Gut Instinct: An Eight-Hour Tour

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Everyone is so thirsty!

I awoke from the nightmare, my heart somersaulting, my bladder threatening to spill like an oil tanker: Damn, I thought, why did I agree to be a tour guide?

I blame the good, fine folks behind New York Craft Beer Week—Josh Schaffner and Mark Foggin—who contacted me with an offer I should’ve refused: “Want to lead a tour?” Foggin asked. “You’re a beer and bar expert.”

Expert? Sure, if you consider an expert’s credentials to be awaking with stoner eyes, a swollen liver and a headache like a construction site. However, the same skill set that made me an “expert”—namely, opening my mouth and swallowing a solid portion of my net income—branded me a poor tour guide. I’d require organizational acumen. A cheery demeanor. And the ability to shepherd drunkards across New York.While staying sober.

“I’ll do it,” I croaked, as I’m a bona fide fan of the bad idea. Eat potentially poisonous fugu at Sushi Zen? Pile it on! Drink 150-proof rum and milk at Imperial Biker? Bottoms up! Lead a survey of Brooklyn’s homebrewing scene? It seemed like an Einstein notion. As a functioning drunk journalist—is there any other kind?—I meet myriad beer-world movers and shakers, from bartenders to saloon owners to homebrewers.The latter is as difficult an urban hobby as beekeeping.

For New York brewers, passion trumps common sense. Our metropolis’ ant-size apartments mean there’s little space to brew, much less store fermenting suds or grain, a commodity in short supply locally. Nowadays, several local outfits (like Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Homebrew and Brooklyn Brew Shop, stationed at Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Flea market) have started selling fermentables. Getting fully stocked, however, often entails expensive online ordering and pseudo-shady dealings. “We met some fellow brewers in an online forum, and we all went in together on a giant grain shipment,” homebrewer Josh Fields told me. “We met up and divvied up a couple thousand pounds of grains—it felt like a drug deal.”

But the flavorful, carbonated results make the endeavor worthwhile—or, at least, permit brewers to get tipsy enough to forget the irksome rigmarole.

I initially thought my tour would appeal to five or 10 die-hard beer lovers. Then the RSVPs started flooding in, as fast as a hurricane’s rising tide. By the day of, 25 beer aficionados were congregated in front of the tour’s first home in Bay Ridge.“Nice sign,” my friend Aaron said, snickering. I enlisted him to keep me calm on my first foray as a guide. Instead I got mocked. He pointed to my ripped cardboard placard reading homebrew, like something a beer-lusting hobo would scrawl.

“You are not creating my moment of Zen,” I told him, leading the posse into the awaiting apartment like a mother duck. The first moments were met with deafening silence, like everyone was on a collective first date. Someone coughed. Feet shuffled. It felt like a convention for the socially inept. “Who wants to try their first beer today?” asked the Mike, the tattooed homebrew host. Attendees proffered their plastic cups, like tongues awaiting communion.The collective sips of prickly, sweet Belgian ale soothed nerves, unknotted shoulders.This was beer. Beer was fun.

“To the trains,” I commanded the crowd, after we’d exhausted Mike’s suds. What’s more difficult than brewing beer in New York? Herding 25 beer drinkers to the subway. At each homebrew stop, from Bay Ridge to Carroll Gardens to Williamsburg—four in all, with a dozen-plus beers total—attendees’ boisterousness increased exponentially. I developed a newfound respect for teachers taking students on field trips.

“Maybe I should just pee between the train cars,” one crossed-legs attendee told me, as the G train hurtled us across Brooklyn.

“Maybe you should wait till the next stop,” I suggested, kicking myself for omitting a waiver. In case of alcohol-influenced calamity, I will not sue the pants off Joshua M. Bernstein.

But disaster was averted as the tour lurched to a close. By the time we reached the Williamsburg stop, a woodworking loft filled with sharp, pointy objects, the attendees were kicked. Eyelids sagged, words slurred—in this alternate universe, the signs of a successful afternoon.

“When’s the next tour?” asked a rosycheeked attendee, glugging her last glass of hoppy ale.

I pondered my imploding journalism profession, my desire for a fallback career not including the question, “Would you like fries with that?” “Not soon enough,” I said, filling a cup with my foamy, flavorful future.