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On Tap: Last Call for a Column: It Was Good to Share Beer With You

Chris and Valerie Fleisher

Chris and Valerie Fleisher

All I knew of Robert Oden Jr. was that he was a man of towering intellect, past president of two prestigious colleges in the Midwest and a Cambridge-educated religion scholar.

He had just been appointed chairman of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s board. I was to interview him about his vision for the region’s largest health system. I prepared for an intense conversation.

First, he made a request.

“Let’s make sure we save 10 minutes at the end to discuss beer,” he said.

We did. He spoke of his preference for Harpoon IPA and the happy coincidence of having its Windsor brewery in the Upper Valley. He told me about his involvement in the Campaign for Real Ale, a movement started in England in the early ’70s to promote quality beer and support community pubs. I had a few favorite beers of my own to recommend, and it was the fastest 10 minutes of our time together.

We were two beer drinkers talking. I learned things about this man that were mentioned on no official biography I’d seen, no news release or in any article I’d read. It was one of those moments when I realized why I love beer.

This is my final column for the Valley News, as I’ll be leaving tomorrow to take a job with a newspaper in Pittsburgh . I began writing “On Tap” a year and a half ago because I was interested in the people drawn to this ancient drink. Reviews and recommendations are all good, but I wanted to know what was happening here. Who are these people who are nuts for craft beer? How is it that America went from cans of spritzy light lagers to barrel-aged barleywines, Belgian-style saisons and oh-my-god-what-is-this-in-my-glass? What drives our passion? Why do we love beer?

I put this question to a few readers, brewers and friends, all fervent beer fans. Their email responses provided no single answer. They cited the variety, the craft, the sense-memory that a pint of porter dredged up.

Dave Phillips, a former employee of the shuttered Catamount Brewery in White River Junction, said he was attracted to the history. Barrels of ale were in the cargo on the Mayflower. And he was impressed with the complexity of flavor that could be created with just four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and yeast.

“Today’s hand-crafted small-batch beers and ales are so complex and full of flavor,” Phillips wrote. “It’s definitely evolved into an art form of sorts.”

Homebrewer Brandon Ganch, of Newbury, Vt., also cited the variety of flavors.

“While many breweries brew similar styles, subtle differences in the ingredients chosen, the water and the brewing process can yield very interesting and unique flavors,” Ganch wrote. “As someone who likes to try new things, I am always excited to try a new beer because every beer is unique.”

Scott Russell, whom I’ve mentioned many times in this space, was more philosophical. Beer is about creation and respect for tradition, he wrote. As a homebrewer, he approaches it as an expression of himself. And as the beer buyer for South Royalton Market, Russell hoped to share something with his customers.

“The beers I order and put on the shelves at the market are a kind of sharing, of community, with other beer drinkers,” he said.

Let’s not forget that beer is an intoxicant that makes us feel pretty good after a pint or two. But that’s not what drives passion. I haven’t spent years studying about water chemistry, hop characteristics and the effect that temperature has on yeast because I want to get drunk.

For me, craft beer has been a bridge. It has been the great equalizer in so many interactions with people, common ground with accomplished academics like Oden, high-ranking hospital executives, small business owners, nonprofit administrators, bankers, anarchists, scientists, artists, grocers, farmers, family.

My first date with the woman who would become my wife was at the Peculiar Pub in lower Manhattan. The foundation for our relationship was poured during tours at Brooklyn Brewery and our first day in the Upper Valley was spent at Long Trail Brewery. We were married in 2007 at Red Hook Brewery in Portsmouth.

Lest you think I am viewing personal history through beer goggles, here’s what my wife wrote when I put the question to her.

“Beer is how I bonded with my husband,” she wrote. “For our first date I suggested we meet at the Peculiar Pub in the West Village. ... I surmise he knew a lot of women who preferred Corona with lime. Before heading home we split a bottle of Chimay Blue. Some couples boast of love at first sight — we found love at first yeasty, funky sip.”

My 3-year-old son, Sam, has helped me pick hops from my front yard and bake bread using the leftover grains from my homebrewing. Surely, years from now, he will have strong associations with the aroma of barley soaking in hot water, and the nutty taste of warm wet grains, which he insists on eating as a snack.

Beer helps us cross a divide. The invitation “want to get a beer?” suggests so much. Let’s talk. Let’s celebrate. Let’s say our goodbyes. Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s leave this bad day behind.

There’s a reason that President Obama in 2009 wanted to discuss racial tension — still this country’s most difficult subject — over a beer at the White House.

In arranging the “beer summit,” Obama acknowledged its place in our culture. Beer is the drink we have when we want to level with someone. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. sat down at the White House with the Cambridge, Mass., police officer who had arrested him unjustly only two weeks before, and who Gates believed was guilty of racial profiling. Sure, it was a media controversy and Obama’s staged event did little to resolve the conflict. Nevertheless, Gates and Sgt. James Crowley did something that they hadn’t done until that moment — they talked.

This column has been my bridge to people in the Upper Valley. Some of you were new to beer, others far more knowledgeable than myself. You had insightful observations, complex questions, well-informed criticism and a curiosity that inspired me to dig deeper and know more. And I am privileged to have met you.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at cfleisher@vnews.com.