It'd be a lie to say he welcomed the sound of the alarm at such an ungodly Saturday morning hour with joy, he didn't – unless a hybrid between a long moan and grunt can be considered an expression of joy in some cultures. This is not to say that he minded getting up so early. He had been looking forward to that day for weeks already. He and his mate were finally going to make it to that new craft brewery everybody was raving about.
He didn't even mind that it was such a hassle to get to the place: a slow train, then a bus, then a couple of kilometres walking. He reckoned it'd be all part of he fun, part of the experience, part of what made that brewery so special – being in the middle of nowhere, where only the most devoted would bother to go; or so he wanted to believe
That tiny craft brewery had opened a couple of months before, without announcing it anywhere. There was only a FB page with just the crude logo of the brewery, an address, the opening hours and nothing else, not even photos or status updates.
For what he had been able to gather from the comments he'd read, the brewery was set up in someone's garage, the brewer's presumably. The beers were sold only there, and people could drink them on the picnic tables that had been put in the front yard, or sitting on the grass across the road.
Nobody seemed to know too much about the Brew Master; apparently he was a rather shy and reserved person. Some versions claimed he had recently retired, or was made redundant, after working a long time at one of the biggest – and multinationally owned – brewery's in the country, where he had been a brewer. He had set up that craft brewery to be able to make those beers the suits and focus groups wouldn't allow. Other versions said that he was a long time expat who had been was fulfilling his life-long dream of having a craft brewery.
Whoever, or whatever, that brewer was or had been, his beers were, by all accounts, great. They didn't subscribe to any style, they were simply sold as Gold, Amber and Black, and there seemed to be not enough words of praise to describe them. The only odd thing, though, is how discordant were some of the tasting notes in the reviews that could be found in the different corners of the beer centred internet – maybe a brewer whose art reflects his mood. Anyway, the reviewers, with the exception of one – a troll, most likely, someone who perhaps hadn't even drunk the beers – all agreed that the beers were fantastic, unique, unlike any other anyone had ever drunk, and will ever drink. They were what craft beer had once been, before the forces of marketing turned it into a brand. Or so everyone – well, almost everyone – said.
He thought about all that and more as he stretched in bed, got up and had a quick shower. He was making himself some coffee when he noticed his mobile phone had a text message waiting for him.
It was his mate. He had spent almost the whole night in the bathroom, he said, something he'd eaten. The trip would have to be left for another time.
No way! He thought. They'd been planning that trip for quite some time already - they even had to postpone it a couple of times already! He was sorry for his mate, but he was not calling the thing off. He wasn't sure when he would have time again to go there. The reputation – and therefore, the popularity – of the craft brewery was slowly, but relentlessly growing. It was only a matter of time, and not much, before it gathered enough momentum to attract tickers, hipsters, posers and all the other sorts of people that ruin it for everyone, or at least for the the true lovers, the devoted to the spirit of craft beer. He wasn't going to risk that.
He texted his mate back, saying he was going, alone, if wouldn't make it to the train station in time. His mate's answer wished him luck, followed by the almost mandatory 'have one on me'.
After buying a large cup of very strong coffee – he didn't want to fall asleep on the trip – and something sugary to eat at the station, he got on the train. He chose a seat that he believed would allow him to clearly see the name of each station the train would stop at, counted how many stations were before his on the list he'd written down on his mobile, and opened the book he'd taken with him to keep him company instead of his mate – a book about beer and brewing he'd been wanting to re-read for months.
In spite of all his precautions, he was so absorbed in the book that he almost missed his station. He took a deep breath of relief, once on the platform, got his bearings and headed towards the bus stop. As he was walking there, he looked at time and realised the train had been a few minutes delayed; the bus would be there any minute. He hurried up and then ran when he saw the bus already at the stop. Once again, catastrophe was barely avoided, or so he believed.
He paid the fare and sat in the middle. Once again, he consulted the notes he'd made; his was the 14th stop and the trip would take about 45 minutes. He was glad to hear that the stops were announced on the bus's PA. It'd make things easier, he thought, he could look up from his book in half an hour or so, figure out where they were and have plenty of time to get check the map before getting ready to get off and start the last leg of the journey. In the meantime, he could read without worries.
Exactly 32 minutes after getting on, according to the digital clock by the driver, he closed the book, put it into the rucksack, took off the headphones and waited to see what the next stop would be, so he could figure out how many were left until his destination. So far, he texted his mate, everything was going according to plan.
When the stop was announced, he couldn't find it on the list, same with the following one. It couldn't be possible, it was the list of stops copied exactly from the bus's schedule on the internet. And he couldn't have got on the wrong bus! Or could he?
A realisation started to dawn on him. In his rush, he didn't even look at the sign on the front of the bus, he didn't ask the driver. All he had told the driver was the fare he wanted to pay, and no further questions were asked, as it was the highest one. It couldn't be. It just couldn't be any other bus than 'his'!
He asked the woman sitting in front of him, who confirmed his worst fear. He was indeed on the wrong bus. The one he should have taken stopped at the train station a couple of minutes later. Both lines followed the same route for a few stops and then go their own, separate ways.
“SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” He whispered, tilting his head back and covering his face with both hands. What was he supposed to do now. Getting off at the next stop wouldn't solve anything, even if he could get the bus going back to the station, he would still have to wait until the early evening until the next bus to his destination.
He and his mate had planned it so well: get to the brewery, have a few beers there, visit some ruins nearby, go back to the brewery for one last round and then go to get the bus, and the train, back home in the early evening. Such a perfect plan that he had cocked up so thoroughly.
The old man sitting across the aisle from him offered his help. He said he could get off where he did and then he would tell him how to get to a nearby village, where, if he was lucky, he could take the bus of the right line going in the opposite direction.
He thanked the old man and decided he'd do just that. What other options did he have?
They got off a few minutes later, in a village that looked pretty much like every other village he had seen, and would see, that day. The old man told give him directions. He would have to walk 6-7 km. He made sure he had the name of the village right and parted with the old man, who wished him luck.
Once he was on his own, he activated his phone's GPS app, and asked it to find the shortest way, by foot. It directed him to a hiking and biking trail a couple of kilometres outside the village. According to the satnav, he would shave a kilometre and a half or so that way. He also tried to connect to the internet to see what time the bus would be going, if at all, but the reception wasn't strong enough to open any pages. He picked up his pace, hoping for the best.
The day was getting unexpectedly warm, he was wishing he had put on shorts instead of jeans, and shoes more appropriate for the sort of walking circumstances had forced upon him. Fortunately, the trail went through a forest.
The way climbed a gentle, but long, slope, but it was still pleasant enough. There were moments he felt almost tempted to slow down and soak the beauty of the woods. But he was a man on a mission, he could afford such luxuries, not that day.
Panting more than he wished, feet aching, he made it to the village the old man told him. He spotted the bus stop by a church, or rather, a biggish chapel. His hopes were dashed when he looked at the schedule. The bus had passed by more than two hours before and the next one would be the one he and his mate had planned to take back home, if everything hadn’t turned out so bad.
He sat on the bench at the stop. He needed to rest a few minutes, he needed to think. He was even willing to get a taxi to take him to the brewery, but his attempts to get anything done on the internet had been so far unsuccessful.
He wasn't sure how long he'd spent sitting there, but he decided that his only alternative now, other than staying there until the next bus came, was to keep on moving. He asked the satnav for the shortest way, by car this time, to the village that had been his destination when he woke up full of excitement that morning, and got on his way. Maybe, he'd be lucky to hitch a ride there.
Yeah, luck, the cunt that had done so much for him so far that day.
Luck, the cunt that still refused to do anything for him that day.
Of the handful of cars that had passed him by in the hour and a half he'd been walking, only one had stopped. A young couple that were not from those parts, didn't know the village, but when he showed them on his mobile phone, told him that they weren't going that way.
The day had got insufferably hot, too hot to be walking under the sun in the early afternoon. He was already dragging his feet, exhausted, and he had drunk all his water. He just couldn't go any longer. It was time to give up, and he was so frustrated that he refused to answer his mate's text messages - he believed he was so delighted by the beer that he couldn't be bothered with anything else.
He entered a village. By the square, he spotted a pub, and there he headed. It was adorned with the logo of the best selling bransd in the country, a beer he hated made by a multinational company he hated. Perhaps it was the one that Brew Master whose work he was supposed to be enjoying by now got tired of making, he thought with his last shred of humor.
“Well, it's not that I have to drink it,” he said to himself, “Coke will do fine. And some food,” he added when he suddenly realised how hungry he was.
Nobody paid the least attention to him as he walked in and sat at one of the few empty tables in the largish, and sparsely decorated room. The whole place, including most of the patrons, looked as if it hadn't changed at all in the last quarter of a century, and not in a nostalgic manner.
He picked the A4 sheet that filled the role of a menu and put it between his elbows, absent-mindedly reading the offer of the day while holding his head with both hands. A friendly greeting brought him back from his musings of misery; it was the waitress, a smiling woman in her mid forties, who reminded him of a teacher in primary school. She took her order, a 0,5l glass of Coke (Pepsi, actually, could the day get any worse? He thought) and something from the menu, and left him alone, seeping in his frustration.
When the Pepsi arrived, he had to resist the urge of downing all his soda in one gulp. The food didn't take too long to arrive. He enjoyed it as much as he could enjoy it in his current state of mind and tiredness. He asked the waitress if he could use their wi-fi. She apologised saying that they didn't have any, and before she could go away he asked her if she knew of a way how to get to that village that had become both his own promised land and his curse, not because he was expecting to get any useful answers, but because he wanted to feel he had done anything possible, other than walking all the way there, which he knew already he wouldn't be able to accomplish.
“Hmm. I don't know.” She answered, cocking her head and looking up at little. She then turned round and asked the same question to a large, bearded man who was playing cards and drinking beer at a table across the room.
“Well, you can take the bus, but that one doesn't come for another couple of hours at least.” He said, as if our hero didn't know that already. “And why do you want to go there anyway?” Santa Claus's distant relative now asked directly to the beery version of Odysseus.
Before he could think about it, he explained his ordeal, about his mate, the train, the bus, the walk. He needed to share his misfortune with someone, anyone – but his mate, he would make fun of him.
The large man let out a large chuckle. “You are going to Schmidt's? That man's a wanker and his beers aren't any good! This is really good stuff!” The man said, raising his half empty glass.
Our hero only nodded and smiled politely, as the large man emptied the rest of his pint. He dismissed that opinion as coming from someone who has drunk that mass produced swill all his life. People like him don't know what good is, he said to himself .
But the large man had finished with him yet. Not a chance. “You've ended up in this little village of ours,” he said, “because you got lost on your way to a dodgy brewery in the middle of bloody nowhere, and your are drinking Pesi!? You must be sunstroke, mate!”
Then he turned to bar and, in a voice that sounded as if he had a Gothic cathedral in his chest, he asked the waitress: “Anna! Give this lad a pint, will ya? And put on my tab!” And winked at her, laughing a little.
The woman looked at him with more than a hint of disapproval. She must put up with those manners every day, the newcomer thought.
He didn't want to drink that crap, but wanted to antagonise that human mountain even less. Perhaps he would leave him alone and get back to his card game once he had taken a couple of sips of the beer he'd been bought.
When he got the glass he raised it to say thanks to the bearded Buddha and proceeded to take a short sip. Actually, he downed one third of the glass in one long swig. He hadn't realised how much he needed a beer, any beer, and that one tasted delicious.
He put down the glass, exhaling, eyes wide open. He didn't taste the beer as much as he felt it. Every cell in his body soaking that golden elixir. He took the glass again, without thinking, a primal, instinctive reflex, like a newborn suckling on his mother's breast for the first time. He greedily drunk, almost emptying the glass.
He was amazed, confused, and then amazed once more. That beer was better than anything he had ever drunk in his life!
That couldn't be possible, he told himself. He couldn't be enjoying that crap! Granted, it'd been a long time since he last drunk it, but still. It must have been the heat, the exhaustion, the frustration, he tried to rationalise his sensation, because it certainly could not be the beer.
He looked at the large man, who was nodding and smiling, the way a father nods and smile when his son finally tastes and likes something he swore he wouldn't like. Still smiling, the man stood up and went to the bar.
Our hero, let's call him Pat, went back to his glass and drank the rest, sniffing deeply before the beer touched his lips. It smelled as good as it tasted – no complexity, or intensity to speak of, but it was so well... built, that was the perfect way to describe it.
Right after he'd put the now empty, but for a few dregs of foam, back on the table, he noticed the big man coming towards him, always smiling, holding two fresh pints.
“It was good, wasn't it?” He said, and put one of the glasses on the table. “Here, have another one. You still look like need it.” And then he went back to his own table, laughing.
This time Pat thought about the situation, and the beer in front of him, for a whole minute before drinking it. He was certainly feeling much better than when he walked in, the crave he must have had for something that loosely resembled the taste of beer - a product of the long walk under the sun, and the frustration, he believed – was gone. Now he could evaluate that beer with a clearer mind, more objectively. He would taste the beer carefully, and not just drink it mindlessly, like everybody else did with beer.
“There must be something wrong with me today!” Pat muttered to himself. Now that he was drinking it carefully, fully focused on the liquid that was going into his mouth, the beer was actually more flavourful, better built than the first pint he had. He must be sunstroke after all, there was no other way to explain it. And yet, irregardless of how many arguments he could make up to deny it, reality forced him to admit that the beer he was drinking was fantastic.
When he was about to finish his second glass, and seriously considering getting another one, two young men walked into the pub and took the table next to his. The large man (let's call him Bob) greeted them and said: “The lad sitting next to you. You wouldn't believe how he got here the poor sod.”
The two man looked at Pat with slight interest. “He took the wrong bus, walked I've forgotten how long. All because he wanted to go to Schmidt's brewery!”
“You wanted to go to Schmidt's brewery?” One of the young men said. “The place is in the middle of fucking nowhere, and his beers are shit!” And then to Bob. “Why would anyone want to go there. Is life in the big city that boring?” And he laughed, his friend laughed and so did Bob, who added. “Told ya, boy! Those beers are no good. And you seem to be liking this one here. Let me get you a new one.”
This time, he sat at Pat's table when he brought the beer. Introduced himself and the two young men, and they all started chatting and drinking together.
Pat had stopped caring about Schmidt's brewery, not because of the opinion of his three drinking companions, but because he was simply having a good time. His last thought about that brewery was when he finished his third pint and went to the toilet. While peeing, he he weighted the option of taking the bus and go back home, or trying to find some accommodation nearby and go to the brewery the day after. He still hadn't make up his mind by the time he got back to the table, where a fresh pint was waiting for him, courtesy of one of the two young men.
As he drunk (could it be possible that the beer tasted better with each pint?), the other young man, the one that hadn't bought the round, declared it was the right time to have something stronger. Fruit schnapps or brandy was ordered for all, despite Pat's shy protests. They told him it was made by the grandfather of someone he didn't know, but for some reason felt he should already. It was good, extremely good, smooth and surprisingly aromatic.
Not much of the rest of the day would remain imprinted on Pat's memory after it was he insisted it was his time to get a round for everyone. All was a haze of loud laughter – Bob's – slaps on his back – one of the young men, beer, loads of beer, and Schnapps; and also some singing.
He woke up the next morning (he hoped) in sofa in what appeared to be someone's office. His feeling after opening his eyes was panic. It passed after he felt his pockets and both his wallet and mobile were there, so was his rucksack, with the camera inside, on the floor, by his head.
His sat, feeling disoriented, and not particularly well. His mouth tasted as if he'd been chewing whiteboard markers, he could have sworn his brans were floating a couple of centimetres above his head and he had the overall sensation that the worst hangover known to was there, waiting for an excuse to wake up and wreak havoc.
A gurgling noise from the neighbouring room startled him. He stood up and slowly, reluctantly, went to the door and opened it just enough to peek. It was the pub, the waitress was flushing the taps.
She turned around when Pat opened the door a bit more. “Good morning, Sinatra!” She said, with a warm smile. And when she saw the confusion on his face, she added: “You really sang really well yesterday. Until you passed out, that is. My husband and one of his friends put you there in the couch. I hope you slept well.”
“Yeah, I guess. Thanks...” Was all his mind could put together as an answer.
She then told him that, if he wanted, he could wash himself in the little bathroom next to the kitchen. He thanked her again put on his shoes and went to the bathroom, not to shower, but at least to wash his face and pee.
When he was back, a beer was waiting for him on the bar. “It'll make you feel good.” The woman said. “Once the coffee machine has warmed up, I can fix you a cup, if you want. Oh! And my husband said that, if you can wait a little, he can give you a ride to the city. He's got some business to attend there.” And then she disappeared into the kitchen.
“Yeah, I guess. Thanks...” His minded instructed him to say, again.
With not a lot of enthusiasm, he sipped the beer. It did feel good, and tasted even better. Part of him was still not able to accept how good that beer was, but it was a part that was less and less listened to. The beer spoke louder, and more clearly. After years of craft beer tastings, reviews, trips, pairings, analyses, he was now almost ready to admit that perhaps his opinion on that mass produced beer was the result of prejudice, peer-pressure, hive mind and a dose of snobbery.
Bob appeared shortly after. He greeted Pat like a good friend he sees very often, or like the way you may greet someone who've got drunk with for the first time the night before – though he didn't seem at all worse for wear.
“I see you like that industrial crap!” He said, and laughed his meaty laugh. “Drink up, it's good for you.” And laughed again, introducing Bob as her husband and owner of the pub.
The waitress's came out from the kitchen, introduced Bob as her husband and owner of the pub (because maybe Pat didn't remember) and then asked “Sweetie, you want to eat something before you leave?”
“Yeah, that'd bee good. And can that something be eggs, perhaps with a little bit of bacon or ham?” Bob answered, walking towards her. He kissed her lips and added “And make some for our guest, too. That will sort him out, he still looks a bit green.” Now she laughed.
Breakfast was ready very quickly, another beer was procured for Pat, who was now feeling many times better - the hangover having apparently decided it had more important things to do that day – and not much was said. Only Anna spoke, asking Bob to buy some things she needed.
After Pat finished his beer, and the small cup of coffee he was offered – Bob only drank a large cup of coffee with milk – they got ready to leave. Pat went to pick up his bag, while Bob said good-bye to his wife, who, after wishing Pat a good trip back home, and make him promise he'd be back, excused herself and went back to the kitchen, the cook had the day off and she had to get some things ready.
“Come with me, boy,” Bob said when they were outside, “there's something I want to show you.” Pat followed Bob to a building attached to the pub, a barn or stables.
Nothing had prepared Pat to what he'd see inside. A small, but very professionally looking brewhouse, with all the bells and whistles, fermentation tanks and other accessory gear included. There was even a machine for washing and filling kegs, of which there were several piled on one wall.
“Surprised, huh?” Bob said. “This is the industrial crap you've been drinking.” He then grabbed a glass from a shelf, rinsed it and filled it from one of the tanks. “Here you've got, one more for the road.”
Pat took the glass, still unable to say anything. He took a sip. Yeah, it was without any doubt the beer he'd been drinking.
“How? I've never heard about this brewery!” He was finally able to say.
“That's because nobody knows about it.” Bob answered and laughed the way someone would laugh when a child asks a ridiculous question.
“I'll tell you on the way. We need to get going, and I must put a keg in the van.” He added, opening the door of a cool-box with kegs inside. He took one and put it inside a small, refrigerated van that was parked under a large tree outside.
“Drink up, let's go.” He said, after picking a few more things. Pat did as he was told, left the glass on a table and got in the car with Bob.
“Why doesn't anybody know about this brewery?” Pat asked, once they got on the road. “The beer is great!”
“Thanks!” Bob answered, sincerely flattered. “Some people do know, actually. Friends, and a few of the regulars at the pub.” And then he added. “And I don't want more to know because, on the one hand, and no offence here,” he said looking at Pat, “I don't want people like you coming, I've seen them, and they can be a pain in the ass.”
No offence was taken. Pat knew Bob didn't mean proper beer enthusiast like him, but the posers and hipsters who ruin it for everyone. He agreed with Bob.
“And on the other hand.” Bob went on, “and most importantly, the tax man would know, and that wouldn't be good. I would get into a lot of trouble.” He said, explaining with his eyes and a mischievous smile why he would get in trouble, and what sort of trouble it could be. The brewery was, basically, illegal.
They drove slowly and Bob told Pat that he worked for a mid-sized brewery in the region, as chief of maintenance of the brewing technology. Before, he had worked at one of the large breweries, now owned by a multinational, until he was made redundant. He harboured no hard feelings. He got a generous severance package and it also happened right when that other brewery, much closer to home, needed someone like him.
He then explained that he'd bought the brewhouse from his previous employer when they decommissioned the little pilot brewery that operated there, not very long after they laid him off.
“Anna almost killed me!” He said. “It was a whim that made me buy it. Then I heard of a brewpub in a nearby town that had shut down and I was able to get the tanks for almost nothing. The rest of the gear, I put together myself, with the help of some friends and colleagues. I get the ingredients at the brewery I work for, sometimes I buy them, others, I get them for free. Not a bad deal.” He laughed, and then went on. “I still sell the beer from the other brand, mostly to people I don't know, but sometimes, when I run out of it, and I'm too lazy to drop by the wholesaler's for some kegs, I sell mine as the other brand, charging the same, of course. Anyway, I'm glad you liked it, even though you didn't really know what you were drinking until now.”
Pat nodded, swearing that he really did like it. However, there was still something he had to know.
“What's your problem with the other brewery, Schmidt's?”
“Several, actually. I know him, in fact.” Bob said, now serious. “He worked at the same brewery I did. But he was not a brewer, as some people seem to believe. He was in the business part of the company – I think he left it to set up his own consulting firm, or something.”
“He is a wanker, but a smart one. There's still no brewery at his place, he buys the beer somewhere else. For what I've heard from people in the trade, he is planning to eventually build something. Anyway, right now, it’s all made up, really. Even many of the comments on the internet are, for what I've heard, a part of a very careful campaign – his son works in marketing. It must have been him who came up with the idea of a marketing-shy brewery making and selling far from cheap beer in the middle of nowhere. The idea, apparently is to build some reputation this way before selling the beer through other channels. And it appears to be working. Look at you!” And the laughter returned.
Pat was still more confused. He wasn't sure if Bob was telling him the truth, or just messing with his brain, or perhaps was simply throwing shit at a competitor. He was going to ask something else, but Bob slowed down and got on a dirt road.
“You still want to have a beer there?” Bob said after stopping the side of the road, under a tree. “It's that house over there. I'll wait for you here.”
Pat got out of the car. With a slight fear that Bob would drive away as soon as he was far enough, but he still wanted to drink at least one of those beers. What Bob said couldn't be true, Beer Connoisseurs aren't so easily fooled.
The only beer available on tap that day was the Gold. It was indeed quite expensive, which reminded Pat that he'd never saw prices listed anywhere, and made him wonder if that wasn't another part of the strategy Bob was talking about. He didn't bother following that line of thought after he sat at one of the picnic tables with a small glass of the beer. He made a mandatory photo, of the glass and the place, and quietly sat to taste his beer.
The beer failed to impress him. It was not bad, but it was far from the wonder the internet had made him believe. Bob's was far, far better. Though, it's also possible that, after the previous day's debauchery, he was still not up to the task of properly evaluating the beer, or that Bob's story had conditioned his judgement; or at least that was what was trying to convince himself to believe.
He thought of buying a bottle for his friend, but the price made him change his mind. If he asked (if he hadn’t already in one of the several text yet to be read messages he'd sent), he could tell him that they didn't have any,
When he got back to the car, Bob closed the book he'd been reading and turned down the music. “So, how was it?” He greeted.
“Not bad, but not worth the hype.” Pat answered, having decided that there was no point in lying. And then, much to his own surprised, he added after buckling the seat belt: “yours is much better.”
“I know.” Bob responded and laughed.
They didn't speak too much for the rest of the trip. They drove into the city and Bob left Pat a couple of blocks from a metro station. As the parted, Bob said: “Please, keep it quiet.” And then he left to take care of whatever thing it was that he needed to take care.
Pat took out his mobile as he walked to the metro station. He wrote a message to his mate, apologising for not answering, using the old, but still good, excuse of having run out of battery. His mate wrote back: “No prob. And how about those beers? Ho was it.”
It took Pat a couple of stations to decide what to say. In the end he settled for: “Great experience. Will tell u more tomorrow.”
“Cool. Can't wait to read the reviews.” His mate wrote.
He didn't answer. When he got home, he was still thinking what he'd write in his review, or if he'd write one at all.