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Tales of an American Aquarium Drinker - The Owl Farm, Park Slope

By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

Jay Fox (credit: Ashley Sears)
Jay Fox

There is no such thing as a nonmoving object in our modern perception of life.

The above quote is by an Italian artist by the name of Umberto Boccioni. He died approximately one hundred years ago, on August 17, 1916.

Boccioni was both a talented painter and a unique sculptor. He was also a futurist. His work reflected this rather clearly. In fact, it captures the age very well. Even if he was an explicit proponent of modernity, both his sculptures and his paintings have a terrifying quality to them, largely because it was a terrifying time.

The terror wasn't merely because of bomb-throwing anarchists or the looming threat of war. It was an existential terror. The changes that were taking place across the country dispossessed families of their former, traditional ways of living. Religion was being converted into base materialism. Craftsmen were becoming the cogs in a vast, industrial machine. The more aspects of life that industrialization subsumed, the more humanity seemed to become less human. In works such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or Lewis Wickers Hine's photography of children working in mills, factories and even mines around the country, there was increasing evidence that the progress promised by modernism and capitalism was more of a Faustian bargain than many had anticipated. The First World War provided even more proof that such industrialization had the potential to be catastrophic, as it was during this four-year exercise in idiocy that the practice of improving efficiency was applied to making war and finding the best means to kill the most people. (Such efficiency would reach its most gruesome apotheosis a few decades later when the Nazis perfected the British institution of the concentration camp, which had originally been pioneered at the very dawn of the twentieth century during the Second Boer War.)

Peculiarly, much of this pessimism had more or less vanished by the time of Potsdam and the real beginning of the American Century—this, despite the fact that the world had been plunged into a Depression that was followed by the most deadly war in history. Though there continued to be a subculture that mocked the shallowness of conformity and consumerism, the mechanisms that produced and disseminated mass culture only became more entrenched in Western, particularly American, society.

At the same time, Americans were becoming noticeably more alienated from one another. The increase in the number of cars on the road meant compartmentalized commuting. The creation and expansion of the Interstate Highway System meant that even working class families could live on a plot of land in the suburbs of a city. The radio and, later, the television, became instruments of societal decay, as they deprived families of the opportunity to have serious conversations (apparently), thereby ceding even greater cultural prominence to the mass media. Even the Sixties, with its rhetoric of love, freedom and peace, didn't do a lot to change the dynamic of white flight to the suburbs, urban decay, social atomization, corporate mergers, cultural homogeneity and the continued industrialization of everything that we consumed. This is particularly the case with beer. By 1979, there were only 44 breweries in operation in the U.S., virtually all of them making watery lagers that were more or less interchangeable.

This is the world that Millennials were born into. This was our morning in America. For those of us who lived in the suburbs, it was a scary time even if our communities went relatively unscathed by the plights that those in urban areas faced—AIDS, crack, rampant gang violence, deindustrialization and the crippling of the urban (non-white), blue-collar workforce, which continues to plague many communities to this day. We were safe, but we were sheltered. We were taught to fear the cities. We were also taught to fear our neighbors. As we became older and were allowed to venture out on our own, we were constantly reminded that strangers are mostly perverts and murderers, and if someone seemed particularly nice, it was because they were a pedophile. This was especially the case when it came to clergy.

The Owl Farm, Park Slope
The Owl Farm (Park Slope)

To be defensive was to be normal. To not trust anyone ensured one's safety.

And yet through all of this we didn't question what we were consuming, which, in my case, was a steady diet of secondhand smoke, Spaghetti-O's, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Better Made Potato Chips and—as I was living in suburban Detroit—pop. (We were a Pepsi family. Why we were a Pepsi family I can't say, but that's what we were. Perhaps it's like being a Mets fan, a kind of stubborn embrace of both the improbable and the possible.) Our alienation from the actual background of our food was essentially total. Our curiosity about where it all came from began and ended at the supermarket.

However, we eventually learned that we regularly had to avoid certain items because they were being recalled. It wasn't that there was something inherently wrong in our industrialized food system, we were told; it was simply that a slight oversight had occurred, and that the problem was being corrected. The incidents started small. A little cow shit in the spinach. Then there was a little trichinosis in the chicken nuggets. Then it turned out that cattle were being fed discarded scraps of beef, and that this had resulted in something called mad cow disease. Simultaneously, we were becoming more cognizant of the desirability of certain brands, and we noticed that the toys and the clothing sold by these brands were made in one of a few developing nations, and that the factories in these developing nations employed children.

Most of the adults shrugged when hearing about something by which Upton Sinclair would have appalled or when news broke that sweatshop labor was fueling the massive profits of multinational corporations, but many Millennials heard these things with ears fresh enough to cause us, like the thinkers and artists from one hundred years ago, to think that maybe there was something fundamentally wrong with much of what we took both for granted and as completely normal. It would be rash to say that the mad cow panic was our Watergate, but it certainly didn't help instill trust in the handful of corporations that seemed to control everything from what we wore to our food supply.

While it is certainly true that many aspects of the Slow Movement are bullshit, the impetus behind a lot of it is not. Millennials are more sensitive to the detrimental nature of many elements of American life that older generations consider to be the norm (though, conversely, being lost in the forest of algorithms that now shape our virtual existence is mildly upsetting to Millennials and an outrageous violation of privacy to many older individuals). The importance of owning a car is one example. More pertinently, there is an aversion to non-local foods that take money away from the region and, of course, mass produced products, like macro beer, that lack artistry, flavor and nuance (and typically have disastrous effects on the environment). Furthermore, the effects of the Recession are fading, and many younger people in places like New York have some disposable income again. Though they can't always afford to buy a home due to a housing bubble that no one will call a bubble so long as there's money to be made, they don't seem to have a problem spending some extra cash on a piece of beef that was raised on grass and not tortured before being slaughtered; opting for a more expensive, organic piece of fruit; or ponying up $4 for a cup of coffee that was brewed from beans grown on a farm that practices sustainable agriculture and pays its workforce a living wage.

Tastes have changed. The ethics dictating those tastes have, as well.

And this is where booze comes in. Mass produced beer is really just a delivery system for alcohol. The same could be said of extremely sugary cocktails, which had their heyday during the Eighties and Nineties, and can be consumed with gusto and typically with inferior types of booze that only the most seasoned of alcoholic would be able to tolerate straight. Craft beer, however, is extremely flavorful. It's also difficult to slam. Sure, you can and will get extremely drunk if you allow yourself enough of this beer (so long as it's not a session), but the mythology that has grown up around craft beer is more like that of wine than a Bud or a Coors.

This has become especially true as independent brewers have ceased to solely create the extremely hoppy beers that characterized the craft beer of a decade ago. The options available now are far more varied, as there are literally hundreds of types of beer that a brewery can make. Rather than the light, bland lager that typified American beer for decades (Budweiser, Miller, Stroh's, Pabst, Rheingold, Blatz, Schlitz, Schmidt, Coors, Michelob, and so on), a brewery can now choose to brew an Amber, an IPA, an Imperial Stout, a Pilsner, a Porter, a Lambic or something extremely weird. The goal is not simply to create something real or authentic, as this is the type of aforementioned bullshit that makes the craft beer movement seem pretentious. What they are doing is attempting to create an excellent product that is not for everyone. They are not interested in mass appeal. The same can be said of independent record labels, "Alternative" bands, independent publishers (and authors), adventurous chefs and artisans who make all kinds of essentially useless trinkets. They know that there's an audience out there willing to give them a chance so long as what they produce is something relatively unique, and that this group of people represents an engaged audience as opposed to a passive (or mass) one. To call their tastes sophisticated would be to venture into pretentious territory. It would be more accurate to say that they are rejecting the industrialized in favor of the particular, and that the reason why their products are qualified as "craft" is because they stand in contrast to the principles driving industrialized production—to generate the largest quantity of items for the largest number of people at the lowest possible cost.

That being said, some of these beers border on alchemy. Furthermore, there are plenty of people who have opened up breweries in the hopes of making a quick buck on what they assume to be a passing fad. If you're unfamiliar with this subculture, you can very quickly find yourself lost among a maze of obscure styles of beer and poorly made IPAs that taste like the floor of a forest. If you end up at a bar with a staff equally as ignorant, you may wind up thinking that you really would rather just have a Guinness or a High Life.

If you're looking for a Virgil to guide you through the world of craft beer, The Owl Farm (297 9th Street, Park Slope) is arguably the best place to go, provided you find yourself in South Brooklyn. Be warned, though, one of the other sacred cows of industrial production, consistency, is not on the menu. Through the Edison bulbs and owls on the walls are aesthetic choices, the chalkboard above the bar is not. The taps are constantly rotating, and there's a good chance that, just because you have a beer at the bar one night, doesn't mean that it will be there the following one. You can't simply attach yourself to a brand (except for Narragansett, a somewhat local American-style lager that tastes similar to Pabst, that the bar always has on hand). You have to be willing to try new things.

And you will, too. Even those who are well-versed in the world of craft beer discover breweries they've never heard of while sitting along the bar or, failing that, get the opportunity to try beers from breweries that they've never had the chance to taste before. No matter your degree of familiarity with acronyms like IBU and ABV or styles like Rauchbier or Grissette, the bartenders will walk you through any territory that seems unfamiliar. You'll get free samples so long as you don't exploit the generosity. Sometimes you'll get recommendations from people sitting next to you. Sometimes these people will end up seeing you on the street and you'll get to know them on a first-name basis. If you're extremely lucky, you find yourself talking with a regular and one of the bartenders about obscure bands over a round, and, a few weeks later, you'll find yourself a member of short-lived, prog rock power trio.

Perhaps the overarching point throughout all of this is not that craft beer is somehow a thumbing of the nose at industrialized capitalism. That would be far too grandiose. It's really more of an example of there being a wealth of experience to be had, especially in New York City, and that such novelty is the very lifeblood of this place. So, too, is it a reminder that those who are eager to move to this city should not simply be ready to escape the familiar; they should also be fervently embracing the new and fleeing from the routine. Though there may not be many nonmoving objects in our daily life, there is no shortage of nonmoving subjects who simply pass from one experience to the other without so much as a shuffling of their feet.



Jay Fox at Stay Thirsty Publishing


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls.The Walls

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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