I almost didn’t make it to the Lost Abbey. Some kind of bug knocked me out and was trying to get the better of me. It was egged on by more than 12 hours of traveling from Miami to San Diego and then waking up at 6:30 AM for three days straight to steward the World Beer Cup (WBC). On top of it all it was Passover and I felt guilty for not having phoned or emailed my dad.
I already visited Tomme Arthur and the Lost Abbey a few days earlier on a killer brewpub tour organized by the Craft Brewers Conference. Still satisfied from the Veritas 002, I had no idea that Tomme Arthur, Vinnie Cilurzo, Lorenzo Dabove, Rob Tod, Adam Avery and Sam Calagione would be unveiling their brainchild Isabelle Proximus tonight when I chose--at the very last minute--to throw on some clothes and head over to the Lost Abbey.
Something in my gut, possibly the Mexican goat soup from Super Cocina, told me I should go to the dinner. I trusted the instinct and boarded the beer bus with dozens of other thirsty souls.
While my neighbors sipped on their complementary bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale on the bus, I took a break from beer and reflected on the past five days. With my partner Josh Oakes, I visited over half a dozen San Diego breweries and bars including Lost Abbey, Coronado, Pizza Port Carlsbad, Green Flash, San Diego Brewing Company and Hamilton’s beer bar. All had something to offer but highlights for me included Lost Abbey’s Veritas 002, Coronado’s quaffable Idiot IPA, Green Flash’s 5th Anniversary Double IPA, and the La Folie on tap at San Diego Brewing Company.
Then as a perk of volunteering for the WBC I had access to beers that would never otherwise pass my lips. An oath of silence prohibits me from mentioning their names but we had retired vintage beers as well as new unreleased beers; we had wacky experimental brews and old school ales. In just three days I sampled well over a hundred including a sorghum beer brewed with banana pulp. We stewards have access to almost all the WBC entries, unlike the judges who sip only a few each day from preassigned categories.
Stewards are encouraged to taste the entries after their categories are judged and closed. We work hard, waking up early to set up the samples for the blind testing. We painstakingly label the odor-free plastic cups: checking, double-checking and triple-checking to make sure the beers are labeled correctly and served properly. The affair is as well-managed as a Swiss bank and as casual as Friday morning at the office. We all wear uniforms, but we wear them proudly because we are grateful to be a part of an esteemed community of zymurgists, beer tasters, and industry experts. We serve beer to the world’s top brew masters, beer writers, and brewery owners and at the end of the day we drink. I died and went to heaven this week.
I died again the night of the Lost Abbey dinner. When we arrived at the brewery whose motto "In Brettanomyces We Trust" should be printed on the US dollar, Tomme Arthur joked about a rumor. Isabelle Proximus would be released that night. I saw the barrels. I photographed the dragon labels and I laughed about how the beer got its name from a Belgian telecom company.
What was inside the barrels was brimming with Brett.
In its wooden barrels stacked over my head Isabelle Proximus looked like a beer not brewed for commoners but rather for the likes of those I was serving that week: the brewing world’s elite. It sounded like the beer of my dreams, and I assumed I would not be trying it until it was released to the general public.
A classy affair attended by hundreds of beer geeks looking their best, the Lost Abbey banquet began with some milling about over cheese and Avant Garde. Time to gawk, mingle, and meet people who impact the brewing world including many media mavens from popular beer rags like Celebrator and Draft. We were networking, schmoozing, and returning to the bar to sample the Port/Lost Abbey offerings in anticipation of the five-course dinner.
After a three o-’clock lunch at Super Cocina that included not just goat soup but a rich stew made with seven types of chile, I had no room for the cheese and crackers but I did have more than one glass of Avant Garde. Then sipping on Serpents Stout I crept over to the grill to see what was being cooked. I was promptly accosted by a big bouncer-man on the way over. "Time to sit down!"
At the long, black-clad tables sat over one hundred people: most of them American but many from Europe and beyond. Most of my supper mates were men, but I met many women too. I was lucky enough to sit beside two of them: Tessa, who along with her husband runs Shelton Brothers. They are responsible for bringing Americans many of the beers we cherish most. Across from me sat Dee Dee, one of Allagash’s brewers. Then two seats down from me was Ron Jeffries from Jolly Pumpkin. I told him I wanted to kiss his feet.
With overloaded senses and a bedazzled brain, I exploded with Isabelle Proximus’s cork when the servers distributed the unlabeled green bottles. Her cloudy juices fast filled my glass and glowed in the candle light. I drank from the grail and I had seconds, taking notes between gulps and swoons.
When I arrived at the Lost Abbey I didn’t think I’d eat one course, let alone five, but Isabelle magically made room in my belly for the supper. The first course paired perfectly with the Proximus: divine baby greens with blue cheese and candied walnuts.
Specially labeled bottles of Lost Abbey Holy Water kept us hydrated throughout the meal. With three goblets for each guest, we had one for Holy H2O and two for the beer pairings. Our glasses were never empty.
After the killer salad that shone from Isabelle’s tangy touch we enjoyed egg rolls made with roasted corn, red peppers, and a cilantro maple reduction served with Red Barn. Next a light seafood course arrived: grilled scallop and oyster, and a small bowl of moules. Amazing Grace remained on our table when main course arrived: a duet of rich prime rib and lamb served with immaculate veggies. The dessert course combined aptly-named Older Viscosity with the most luscious pecan-crusted mocha cheesecake that ever graced my tongue.
Here I was, at our Last Supper in San Diego, at a long banquet table draped in black, in a room lit only by candles and surrounded by barrel racks containing alchemical cuvees de Tomme and all around me sat disciples of beer. It was one part medieval fantasy, one part science fiction, one part pure party.
I don’t like religion but in sacred environments I become humble. In the Lost Abbey I felt like I was subsumed by the gods. It was the gods that put that silent voice in my head and heart: "Go to the Lost Abbey tonight." Never mind that leavening agents are the number one no-no for Passover: this was a real Seder: bitter herbs, Brett, and all.
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at our Last Supper in San Diego, at a long banquet table draped in black, in a room lit only by candles and surrounded by barrel racks containing alchemical cuvees de Tomme and all around me sat disciples of beer.