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Pub Crawling New York With The Beer King

In Memoriam: Alan Eames

THE MEDIA OFTEN describe Alan Eames as "the Indiana Jones of beer" for his expeditions to Peru, Egypt, and the Amazon in search of lost or endangered beers. He variously describes himself as a beer historian, a beer anthropologist, and, in his more P.T. Barnum-like moments, as "the Beer King."

"I know more about the history and social significance of beer than any man alive," he once told me. "I have devoted my adult life to beer. It's what I do. Every day. Beer is sacred business, a mood-altering food substance that may have preserved the human species. To drink beer," he summed up, "is to be human."

When not sipping corn beer in smoky Andean huts or wriggling through pyramids in search of beer hieroglyphics ("Your eyes are like black beer, your skin is like beer foam"), he lectures and consults for such breweries as Guinness, Beck's, and Hudepohl-Schoenling. Home is Brattleboro, Vermont, where he writes about beer in a house stuffed with beericana. His arms are tattooed with a bat, a squid, an octopus, the words "Beer King" framing a keg wreathed with hops, and a bear hoisting a tankard, which is a 900-year-old symbol for ale.

I have soaked up Eames's beer lore and tales of adventure in bars from Vermont to Machu Picchu, so I jumped at the chance to join him on a pub crawl through some of his favorite New York haunts. He also promised to end the evening with a grand beer-related surprise.

We stopped first in Greenwich Village at the venerable White Horse Tavern, 111-years-old. "It's a style of saloon once found on every corner in New York," said Eames, glancing tenderly about. The deep browns of the bar, backbar, ceiling, and plank floor suffused the place with a thick contented hush, as if we were floating in a mug of warm stout.

Then someone fed the jukebox. Eames sighed and consoled himself with a gulp of White Horse Ale. In such an august place, he said, the jukebox and the TV sets were abominations. Even worse were the plastic bats, ersatz spider webs, and orange streamers defiling the dignified old walls in observance of Halloween. "A great traditional bar would never decorate for Halloween or Christmas," said Eames, "because the idea is that time stands still in a saloon, like in church. Both are sacred places, places of reflection and fellowship and solace."

We moved on to Brewsky's, on East 7th. Brewsky's is neither old nor atmospheric, but Eames admires its comprehensiveness: the menu lists about 400 beers. He ordered Traquair House Ale. "The RAREST Beer in the World," declared the menu. "Exclusive for English Royalty". Each bottle cost $11.

"I knew the laird of Traquair well," said Eames. "Peter Maxwell Stuart. He restored Traquair's ancient brewhouse in the '60s. Traquair House was Bonnie Prince Charlie's place of exile. Legend has it that he drank himself to death with beer from the same brewhouse where this ale is made today. The Bear Gates, on the bottle's back label, haven't been opened since Prince Charlie died, and won't be until a Stuart sits again on the throne of England. This is a Scottish ale, by the way, a very rare style now, which the Scots call a `wee heavy.' The laird died last year, and his daughter runs things now. She has a bluebird tattooed on her ankle."

Eames was equally scholarly about George Gale Prize Old Ale. He described the vat in which it was brewed: 10 feet tall, 18 feet wide, of knotless New Zealand pine. That accounted for the resinous tang.

We strolled a couple of blocks and passed into the old dust of McSorley's. For Eames, this was the sanctum sanctorum. Waiters rushed by with clinking glasses of foaming ale, which dripped onto the sawdust floor and pooled on the scarred wooden tables. The rich deep browns of McSorley's made the White Horse seem beige.

Eames spoke wistfully of old John McSorley, who opened the place in 1854 and would still recognize most of the decor, including the wishbones from Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, now covered with dusty fur, strung over the bar. No music, TV, or video games here, just beer and conversation.

"This place should be a tax exempt national treasure," said Eames. "Look at it. This is the way it was, and this is the last of it. If you tried to open a place like this now, the board of health would close you down. But no one would dare do that to McSorley's. It's like an old whore who's lived so long she's become respectable."

As we pulled up to P. J. Clarke's on Third Avenue, Eames looked blissful. Skyscapers loomed all around the old two-story brick building. Inside was another of the old brown places so dear to Eames. The bartender pulled us mugs of Whitbread ale, an English bitter. Eames pointed out the light shaped like a shillelagh, the smoke-darkened sign that declared this a Union Bar, the yellowing pictures of Lincoln and JFK, the huge mirror scratched and fogged by time. The bar's history was written all over its weathered face.

"The saloon has played an enormous part in America's psyche," said Eames, "but the saloon as it was is vanishing. These places are significant to our history. They're where our grandparents stopped for one on the way home."

He warmed to his topic. "Women became more assertive drinkers during World War II while the boys were away, with the result that the `lounge' began to overwhelm the saloon. After the war, a lot of bars modernized. They replaced the old wood and brick with plastic and chrome and glass. And until the war, America had been an ale country. Now probably 99 percent of the beer drunk here is lager." Every one of these developments seemed to sadden him.

On the ride uptown to our final destination, Eames and the cabbie discussed the fine points of beers that the cabbie used to drink at home in Hungary: Gosser, Zipher, and Puntigam from Austria, Zywiec and Okocim from Poland. "Beer," proclaimed Eames, "is the universal language."

We got out at Bahama Mama, which Eames likes because the food is good and because it was among the first to serve Xingu, "the lost black beer of the Amazon." Eames rescued and adapted the recipe for Xingu after months of research among isolated tribes in the Amazon. The beer is brewed in rural Brazil for Amazon, Inc., a five-woman company run by Eames's wife, Anne Latchis.

It was time for the beer surprise. A waiter brought out a chilled bottle whose label said Ballantine Burton Ale. Smaller letters read, "Brewed Especially For Silvio Semprebon On May 12, 1946. Bottled November, 1966. Seasons Greetings from all of us at Ballantine. Special Brew. Not For Sale." The beer was made solely as a Christmas gift for the brewery's best distributors. It had been aged in wood for 20 years, then bottled. The bottle on the table was 45 years old.

Eames told its story. While visiting an old distributorship in upstate Vermont, he nosed around the sub-basement and found a dusty beercase made of cardboard, wood, and wire. "I flipped it open and there were six bottles inside. Full." He knew all about Ballantine's legendary Burton Ale, but had never tasted it or even seen an empty bottle. "This is the Dom Perignon '55 of beers," he said, "and God sent it to me."

In a ferment, he called the distributorship's aged owner, Mr. Silvio Semprebon. They met, and drank three of the Burton Ales with lunch. "He kept apologizing that the stuff was so old," said Eames. Semprebon gave him the other three bottles. One of them became the star attraction at a tasting of rare ales at Boston's Sunset Grill. A connoisseur bought the second for $400. "And this," said Eames, "is probably the last bottle of its kind in existence."

He poured. The color was coppery, the head fleecy and alive. We tasted. Eames moaned with joy. I joined him in chorus. The ale tasted of wood and caramel and roasted grain and humus. Our pleasure was complicated by the pang of loss that always accompanies the impending disappearance of something fine. Then Eames poured out the last of it, and we drank.

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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