by Taylor Gustafson

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Photo compliments of Bemidji Brewing Company

In recent years, anthropologists and archaeologists have gained insight into the creation of the revolutionary practice of agriculture. While we know farming as a major source of food, the hunter/gatherer lifestyle was bountiful enough to keep everyone fed; it seems that it wasn’t hunger that drove the people of Mesopotamia to plant and harvest.

It was beer.

The desire to mass-produce beer led to the cultivation of wheat and barley, thus altering the structure and basis of society forever. In short, beer changed the world. This is, of course, all based on a series of articles found on the internet. The History Channel has recited pretty much the same information, but seeing how they now consider potential extraterrestrial involvement in human affairs to be pertinent knowledge, it may require more than a grain of salt.

I’d like to think it’s true though.

I love beer. What? A college student loves beer? Get right the hell out of town. But seriously, I love beer. It’s become something of an obsession of mine. Hold up though, go back and read those last few sentences slowly and carefully. Notice how what I said was “I love beer” and not what you were probably hearing: “I love getting drunk.” The two are not interchangeable. There is, in fact a difference. You can love guns without having twenty strapped to your thighs at all times and starting an extremist militia.

True, drunkenness is sometimes a side-effect of my passion for the most sacred of elixirs, but it’s (almost) never the aim. The limitless flavors one can be made privy to by sampling the many styles and countless varieties therein can easily make for a lifelong hobby. From the rich mixtures of chocolate and coffee that can be found in Porters, to the bitter bite and citrusy aroma of an India Pale Ale, the beer spectrum is expansive enough to offer you just about anything you could possibly desire.

So why do people content themselves with watered-down piss (or more accurately, pissed-down water) such as Keystone Light and Budweiser?

Don’t be mistaken, my very first beer was something that today makes me cringe and fills me with the desire to thoroughly scrub my tongue with steel wool: Michelob Genuine Draft. Yuck. But I was fifteen, trying to show my stripes, not willing to play by society’s rules. What a badass I was. Or maybe just your average high school student. Both are equally pathetic and reprehensible. But I’m getting off topic.

The beer was absolutely horrible. Was that it? I wondered. The hype of adulthood could only promise me something that could easily be mistaken for expired sparkling water laced with hand soap? What a nauseating joke. Then and there I was completely turned off to the entire concept. I’d stick with whiskey for the next several years.

But through some metaphysical miracle, I just so happened to be born and raised in Cloquet, a trite little town in the shadow of Duluth, the self-proclaimed craft beer capital of the state. Thanks to such businesses as Fitger’s Brewhouse, Bent Paddle Brewing Company, Canal Park Brewing, and Great Lakes Brewing, I quickly repented of my blasphemous crimes and sprang headfirst into the almost literal sea of options now opened to me. I won’t disparage anyone’s tastes for the bigger name brews that I (admittedly quite snobbishly) listed above, but experimentation certainly worked out for me.

Just as cool as the actual beer is the thought that it’s lovingly crafted by small teams of dedicated brewers. Not only that, but they use water from Lake Superior. Locally made, using as many local ingredients as they can—how could it get any cooler? These people got to craft something wonderful that thousands of people love and cherish, and they were making a living off of it, and a rather good one at that. The nationally established Bell’s Brewery, based out of Michigan, noticed that their sales dropped throughout the state, thanks in large part to Bent Paddle. Being reunited with the wonders of Duluth’s beer scene was one of the only things that made me rejoice in my return from college during the summers. It seemed like one of the coolest job prospects out there, and probably the sole thing that caused me strife in August.

But fortune would again smile upon me. Coming back to Bemidji for the start of fall semester, I was greeted with wonderful news: the town I’ve come to refer to as my home now had its own craft brewery. Rapturous joy overtook me, and I sprinted through the still intense summer heat the first chance I got to sample Bemidji Brewing’s wondrous product.

Located at 401 Beltrami Avenue NW, the picturesque little taproom’s wide windows have a clear view of the lake, while passersby can see decorative kegs framing the edges of the window. The main bar stands prominently at the far end of the room, with the current selections handwritten on overhanging chalkboards, while a smaller bar runs along the west windows. All the furniture is made out of beautifully handcrafted wood, perfectly capturing the north woods feel of the town.

If the location itself hadn’t sold me, my first sip of their IPA sure did. I had found my new favorite spot in Bemidji. I made myself a patron as much as I could over the following months, which admittedly wasn’t as much as I’d like, cursed as I was by a college student’s tiny budget. Around the middle of December, I accompanied a coworker from the on-campus paper to do an interview with one of the founders.

It was only the knowledge that I would be going to a special circle of hell should I waste good beer that kept me from doing a spit take when we were told that the company was taking on volunteer help.

***

 

My first shift as a volunteer couldn’t come soon enough. It was all I thought about over winter break, but I did try to be patient. Upon returning to Bemidji, I gave myself the first few weeks of the new semester to scope out the workload and see if I would have the time. Once assured that I could still comfortably procrastinate on school work and have some semblance of a social life, I sent out the email officially offering up my services.

I only had to wait a few nervous days to get a response: I was in, and they could use my help at the end of the week. While others would be out spending lavish amounts of money on Valentine’s Day, I would be washing glasses and busing tables at the taproom. There is no sarcasm or bitterness when I say I found this to be preferable.

I had already technically met all four of the founders, both through my purchases and the Northern Student interview, but we’d never really interacted beyond that. It wasn’t until my first time coming in to work that we got the chance to make small talk. No easy task for them by the way, me being as taciturn as I am. I was greeted and let in by Megan, who served me the first beer I’d ever had there. At the bar stood Tom, head brewer and Megan’s husband, and Tina, who coordinated this volunteer opportunity. It was Tina who gave me the rundown on how to use a three sink system, an art I thought would be easy enough to master.

I sat at the bar enjoying a complimentary IPA, watching the first few customers come in and paging through and issue of The Growler. As business picked up, I headed to the back, donned the elbow length green rubber gloves I had been provided, and commenced work.

It seemed simple enough. Wash the glass on the cylindrical scrubbers suction cupped to the bottom of the first sink. Rinse the soap off in the second. Let the glass sit in the sanitizer sink for a minute. Add to the drying rack. I started out slowly enough, washing one glass at a time, closely inspecting those that were done sanitizing for any residual lip marks or fingerprints. As they continued to turn out spotless, I grew more confident, washing two at a time, quickly reducing the pile of dirty glasses to nothing. Pride at my own efficiency bubbled up within me. And then I dropped a glass into the sanitizer sink.

Fuck.

I know that the taproom was full of patrons, but all I remember is an imagined silence and the clean aroma of the steaming water.

Well this is just great. First day and you already broke something. Now they’ll never ask you to come back. Way to go, dumbass.

My gloved hand took hold of the glass and withdrew it from the foamy sink. I held it up to the light to search for damage and breathed a sigh of relief to find it completely unharmed. Just then Megan came out of the cooler, two growlers in hand and laughing.

“Don’t worry,” she said, stifling her laughter and smiling. “We do that all the time.”

With that crisis averted, my first shift ended with a beer in hand, watching an a capella group in garish dress stand before the entire taproom and sing love songs in honor of the holiday. It was a good day.

When it was posted on the volunteer’s Facebook page that the owners required help filling growlers a couple weeks later, I jumped at the chance. Setting up behind the bar, Tina gave me a quick overview of the process. I would soak the empty growlers in a bucket full of sanitizer for about a minute. Upon removal, I would place a hose attached to a tank of CO2 into the mouth of the growler and blast the air out. Tina would fill it from a hose attached to the tap head, and then hand it back to me to rinse off the outside and set it out to dry.

“It’s okay if you can see bubbles left in the growler after the sanitizer,” she told me, perched on a stool next to the tap heads. “The stuff is diluted enough that it evaporates really quickly, and it won’t affect the taste of the beer.”

My tasks made clear, I again donned the green rubber gloves I was quickly becoming accustomed to, placed two empty growlers in the sanitizer, and we began.

It was a very rhythmic process. Take out a growler, blast the inside with CO2 for five seconds, hand it to Tina. While she fills that one, I place another empty in the sanitizer. Take the newly filled and capped growler, rinse, set aside. After the first few I got the timing down, and we soon worked as an efficient unit.

We listened to music over the taprooms speakers and talked of the coming end of winter. We found a mutual love of hiking, camping, and canoeing. Tom set up his laptop at a nearby table and searched online for ingredients and supplies. Bud, Tina’s fiancé, poked his head in between his own tasks for the business.

“How’s it going?” he asked in his usually friendly manner.

“He’s a natural,” Tina replied, smiling. I was sure she probably said this about all of their volunteers, but I still felt a sense of pride grow within me.

We took several breaks throughout to seal the caps with rings of shrink wrap and a heat gun, and then box them up for storage in the cooler. After four hours, we had about 60 full growlers and my work was done.

***

 

People always seem taken aback when I tell them I don’t get “paid” for the work I do at BBC, though I don’t understand what is so terribly jarring about it. I usually respond that, by giving their volunteers complimentary beer for their work, they’re really just cutting out the middle man. Whatever funds I made would have just gone towards sampling beer, so really they’re doing me a favor. Besides, I’m not in it for payment. As an aspiring brewer, any experience I can get is far more valuable to me. You’ve got to start somewhere, right? I certainly think I’ve been gifted with a good jumping off point. Now I just need to see where this’ll take me.

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Taylor Gustafson grew up in Cloquet and has no idea what he’s doing; Ron Swanson is his spirit animal.