13. Beer, Bars, and Grief: Little Coping Routines

What a love of beer looks like in mourning, plus overcoming obstacles with a logical IPA.

That Time Montauk’s Wave Chaser IPA was a Comfort After Loss

Sometime during the summer of 2017, my mom came around to the idea of me moving my career into beer. I could be cynical and think this was acceptance was flippant, because she was far more interested in and distracted by planning my fall wedding, which was the culmination of her lifelong dreams. A woman who preferred to stay home every Friday night to consume marathons of “Say Yes to the Dress,” there were bigger things to worry about than my interest in craft beer. Like hors d’oeuvres and centerpieces, and what kind of music I was going to ruin my own wedding with (she was forever scarred by the time she threw me a Sweet 16 and I said I had the music “covered,” which meant that I had invited my friends’ grindcore band to play and my entire extended family left.)

I’d started floating the idea of leaving fashion for beer about a year earlier, and Mom did not care for this. Mom loved fashion and shopping and style on a budget. She thought my career was glamorous and exciting. Why would I forsake sitting across from Brooke Shields at Fashion Week for…beer? Mom didn’t drink. Ever. Well, not since she had kids, anyway. Sometimes she had a few sips of champagne at a wedding or on New Year’s Eve; she once tried a watermelon margarita I had at dinner and liked that, and at Christmas one year, she gamely tried my first go at homemade limoncello, shuddered, and said in a voice three times deeper than her own, “That’ll put hair on your chest.” But beer…I think beer still seemed déclassé for someone who stopped paying attention to alcohol in 1985.

Still, over many conversations throughout the next year, as I started dabbling with unpaid or barely paid freelance assignments in beer, Mom started to see how happy it made me, especially versus how miserable fashion was making me. It helped that my brother was getting into craft beer a bit—we all started going to breweries every now and then as a family, and would actually talk about beer as we ordered different brews when out to dinner. So, yeah, somewhere in the midst of picking out a veil and poring over fonts for wedding invitations, my mom made it clear she supported me going into beer, and maybe it wasn’t, like, totally disgusting after all.

I’ll never forget visiting Alementary Brewing in Hackensack, New Jersey at Christmastime in 2017. I got a flight—I don’t remember all the beers, of course, but I know there was an English mild and a Belgian tripel. Like a child hesitantly asking if…could they actually maybe try that broccoli, my mom asked if any of the four beers were something she might like. And like a parent facing the prospect that their kid might actually start eating a goddamned vegetable, I cried, “yes!” I handed her the English mild, which was a rookie move. I was only thinking about ABV and sessionability instead of flavor. “Oh, yuck,” was the reaction. After sipping the rest of them, it was the Belgian tripel, of all things. She loved it. “Now, so, what’s the alcohol in this?” I told her whatever it was, which would have been in the 9% ballpark. “Oh my God, I must be drunk!”

That was the first time I ever actually drank beer with Mom. And it was the last. I saw her a few more times after the holidays for different things that didn’t include beer, and then on February 7, 2018, she died unexpectedly.

Our lease was up that month and we’d already signed the lease on a new apartment, so I had to go through the absurd-seeming motions of packing up knick-knacks and hot sauces and books, too many books, even though my world had been turned upside down. We moved into an apartment that somehow still feels weird because it’s my first that Mom has never been inside. And for the first time, we moved to a neighborhood I didn’t know like the back of my hand. I’d only been to South Slope a few times, once to visit Green-Wood Cemetery, and a couple to visit two of my closest friends, who happened to be sisters and who had recently moved to the area.

This newness was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it was sometimes a distraction to wander and explore, and because I had no memories of doing anything my mom here. A curse because the unfamiliarity often fed into the emptiness and searing loneliness.

I didn’t have the luxury of not working beyond the week after my mom’s death, as most of us don’t, but I did have the ability to step away from all the work that required an ounce of creativity, because mine had vacated the premises. I held onto a steady gig writing e-commerce product descriptions, something so boring you could try to spin it as meditative, which afforded me survival and also left me with lots and lots of time on my hands. I developed two new habits: Montauk’s Wave Chaser IPA, and a rotation of Freddy’s, South, and The Owl Farm, three nearby bars.

I do have a complicated little mess of feelings regarding this time. It was the first time I really engaged in emotion-based drinking. Before, I had never been the, “Whew, that was a day, I need a drink type. But suddenly, I did feel…not compelled to drink, per se, but I wanted to and I definitely felt the razor-sharp edges of never-ending pain a little bit less. I was angry at everything all the time and my response to the suggestion that maybe I shouldn’t deal with that with a few beers was a hearty, if silent, fuck you. But you know, that’s grief. It’s wild and torturous and suffocating. I’m not promoting developing even a temporary drinking habit, but it happened, and I got past it. You do what you need to do to survive grief.

Montauk’s Wave Chaser IPA became a security blanket. There was a bodega the size of a walk-in closet on the corner, and they managed to cram in a decent craft beer selection. The Wave Chaser struck a balance I needed: it packed enough of an extreme hop punch to steal my senses’ focus, but it was clean and crushable—I’m confident you can’t grief-pound triple hazies. I took to hitting the bodega every few days and then becoming one with my Target chaise lounge while letting episodes of “Nashville” wash over me.

When my friends, the sisters, got off work early enough, the three of us would haunt Freddy’s and its neighbor, South. Neither had a fantastic beer selection but both did the trick: they were divey but delightfully weird, welcoming, and dark enough to feel a little boost of anonymity that helped whenever I burst into tears. Freddy’s had pierogies and South had Twizzlers.

One of my friends, though, soon moved back upstate, which left me with even a little more time. This is when I started pushing myself to venture out alone, just to get out of the house. I needed a reason to get dressed and put some distance between myself and Connie Britton. At The Owl Farm, I’d set up camp with my pug and a book, and was so happy to feel genuinely distracted by the beer menu and chatting about it with the bartender. The Owl Farm, too, was cozy and lovely and unassuming, and also dark enough for crying. (I know most bars are, like, kinda dark, as a rule…but I’m just realizing that my neighborhood bars are extra dark even on the bar scale. Not mad about it.)

Sometimes, I’d feel guilty about so much of my coping centering around an IPA at home and a revolving trio of bars when my mom was really not about the whole drinking thing. This wouldn’t be how she’d want me to get by right now, I’d tell myself. But it all helped, to be honest—it numbed the pain sometimes, distracted me other times. And after a few months, I started moving into the next stages of grief, which involved just as much pain but a healthier balance and relationship with beer and bars. The Owl Farm is really the only part of that routine that has remained a staple for me, though now for happier occasions or just afternoons I want to get out of the house to work. For some reason, Freddy’s, South, and that Wave Chaser IPA all seem frozen in time to me, relics from the darkest phase of my mourning. I’m grateful to them, but don’t feel any excitement about interacting with them.

Why am I writing about this? Well, for one thing, I think a lot about the way we interact with beer and bars; it’s the very impetus for this newsletter. Beer is about so much more than whale flexes on Instagram—if it’s something you love and/or work with, it collides with other parts of your life and who you are. The way beer and grief danced with each other in my experience always kind of stood out for that reason.

For another, this time makes me think of two things: a judgment-free zone, and bars feeling welcome to all. For those few months, I didn’t give much of a hoot about chasing certain beers down or making sure I tried new things. I did sometimes incidentally, but it was exactly nowhere on my list of priorities. Again, the Wave Chaser brought comfort in its familiarity. Sometimes that’s what we need and if you take beer so seriously that you’re going to give someone shit over that, you’re doing life wrong. It’s beer. And for bars feeling safe and welcome, well, I’ve written about this before. There are about a million reasons we need bars and taprooms to be not only safe but inviting to anyone who might like to visit on their own, but today, I’m thinking in particular about people who need that bit of comfort during a tough time.

Beer Tarot!

This week, I pulled the Two of Pentacles, aka the Two of Coins.

Pentacles are the suit of earth, speaking to property, money, and achievement; the Two of Pentacles in particular speaks to negotiation.

This card deals with balance and compromise. It could mean you are juggling responsibilities or time commitments, and/or juggling to keep up financially. It could mean you are weighing two major paths before you make a decision, or that you are trying to come to some terms of agreement with someone else, and the key to doing either of those with some peace is to be willing to compromise wherever you comfortably and happily can. Practicality and logic might be dullsville, but they’re necessary for negotiating here.

The beer that immediately popped into my head for this card is Logical Conclusion from Threes Brewing. The name of this hazy IPA says it all—in whatever you’re going through right now, you’re aiming to reach a logical conclusion. Even the artwork, a balanced sort of yin and yang of a thumbs up and a thumbs down, is right on brand for compromise and negotiation.

This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec

This one’s about wine, but it was such a joy to read. I never knew this aspect of Germany’s wine scene existed, but loved learning about it and am now dying to make this a part of my next overseas trip. Kat Barber’s To Sweep Aside Drinking Regulations, Germans Hang Up Broomsticks for Atlas Obscura transports you to southern Germany, where 16 weeks out of the year, local winemakers open up their homes and invite guests in to enjoy their creations along with home-cooked fare. It’s such a special, time-honored tradition that takes the community aspect we think about when we think about beer or wine to a whole new level.

Until next week, here is Darby with Equilibrium Brewing’s South Street, a stellar foeder-aged pilsner, at The Vinyl Room in Beacon.