Session #5: Atmosphere

Today is our fifth Beer Blogging Friday “Session” and the topic is decidedly cerebral. Ron and Al, who run Hop Talk have chosen a topic near and dear to their hearts: atmosphere. Ron at Hop Talk wrote about atmosphere when they first started their blog almost a year ago. In that first atmospheric post, he wrote: “It might be a place, it might be a time, and it might be the company you are with; but, there’s no two ways about it, a beer will taste better if enjoyed in the right atmosphere.”

Fast forward to this June and the set-up for today’s session, which Ron and Al describe thusly:

Beer is about more than flavor, IBUs, and the debate over what is a craft beer and what isn’t. It’s about Life. It’s the proverbial icing on the cake.

So, we want to know about the “Atmosphere” in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most importantly:

Why?

Because while life isn’t all about beer, beer is all about life.

I like this topic because it appeals to my philosophical nature and my tendency to over-analyze everything. I can’t really decide what is the right beer to have for such a discussion, though something atmospheric should do the trick. I suspect one isn’t really even necessary but I want to keep the tradition of including a beer as part of each Session. After all, what’s a Session without a beer?

After rummaging through the beer refrigerator I settle on a small 375 ml bottle of Russian River Temptation (batch 002) that’s been in there for several months, at least. As this is an out-of-this-world topic I give in to temptation and pick an out-of-this-world beer. So beer in hand, let’s tackle this sucker. High in the upper atmosphere — the exosphere — where the air is thinnest, is a good place to start. Metaphorically, I’d like to peel back the layers as we get closer and closer to the surface of things, where the air is thicker and richer. Will the heat shield hold? It’s been hotter than hades in the Bay Area this week. I hope I chose my beer wisely.

This far from home, your favorite place to have a beer is undoubtedly home. No matter how far you roam, no matter how many places you adopt as new homes, no matter how much time has passed, you only have one original home, the place you were born. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in one place and only three houses, two of which belonged to my grandmothers and the third one was purchased by my mother when she married my alcoholic stepfather when I was five. That one was in downtown Shillington. After high school, I left and came back more times than I care to remember, always drawn home like the proverbial moth to the flame, perhaps for the warmth of familiarity.

I was amazed to see Stan over at Appellation Beer chose the Northeast Taproom in Reading, Pennsylvania and included a piece he wrote ten years before when owner Pete Cammarano still had the place. What’s amazing about that is that Reading is my hometown — or near enough, I grew up just outside Reading in a little suburb called Shillington. So every visit home also included stopping in at the Northeast Taproom to spend time with friends who weren’t fortunate enough to escape the slow death of Reading from a mid-size industrial, manufacturing hub into the “Outlet Capital of the World” where busloads of shoppers from all over the east coast flock to buy cheap goods and take advantage of Pennsylvania having no sales tax on clothing.

After a stint in the Army Band, I was back living in the Commonwealth when I turned 21. I was also married (to my first wife) and putting myself through college and working full-time running a record store in the mall. So my best bar days were behind me, at least in Reading. I learned about most of the good ones while still underage as my stepfather had an uncanny knack of knowing all the best taverns, especially which ones had the best food. So by the time I was 21, I already knew the best ones to go to and so spent little time on experimentation. I already knew which ones felt comfortable to me, though it would take considerably longer to understand why that was so. Two teachers at Wilson High School — where by father-in-law was superintendent — wrote a book called “The Bars of Reading” and were invited to be on the Tonight Show. (My prick of a father-in-law told them they couldn’t go, but they managed it without his blessing, but that’s another story). I still have my copy and it’s still remarkable just how many corner bars there were in such a small town. At some of them, even today, you can still buy a 7 oz. glass of draft beer for under a buck. But the Northeast Taproom was by far the best in modern times. It was a great combination of good selection, quirky weirdness yet with that neighborhood bar feel to it. I haven’t been back since Pete sold the place and in a way I’m almost scared to go. I just don’t want to prove Tom Wolfe right, even though in this case he probably is correct.

So there is something about a drink at home in places dripping with nostalgia and memories. I often glance about such places furtively, forgetting for a second that I’m old enough to legally be drinking inside, not just stealing sips from my stepfather’s glass when no one is looking. But as comfortable as I feel in such places, having grown up in them, and despite such wonderful atmosphere they are more a piece of history and the past than my favorite places right now. For that, we have to descend farther into the atmosphere to the Thermosphere, where the Space Shuttle happily tests yeast and the Aurora Borealis straddles the Karman Line (at 100 km — the international definition of where space begins).

Below that is the Mesosphere, which is where most of the meters that shower the Earth burn up in the atmosphere. They’re just too hot to drink with, despite there being a French beer called Meteor. As we close in on Earth, we next descend into the Stratosphere, which is where what’s left of the ozone layer resides. It’s also where we send weather balloons to track the patterns in the atmosphere used by meteorologists to incorrectly predict the weather so maddeningly often. Just a little farther along we reach the final layer, known as the Troposphere. This where the airplanes fly, at its thickest a mere 23,000 feet (4 1/3 mi.) at the poles and 60,000 feet (10 1/2 mi.) at the equator. We sit at the very bottom of this airy fishbowl, on our barstools, talking about the weather and quenching out thirst with another beer. That’s our own atmosphere. Of course, it doesn’t answer the question of our favorite drinking atmosphere.

So let’s break the question down:

  1. Where
  2. When
  3. With Whom
  4. Why

1. Where

Where is probably the first aspect you think of when the question of atmosphere is posed. Location, location, location. The other W’s are merely window dressing to place and merely modify your experience of that place whether temporally, by its fellowship or the reason you’re there in the first place. So without question “where” is what atmosphere is all about. It’s the hokey pokey. Everything else that may or may not enhance it doesn’t stand a chance unless you’ve chosen the right place to begin with. So where are the best places? That’s undoubtedly a personal decision, but there is, I think, some universal criteria that we’d all more or less agree with.
 

  • Comfort: In my opinion, the best places are the ones where I feel the most comfortable, however you define that. I don’t necessarily mean safe, some of my favorite places are often described as dive bars. But you have to feel in place, not out of it. Often, that requires other people, but not always. There are plenty places of solitude that would qualify for me.
  •  

  • Beauty: It’s hard to admit, but looks do matter. Who wouldn’t prefer the stunning vista of mountains or a lake to a brick wall? There’s something universally calming about the idylls of nature. Why fight it?
  •  

  • The Source: It’s hard to imagine a better place than the source of something as the best place to enjoy it. I can’t imagine the unfiltered Radeberger Zwickel tastes sweeter outside of its native Dresden. Isn’t that why barrel tasting is so wonderful? You just can’t get closer to the source than that. I’m sure that’s why I like drinking in breweries so much.

 

2. The Rest

To me, when is less about time than season. Even here in California, where the seasons don’t make themselves individually known as forcefully as more temperate climates, there is a rhythm to the year. Some of it is imposed artificially by the calendar but much of it is still managed by nature herself. The time of year often makes the decision of a beer or range of beers for you. The blonde ale I’m enjoying right now is ideal for the warmth of this July day. If it were cooler, I’d be craving something heartier.

The people you drink with to my mind does more to change the experience than any other single factor, except for place. Simpatico drinking buddies are worth their weight in gold. They take a good situation — great place, great beer — and turn it into an experience worth remembering. Oftentimes, you can’t even remember what was discussed, just that it was an enjoyable experience. And in the end, that’s really all that matters.

And that brings us to why, which our hosts Ron and Al regard as being of the utmost importance. I’m not sure I place as much stock in the why as they do, though it’s undoubtedly important. I think, more often than not, the why of what makes a particular atmosphere comes out of the other factors, is in effect created by the place, the beer, the camaraderie, etcetera. It’s the synergy of all of the other factors coming together in such a way as makes them all fit together. I’m sure you can create those conditions artificially, but I’m willing to bet that it’s the ones that come together of their own accord that are the best. You can choose a great place. You can order a great beer. You can invite terrific friends to join you. But that’s still no guarantee of a great time. Oh, I’ll grant you it’s a good start and will probably work more often than not. Still, you could also go to the same place with the same people and drink the same beer night after night and not recreate a magical evening. It’s that indefinable synergy that provide the final ingredient and makes a pleasant evening into a truly memorable one.

Of course, like the best philosophy (not that I really have one), all of the preceding says quite a lot yet fails to answer the simple question of where is my favorite place to enjoy a beer. So here goes. During the day, my favorite location is where I spend most of my time — my house. In any comfy chair — comfort is king! — whether on the back deck, my office or the snuggle chair in the living room surrounded by my wife and friends is the ideal spot. At night, I fancy being out in the middle of nowhere with the bright stars twinkling overhead and a roaring campfire in front of me. Again, in a — what else? — comfy folding camp chair surrounded by my wife and friends.

Notice that regardless of the place, friends are an indispensable component of a favorite place to drink. Even though I continue to feel that location is of the utmost importance, it all falls apart if the experience can’t be enjoyed with the right people. Beer isn’t called a social lubricant for nothing. I haven’t read many other Session pieces yet, but I’m willing to bet sight unseen that for almost every single one, drinking with the right people is what it’s all about. I think that’s going to be near universal. Because while “place” makes the experience, “people” makes the experience worthwhile.

We started out, perhaps reluctantly, admitting “life isn’t all about beer” instead championing that “beer is all about life.” For those of us who think about beer so much more than the rest of the population — whatever we call ourselves — we do so because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re in on a secret that enhances our very lives. It’s not necessarily a secret we want to keep, but instead is one we want to shout about to anybody willing to listen.

I imagine it’s like seeing color in a black and white world. How would you describe red or blue or yellow to someone who’s never seen color? And once you’ve seen the world in all it’s rich hues, the black and white world seems all gray and lifeless by comparison. It’s such a rich experience that you can’t help but want other people to see it, too. It’s too magnificent to keep it to yourself. It’s frankly a little frustrating when so many people seem to say, “nah, I like my world in black and white, thank you very much” because you know how much they’re missing. Sometimes I feel a little sorry for them, even though I know how patronizing and condescending that sounds. I see people I’ve known for years, still drinking industrial light lagers without a moment’s pause, and I just shake my head thinking of all of life’s pleasures they’re denying themselves. Because how could someone who thinks all beer is the same possibly even consider a question like atmosphere? It’s all the same, right? So what can it matter? I always imagine such people — trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — just feel they have more important things to think about. Truthfully, that never actually seems to be the case, and in fact many just seem to be sleepwalking through life not giving too much thought to any of the choices they make, beer or otherwise. If that really is the case, how many simple pleasures that you and I take for granted do they miss over and over again? If nothing else, loving beer is about enjoying life to the fullest, because it never stops with the beer. I guess beer is a gateway pleasure, because it leads to single malt scotch, cider, pairing with food, purposeful travel, fantastic cheese, port, cooking, and all manner of decadence that leads to a richer, fuller life. It also leads to an intuitive understanding that the very idea of “atmosphere” is important to the true enjoyment of life. That there is a healthy percentage of the world that can’t see that is very sad, indeed. Maybe that’s why there’s so much misery in the world today. Perhaps better beer really could save the world. Okay, I’ve changed my mind again. My favorite place to have a beer is that future world where everybody drinks good beer, war is an unknown concept and everybody understands that a life half-lived is a life wasted.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I? I’ll hold out until everybody understands the following poem, Lines on Ale (1848), by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849):

Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts, queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away.
What care I how time advances;
I am drinking ale today.

Amen, brother.

 

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