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“Bubbles go down!” we’d repeat as we sat spellbound staring into the glass. Wave after breaking wave, blankets of bubbles cascaded down and with each wave, we’d repeat our refrain “Bubbles go down!”
Had you overheard us, had you overheard two grown men almost singing and laughing and chuckling that bubbles go down you might have guessed we were drunk, and we were, punch drunk without punch and without having had enough to drink. This was our first beer, it was a Guinness, the bubbles went down, not up and we were drunk with enthusiasm and excitement.
This is not to say that Guinness or what its bubbles did was new, only its experience was new to us. Imagine drinking something close to the color of ginger ale all your life and then being given something as dark as soot, soot with downward cascading bubbles. You couldn’t help but be intrigued even if also repulsed, at least initially.
A pint of Guinness to our unlearned eyes was similar to a train wreck or the evidence of the Holocaust, repulsive but so fascinating we couldn’t look away. Now imagine someone suggesting trying it at room temperature. We almost hurled until eventually insisting on it.
As I said, tempted though you may be to think this was our first Guinness, it was not, nor was it our last. It was our anytime, our every time, our always. Regardless of how many pint-filled days had come before this one, the novelty of cascading bubbles never wore off. After all, how often do you see bubbles going down?
It was in college that our curiosity and fascination with good beer began. My brother drank Coors. He hasn’t drunk it in years, not since I experimented with something better but he did then and so Coors was all I knew. I forget exactly how I discovered something better. Given my age, it was probably ego, it was probably me wanting to find my feet and proclaim my individuality. It was probably curiosity coupled with a way to boast beer bravado. I can’t say for certain because I don’t remember but what I do remember was stepping up to the counter of the biggest beer selection West of the Mississippi at a local shop called “Stuffed Sandwich” and asking Sam, the owner, for his recommendations.
Sam knew more about beer than any man should know. Doctors have health, lawyers have law and Sam had beer. He majored in it and sometimes, if he felt you worthy, he might be willing to fill you in on what was better than what you had had. Sam’s approach to beer schooling was based on bicycle riding rather than long division, he started you on training wheels, and once you learned what was good, you never forgot to drink it.
Sam was also arrogant about his beer. He was smug and somehow, we didn’t mind because as smug as he was, he was also charming. He was abrasive and charming about nearly everything and his criticism was almost always said with a smile. I said almost because his smile was more like a sneer, one hidden behind a large, black, walrus-like mustache. His sneer was an inside joke and we were all on the outside. Even so, when he called me and my buddy “a pain in the ass” (the same thing he called everyone else), he did it with a healthy dose of humor and sarcasm. I liked sarcasm and I definitely liked Sam. Most everyone did and if you visited Stuffed Sandwich, part of what you wanted was Sam. Big, boisterous, tender when others weren’t looking, Sam mentored our interest and ushered our enthusiasm into good beer.
By the way, what I said earlier about “if he felt you were worthy” was serious. More than once, Sam refused to sell beers to the people who ordered them because he felt they weren’t ready or able to appreciate and respect them. Imagine jumping from Old English 800 to an IPA-like Piraat from Belgium or Arrogant Bastard from hell’s own brewery. It’s a brave new world, and Huxley wasn’t distributing passes or taking the unprepared on tours, neither was Sam willing to cast pearls before swine and so when he said “no”, he meant it…at least for then. Luckily, like any good teacher, Sam’s willingness to challenge was commensurate with his students’ willingness to learn. I was a front row student. I was rewarded with good beer.
As much as this has been about Sam, it’s about tutoring, maturing, growing up and eventually growing old. We had graduated. We had gone from training wheels to banana seat to ten speed. We had gotten our Bachelors and had enrolled in grad school. If not for knowing the dean, Sam, it’s unlikely we would have gotten in. Part of higher education is independent study. Instead of only attending lectures, we were expected to research and investigate on our own. Research involves reading and we did a lot of it. One book, a ranking of the world’s best beers, was our new guide. We didn’t always agree with it but we felt it provided enough direction to explore what was worth exploring. Doing so, we discovered Shakespeare Stout by Rogue Brewery. As dark as Guinness was, Shakespeare was darker. When poured into a glass, the lights would dim, not out of respect or because of a séance but because Shakespeare Stout absorbed light. It is a black hole of beer. Stephen Hawking would be proud.
The first time I tasted Shakespeare I wept. We had purchased a bottle, 22 ounces (the only size it came in), took it home and divided it equally between two glasses. I sniffed, smelled and couldn’t wait any longer. I pursed my lips around the rim of the glass, ignored the dimming lights overhead and invited the black bounty into my mouth. The tear falling from my right eye was reflexive. It was glistening joy and it was escaping without having even asked my brain for permission. It was running before I heard the shot or knew there was a race. While the earth was being absorbed into the infinitely dense darkness of my pint glass, one lone, rogue (pun intended) tear was escaping, out running all the gravity in our galaxy. During a summer session a year later, we chased it…all the way to Oregon. It was our pilgrimage to the Rogue Brewery in the city of Newport. We called it our “trip to Mecca.” We prayed at the alter of their pub.
Almost as good as the beer, is my memory of it (as evidenced by the previous paragraph). I have other memories involving Sam, Guinness, Shakespeare Stout and Stuffed Sandwich; the Thursday night wine tastings with Jazmine, the capicola sandwiches, the Belgian Framboise on tap in our back yard, Mark the cop, his autistic son sharing the hammock with our dog Racer, my brother’s taste in beer evolving into something more like it is now (something better), my soon to be sister-in-law sitting at the back table and Sam’s wife Marlene now serving what Sam can’t.
As you can imagine, as with what happens after twenty five years, our education ended, our professor passed away and our degree now hangs on the wall. Sam was cancer struck and killed (how cancer managed to survive in a host so seemingly inhospitable as Sam I’ll never know), but his legacy, my introduction to good beer and a multitude of memories, like those I just outlined, remain.
Should you ever wish to attempt to share in or make similar memories of your own, I’d invite you to stop by Stuffed Sandwich, witness for yourself the graduation announcement, read the student tributes lining the hallway wall and, treat yourself to a pint of Guinness, the sometimes-served-room-temperature, nitrogen filled, sooty, almost-black, “bubbles go down!” beer that began it all.