Four hours into our journey, the tension was high. My wife Jessica and I were driving from San Diego to Paso Robles to attend the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. However, a SNAFU with Apple maps had taken us on a three-hour detour through Los Angeles County. We weren't talking—the only sound was the tinny Rage Against the Machine coming from the car's speakers. The adult-angst was definitely not helping the situation.
As we passed the Miller beer factory in Irwindale, I thought about how funny it would be to bring a pack of MGD to a group of beer aficionados. I pointed to it and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if—."
Jessica screamed. I looked back at the road. We were flying 80 mph into stopped traffic. I stomped the brakes, felt the tires skid. "I'm sorry," I said. The car fishtailed into the carpool lane, dodging the car in front of us by mere feet. I felt adrenaline pulse through my veins, realized my last words could've been "I'm sorry," which seemed to be an appropriate summation of my life.
Later, when our Pandora lost signal in the desert, Jessica and I resorted to singing murder ballads to each other.
I like beer as much as the next functioning alcoholic, but sometimes San Diego's craft scene feels like the veiny blob at the end of Akira—encompassing and swallowing everything in its path. I can't throw a rock on a weekend without hitting a beer festival (thereby ruining my weekend rock-throwing plans). San Diego even recently crowned itself "America's Craft Beer Capital." While that popularity isn't bad, per se, the elitism it produces is insufferable. So why risk life and limb to make the harrowing trip up to Paso Robles?
The trip was organized by wife-and-husband Alicia and Sean, who've been Jessica's friends since high school. They also just welcomed twins into the world, which I'm sure produces a certain chaos in their household that must be remedied with guilt-free, babysitter-enabled binge-drinking once in awhile.
And we just got a new cat, so, you know, we're all super-busy. But vacations like these help sustain long-lasting, long-distance friendships.
We stayed in a historic brick house with a pool that Alicia had rented nearly half a year prior. Among other guests were our friends George and Justine—also new parents who brought their baby Lucien and a babysitter—plus a roving cast of beer enthusiasts who know each other from Instagram and Untappd, the Facebook for beer lovers.
Jessica also informed me that her ex-boyfriend would be around. Yippee.
"But don't worry, he's got, like, three kids," she said, as if this were somehow a good thing and not a reminder of my man-child inadequacies compared with the world of grown-ass men.
That first night, I ruined dinner by insisting on manning the grill and ended up undercooking our fancy burgers. Winning your way into your wife's group of friends is difficult when your internal monologue is just a constant Urkel-voice saying, "Was that me?"
Just referred to a toilet as a 'bye bye hole' and it did not go over well with this group of people I don't know.— Ryan Bradford (@theryanbradford) May 30, 2014
After dinner, we sat around the table and talked about breweries, whales (rare beers, i.e. "Whales, bro," which roughly translates to "That's a rare beer, good sir") and took turns telling tales of beer fests past. Apparently, the year prior had been one of the hottest on record, resulting in at least one death.
All this was going on while Lucien slept in his vibrating chair at the center of the table, which made the macabre conversation feel like some dark ritual. But then somebody announced a guilty pleasure of drinking Miller High Life and Jameson whiskey, and it seemed like even the baby wanted to kick his ass.
There's no denying the overt masculinity that still prevails in the craft-beer scene. Every beer fest I've been to is packed with walking tributes to beard and meat, out-sweating and outnumbering the ladies, two to one.
For the most part, I let my severe lack of masculinity ride, but when you're surrounded by hairy dudes who are vastly more knowledgeable about beer than you are—in addition to your wife's lady-boner for a prominent beard—inadequacy reigns.
In line for #FWIBF, embarrassed about my woefully inadequate beard.— Ryan Bradford (@theryanbradford) May 31, 2014
Usually in those situations, I see how fast I can get drunk to make the bad-bad feelings go away, but I silently resolved to keep it cool and prove my worth to these beer guys. I also resolved to not puke, which I've learned is actually not the highest form of flattery to most brewers, contrary to popular (my) belief.
I followed Sean through the lines, listening as he bestowed knowledge like he was my own personal beer whisperer. He fielded queries from complete strangers who recognized him from Instagram and revered him like a celebrity. He rubbed elbows with a group wearing similar "SARA's Cellar" shirts—a drinking society so exclusive that I'm pretty sure one of the guys insinuated that I'd have to murder someone to join.
Someone just tried to measure the IBUs of my armpits. #FWIBF— Ryan Bradford (@theryanbradford) May 31, 2014
Halfway into my sophisticated assimilation into the elite crowd, my beer descriptions began ranging from "great" to "great." My mouth tasted like the inside of a strawberry's butthole due to all the sours I was drinking. I coveted Jessica's ex's goddamn lustrous beard. Serious public shaming and ridicule ensued each time a person dropped a glass. The crowd was losing it—Lord of the Ryes, amirite? It was time to go.
Severe public shaming every time someone drops a glass. Terrified to move. #FWIBF— Ryan Bradford (@theryanbradford) May 31, 2014
I may not remember all (or any) of the beers I tasted, but if someone asks me, I can just lean back and say, "Whales, bro."
Now, can someone get me a High Life and a shot of whiskey?
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford