Not so simple a symposium.

It isn’t often that two A-list highlights from one’s entire life occur in a single weekend, but it can happen. In fact, it just happened to me. Both memorable moments came about because of the craft writing symposium held in Lexington, Kentucky, on February 15.

The lesser of the two came on Saturday afternoon when keynote speaker Garrett Oliver called me out by name (“Mr. Baylor”), to contest a previous bullet point I made about two eighteen-wheelers filled with craft beer, passing each other on a lonesome prairie interstate highway, headed for opposite coasts.

Would the drivers even know to wave amid the widening carbon footprint of their payloads?

Mr. Oliver disagreed, and with every bit of the thoughtfulness and erudition I’d expect from a man who probably means more to me personally for his beer writing than even his brewing. After all, there are 2,500 American brewing companies. They make quite a lot of fine beer, but how many produce “The Brewmaster’s Table,” or edit “The Oxford Companion to Beer”?

None, I say. None.

But even more wonderful was my experience checking into the Hilton on Friday. The desk clerk keyed in the reservation, smiled broadly from behind the counter, and announced loudly, so as to be heard by the other travelers in my queue: “The English Department’s got your room.”

I very nearly burst into tears. Finally, to be riding on the coattails of academia!

Verily, it’s a first for me to have the English Department at any university, anywhere, pick up a tab for me. The Philosophy Department at IU Southeast certainly never did. Imagine my glee when I learned that although niggling rules prevented the English Department’s coffers from being tapped to support craft my beer habit, the hotel’s breakfast buffet was being comped, as well. Mounds of bacon and salmon never tasted so good.

(Note to Jeff Rice: I swear to God we had no idea those single shots of mediocre hotel espresso cost $4 each)

I was just happy to be there, doing my best to help the symposium team, and resisting the urge to make Big Blue jokes. It was a weekend to be cherished.

Stan Hieronymus drove from St. Louis into New Albany on Thursday evening and spent the night with us. It had been a while, and catching up’s always wonderful. The symposium itself marked my first time meeting Teri Fahrendorf and Julie Johnson, and they were delightful.

While I’d shared a festival beer tent with Jeremy Cowan once upon a time, the weekend provided the chance for some hang time. He’s a funny, passionate and genuine man, and his self-deprecating presentation about the history of Schmaltz definitely reminded me of NABC, in a much smaller way.

It was disappointing that Mitch Steele couldn’t make it, but he had a family emergency at home and stayed in California. Someday I’ll have the chance to follow up with him about the time he came to the Public House and discussed his working life with Anheuser-Busch, before moving on to Stone.

In all sincerity, it was an honor to be included on the panel. Truth be told, I’d been in training for about six weeks. I lost some weight, sobered up (to an extent), did some reading, and thought much about the impression I wanted to convey in my slot. In the end, I decided that brevity would be the soul … well, if not of wit, then all the better to introduce a number of ideas, then stand aside and let them penetrate.

To those reading this column who came up to me afterwards during the game-night pub crawl and chatted about some of these subversive ideas, thank you very much. The point is shifting, not lurching; it’s instigating thought, not indoctrinating. It seemed to go over well during the coffee-fueled day, and equally through a beer-soaked night.

Among the many fringe benefits of the symposium was the belated chance to visit some of Lexington’s best beer spots. On Friday night, it was Country Boy. On Saturday, as all of downtown Lexington was riveted to the nationally televised game at Rupp Arena, our stops were at The Beer Trappe, West Sixth and Blue Stallion.

Now it’s Monday morning, and the weekly grind begins anew. There isn’t enough time to attempt a coherent survey of Saturday’s talks, which were uniformly excellent, apart from noting that for me, six hours of thinking about beer seems the perfect way to approach the same number of hours drinking it.

Of course, it would be comparing apples with oranges (Lambic to Marzen?) to say that a symposium is better than a festival. They exist for different reasons, and yet for me, the weekend provided proof for something I already knew: I need elements of both. There’s a place for thinking and drinking at home, and for indulging in both of these pursuits among other humans, out in the agora, where the cross-pollination comes down and minds expand.

The craft writing symposium’s verdict might be summarized as this: Craft beer is about people and their stories. I can only hope that in my own pursuit of better beer, I periodically resemble that remark.

  1. Great summary of this Saturday’s symposium. Seems like the weekend flew by and I spent most of it discussing or drinking beer…which is never a bad thing!

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