Monday, June 30, 2014

Beer & Loathing in St. Louis: Part 2

For those just coming into this post for the first time, please read Day 1's exploits HERE.  This write-up came about during a trip for Limited Release for the Barrel Aged Abraxas release at Perennial Brewing.  I might have been reading Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas at the time...

Chapter 4: Urp

The black-out curtains worked well, until that single burning ray of sun reached my eyes, singeing me and raising sparks of flame and pain in my retinas.  Afraid I would spontaneously combust like a Hammer Horror vampire or a drummer for Spinal Tap, I rapidly burrowed deeper into my hotel bed cocoon.  Too much, too soon!  I had peaked my first day in St. Louis, with nothing left for the coming day.  I had not run the marathon...I had run wind sprints!  My late night had ended with a troubled and fitful sleep, filled with strange dreams of riding past an endless Anheuser-Busch complex with Hunter S. Thompson in a convertible.  Behind the wheel was Ron, pedal down, eye red-rimmed and frightening, the size of dinner plates.  I was frantically cautioning them not to stop in Bat Country.  The copious amounts of red meat and alcoholic toxins fueled an epic thrashing night of what Rob calls "The Meat Sweats".  Sitting up slowly now I took stock.  Head, though seemingly swollen and filled with thick cotton batting, was still attached to my neck.  Good.  Eyes--I didn't want to think about them.  Not open them.  Stomach, queasy, but holding in there!  Limbs--floppy and made of rubber.  Weak like those of a newborn kitten.  "No problem," I thought, "I can do this!"  I had lasted as long as my hard-living and hard-drinking colleagues, and there is no way they could be doing better than I!

Staggering about like a lurching zombie from a classic horror flick, I met up with Rob downstairs at the hotel breakfast café.  In a show of possibly poor judgement, my compatriots had apparently gone back down to the casino floor after I had wandered off to bed the previous night.  Food was far from my mind, but the necessity of a strong caffeine bolus to get me started up again prompted me to make this trek.  Once I had some coffee in my veins the shaking subsided.  Watching Rob gustily devour his enormous mound of fried chicken atop a mountain of waffles, my stomach writhed and slithered about in my chest like an enraged eelpout.  It was dicey for a while there.  Our service was very slow, making the clock-less time of the casino drag even more strangely, disorienting and odd.  Ron eventually joined us, showing off his own particular brand of zombie shamble.  In between rolling hops and dips of my suddenly soaring stomach, I managed to stuff in a small amount doughy biscuits and slippery gravy.  Perhaps not the greatest of plans, but my brain didn't seem to be functioning correctly.

Chapter 5: Return to Perennial

Properly fed and caffeinated, our humbled trio drove slowly back to Perennial Brewing to set up our cameras and equipment to record the third day of the Barrel Aged Abraxas release.  This was our mission, our quest, our driving force for traveling to St. Louis!  Having had a taste of the event (and that wonderful beer) from the previous evening, we thought we knew what to expect.  It had been busy and somewhat crowded but not as insane as Darkness Day or Dark Lord.  We arrived about 45 minutes before the tasting room officially opened.  Already exhausted staff bustled about making last minute preparations before the crowds returned.  We set up cameras, moved heavy boxes of priceless Abraxas, and even interviewed a few of the helpers.  Safe inside the shelter of the taproom, we watched a growing line of beer enthusiasts forming outside--a lengthy snake of thirsty humanity.  Ominous clouds rushed in, dark and tortuous, promising wicked rain.  

Inside I met my St. Louis counterpart: Eric Hildebrant.  An extreme beer geek, hooked into the local community, and blogger for STL Hops.  Perhaps this seemingly friendly alter-ego was my Nemesis for the trip?  Did his easy smile hide a wicked doppelganger with a nasty desire to take over my life and connections upon my return to Minnesota?  No, that would be crazy.  Wouldn’t it?  I would keep a sharp eye on him from now on...

Outside the treacherous clouds worsened.  Shadows fell upon the land, plunging the poor folks outside into a deep despairing darkness.  One of my best friends, Bryan, his girlfriend Megan, and friends Charley and wife Elizabeth, were out in that deadly weather.  With a crash, the bottom dropped out, instantly drenching the restive waiting line with a torrent of cold rain.  I hoped my friends were under cover.  

Within a few more minutes, the doors were opened and the crowd crushed into the small taproom, seeking refuge from the deluge outside.  The bar was filled in seconds, the mob, as a single entity, reaching for the precious dark Abraxas.  We struggled to film this madness from several angles, while still trying to get some of the beer for ourselves!  After throwing a few elbows, groin kicks, and Judo flips I was able to get my glass.  Two seconds later, they were out.  27 minutes and the keg was empty!  The humidity was nearly unbearable in this press of rabid humanity.  The overhead metal piping dripped with perspiration, as did all of us.  In the oppressive heat we sipped on 12% ABV thick and sweet spiced, barrel aged Imperial stout.  Not the most refreshing of beers for the heat, but so tasty that it was worth our trials.  When the keg had kicked they put on the Mint Imperial Stout Barrel Aged 17, to tempt us with more heavy ale.  Our friends were miraculously able to find seating and I finally had time to relax with them.

This day was also the release of Side Project Saison du Fermier.  Side Project is just that: a brewery within a brewery, where head brewer Cory King of Perennial does his own wild and barrel aged beers on a much smaller scale.  The release on tap of this saison started about an hour after Abraxas ran dry, encouraging all of us to stay longer.  Two lines, one for picking up Abraxas and one for Side Project, coiled through the brewery like living, pulsating, sweaty THINGS made of hot and sweaty people.  I had tried the wonderful Saison the night before, but on this close and sweaty day the beer was the refreshing blast I needed to keep functioning.  

Later, as the crowds died down, Rob, Ron, and I were invited into the inner sanctum of the brewery.  Large stainless fermenters crowded the back brewery rooms.  Heaps of filled kegs and pallets of bottled Perennial beers were stacked everywhere with seemingly frantic abandon.  Several large wooden foedors had just been delivered and somehow Ron managed to talk Cory into getting inside one for candid photos.  Ron, who when drinking decides that everyone else should be keeping up, handed me a full glass of an amber viscous substance that tasted of burning and my upcoming doom.  As we set up cameras and I interviewed Cory about his brewing, I kept setting the glass down or forgetting it in different places.  The glass would appear again in my hand as if by magic!  A small group of us got to share a bottle of last year’s Abraxas side by side with this year’s beast.  Both were amazing, but this trial, in addition to my boomerang glass of George Dickel whiskey was starting to affect my judgement.  During this time Rob and Ron interviewed Rachel, Perennial’s resident PR goddess.

When I thought the afternoon could rise no higher, we were invited into yet another secret and mysterious area of the brewery.  This was the dark and cool barrel room, where hundreds of bourbon and wine barrels, filled with mystical beer, slumbered away in silent repose.  One could smell the spirits diffusing through the wood and feel a subtle dampness upon the skin.  I talked to my possibly evil Doppelganger back there under the dim Christmas tree lighting, trying too decide which of us would leave this room alive.  Cory pulled rare samples from barrels to serve us.  We awaited with upturned mouths, cheeping baby birds waiting for our mother to regurgitate half digested food into our waiting beaks.  That damnable whiskey found its way back to my waiting hand like some demented and ill mannered hound!  Just then a loud and discordant symphony of warning klaxons bellowed from nearly everyone’s cell phones, startling us out of this dreamy reverie.  Tornado Warning!  At least we were already in the deepest recesses of the brewery and as safe as we were likely to get.  Shrugging off the fear of being crushed beneath tons of brick rubble and large wooden casks, we continued our after-party.  I ended up getting a chance to interview Phil Wymore, previously of Goose Island and Half Acre, and now Brewmaster of Perennial.  During our interview he held his young son in his arms.  Phil managed to keep his cool and answer all of my obscure questions, while his son pulled hilarious faces at the camera the entire time.  All joking aside, the entire staff at Perennial treated us like kings and I will always remember their hospitality.

The Barrel Room!

Chapter 6: Don't Bogart my BBQ, dude!

All good things must come to an end--and ours was ended by voracious hunger.  While barrel aged Abraxas was certainly filling, it was nearly 4 PM and we were in dire need of true sustenance!  I thought I could hear the building rumble around us, but instead of rampant tornadic activity, it was only Rob’s belly crying out in complaint!  We pulled Ron away from his recording and sampling, kicking and screaming out obscenities.  We were on a mission to get some filling food and only one thing would do: St. Louis BBQ!  At the suggestion from nearly everyone we talked to, our quest led to Bogart's, a family run classic BBQ joint not far from the brewery.

After parking nearby, Rob and I took some pictures for posterity and Ron ran ahead to scope out the terrain.  We had heard that Bogart's often ran out of food by this time of day and were desperate for some smoked meaty goodness!  Ron came running back, face aglow with adoration and excitement.  

He is here!  Hurry up I need a picture with him!”  Ron gasped out.  He turned back and ran panting toward the restaurant.

We turned from our shooting and hurried up behind Ron.  Inconceivable!  It couldn’t be!  Standing next to an exuberant Ron with a pleasant and somewhat resigned look upon his face was Wallace Shawn.  Star of our childhood favorite, the Princess Bride, and more recently the voice of Rex in Toy Story, it was a strange and fortunate event to meet him at Bogart's!  We snapped a few shots and let him get back to eating with his family.  The three of us basked in the glow of celebrity proximity, residual blood alcohol levels, and a gratuitously large platter of smoked meats.  We ate with gusto, cramming our gullets full of protein while we watched the disappointing loss of the Triple Crown on TV.  

Chapter 7: A Civil Life
Sated for now, we headed out for another beery side trip.  This time we met up Bryan and his crew at Civil Life Brewing.  While 4 Hands is known as the “hoppy” brewery, and Perennial is the “artisan” brewery, Civil Life is the “session beer” brewery of St. Louis.  They focus on styles of beer under 6% ABV, mainly English and German styles.  With the Perennial Abraxas release this weekend, many more hordes of craft beer drinkers were in town and on the move, resulting in this being a very crowded place.  We met Bryan and posse, as well as Joe and some others from the Perennial event.  We took over much of the upper balcony area and shared many half-pints of fine lower alcohol beers.  Now this was the way to pace yourself!  With 4% beers I get full or have to “excrete” the beer before I get drunk.  Perfect!  I tried Eric’s Special Beer (ESB) named after my evil doppelganger-body-donor, Eric Hildebrandt.  It was wonderful.  Perhaps there was something in this special beer to help Eric take over my excessive lifestyle:  a genetic mutagen, slow poison, mind-control drugs?  It was so good that I would have to risk it.  

I went back downstairs, pushing past throngs of hipsters and ordered more beers from the Gary Oldman look-alike bartender.  I finished up with the Milk Stout--one of the best I’ve ever had!  I also met a few nice local homebrewers that I later would run into at NHC.  Strangely, instead of getting more paranoid after all the beers I’d had, I became more friendly and talkative than usual. 
Something in the ESB working at eroding my own will?  

It was not incredibly late, but we were full, dehydrated and drunk on life (and possibly beer), so we headed back to our base of operations at River City Casino.  We dropped off our equipment and headed down to the casino floor.  Again the wall of smog hit me and triggered my allergies almost immediately.  With a series of gagging coughs, weeping eyes and runners of snot dripping down my face, I tried to ignore it and moved on.  We lost more money on slot machines, many of them strange and incomprehensible to my slowly spinning mind.  Shiny!  Lots of beeping!  Around us were yet more septuagenarians selling away their pensions and spouses’ life insurance money on the repeated push of a button.  An air of desperation, sadness, and lost hope surrounded us.  I laughed in the face of my $20 spinning slowly down to nothing!  Ha!  Ha!  Nooooo!

Despite our encumbering lead-weight meat-meal from  Bogarts, we desired more food.  And beer of course.  The casino floor had both kinds of beer: Bud and Bud Light!  (The spectral hand of AB-INBEV cracked its knuckles and chuckled at our disgust.)  We discovered that the Beer House restaurant and bar in the casino actually had a decent tap list, but closed early.  We splurged on terrible (for us) nachos, wings, and rings.  If the beer didn't destroy my liver this trip, the food would likely cause my heart to burst from my chest like a violent alien fetus.  While eyeing my thudding and deforming chest suspiciously, Ron handed me the sizable beer list.  With excitement we discovered that they had 48 oz. mugs that we could take onto the casino floor!  Feeling like hobbits that realized beer came in pints, we all ordered one of these gargantuan beers.  The huge ceramic stein was difficult for me to lift with two hands and even more difficult to drink without spilling all over myself.  Rob’s bear-paw tipped his stein back like it was a half-pint back at Civil Life!  

Rob indulges his fetish for both kitties and sparkle!

We dragged our gratuitously sized mugs into the casino for some serious gambling.  Figuratively thumbing my nose at AB, I sipped at this growler-in-a-mug of Civil Life Brown ale for quite some time.  We joined a blackjack table, where I was thrust into the hardcore gambling life.  We had an ever rotating series of dealers, and a lady pit-boss that was rough around the edges and simultaneously hilarious.  At a table across from us a woman with a cackle to shame the Wicked Witch of the West would intermittently burst into this shrill and earsplitting sound.  Soon our entire table would echo this shriek in protest, and the poor dealers and staff would cringe.  Oh we were having fun!  My money slowly trickled away and Ron or Rob would stake me so I could continue.  I’d win small and pay them back, starting the process over again.  Our table included Angie, a fairly big winner who seemed to bring us some measure of luck, and certainly added some more fun to our game!  We ran through several dealers.  Keisha was great and at least entertained us when we lost.  Then came Amarr--that bastard!   He would give a little knowing smirk as we all lost big and then a small shrug of the shoulders to indicate that our luck had run out.  Later Keisha came back and stole more of our money, but killed us with kindness so it didn’t hurt so much. The smoke billowed about us like a second malodorous skin.  The shouts, bells and Witch-Cackle resounded through the casino floor.  I lost money but strangely felt OK with it.  I had payed for an experience and these were the wages of sin.  Oh, and I borrowed the money from Ron, so it totally didn't count.

48 oz and ghetto chiller...

Tired of hemorrhaging cash like a hemophiliac sticking his hand in a Cuisinart, we moved our party back to Ron’s room again.  There we drank some more Civil Life beers in their tiny medicine bottle growlers, listened to more music and discussed our epic day of debauchery.  To top this night of excesses, we cracked one of the best sour beers I have ever had.  This was the mythical Side Project beer called Fuzzy.  A very tart ale created with wild yeast gathered at Cory’s family farm, this beer was sharp, puckering, and incredibly complex with a lingering taste of fresh peaches.  Lucky for me, my compatriots are not sour beer fans, so I drank the lion’s share of this fermented wonder!  A fine way to finish this gonzo day.  1000 thanks to Cory and Perennial!  

Chapter 8: The Aftermath

We won't speak of the following morning.  But I had slowly, staggeringly, run the marathon.  We eventually gathered together to fill up our car with equipment, luggage and spoils of war.  We hunched briefly in the chill shadow of AB for a small segment for Limited Release.  We took some pictures at the Arch.  We had a quick lunch at the Shlafly Tap Room and sampled yet more beers.  Hair of the Dog and all that.  Then back to our respective homes, limping home, tired, overdosed on fine ales, gambling and too much meat.  In the end my nemesis was only ME!  There is no other moral to this tale.  Watch our old Limited Release episodes and keep an eye out for the upcoming episode to see us in action HERE.  A huge thanks to the fine folks of Perennial, and 4 Hands for treating us so well during this trip!

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