40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Nine: The radicalization of F.O.S.S.I.L.S. (1990-91)

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The short-lived Falls Fountain in the Ohio River, a gift of media mogul Barry Bingham Sr.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Eight: The founding of F.O.S.S.I.L.S. in 1990.

“You’re quite the polemicist. Have I told you why your Red Room made such an impression on me?” — Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson, speaking with me in 2000 at the Great American Beer Festival

Here’s a quick overview of how my life changed completely in fewer than 1,000 days.

In early winter of 1989 I returned from Europe and observed from afar the collapse of the East Bloc, then began working on and off at Sportstime Pizza. The Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (F.O.S.S.I.L.S.) came into existence in September of 1990, holding its meetings in the space that would become Rich O’s Public House, though not until the summer of 1992, after I’d returned from a six-month stint teaching conversational English in formerly communist Czechoslovakia.

That’s somewhere around 950 days, setting the stage for a decade or more to follow. In this installment of the “40 Years in Beer” narrative, the story of F.O.S.S.I.L.S. continues from late 1990 through the summer of 1991, when I passed the newsletter to Barry Sears and again departed for Europe.

Jackson’s use of the word “polemicist” made me blush at the time, but erudition never goes out of fashion, and by 2000 he’d been receiving Walking the Dog newsletters, mailed to him in London, ever since visiting the Public House in 1994 (be assured that these stories will be told in due course).

Consequently, who am I to argue with his assessment, even if the word had never occurred to me?

Polemic is contentious rhetoric intended to support a specific position by forthright claims and to undermine the opposing position. The practice of such argumentation is called polemics, which are seen in arguments on controversial topics. A person who writes polemics, or speaks polemically, is called a polemicist. — Wikipedia

The newsletter passages from 1990-1991 quoted below make it clear that whatever the extent or proficiency of my personal polemical style, it began to emerge like Frankenstein’s monster during Year One of F.O.S.S.I.L.S. In turn, I believe Walking the Dog taken as a whole vindicates one of the most influential academic choices I ever made, which was to take a college course in expository writing at Indiana University Southeast.

This class in 1980 was offered on Saturday morning simultaneously at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels; consequently, one of my classmates was my high school college prep English and literature teacher, the late Bob Youngblood.

We read 17th- and 18th-century essays from the likes of Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift, and discussed ways to effectively improve the advancement of one’s case. An epiphany soon followed, as I realized that my abilities as a writer emphatically did not embrace fiction and poetry, but reflected a greater degree of skill at explaining, describing, satirizing and making arguments.

Henceforth I fell under the sway of H.L. Mencken, Hunter S. Thompson, Jeffrey Bernard and the authoritative tone of The Economist’s amazing anonymous columnists. These diverse mentors combined with what I’d learned after ten years in the beer business to produce a purposeful editorial policy for Walking the Dog: I knew what I was for and against; what was to be favored, and what needed to be opposed.

Given that the semi-official mantra of homebrewing at the time was Charlie Papazian’s useful but limited “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” and much of what I espoused with respect to the revolution against mass-market beer had little to do with homebrewing (that’s why F.O.S.S.I.L.S. referred to itself as a “beer appreciation” club, too), my polemics in WTD proved highly controversial.

But being different never bothered me much. Advocating for an extreme position was necessary to swing the inevitable compromise in one’s own direction.

As a reminder, F.O.S.S.I.L.S. was founded in September, 1990. Now we pick up the club’s history later that same autumn and winter. The words that follow were written in 1995 in the form of a cheeky retrospective, so to be honest, I’m looking back at looking back. Editing has been very light; commentary, updates and notes are indicated by red italics. 

My first-ever, anti-swill ranting appeared in WTD #2. It is worth noting that my interest in refuting America’s liteweight, light beer obsession didn’t begin with FOSSILS. Rather, the inspiration for this still-evolving position dated to 1985, and the pages of the immediate forerunner to the Dog.

(I considered expunging this section, as the reference to L.I.D.S. strikes me today as monumentally tasteless, tone deaf and a joke too far. However, we must take the bad with the good. Mistakes are how we learn, after all.)   

In a 1987 issue of The Weekly Wad (10/17/87), which my collaborator Byron Foster and I published at sporadic intervals, a feature referred to the scourge of L.I.D.S. — Lite-Induced Deficiency Syndrome, a disease of the palate that we were committed to reversing by encouraging the consumption of full-flavored beer:

Unlike many diseases, L.I.D.S.(Lite-Induced Deficiency Syndrome) can be cured. Doctors say that the first and most important step in treating L.I.D.S. is the daily consumption of beer rich in calories, alcohol and real beer flavor.

There’s no better place to begin than Plzen, Czechoslovakia, and the world’s best- known, most effective deterrent to L.I.D.S.: Pilsner Urquell.

Brought to you as a public service by the Weekly Wad, Real Beer Drinkers of America, Drunks Against Mad Mothers and the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, Plzen.

To be sure, “full-flavored” at the time included Bud as opposed to Bud Light, and our grasp of beer styles hadn’t expanded beyond the familiar pilsner with which we were accustomed. It would take several more years (after 1987) for the position to become fully realized. Yet the die had been cast by the inference that light beers were perversions of the true beer drinking ideal.

At some point I came to the conclusion that this doctrine needed to be taken to its logical conclusion, and this was expressed in the second issue of WTD:

Recent statistics confirm America’s position as the top volume brewing nation in the world … Anheuser- Busch spills more beer each day than entire countries brew in a year, but more importantly, A-B spills sacks of cash to promote its line of beers, as do the other major American brewers. This reliance on advertising is the first clue to the decadence of the industry.

… Only a handful of America’s mainstream beers are of any merit compared to the great beers of the world. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I hereby dedicate my life to the proposition that America’s Miller Lite culture is nothing less than an abomination, a crazed and shameless perversion of all that good beer stands for and can be. Satisfying, complex and distinctive, good beer has a story to tell. It glows with natural and historical symbolism, urging camaraderie and a joyful appreciation of life’s fundamental diversity. American mainstream beer, on the other hand, speaks to little else except the business page, though it serves as useful sociological commentary on the nature of mass delusions. American beer is a commodity to be bought and sold, a substance so bland that it can be peddled to practically everyone, particularly those who swear by magazines like “Prevention” or to those for whom fashionable TV ads for Coors constitute the epitome of intellectual discourse.

There will be many, ranging from strident teetotalers to calorie-conscious weekend warriors, who will be irritated by my stance on patriotic grounds, from force of habit or through plain ignorance. They’ll pound another six-pack of Lite, safely avoiding the challenge posed by complexity and character, and remain in the realm of the mundane. Those of us who know better are tired of being charitable, tired of “choices” that include two light beers and Old Swillwaukee, and tired of abetting the dream world wherein Lite can be billed a “fine pilsener beer.”

… Our lives are far too short to remain forever mired in America’s stunted mainstream beer culture, where ad men sip their light, draft, dry, aluminum-clad beverages and count their money. Let’s aspire to a global perspective, ascend the heights, and savor the best that beer can be.

Founding FOSSIL father Mark Francis hosted the next gathering on November 25, 1990. While it may have been the mead at the earlier meeting that prompted his generosity, his spirit of volunteerism has survived to the present day: four Christmas parties, three Oktoberfests and the little-known fact that as of September, 1995, Mark has never missed a FOSSILS meeting (1).

We’re beginning to see early signs of genius in the brewing Fossils. Those who made it to Mark’s place on November 25 were treated to the inaugural efforts of Lee (Cotner) and Bob (Gunn), to Denny’s (Barry) latest (provided by messenger boy in his absence), and to Jeff’s (Price) second. We even scoured the fridge for the year-old, last remaining bottle of the batch brewed by Mark and Tim Moberly …(To help with analysis) David Pierce was in attendance, accompanied by fellow LAGER Bob Capshew … there was unanimous praise for Denny’s contribution. Congratulations to the intrepid homebrewers of FOSSILS. Just think how much has been accomplished in the few short months since your efforts began.

Special recognition to our host, Mark, who proved his devotion to the scientific spirit of investigation by calling in sick with a mead-induced hangover on Monday.

“Barring” unexpected changes, the next FOSSILS meeting will be December 29 at Mr. Ottersbach’s residence … this will be our pseudo-Christmas party (please don’t deluge me with gifts) … A keg of Guinness is expected (2) … bring a side dish or appetizer. Barrie will provide the main course, and for those of you who haven’t sampled Ottersbach cuisine, certain pleasure awaits.

FOSSILS JOIN AHA

Our youthful organization is being registered withthe American Homebrewers Association, thanks to paperwork provided by David Pierce … in my capacity as P-F-L, I have chosen Mr. Ottersbach to be the recipient of (our complimentary copy of zymurgy), since Barrie’s address should be permanent unless Beth (Ottersbach) loses her job.
(WTD #3, December 1990)

A revised roster listed 14 names, with titles/jobs including Royal Court Taster (Rick Lang), Spillage Coordinator (Mark Francis) and Historian and Director of Pondering (Don Barry).

“Ara (r-f) at”: The Inaugural FOSSILS Christmas Party.

In the aftermath of the “pseudo-Christmas party” on the 29th (of December, 1990), I barely was able to describe the mayhem, so I didn’t really try. It turned out to be the first FOSSILS epic production, and was summarized in WTD#4 (January, 1991):

FOR STRENGTH, VITALITY & OTHER ATTRIBUTES TOO MANY TO DESCRIBE. CASUALTIES REPORTED THROUGHOUT THE DAY ON THE 30th.

On Sunday, Dec. 30, 1990 I awoke to find my liver in its personalized jar atop the end table. He swam about in a state of agitation, alternating a chant of “Arafat! Arafat!” with endless choruses of the “Hallelujah Chorus” (3); finally, in response to my pained and puzzled expression, my liver looked at me sharply, sucked in his gut and said “mmmmyyy goodness, my Guinness.”

It was only then that I remembered where I had been the night before: Ottersbach residence… bouncing baby keg … wild women refusing to yield the brandy – – the FOSSIL holibash.

Like other great parties of the past, our blowout on the 29th defies any brief description, yet we can be sure that in the years to come any gaps in our memory will be amply filled by tall, colorful recollections of the evening, especially if Barrie is telling the story. Brain cells were sacrificed, but it will be impossible to forget the great themes of the day: Guinness, Handel, Ara (r-f) at, Irish drinking, Doc Barry’s inspiring lecture, great food, glow-in-the-dark “art” and offensive, unidentifiable mounds and rivulets in Barrie’s driveway and the Viewpointe parking lot.

FOSSILness is a state of mind, grace and degenerative liver problems.

Meanwhile … 

I was still working at Scoreboard Liquors, and we devoted a Sunday afternoon to inventory our stock and calculate the sum, based on a proof-gallon formula, that we would have to pay to account for the excise tax increase of January 1, 1991. After having done so, prices were raised accordingly. It wasn’t the first time that the role of the government in the drinking lives of its constituents had been discussed by the FOSSILS; after all, the topic of prohibitionism in its varying forms remains the eternal “Exhibit A” in such debates.

However, the question of taxation prompted thoughts running in more than one direction, one of which was the reaction of the megabrewers. In short, who should be speaking on behalf of beer in the battles to come? Should it be those huge brewers who have done the most to lower the common denominator of their product to such an extent that reasonable arguments in defense of beer (for instance, it is a food, not just a taxable item to be controlled by the federal government along with firearms and tobacco) are rendered meaningless by their typically cynical marketing campaigns for malt liquor?

Should it be a lobby group like Beer Drinkers of America (4), who accepts the bulk of its financing from those same major breweries? We would learn more about BDA in the coming years.

Or should it be those who have learned exactly what beer can be?

OFFICIAL TEXT OF THE P-F-L’s STATEMENT ON THE BEER TAX INCREASE

By now all drinkers have felt the affectionate governmental squeeze of the January 1, 1991 excise tax increase on alcoholic beverages.

Beer drinkers will rage for months to come at what they perceive as unfairness on the part of a corrupt and incompetent federal government, and justifiably so, since America’s political culture is at a low ebb in terms of ability and leadership. However, it must be noted that the Joseph Q. Sixpacks who are complaining most bitterly that their sixes of Old Swillwaukee Ultra Light cost too much probably have done little to participate in the political process …

America’s mainstream mega-brewers lobbied mightily to limit the extent of the excise tax increase, and in some respects they succeeded, (but) despite this modest victory, 1991 will not be a good year for the big boys. Beer sales have been flat for several years, and now a potentially devastating combination of higher taxes, still-snarling Mad Mothers and an alleged social trend toward better personal health (understood to imply less drinking) conspires to wreak havoc in the chart-strewn, marketer-infested corporate boardrooms of the brewing monoliths.

All of which suits me fine, because they deserve it. While we’re at it, maybe we can toss a few more ad men on the fire and settle back to enjoy a rich and satisfying, albeit more costly, Salvator Doppelbock, for if there is anything more decadent and shameless than America’s political culture, it is our mainstream beer culture as defined by the giant corporate beer producers and their criminal cohorts at “Advertising Age” and “Business Week.”

The history of civilization records no deliberate act of sacrilege or desecration that approaches the blasphemy of America’s brewing conglomerates during the past quarter-century as they have set out to systematically dismantle the worthiness of their products and to entirely discredit the notion of beer as something special, as a liquid worthy of reverence, joy and discovery.

Only in America can a watery, odorless, tasteless, adjunct-choked substance be put into a can bearing the libelous words “A Fine Pilsener Beer,” and only in America will millions drink this most horrid of swills and harbor the ridiculous delusion that Lite is beer.

… Maybe some drinkers will respond to the latest price hikes by eschewing the six-pack mentality and adjusting to the pleasing reality that one Guinness in hand is worth any number of Busch Light Draft Malt Drys.

The time for the revolution draws ever nearer. 

Drinking into Spring, 1991.

In the latest LAGERS newsletter, David Pierce describes FOSSILS as a “local beer appreciation and brewing society.” As for the latter, the homebrew thus far has been nothing short of amazing, particularly for those laggards (like me) who have made no effort to brew. Naturally, and in keeping with our founding principles, there are no obligations or expectations on the part of any Fossil, but if there is any one idea that represents a common currency among us, it is a shared belief in the greatness of beer.

In terms of beer appreciation, we have traveled a long, arduous road, one littered with literally thousands of empty cans and bottles dating back to our first sly sip from dad’s Sterling. Now many of us have arrived at what can only be described as a point of no turning back; having glimpsed in various ways the wonderful and diverse properties of real, authentic beer, we’re drinking the best the world has to offer and we are brewing our own to a standard that exceeds the blandness so common in the beer culture of America.

… Each individual’s attitude toward this topic will vary, and as Americans each of us (might) consume swill when confronted with a social situation that lacks other options, especially if we are in search of intoxication.

But in the end, a Fossil knows better, and this knowledge must be an integral part of his or her drinking strategy from now on.

P-F-L’s PAGE: A FEW THOUGHTS BEFORE WE MEET AGAIN

It is a reflection of my growing interest in the” beer appreciation” aspect of FOSSILS that my thoughts have turned to providing more structure to our gatherings … (as) each Fossil, at one point or another, has suggested that it might be educational to devote the pre-debauchery portion of our monthly meeting to a topic or subject related to beer.

Consider the following ideas …

  1. Organization of homebrew tastings
  2. Theme homebrew for future meetings
  3. Theme commercial beer to match the theme homebrew

As P-F-L, I hereby decree the following: MARCH MEETING – March 17, 5:00 PM at Rich O’s BBQ. The topic will be Belgian beer, and it will be illustrated by one or two Belgian ales. Warning: Belgian beer is expensive!

An exchange prompted by our desire to visit the Oldenberg Brewery was the first mention of bunker-building in the Knobs. Barrie Ottersbach had drained a cistern that was located beneath the living room of his home, and if a door from the basement could be cut through the concrete …

Rich McGuigan, No. Kentucky Consulate: “I have a short list of budget-priced hotels located within a ten-mile radius (or so) of Oldenberg… if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll make arrangements.”

Editor’s/P-F-L’s Note: This sounds like a job for our Minister of Activities, whose responsibilities now include the Office of Blasting Cap and Subterranean Exploration.

(WTD, #5 February 1991)

My Kingdom for a Piece of Inch-and-a-Quarter Tubing.

March 17 HIGHLIGHTS

Guests included Nuts ‘n’ Stuff kingpin Bob Hennessy (5), (whose) generous donations enabled us to hold a first-ever raffle, which will become a regular event so long as members continue to bring items to raffle … If this is a success on a month to month basis, we might consider altering or abolishing the current system of paying for the beer of the month, or allowing the raffle to subsidize it. As expected, reaction to the Belgian abbey ales was mixed; indeed, they’re a different breed.

LAGERS member Brent Mays will be attending the April13 meeting. He will give a talk on drinking in New Zealand, where he visited recently …David Pierce has informed me that there will be a homebrewing club congress of sorts at the Oldenberg Brewery on August 17 (I think); it will be much like the one LAGERS attended last year, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be the first for the FOSSILS …

Dennis Barry, in “The Batch that Wasn’t”:

… While obtaining my ingredients, I asked Bob (Hennessy) if he carried the inch and a quarter tubing, which can be installed into the carboy top to help remove the kraeusen during initial fermentation. He did not. Dave Pierce had told me to go to ACE Hardware for the tubing, but I had procrastinated to this point. This would soon become my undoing, and it’s all Bob’s fault …

The brewing of my first wheat beer went quite well initially, (but) Beth definitely was not laughing when she called me at work that afternoon.

The hose and the rubber stopper were lying 10 feet across the room, in front of the refrigerator. The carboy was sitting in front of our cabinet of glasses, and Beth said several of the glasses inside were 1/3 full of wort (the cabinet doors were not open at the time). The ceiling above the carboy was stained with wort … wort, wort, everywhere — the dishwasher was underneath the counter where the carboy was sitting, and it had the sticky, smelly wort oozing down onto the dishes inside… dried hop shrapnel are still stuck to my textured ceiling.

Needless to say, I now have purchased 1 and 1/4 inch clear tubing from the Georgetown Hardware Store. Isn’t there a saying — something about closing the barn door after the cows have gone?

(WTD #6, March 1991)

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty: F.O.S.S.I.L.S. rambunctious youth, budding internationalism, and a Patoka Retreat (1991)

Mark Francis in 1994.

(1) The incredible streak came to an end shortly thereafter (late 1995 or early 1996) when Mark moved to Maine, which I likely knew was coming when the written reference was made.   

 

(2) Somewhat embarrassingly served by means of a common picnic pump tap, sans nitro mix. We knew more than most, although there was much yet to be learned. 

 

 

 

(3) “Arafat! Arafat!” refers NOT to Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but to Ararat 6-Star Armenian Brandy, which my cousin Don Barry brought to the party, and which at the time of writing in July 2023, sits on the shelf in my office with a couple of inches of liquid left in the bottle.  

 

 

(4) Beer Drinkers of America supposedly was a “grassroots” lobby group purporting to oppose tax increases on beer (and government resgulation in general), and to defend the beer and brewing industry’s flank against charges of encouraging drunken mayhem with BDA’s “Party Smart” initiative. As we guessed correctly at the time, BDA was funded in large measure by Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Company.

 

 

(5) Nuts N Stuff was a bulk food purveyor at 2022 S. Preston. From the Courier Journal on August 20, 1999: