearview mirror and loudly itemizing evidence of New York City’s crumbling infrastructure. To illustrate his points, he jerked the Great Black Shark into as many potholes as he could find as he zigzagged his way along the back roads to the airport.
I interrupted his asphaltic screed to shout that I was on my way to cover a very important story, an ominous assignment — with overtones of extreme personal danger.
“What kind of story is this?” he asked, narrowly avoiding a collision with a police car.
“I’m attending the Virginia Beer Festival,” I said, enraged, “named one of the best beer festivals of 2013 by our nation’s newspaper, USA Today.”
“But I thought you were a journalist of music and culture, sayyidi.”
“Beer is culture!” I shouted above the screeching of the tires. “It’s part of the Virginia Arts Festival. Beer is craftsmanship, heritage, tradition, culture, legacy — patriotism for Christ’s sake! Zymurgy has been part and parcel of the American Dream since we drowned English tea in Boston Harbor!”
The words sounded fantastic as I was saying them, but privately I wondered: What was the story? Nobody at the Festival had bothered to say. So I would have to drum it up on my own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on beer in Norfolk. Do it now: pure Gonzo plastic-arts reportage.
2. Breaching the Base. . . A Journey into Night
FINE SUNSET OVER Norfolk. The air was sweet and heavy with flora. The atmosphere seemed to emanate from the airport, the grounds of which resembled a jungle arboretum. Vines slithered up the walls and across sidewalks and transformed into reptilian crawlers.
A fat security guard gave me a leering grin as I hailed a cab. “Now that’s not a red star in favor of Cuban naturalization, is it?” he said, indicating my T-shirt with a jab of his finger into my sternum, his hand creeping toward his nightstick.
“No,” I said, sweating. “It’s Stuttgart.” The officer wasn’t altogether wrong. There was some sort of commie implication in the esoteric graphic of the Stuttgart radio tower, but it was better not to discuss geopolitics with a man carrying a service revolver, and so close to so many of America’s fighting sailors.
The thing to do was to get the lay of the land and familiarize myself with the local hops as soon as possible. I checked into the suite of my hotel, which lay on the Norfolk waterfront. A path behind it, adjacent to the pool, offered a short, winding walk along vacant, abandoned waterfront property flanked by cruise boats that led to the site of the beer fest, which would officially begin the following afternoon.
In the elevator, an R&B singer smelled me out as press and gave me an actual elevator pitch, slipping me an album and an invite to his midnight Spirit of Norfolk R&B cruise. Shuddering, I tried to push myself through the wall of the elevator. I immediately made my way on foot to downtown Norfolk to begin drinking.
In advance of sampling the handcrafted, I thought it best to launch with a cocktail at Gershwin’s, a piano bar with gaudy Art Deco decor. This proved a mistake. My drink tasted like Manhattan-in-a-can, the vermouth severe, the pianism laughable — trills, runs, all thumbs — by an Oscar Peterson knock-off.
I retreated for finer environs on the other side of the street in the warm and unpretentious Barrel Room. Steph Curry’s three-quarter shots were floating into playoff nets on the screens above in a magical cadence. From the taps below, I selected the Evil Twin Mosaic Single Hop Imperial, complex with a wheat finish that sneaks in like the Mujahideen. From there, I made my way to the Hardywood Bourbon Cru, a ten-per-center that is brewed Quadrupel style, the drinking of which is akin to being smacked in the face with four Brussels phone books.
A fit salesman and beer connoisseur befriended me. He would leave in thirty-six hours for Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hickory and Moyock. Together we swam on to the Yeti Imperial Stout, which yielded a rich, roasty malt. The salesman came paired with a woman who was his Norfolk drinking buddy. Names were exchanged, then forgotten.
“Can you believe this guy?” said the salesman, his eyes wide and focused at Curry.
“He is the Iverson of our time with a higher shooting percentage,” I rejoined, wiping my stout moustache.
My notes at The Barrel Room end here. They resume in a car, which the salesman had procured and behind the wheel of which he was driving us all at great speed toward The Birch, an establishment billed as Norfolk’s Craft Beer and Artisanal Cheese Bar. Alas, I cannot speak for the cheese, and the place was nearly empty when we arrived for last call; but there was a screen door, the environment was Irish in the best of ways — the wood was ample and rich — and twenty-two craft beers on tap beckoned. I sipped at a have-a-seat-seaman hoppy IPA with an easy beginning and a tough finish, whose mark I no longer had the facility to note. Then we were back in the car and I was back in the hotel — a breeze from the water through the open window and the scent of roses in the air as I stole into the waiting darkness.
3. Mottled Medicine on the Turf
THE FOURTEENTH ANNUAL Virginia Beer Festival resembled what I imagined a Saturday afternoon at University of Virginia might have looked like, had I attended: bros in Adidas sandals and rubes in khaki shorts ambling across Astroturf, with small pimp chalices of brew — here with the festival’s name etched upon the glass. The tasting-sized cups were a frugal and wise decision, encouraging something close to sobriety. Known knowns the likes of Sam Adams, Blue Moon, Sierra Nevada and Guinness mixed with the more crafty elements of Left Hand, Firestone, Lickinghole Creek, Devil’s Backbone and others. Ultimately, nothing really bested the offerings of The Barrel Room, which pleased me as an investigative journalist.
In the VIP Beer Aficionado tent, I spoke to a local government official about Big Plans to revitalize the ghostly waterfront, but her pitch had the air of marketing and vaporware, and I was unable to digest the particulars even as she was saying them. Meantime, there was excellent barbecue pork in abundance, served with proper, Carolina vinegar-based coleslaw, rather than that ungodly mayonnaise-infested accompaniment that yankees try to pass off as edible and authentic.
Across the turf, a cretin was playing acoustic guitar on a stage and singing to no one. He would continue for hours. More people had gathered in rapt attention near another microphone, behind which stood a man with a beard speaking on zymurgy. The boats loomed. This was Beer Fest.
4. Finding Art in Hot Places
“ROCKFISH IS THE BOMB-DIGGITY!” the man seated next to me at the bar shouted at my main course, nearly upsetting his wine.
Indeed, the dish was quite tasty, as were all the offerings at Luce, a satisfying Norfolk Italian restaurant packed with people who enjoyed talking to strangers. “Do you fish?” I asked the man.
“THE ROCKFISH IS MY MORTAL ENEMY!” he yelled, his eyes glazing as he gazed out the window to sea like Captain Ahab. He was furious that Beer Fest conflicted with the Stockley Gardens Arts Festival in Norfolk’s historic Ghent, at which he was an exhibitor. I promised to visit him the next afternoon.
And I did stop by, following a tour of the delightful Chrysler Museum of Art, which featured a Dale Chihuly installation in its sculpture garden and worthy jewels within the permanent collection of the museum itself. I was unable to locate the committed rockfisher at Stockley Gardens, and the humidity was reaching one hundred percent.
Beer can be art here in the U. S. of A. when it manages to rise above the Big Beer swill without aspiring to the cultivated snobbery of the wine crowd, those soulless zombies chauffered from one Plato’s cave to the next up and down the West coast, chasing the grape-flavored dragon until dusk. But a fine American craft brew, partaken by the man of distinction in moderation, can elevate the consciousness and encourage the passage of humid hours in Virginia as the mysteries of existence are revealed a bit before you. I sat cooling on a shaded bench with an American IPA in a paper bag (we are Puritans, after all) and watched pedestrians, many with young children, slowly make their way from one local artist’s kiosk to next, exchanging pleasantries, sober and happy.
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