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The Bitter Brewer

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Note: The following draft is a fictionalized backstory inspired by a beer that I’m drinking. Starting today, each day for the National Novel Writing Month challenge I’ll attempt to write another chapter in a novel based off the real-life stories of a beer and brewery. Have a beer you’d like to nominate me to drink/write about? Let me know in the comments.

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Betrayed and wronged in everything;
I’ll flee this bitter world where vice in king
And seek some part unpeopled and apart 
Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart
– The Misanthrope

Bitter is an acquired taste. It takes time, patience and work.

You may hate something the first time you’re exposed to it. It’s probably not something you enjoy the second time you experience it either, or even the third or fourth time.

At some point, if you stick with something long enough, you go from active dislike to something gradually like enjoyment. It’s an almost imperceptible shift that starts with tolerance and goes on a journey that ends in being part of your identity.

It’s strange how you would enjoy something that initially you actively can’t stand. But think of how many things that applies to in life.

Consider coffee. Try to remember the first time you tried it. Did you fill it with cream and sugar? Did you try to make it more palatable? Did it still taste awful to you?

You may have tried a few sips then dumped the rest down the drain.

But now you probably can’t even recall any negative emotions associated with it. That part of your brain has been replaced with the aroma, the jolt of caffeine that hits you, and the positive feelings that go along with your morning ritual.

You probably drink it black now. You couldn’t not enjoy coffee now if you tried, just like you couldn’t appreciate it when you tasted its first acidic sip.

There seems to be an inverse pleasure relationship between bitter and its opposite, sweet.

The first time you eat or drink something sweet, it’s all you ever want. But it doesn’t take long to overindulge and wear out your sugary sensory receptors. It tastes good, and then there is a quick drop off in pleasure.

It’s just the reverse for something bitter. There is a long term payoff once you get past the initial shock. Over time you get to appreciate the subtle flavors and undertones that tickle your taste buds behind the bitterness.

What is it about us that could cause this transformation?

One possible explanation could be our deep seeded desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. Our minds don’t like it when one part of our brain is telling us one thing, but we’re seeing ourselves take a different action.

If we continue to seek out bitterness, even if it is at first unpleasant, our minds tell ourselves the story that we must actually really like it. It overrides our rational part of our brain because we have to make sense of what seems illogical.

In this way we start to love what we hate.

That attitude could perfectly describe Todd. Everyone knows him as the Bitter Brewer. He doesn’t mind this designation one bit. In fact, he embraces it.

Todd doesn’t think of bitter as a negative thing, even though it often has that connotation. Some of his favorite things in life have a hard bitter edge. To him, that’s what makes something real. He can’t stand the sweet, saccharine flavors that seem too artificial and manufactured.

It’s true that he has what could be described as a bitter personality. He has a sardonic sense of humor, and you often can’t tell if he’s joking or note.

He has a soft spot for cats with the juxtaposition of their cuteness and purring with their complete uncaring attitude and lack of regard toward the humans that they allow to cohabitate with them. His favorite Onion headline is “Kitten thinks about nothing but murder all day,” and often wears a shirt that says “My cat listens to metal.”

Just like his cat, he listens non-stop to black metal and speed metal music. The more jarring and atonal, the better. He even plays a bit of guitar himself, practicing the murky and heavy riffs on covers of bands like Skeletonwitch, Pentagram and Venom. The discordant and minor key is the only type of sounds that make sense to him.

Then there is the infamous weather of Minnesota, where Todd lives and works for Surly Brewing. The winter months can be unbearable, especially when the Polar Vortex hit last year. There was a stretch of days when the thermometer never rose above zero. The windchill approached 40 below zero.

But even though that weather was undeniably miserable, it was also memorable. Who remembers a day when it’s 70 degrees and sunny? Sure, it’s pleasant while it happens, but it eventually fades into the background, indistinguishable from the rest of the nondescript days like it.

But when you can throw a pot of boiling water in the air and it freezes before it hits the ground? Todd, who is a veteran of the Polar Plunge, recorded himself doing just that and posted it on YouTube. You could see the ice crystals collecting in his long, unruly beard.

Man, who can forget that? Those are the moments you look back on and remember for your life.

Of course, the biggest reason Todd is known as the bitter brewer was because of the style of beer he likes to brew and drink.

One of the beers he helped produce is called The Misanthrope, which is named after a 17th-century dark comedy that satirizes the hypocrisies of the French aristocracy. It’s the bitter comedy that allows for the humor to make such a deep impression. It’s the same with the beer. The Belgian-style saison has tropical fruit flavors that are “wrapped in an oaky horse blanket and, you know, other stuff,” according the label’s description.

“It is best served cool and enjoyed alone or with a tolerated companion,” the beer label states.

But most of all, Todd is known for his Pale Ales, IPAs, and his signature Bitter Brewer, named after the English style of session beer. The ale has intense toast and marmalade character from British malt married with the bite of American hops. The can carried his visage along with a description of his personality.

It was one of Todd’s proudest achievements.

But the issue with bitterness is you often have to crank up the intensity to continue to appreciate it. That’s why pale ale drinkers go to IPAs to imperial IPAs to hop bombs that will peel the enamel off your teeth. The stakes keep getting higher.

And that was the case with Todd.

Lately, it seemed to him that had gotten too familiar with his bitterness. He had to do something to get outside of his comfort zone. He just wasn’t sure what that entailed.

Should he brew a new style of beer? Something extreme? Should he take an adventure vacation? A road trip?

Todd wasn’t sure what it would entail, he just had to do something.

He had no idea just how far that would take him.



Tim Cigelske is DRAFT's Beer Runner. (Beer Run•ner [noun]: Someone equally devoted to fine beer appreciation and an active, healthy lifestyle. Ex. "John downed four microbrews at the triathlon finish line. He's a total beer runner.”) Follow Tim on Twitter @TheBeerRunner, and email him at beerrunner [at] draftmag.com.


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