By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Good people drink good beer — Ancient Celtic Axiom
It came as a surprise. All I knew was that I was not to make any plans for Saturday afternoon because my girlfriend had two tickets to an event. I was told to not sleep in, to make sure to eat a solid breakfast and to be prepared to leave the apartment well before noon. We got out of the train by Madison Square Park and began north up Broadway. The furious rush of this part of Manhattan was something that both of us tended to eschew, especially on the weekend, and it seemed peculiar that there was something within close proximity that either of us would find entertaining or enjoyable. Continuing north would lead us into the belly of the beast, to Herald Square, and then to Times Square—two locales that most New Yorkers genuinely despise because they are inundated with tourists who have yet to realize that the concrete slabs that extend from the streets to the shops are for walking, not standing around taking pictures and glaring at anyone who happens to walk into the shot. Suffice to say, continuing north into the most hectic part of Manhattan was unlikely. West would send us into Chelsea for an overpriced brunch surrounded by aging gay men, lushes and movers and shakers in the arts and entertainment world who speak with derision the way others speak with drawls. Equally unlikely. East would lead us into Little India, and then into Gramercy Park proper. If we weren't going to Curry in a Hurry, what the hell were we doing here?
To say I was pleased to step into the 69th Regiment Armory (68 Lexington Avenue, Gramercy Park) about twenty minutes later, receive a small tasting glass, and then enter an expansive chamber that contained approximately 150 different beers would be an understatement. This was like one gargantuan bar. It may have lacked stools and booths, and the serving size of each pour was only two ounces, but the Stones were blasting from a sound system on the balcony and there were two full-sized basketball courts worth of beer stands. This was my Tate. This was my Louvre.
We had more than three hours to sample whatever we wanted. It was obvious that we weren't going to be able to make the rounds to try everything—drinking about 300 ounces of water in such a small period of time would have been enough to burst any bladder, and drinking half that amount in watery beer would have probably been a challenge to which no one outside of a frat was not going to commit before dark. However, this festival wasn't dealing with pilsners; these were winter beers—porters, stouts, browns and English ales. Some were as thick as a milkshake; some were stronger than wine. We were going to have to be selective.
69th Regiment Armory (Gramercy Park)
Within the first hour or so, as we sipped on brews like Spider Bite Russian Imperial Stout, Kuka Banana Nut Brown Ale and Yonkers Lager, a few within the throng began to stand out because of glassy eyes and aimless steps that indicated an impaired sense of judgment, space and consideration for others. Vanishing women who looked as though they spend more time at the gym than either the office or home started to blink torpidly and talk through their noses about subjects that hindsight would have censored. A guy with an unlit cigar in his mouth wanted everyone within eye- and earshot to know that he had a cigar. At the first hour's end I realized that the playlist emulating from the balcony contained five bands and less than an hour's worth of music, and that absolutely no one cared. This was not a party in the traditional sense—this was simply a celebration of beer.
This menagerie of beer enthusiasts, home brewers, journalists, finance dudes and what appeared to be a surprisingly large number of Anthropologie models continued to talk and drink and stand in lines for tap beers that came out of red Coleman coolers without incident as the festival pressed on into hour two, and then into hour three. No one was campaigning to take on the position of the obnoxious drunk, though the guy with the cigar, once he lit it in the smoking section outside, seemed to be seriously considering a run. Ordinarily self-conscious yuppies began buying pretzel necklaces from the food court and wearing them with pride. The smell of cheesesteaks, beer and the resultant flatulence that comes when the two are combined began to permeate the air. It may not have been sophisticated, but the general mood was easy and unpretentious, especially for a Manhattan event mostly populated by people in their late thirties.
As the festival entered its last half hour, my girlfriend and I found ourselves at the Wagner Valley stand. After agreeing that it was the best porter that we'd had all day, we were introduced to the brewmaster, who looked exactly as you would imagine any upstate brewmaster would—stout and bearded with a disposition that straddled the line between stoic New Englander and gregarious Midwesterner. As the stalls began to run out of beer and the people running the booths began to pack up, we continued talking.
It was at this moment that it occurred to me that the comparison to the Louvre or the Tate that I'd made earlier wasn't that far off. After all, this very Armory where I was standing sampling beers had been the site of one of the most important art shows of the twentieth century. Though it only lasted for about a month in 1913, the exhibition was the first time that most Americans had seen what has come to be known as modern art—the work of Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, and so on. It was here that a new creative spirit landed, and it was from here that it spread. It is difficult to overstate how important this event was.
While very few, if any, people are going to argue that making a killer porter is as culturally significant as pioneering cubism, having a beer festival in this location suddenly made a lot of sense to me. The Armory Show represented a change in the way people understood what art could be. In today's understanding of art, however, there are no real boundaries to break down. Art, music, literature and poetry can essentially be whatever they want. Because Marcel Duchamp thought a urinal belonged in the museum, it was installed in a museum. Because John Cage thought four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence constituted music, then was, and is, considered music. I'm not here to debate the authenticity of their beliefs or what they created, but I do believe it's difficult to abstract much further than this. It's difficult to be the vanguard of a movement that seems to have reached its cultural apogee several decades ago.
Specific consumables like beer are a bit different. A lot of beer drinkers throughout America expect beer to taste like Budweiser or Coors. However, brewers throughout the nation are slowly changing the way people understand what beer can be. Like the artists who showed their work in the Armory over 100 years ago, they have a similar creative spirit that hopes to alter the way in which people conceptualize not art, but rather the craft of making beer. Furthermore, these small breweries are popping up all over America, and they are becoming the local beers of their cities and towns.
It may not be revolutionary, but this kind of mentality has been gathering steam for quite some time. It's indicative of a counterculture that does not believe that capitalism is necessarily evil, but, rather, that the genuine can only be located in the artisanal and that local, that the ultimate in individualism is challenging the corporate behemoths that be with superior products as opposed to critical analysis and Molotov cocktails. Tasting a beer that encapsulates the flavors and spirit of Maine or Oregon may not give rise to anti-corporate sensibilities, but it does remind you that much of what we consume defines us as a culture.