Is there any more warm fuzzy emotion we humans share than that which grips us all during the holiday season each year? And I think there’s an affinity between that warm fuzzy feeling, and the amount of liquid cheer that’s consumed during the holidays – it’s become such a part of the holidays that beverage producers, such as those here in Oregon who make craft beers, have started to invent special holiday brews just for the purpose. Last night, our good friends, Tina and Rich, were over for a little holiday partying, and I pulled out a Wassail ale made by Full Sail, one of our Oregon brewers – I was interested in Rich’s reaction to this “special” bottling, since he is more experienced with good ales than am I. He thought it was “too hoppy” for his taste, which left one with a bitter after-taste – I, on the other hand, have developed an appreciation for bitter as I’ve aged -especially bitter vegetables. This led us to a discussion of the traditional dark, rich, holiday brews of old, and I wanted to tell them a story that my father was fond of telling – and retelling – kind of like I do now. But the subject changed and I never got the chance.
So, here, Rich, is my father’s oft repeated tale.
In the days when I was a very young child, my father owned a bar in Nutley, New Jersey, a suburb not far from Newark – in those days, Newark was the industrial center of north Jersey, and not by chance alone, the home of many large breweries, including Budweiser. My father had never worked for Budweiser, or any other brewery, but many employees of the local breweries would be visitors to his bar – and of course, they’d talk – they’d talk a lot! And my father said one of those Budweiser employees shared this tale with him.
A little background – These were the days when the special holiday brew, from all the breweries, was something they called Bock Beer, a dark, rich, and full flavored beer. It only appeared during the holidays, and it was famously popular – so popular in fact that my father said many, many customers would say that the breweries should add this beer to their list of always available brews. My father said his classic response was to smile and say that for whatever reason, the breweries choose to only offer this brew at the holiday season – it was their gift to the public. And my father would add that it was not the task of a barkeep to share dark secrets with those whose business he depended on to keep his establishment open. But once his business was sold to another, he shared this story with all.
It seems that in those days, Budweiser’s brewery in Newark was a massive, brick structure, with high, open beamed ceilings – the brewing and fermenting of the beer was done in huge open vats that lined the floor of the huge complex – and at night, when work had stopped, only the night watchman was left to witness the rats as they emerged to walk across the high beams, and to pause to luxuriate in the wafting, intoxicating aromas of the fermenting mash below. Occasionally, as the story goes, one or two of those rats -maybe even more- would succumb to an overdose of those aromas, and slip off the high perch down into that open vat, where it would drown and sink to the bottom.
Because of this, Budweiser -and all other breweries- would only draw down on the top 7/8’s of the brew when bottling time came around. The bottom of each vat would go undisturbed all year, through many, many brew cycles, until at last the holiday season was approaching – then, and only then, would the brewery dip into that dark, rich brew and bottle their famous Bock Beer once more – a special gift for the holidays for their favorite loyal customers. Oh yes, the by-product of the Bock Beer process was that each vat was thoroughly cleaned at holiday time every year – perhaps an additional gift to the public.
I remember having asked my father how in the world would the health department have allowed such a practice to go on? His answer was that it was a widely held assumption that the alcohol in the brewing process would kill any potential bacteria or toxins which might be created by decomposing rat bodies, and that in those days, the health department was not as “aggressive” in their job as today. Additionally he’d point out that the brewing process had been going on in Europe for many hundreds of years in just this same way, and that tradition was difficult to change. And then of course was the reality that these were the days when city officials could be bought, and in fact, it would be suprising if such costs were not a large part of every brewery’s expenses.
Ah, the more things change, the more they remain the same!
Well, there you are – for Rich and Tina -and anyone else who makes the mistake of reading this- a little holiday season tale of cheer and joy – and something to increase that warm and fuzzy seasonal glow.
Oh yeah, here’s wishing a happy Christmas to all – Now, let’s raise a mug in celebration.