Deep into my first craft beer festival, I played peacemaker

by DGO Web Administrator

What follows is an account of the first beer festival I ever attended, the Brass City Brew Fest in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 2008, with a friend I’ll call “Benny.” Oh how far we’ve come.I waited four minutes in Benny’s driveway before he emerged to his front porch and down the stairs to the driveway. His hair was wet and he lacked the decency of shoes or socks. We were on our way to a beer festival, surprising since Benny was a recovering alcoholic and I’d never had more than three beers in public.

“There’s no way he’s getting in my car without shoes,” I muttered, recognizing the fact that anyone’s bare feet were not welcome in my car before a beer festival, much less after one. He veered toward his car, popped the trunk and retrieved a pair of retro running sneakers.

Benny was six years older but we’d somehow arrived at the same place in our lives: both married (he’s still going strong; I’m not) and in our respective careers for roughly the same amounts of time. While the five preceding years had been similar for us, the first 25 were not. At 22, I’d been married for two years and drove a four-door sedan. Benny had tested brass knuckles on people’s jaws. I’d taken the easy, safe, predictable path. Benny was lucky to be alive.

At the festival, 15 minutes before the scheduled start, we joined a line 60 deep, and when the gates opened, event staffers checked IDs and provided us with a red wristband.

Once inside the festival, hundreds of craft brew taps were dripping with nervous perspiring tension. Before I could put away my first four ounces, I noticed not one but two men standing alone already staring blankly at the grass a few yards ahead of them (except when a woman – any woman – passed, and then their eyes would shift vaguely in that general direction).

Being set free in this mess of unpredictability made me uneasy. But if I could have picked anyone to be standing by, to have my back if things got nuts, it was Benny. Below the surface of normalcy, Benny was a crazy bastard, his hooligan’s mentality looming beneath a steady teaching job and homeownership. He was the kind of guy who concealed a tactical knife behind his belt “just in case,” and through his martial arts training knew how to inflict injury so that even the burliest opponent would weep in submission.

Not far into our beer sampling, I began to notice the space around us shrinking. Eighteen-foot swaths of grass were now cut in half. The volume of the conversations around us started to compete with the blasting live music. Like a crowded bar, everyone was shouting because everyone was shouting.

Getting a closer look at the beer festival crowd, I couldn’t help but dwell on the disappointing classlessness of our beer-drinking brethren. I had expected a bunch of Rocky Mountain-minded, upper-middle class ski-bums-turned-businessmen-but-still-somewhat-subversive wearing fleece vests and Chacos, which, in my mind, was what a craft beer connoisseur looked like. Perhaps my first mistake was that the festival would be full of craft beer connoisseurs. Instead, it was a lot of dudes three years on the wrong side of dropping out of college.

Benny drained his glass then said, “Let’s do this.” We returned to the tents and each chose the same, a toasted lager. I took a sip of mine then squinted into the distance trying to pick apart its flavor.

“It almost has a nuttiness to it.”

“Are you [bleeping] kidding me? It almost has a nuttiness to it. Shit, this guy,” Benny complained to no one in particular.

I pleaded my case. “Can you not taste the nuttiness?”

Benny whipped the remaining drops of his nutty toasted lager onto the ground and headed back inside the tent before I could discuss the beer’s qualities any further.

By 3 p.m., normal people who arrived in groups were now standing by themselves, blankly eyeing passers-by, regardless of gender. And more and more people began to use their friends to brace themselves as they walked from tent to tent.

Around 4 p.m., still an hour from the scheduled end, I noticed the activity of two bros who had staked out a patch of grass about 15 feet away. The dudes, both in their mid-20s, began pushing and jostling one another in what appeared to be bubbling alcohol-induced aggression.

If sober, they would be participating in the most macho of courtship dances, each jab, each push, each point of connection a step closer to climax, to closing the suppressed homoerotic distance between them. Bored with their aggressive flirtation, they decided to start pushing one another into innocent festival-goers to see what happened. Most people simply said “Oh, sorry” or “My bad.” What these two were hoping for, of course, was for someone to not understand, to take exception to being bumped.

If I were a different kind of person, I would have casually made my way over to the two gentlemen, winked at the cop stationed a few yards away and told them simply to knock it off. And if need be, I would have been willing to bust some heads before someone else had to. But of course, I stood by innocently, safely avoiding eye contact with anyone for fear that my look might be taken as challenging. Seeing these two looking for a fight and assuming they were not alone, I dried my beer glass with my shirt and put it in my breast pocket. Taps were open for another hour, but I sensed I might need to be the sanity at some point.

By 4:15, I met up with Benny. His eyes had dropped a bit. He looked tired and sluggish but moody, not unlike most of the people still milling about. My goal became getting Benny out of the festival without incident. Some of those passing appeared to be in advanced shambles, having found ever new ways to contort their faces, their lips curling halfway around their faces to create permanent snarls. The few vendors still serving had lines out the tent.

Noticing this, Benny said, “It’s not about the beer anymore, it’s about the alcohol.”

We made one more trip into the tent. As we pushed through a crowded tent, Benny crossed paths with the rowdy guys I’d witnessed before and was suddenly nose to nose and shouting with one of them.

“Seriously? Seriously?” Benny yelled in his face. “You seriously want to do this?”

In theory, there was nothing I’d have liked to see more at that moment than for Benny and the guy to “do this,” thinking back to Benny’s brass-knuckle-themed tales and his brawls-at-the park stories.

Because of whatever reasons – smallness and insecurity – the guy and his buddy needed to turn a peaceful day in the park into something that made better sense to them. Because of that, Benny was ready to turn this guy’s face into abstract expressionism, and I couldn’t wait to watch. For all the times I’d stood by and done the safe, non-confrontational thing, I wanted Benny to push this guy’s face into the beer-soaked grass until he trembled in panic for lack of oxygen.

And then something in me took over. “All rright. OK, we’re all friends here. We’re all just having fun,” I said calmly but firmly, grabbing Benny by the shoulder and pushing him along.

“I should’ve smacked that bitch in the head,” Benny said, half smiling. “I could have just grabbed that guy’s ear and twisted it. Just twisted it.”

Benny stopped at the port-o-can before we left . On the way to the car, we hit a nearly-empty pizza joint. As we sipped waters and nibbled pizza, Benny mentioned how during his final trip to the port-o-can, following his dust up, he found himself standing next to the guy he’d been nose to nose with minutes earlier. This time, Benny didn’t have a friend to push him along and the other guy didn’t have anyone to get his back.

“I said, ‘How do you feel about being over here just me and you? What with you being a little [bleep]er and all …?’” Benny said.

“And what did he do?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

Safe inside an empty restaurant, protected by the water in our glasses, I said, “Man, I wish you would have twisted that guy’s ear. Just twisted it.”

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