I looked at my traveling companion with a sleepy eye. Rob was a big, happy, bear-like man, perhaps hiding some Maori or Samoan blood in his family tree, and was also one of my oldest friends. As my financial advisor and personal chef-to-the-stars, he was also indispensable for this trip. We rode in our other friend Marty's vehicle, Rob scrunched into the back seat and making the old import list to the left and rear. Marty navigated his heavily laden car seamlessly though the darkened streets of Suburban Minneapolis. We called him The Yeti, as his image had never truly been caught on film, other than blurry fast-moving shots reminiscent of the Zapruder Film. He is a survivalist, blacksmith, environmental scientist, and military man. Our luggage nestled in the trunk with The Yeti's favorite axe. Hey, you never know when you will need one! While his favorite travels with him, he has a whole room full of axes in his country-side compound for unknown and unknowable uses...
On the way to the airport I thought back to what had prompted this potentially foolhardy trip. At a dinner of red meat and copious amounts of 5050 Eclipse Imperial Stout, Rob had convinced me to join him for what promised to be an epic trip of obscene proportions. We would travel to St. Louis to film the release of the fabled Perennial Barrel Aged Abraxas--a white whale of a beer to rival Ahab's Moby Dick. Having made a less than lucrative side career of such beer-travel with our other friend Ron, Rob worked hard to sell me on the deal. I had only heard stories of their previous exploits, (and seen the footage from their Limited Release web show of course,) so I was intrigued. Hopped up on Eclipse and copious amounts of meat, I agreed and the stars aligned to make it happen!
After arriving at the airport, unloading our luggage, and watching The Yeti screech away from the curb--avoiding unnecessary scrutiny and photographic evidence--we arrived at our gate. Rob and I sat in the crowded airport, waiting with a mass of ragged humanity for our oversold flight from Minneapolis to St. Louis. Hopped up on extreme amounts of coffee and lack of sleep, things took on a hazy and ominous cast. In a quiet voice I asked him if he had managed to smuggle our needed supplies into his luggage. This trip would require massive amounts of sustenance, but in recent years our ability to transport precious beer in carry-on baggage has been lost.
"I was able to fit a couple bottles of Surly Darkness into my checked bag. I just hope they don't open it up and remove the packing..." He whispered back, looking around himself surreptitiously.
"That's all? How are we supposed to stay properly fueled throughout this trip? I knew we should have rented that convertible and packed the trunk full of beer!" I responded.
Just then Rob grabbed my arm with his massive fist, looking across the gate with a paranoid look. I turned my gaze to see what he was looking at and spotted Him. Lurking amongst the traveling rabble was a man in an overly tight martial arts t-shirt sporting a Snidely Whiplash style goatee and twirly mustachios. Perhaps it was nothing...but maybe Mister Mustache was studiously ignoring us. In all great stories the protagonist needs a powerful antagonist. An anti-hero. A villain if you will. Was this outrageous man with the villainous facial hair to be my nemesis? Would he have the audacity to wear his shear evil right there on his pinched face?
We boarded shortly, keeping a watching eye on our kung-fu villain. We did not see any overt dangerous behavior. I kept expecting him to pull out a monocle to polish, but if he had one, he kept it well hidden during our flight. Our plane kept hitting pockets of wicked turbulence throwing the steward staff and some overhead roller-bags careening around the cabin like a demented pin-ball game. I crossed my fingers and gripped my armrests until I felt they would tear free of their moorings. I do not travel very well. The main stewardess would periodically announce things over the loudspeaker with a subtle slur to her speech, showing evidence of either a stroke, or possibly of hitting one too many tiny bottles of booze on the flight... With a long bounce a loud rattle of plastic and metal shearing apart, we slid into St. Louis. My villainous friend was nowhere to be seen.
Rob and I hustled our luggage into a waiting cab. Upon hearing our destination, the cabby hesitated a beat and with dollar signs and sudden fear in his eyes he drove us far across the city. We rode along glorious old-money boulevards and sprawling highways and byways. We passed a huge complex of red brick buildings emblazoned with an enormous eagle. Anheuser-Busch! The enemy of craft beer? Perhaps my nemesis was not to be a person at all, but a monolithic globe-spanning empire bent on winning market share and convincing people that cold is a flavor! With AB's shadow looming over me upon the highway, this idea didn't seem far fetched. Who else would want to silence our upcoming aria about the special release of a craft beer idol? I would have to be cautious.
Passing bombed out brick buildings, razor wire with flapping beards of shredded plastic bags, junked out cars, and check cashing joints, we were nearly upon our destination. We were dropped unceremoniously at a curb, near a large and mostly decrepit industrial building. Thinking at first that our cab driver had refused to drive us deeper into the urban jungle and decided to dump us off quick, I made sure to grab all my bags fast. While Rob paid our ludicrously high cab fare, I did finally spy a small sign for the Perennial tasting room upon a nearby wall. Ah, safe indeed! No problem other than walking through a borderline sketchy area with several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment--and rare Surly Beer!
Chapter 2: Perennial; 4 Hands
We met briefly with the staff at Perennial, all of whom were friendly and wholesome to a fault! Ron was already there, awaiting our arrival and showing us the ropes. We quickly learned how to dip bottles of precious Abraxas into hot wax! A valuable skill for the future? The brewpub is small and spare, clean and with artistic photos of the brewery upon the walls. A small bar, one large table and several smaller ones provide limited seating. Nestled in amongst the industrial sprawl of the building are apartments, a small salon, and the South Side Fight Club. No one would talk about the fight club...
With a longing look back at Perennial and those unopened bottles of liquid black gold, we headed out for our next destination. In another industrial area, past more battle-ground buildings was 4 Hands Brewing Company. The brewery's sigil is four green clasped hands surrounded with leaves and resembling a hop cone, but eliciting a unnerving hidden Masonic message vibe when I looked very closely.
There, the three of us were greeted by a friendly bartendress and the owner, Kevin Lemp. We were treated to high hospitality and drank many fine beers while filming segments for our magnum opus of beer journalism. The Chocolate Milk Stout and Passion Fruit Prussian Berliner Weiss were incredible! Behind the counter sat an ancient wooden warhammer, wrapped in iron spikes, making Thor's Mjolnir look like a children's toy. I could barely lift this weapon, but Rob wrapped the handle with his massive paw and swung it about like a maddened atavistic Viking. His normally placid eyes sparkled with mayhem and blood-lust. Maybe I was wrong about his Maori blood...perhaps Old Norse? Ron and I eased away from him and distracted him with more large beer samples.
We were given a personal tour of the back rooms and even upstairs in this old building to see the future expansion of the brewery. With as much space as the lower level, the second floor will greatly increase their capacity for barrel aging beers. But for now, it was a blank canvas. A huge empty room with gaping holes in the wooden floor, daring one not to fall to a splintery death below! They still have a bit of work to do, but this will be amazing! Below, in the brewery, the heat and the noise was incredible. We were able to interview the brewer Martin Toft, a good sport and a great brewer despite his suspicious lack of facial hair! We shared a large plate of charcuterie from the world's tiniest kitchen and basked in the glory of rich food and an even richer group of beers. Kevin, wonderful man that he is, sent us on our way with some parting words and some special beers. Now this was how to start a beer adventure!
With that, it was time again to hop in Ron's rental car with all our gear and weave back (under the evil grinning shadow of AB) to Perennial for the release. Ron, a professional race car driver, has a heavy lead foot and a propensity for taking turns using the hand-brake. Arriving at the brewery, stumbling nauseously from the car, my vestibular system still spinning, I staggered past Fight Club and into the waiting tap room. We were able to shoot past the gathering line of locals who had already received a ticket for their bottle of Abraxas. Some were sharing mysterious bottles already--getting prepared for a beer that would blow their minds! Rob and Ron set up their cameras, and I scurried about taking still shots of the brewery. An air of frantic expectation abounded as staff hurried to prepare for the upcoming onslaught of beer geeks in search of their quarry.
Ron took me aside for a quick pep talk. "You are new to these limited release parties, and need to keep one thing in mind. Think of this weekend as a marathon, not doing wind-sprints until you hurl!"
With those kind and true words, the flood gates opened and Perennial was flooded with beer aficionados of every stripe and color. A hipster with curly mustachios and skinny jeans. A couple of guys in business suits. Girls wearing beer shirts. Lots of larger men with varied beard styles. Girls in summer dresses. Babies and toddlers. The crew of Limited Release. After the initial burst of excitement to get a snifter of the fabled beer, things quickly relaxed and many formed an orderly line to gather up their precious bottles. I was finally able to sneak forward to the bar and snag a glass of the elixir. Barrel Aged Abraxas! Deep black and viscous, like motor oil, with almost no head left on it. The beer was sweet, alcoholic, with subtle spicing of cinnamon, chili, and chocolate. At nearly 12% ABV this beast was dangerous and wonderful beyond mere words. With language deserting me, I fell back to pleased grunts and coos of happiness. This beer could mess you up. Was this deadly beer itself my Nemesis? Would this complex and boozy Black-Blood-of-the-Earth be the end of me? With Ron's warning in mind, I decided that only time would tell…
Abraxas was fleeting, running dry quickly under the heavy pressure to drink it down. I had to try some of Perennial's other beers of course. For research. The beers mostly had lyric and magical names like Aria, Saison de Lis, and Tart Hopfentea. And then there was Plan B. My tongue and mind reveled in these artisan ales, ranging from saison to sour to tea-infused. Their IPA was aged with the remnants of Louisville Slugger bats! Despite the promise, it did not knock me onto my buttocks.
We interviewed patrons, all of whom were discerning and knowledgeable about the brewery and craft beer in general. We did not unmask any potential spies and infiltrators from AB, though we asked probing questions to attempt it. Our Abraxas sizzled minds were convinced that they were there at this crowded event, gathering data for their focus groups and marketing men to dissect, attempting to discover just what it is about "Craft Beer" that has taken the world by storm. The shadowy fingers of the once local giant must be unwilling to release their death grip on the market. They will forever be confused by us!
Chapter 3: Trouble!
Eventually we had to head to our hotel and get food to soak up our ingested liquid repast. Just a short jaunt away from Perennial was the River City Casino. With a bellow of "We've got trouble, right here in River City!" I entered this den of iniquity. Arms laden with camera equipment, luggage and boxes full of beer, I flailed going through the rotating door. My new 4 Hands coffee mug went flying in slow motion to shatter in a million jagged porcelain bits across the lobby. But the box full of Abraxas was safe! With an entrance like this I expected the music to stop, the lights to turn up and everyone to turn with a surprised look. I was dead wrong. There was nothing. Perhaps all the denizens of this place were so jaded or deafened by the cacophonous sounds of the casino floor that they had ceased to notice the world around them!
We headed for the fancy steak house in the casino for dinner, dropping half a Benjamin each for our overpriced meaty repast. Not surprisingly, our waiter knew little about beer. We all ended up getting gratuitous 50's cocktails to fit our Mad Men dinner fixings. Rob sipped on a dainty martini, gripped like a tiny glass tea cup in his massive hand. Ron had a gin and tonic. I had a booze-laden Old Fashioned against my better judgement. Rob and I each ordered the all meat sampler platter, and found both to be tough and overdone. After sending them back in dismay, and starting to feel the Old Fashioned effects upon myself, we were entertained by our erstwhile waiter showing off video of Cher on his cell phone. This night was just getting stranger and stranger!
Booze in belly and cash in pocket we rolled out for the casino proper. Eating, drinking and gambling! Having become accustomed to smoke-free environments, the wall of cigarette smoke hit me like a tangible thing. A haze of grey-white smoke swirled about us, enveloping us in it's carcinogenic embrace, welcomed us into the cavernous room, filled with death and despair. The crashing, jangling, beeping babel of this place was obscene, yet strangely familiar and not entirely terrible. We wasted some of our time and money on slot machines of lurid and strange design. Dolly Parton sang to me sweetly as she stole my money. The bizarre 1970's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory machine taunted me with strange throw-back images and clips from my childhood...as it stole my money. Alongside us were plentiful obese and elderly women working hard on developing lung cancer and gambling away their life savings.
Stepping from this dark and cacophonous place, a last twirl of evil mist clinging to our bodies, we headed upstairs to convene in Ron's room for a finish to the evening's niceties. Ron magically produced a deck of holed cards from somewhere and began dealing out hand after hand. Not having been sated in our desire for good beers with the limited options below, we cracked in quick succession the bomber bottles from 4 Hands. The Cuvee Ange was an unusual mix of blackberry, raspberry and wine barrel aged beer--perhaps a bit too sweet, but wonderfully complex. We listened to obscure Pink Floyd songs and continued our debauchery! The next beer was Volume #1, a miraculous bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout with coffee and cocao nibs. The labels on these beers were actually made of nearly paper thin wood! And I lost some more at cards. As the beer flowed and the world got shiny, we expanded our listening selections to include Steel Panther, and Rob showed us YouTube videos that we can never un-see! We opened the appropriately named 3 Kings: a great tripel with coffee--strong and sweetish. A celebration of We Three Kings of St. Louis! And our final drink of the evening was the amazing Side Project Saison de Fermier--dry, tart, barnyard goodness.
Head spinning with lack of sleep, wicked demon alcohol, atrocious videos, and some of St. Louis' finest craft beers, I stumbled up to my own room for bed. Less than a full day in this city and I may have met my match! Pacing. Pacing. Pacing! Ron's cautionary words rang in my head with the sizzling fuzz of too many strong ales: must run the marathon, not wind-sprints until you hurl!
To Be Continued in Episode 2!
Author's Note: This write-up may take slight liberties with reality. The author happened to be reading Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas while on this trip, and the stew of poor sleep, alcohol and this over-the-top book led to what you have read.