What are you waiting for?

beer cellar 003I have a beer cellar.  Right now there are probably 300 or so bottles down there.  Most are beers that will age well, often for quite a few years.  In some cases they are beers that are released once a year and so if I want to have them on hand later I need to stock up in the few weeks or even, just few days when they are on the shelves.  But especially of late, when I have not been able to enjoy a carefully selected bottle as often as I would like,  walking past all those bottles has gotten me thinking.  Why do I keep so many?  Especially when I go through a box and stumble across a bottle only to realize I had no recollection of buying it, it has all gotten me to thinking why I have so much beer in my basement?

There is a great scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels when Lawrence (Michael Cain) is extolling the virtues of his sophisticated life in a not so subtle effort to dissuade Freddie (Steve Martin) from becoming his pupil in grifting.  He shows Freddie his artwork, his home and his formal gardens but it is his description of his vast wine cellar (watch here) that sticks out in my mind.  As he shows Freddie  row after row of ancient and fantastic vintage Freddie asks when he drinks it.  Lawrence replies, “You can’t drink them, they are far too valuable.”  This prompts Freddie to ask, “So you sell them?”  “Oh no,” replies Lawrence, “I’d never sell them, they mean too much to me.”

Do you have beer in your cellar like that?  One or more precious bottles that you would never part with yet at the same time cannot find the heart to actually drink?   What is it about those bottles?  What is the matter with us?  We know we are dealing with something that is inherently perishable, something that will eventually diminish in quality and character  until at last one day it becomes undrinkable.  Yet still we hold onto them?  Why?  What drives us to cling to our bottles for such long periods of time?

Well in some cases there is no doubt that cellaring a bottle for a year, or five, or even a few more, will definitely enhance its quality when we finally get around to cracking it open.  For example I never touch Dogfish Head 120 Minute that is less than 3 years old.  Flying Mouflan is way better after a year or two.  Some beers from DeMolen state on the label that they can be cellared for up to 25 years.  Another reason is to accumulate a number of years of the same beer.  Being able to sample a vertical tasting can offer enormous enjoyment and education.

Yet there are bottles I just never seem to get around to drinking, no matter how long I have owned them.  It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I feel I never have quite enough reason to justify opening such a treasure.  On occasion, I have finally opened some long treasured bottle only to find that I waited a year or  two too long, which only magnifies the question of why do we feel so compelled to hold on to something that is meant to be enjoyed?

Is there some impulse we have to amass that keeps us from consuming?  Do we gain some sort of pleasure some simply looking at them and marveling at our triumph?  Is it a matter of ego, so that we can say to our friends, “You know I have a bottle of Dark Lord or Westy 12 in my cellar” and then sit back and enjoy the look of amazement that comes across their faces?  It’s an innocent enough perversion I suppose, when being able to own the beer becomes more important that actually drinking it.  The problem is that sometimes our desire to want to keep saying that actually keeps us from enjoy the very beer that is supposed to be so darn great in the first place.

Which calls another movie to mind.  In Sideways, Miles tells Maya that he has a 61 Cheval Blanc (which obviously must be some sort of rare and awesome vintage).  Maya tells him that those bottles are peaking now and that he should drink it soon.  Miles offers the excuse that he is waiting for a special occasion, to which Maya replies, “You know, the day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc … that’s the special occasion.”

Maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us.  Perhaps we need to stop hoarding or waiting for that special occasion that may never come and instead remember why we first started carefully collecting and storing all those bottles in the first place.  Maybe we should go ahead, muster up our courage and crack open our most prized possessions so that they might then take an ordinary evening and make it truly special.

Saint Brigid’s Great Lake of Beer

I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.
I should like the men of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing.
If they wanted I’d put at their disposal vats of suffering
White cups of love I’d give them with a heart and a half.
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer to every man.
I’d make heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make men happy for their own sakes.
I should like Jesus to be there too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
the three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women of God,
There by the great lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever,
And every drop would be a prayer.

Since St. Patrick’s Day has me in an Irish frame of mind, I wanted to share one of my favorite poems that perfectly melds love of God and love of beer. In it, St. Brigid envisions heaven as being a place of infinite hospitality and pleasure in which people join with saints and even God drinking good health throughout eternity.

Now to be fair, this is not a hedonistic vision. Heaven is not simply a celestial kegger. Indeed, to fully understand it you cannot overlook the “vats of suffering” and “white cups of love” which refer to the enormous acts of asceticism undertaken by Irish monks and nuns and White Martyrdom (voluntary exile) that was embraced by tens of thousands spiritual women and men over the centuries. It was all undertaken as a means to purify themselves and draw closer to God. Moreover, while the poem certainly reflects Brigid’s theology, it is almost certainly written long after Brigid lived.

Yet none of this has diminished its appeal or staying power. You may have heard references to the “Lake of Beer” before. It has also inspired art. Here it is as envisioned by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS.

MMBEE150In it you can see not only the Lake of Beer, Jesus, the Three Marys and Brigid herself (shown holding her cross), but also many icons of Celtic Christianity, including a high cross, round tower, and famous saints like Kevin, Brendan, Colmcille (Columba) and Patrick. You can buy it from TrinityStores.

So as you recover from your St Patrick’s celebrations, you can find a little inspiration from Brigid and her heavenly Lake of Beer.

Whoah oh. We’re halfway there!

halfway-218 fast days left and counting.  That’s more than halfway through my forty day long fast.  I suppose that actually counting the days could be construed as a sign of desperation.  It’s true that at times (like last Wednesday night when my computer completely crashed requiring a full system restore) I have really had to struggle not to go and pour a double bourbon.  Or this past Saturday, at a wonderful Irish Dinner and Concert at church, I really wanted to celebrate a great night by cracking one open and drinking with the parishioners who worked so hard to make it possible.

Of course these are not the only occasions when I have faced temptation.  I have even once or twice really found myself thinking “Well what’s the big deal? You could break the fast and have a beer or two and no one would have to be the wiser.”  I have even thought that if I stumbled it would make for something more colorful to write about.  But I knew as soon as I thought it that this was a pretty desperate and pathetic justification to reach for.  And so I have held on.  I have walked away from the beer fridge or the liquor cabinet and I have made it through.

I realize that there is still a while to go.  But I am gaining confidence and it is getting easier.  More often than not I get through the night without even thinking about grabbing a beer.  It’s been interesting, that’s for sure.  I’ve had to find alternative beverages besides water- seltzer or tonic with lime seems to be my new drink of choice.  Beyond that, I am still processing my experience to see what more meaningful insights this forty days in the desert of temperance may yield.

But for me the good news is that the end is definitely in sight.  In less than three weeks it will all be over and I will be able to have a drink whenever I like once again.  No doubt that reentry period will pose challenges of its own, but I’ll deal with that in April.  Until then, I find hope in knowing that I am more than halfway there.

Beerfest 2013

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The guys from our beer club waiting to get in

This past Saturday I took my annual pilgrimage to the Philly Craft Beer Festival.   Since it first began a group of us from the church beer club have headed down to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to enjoy 4-5 hours of sampling craft beer from 50 plus breweries.  This year, for the third year in a row, we travelled as part of the group tour from the Dawson Street Pub.  For those not familiar with Dawson, they were the very first craft bar in Manayunk, one of the first to serve Yards (which at the time was also brewed in Manayunk) and still have a special place for that great local beer by serving it up on 3 (yes 3) hand pumps.

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Dawson St. owner Dave Wilby

Anyway,  Dave, the owner, put together one heck of a good trip.   It starts at 10 am at the Dawson with a great breakfast of stuffed breads, oreganata and tomato pie from local culinary treasure, Marchiano’s Bakery.  We washed it down with beer or two.  I started with Gang Aft Agley from Sly Fox.  The Scotch Ale went nicely with the bacon, egg and cheese bread that was my breakfast.  Since we still had some time to kill I went big and had The Gentleman Imperial Stout from new local, Naked Brewing.

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Soft pretzel version of the necklace

Eventually, it was time to walk to the school bus that would take us to and from the event.  On the bus ride, we made our traditional pretzel necklaces.  For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, having pretzels dangling around your neck may look silly but in fact is a key to being able to fully enjoy a beer fest.  1) It allows you to keep you hands free for beer.  2) It provides a palate cleanser between beers 3) Provides a source of much needed carbs to let you keep going longer.  The concept has grown so popular that a vendor was selling them for $5 a pop at the fest.

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More traditional hard pretzel version


As the bus pulled in we piled out and right into the VIP line (thanks Dave!).  There we were carded and issued wrist bands.  After a minor wait, we were ushered in, given our glasses, and then watched the clock till it struck 12:30.  The smaller crowds of VIP hour allowed pretty quick access to the great beers.  Notables beers came from Stillwater, The Bruery, Stone, Full Sail, Lavery, Sprecher, Troegs, Victory and many others.

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A view of the crowd inside the tent.

One change since the early iterations of the Fest is that many of the beers are being repped by the distributors that carry them as opposed to the actual brewers.  While the beer tastes the same, it does make it harder to connect with the guys and gals who make the beer and to converse knowledgably about how it is made.

As is my custom, I had a clergy shirt on.  As usual it was met with a lot of second looks and even someone who wanted me to show them some id to prove that I was really a priest (looking at the pictures I guess you can’t really blame him). But more importantly, it lead to some fun interactions and even some more meaningful conversations.  Two of them took place whilst we took a break to smoke a cigar (I brought Cuban Ramone Allones robustos).

The first conversation was with a woman of Jewish background who wanted to talk about the commonalities and differences between our faiths.  The other was with a Roman Catholic woman who wanted to know my thoughts about the coming Papal Conclave.  As much as I enjoy the beer and sharing the event with my friends, such conversations are what keep me coming out.  Because let’s face it, I can easily stay at home and drink great beers or I could venture out to a smaller beer event that would be more geek focused if all I wanted to do was learn more about beer.   But only by going out as a priest, can I find these new connections and conversations.  And in the end, that is why this priest keeps walking into bars.