I was working in the Florida craft beer scene long before Cigar City became the best brewery in the state and finally laid to rest Florida’s unflattering nickname “Beer Wasteland.” Hunahpu Day, the titular, annual kick-off of their multiple award winning imperial stout, has established itself as the single most important beer event during the Floridian calendar year, so it may surprise some people that I’d never been. It’s not that I don’t love Hunahpu and Cigar City, or day long drinking binges for that matter, I simply never felt like bothering to mess with the thick crowds, many of whom had been camping outside since five in the morning. This year, at the very last moment, for no good reason, I decided to brave the storm.
As we drove aimlessly down the roads encircling Cigar City’s brewery, the throng of people already spilling out of its gates, I wondered if I had made a mistake. My friends Garrett and Mandy had been nice enough to give me a ride, but as Mandy and I had worked till almost five in the morning closing down Redlight Redlight the night before, we had gotten off to a late start. The massive outdoor event completely occupied Cigar City’s usual parking lot, and those adjacent had long since been filled by more punctual beer enthusiasts. We
were miles away when we finally saw the woman in the yellow CCB t-shirt with a sign that said “parking.” She waved us unceremoniously into a partially filled lot behind some nondescript office buildings. There were no sign guiding us towards our objective. The woman who had directed us here had oddly disappeared.
The sidewalks were tediously indirect, so we made a literal straight line for the brewery, leaping over retention ponds and scaling fences surrounding desolate lots that could easily contain angry pit bulls lurking behind burned out pickup trucks. I felt only a little better when
we finally got to Cigar City and realized just how packed the place was. My first impression was that of utter chaos, but upon closer inspection I realized that the human hoard crowded into the complex was oddly organized. Almost everybody was waiting in line. The lines weaved and twisted, doubled back on themselves, intersected, split off from each other and reconnected a few feet away. It was as if Disney World had minimized the park to only four or five rides, but failed to inform the tourists who continued to show up at their gates. To make matters worse, no one could give me a straight answer as to what it was they were waiting for? Was this the line to purchase the tokens that acquired one a beer from any of several pour stations or the line for the stations themselves? Did this line end at a food truck, and if so, which one? Was this the sacred path ascending slowly but inevitably towards the ever-coveted reason for this madness in the first place, namely Hunahpu, or was it merely the equally important line for the next available port-o-potty?
My head reeled. The burden of the hot, Florida sun beat down upon my brow. I was hungry, thirsty, and I’d had to pee since Lakeland. “I just want a beer, damn it!” I felt like screaming to no one in particular, but a moment later I ran right into Mike, one of my favorite regulars from Redlight Redlight, who, shouting over the din of the crowd, welcomed me to the festivities, steered me to his campsite, and placed a cup of Surly Darkness in my unsteady hands.
“Try this,” he said, initiating what was to become the day’s mantra.
Before I could hand the cup over to Mandy and Garrett, Mike was filling another one with Alchemist Heady Topper. It wasn’t even noon and I was already double-fisting high octane libations. I hadn’t even eaten yet. I spotted the Mellow Mushroom truck a few yards away. Pizza: now there was the kind of wholesome breakfast that soaked up the booze in a man’s
belly and kept him guzzling suds for hours on end. I promised Mike that I would return in a moment to see him, maybe take a load off on an available cooler and relax for the next hour or so. As it turned out, I didn’t see him again until late in the afternoon, but that was how the day was going to go. People and beer surfaced and then disappeared only to wash up far away like the bobbing debris of some drunken ocean. I was already being carried out to sea, and I didn’t even know it yet.
At the pizza truck we ran into some friends, a dubious crew of Redlight Redlight employees and regulars, most of them already up to their knees in intoxication. My coworker Dave handed me a cup half filled with a habanero pepper IPA.
“Try this,” he said.
“What’s it called?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he laughed, shrugging his shoulders.
The name was circumstantial. It was probably simply called “Habanero IPA,” most likely an one-off that would never be attempted again. Embracing the spirit of experimentation I sprinkled the beer with the red pepper flakes provided by Mellow Mushrooms condiment table. What the hell, I thought as I doused my slice of pizza with the little bit of beer that remained.
“Try this,” Dave said handing me another cup. The beer was slightly darker than the one I had just poured on my pizza and tasted similar but even more delightful.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Smoked-Habanero IPA,” he said.
“Isn’t that what I just had?” I asked.
“No, you had the regular Habanero IPA,” he informed me.
I tried to run off with the spicier, tastier beer.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Dave said, snatching the beer from my hand. “You have tokens. Go get your own.”
We shuffled around and found ourselves standing next to an unguarded draft station. Kegs blew and new ones went on as we stood there freely sampling from the taps, feeling right at home as we were mostly all bartenders. Cigar City’s staff and volunteers ignored us and our blatant thievery. Working for Redlight Redlight came with certain perks, apparently, and none of us were above utilizing the advantageous position. Nearby, on the stage, a bearded
balladeer played acoustic covers of Primus songs. I reminded my friends that I hadn’t come all the way to Tampa just to have a good time. There was work to be done. These shenanigans would become my next article for Orlando Beer Guide.
“You know what we should do, man? We should rent a cherry-red convertible and drive across the country stopping at all the beer destinations from here to California,” Dave said.
“I’m in,” I told him. “As long as you pay for everything.”
“Agreed,” he said.
“I’ll write a gonzo beer guide about all the great bars and breweries in the United States. You can be my Dr. Acosta getting me in all kinds of trouble. Garrett can drive us,” I said.
“You wish,” Garrett responded.
“What does it mean when you call journalism Gonzo?” Dave asked.
“Most journalism is supposed to be objective,” I told him. “You write about a circumstance or an event and take pains to keep yourself out of the story, but a gonzo journalist is the story. A person at the same event might have seen it in a totally different light, but it’s the writers perception that’s important. It’s up to the writer to make the story as weird and interesting as possible.”
“Why is it called Gonzo?” Dave asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve heard that it’s an old Irish slang term for the last guy who was still conscious after a bout of excessive drinking.”
“Fascinating,” Dave said as he twirled his prodigious handle-bar mustache.
Dave and I made our way into Cigar City’s tasting room. The controlled chaos of the parking lot was nothing compared to the bedlam of the narrow pub. The bartenders scrambled left and right to serve anxious and thirsty patrons. Dave and I, who had handled crowds equally as daunting, felt sympathy for the efficient but overworked staff, but we also knew a thing or two about getting served when everyone around us was clamoring for a drink.
“Don’t talk to me,” I told Dave. “I need extreme concentration if I’m going to get our beers before the rest of these people.”
I stood poised at the edge of the bar, my tokens out, tip money in the other hand. I presented myself as someone who wanted to engage in the quickest and easiest transaction possible. I wasn’t going to ask the poor, young bartender questions about everything they had on draft. I didn’t plan on ordering five different beers at once and had no intention of asking to exchange my beer for something different if, for some reason, it wasn’t to my liking. I wanted to ask for my drink in a clear and assertive, but polite manner and get
the hell out of her way. She could tell all this, intuitively if not consciously, simply by looking at me, and ignoring those around me who had been waiting much longer than myself, she walked right up to me and asked me what I wanted.
“Two glasses of the vanilla-aged Irish red on nitro,” I said, slapping my tokens and tip money on the bar.
“Coming right up.”
“What the hell, man?!” the guy beside me shouted. “I’ve been waiting here for twenty minutes. How did you do that?”
“I work for Redlight Redlight,” I told him.
My answer only added confusion to his annoyance and frustration.
“Look, man, if circumstances were different, I would have definitely let you go first, but look around you. It’s a madhouse. No one can afford that kind of consideration right now. While you are wasting time standing here, talking to me, this young woman is losing her patience.”
The bartender was, in fact, glaring grumpily at the irritated customer who turned his focus back to his goal.
“Uh... I forgot what I wanted,” I heard him say as I handed Dave his beer and we pushed our way through the crowd.
Our friends were waiting in line for the few bottles of Hunahpu to which their arm bands obliged them. The once long line no longer coiled and stretched around Cigar City’s parking lot as it had a few hours before. Even those such as I who had arrived at the event for the spectacle, the Hunahpu merely a convenient excuse for Bacchanalia, felt drawn to the magical elixir. Why walk away empty handed when it shown like a talisman before me? After all, I wouldn’t have another chance at it for a whole year, but I refused to stand in line with the others.I walked to the front where Cigar City’s Orlando representative Luke was diligently dolling out the precious commodity to patrons whose moods quickly shifted from impatience to childlike wonder as they stumbled off with their long awaited prize. Without really helping in anyway, I stood beside my old friend underneath his shaman’s tent. It was I who had taken a chance on a young rube and introduced Luke into the beer business, first as a bartender at Redlight Redlight and soon after as my assistant manager. His beer knowledge had long ago superseded my own by the time he got hired at Cigar City, literally a dream job for many Florida fermentation enthusiasts. I was not so drunk and audacious as to outright ask him to give me a bottle of Hunahpu before the line of beer geeks who would no doubt rip me to shreds were such an act of impertinence to take place, but I felt like maybe he kind of owed me, and perhaps he would feel inspired to make a speech to those waiting, confessing a brotherly affection for me and admitting his unpayable debt, presenting to me, as the oration neared its climax, with a bottle of Florida’s finest and most sought after ale, but he was too busy to notice me. Before I could sulk off, my friend Amanda caught my
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Standing around in line for a bottle of Hunahpu, I guess,” I said sadly.
“Don’t do that,” she said. “I’ll get a bottle for you.”
I wandered off to climb the silo, which CCB’s guests were probably not supposed to do. When I retuned to the line Amanda was gone. Though I’d always known her to be a sweet and honest person, I began to wonder if trusting no one was the best policy where Hunahpu was concerned, but my friend proved steadfast and diligently dropped the bottle off at Redlight Redlight a couple days later.
I puffed on a cigar that been aged on Maduro Brown Ale. People I barely knew walked up to me, shook my hand, and greeted me by name. It had been happening all day long.
“You’re the most popular dork I know,” Mandy said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Mandy answered. “I just mean that everyone likes you even though you are really goofy.”
Dave nearly got us in a fight when he told a man much bigger than ourselves to fuck off after the guy complimented his mustache. Dave wasn’t even angry, just drunk. It was different.
“Don’t mind my friend,” I told the man as I shoved Dave beside me. “We’re just here to have a good time. Hired geeks from Redlight Redlight.”
“Redlight Redlight? I love that place!” he shouted, jostling my shoulders with giant, meaty hands.
I thought it best to get Dave out of the hot sun, but the scene in the tasting room had digressed considerably. People yelled drink orders as they tossed wooden tokens at the bartenders who struggled to maintain any order at all while a deep funk of beer and bodies permeated the air. I was half finished with a cup of Tocobaga when someone handed me an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, a beer that tastes exactly like a liquified version of its namesake. I handed the red ale to Dave who finished it off while I went to town on the brown. My tokens sizzling in my hands like the sacred stones of the Temple of Doom, I ordered two Hotter than Helles at the same time and drank alternatingly from either until I gave one away to a total stranger and spilled the other on the floor when someone in the crowd elbowed me in the back.
Dave, with a wet stain on his shorts, had either spilled a beer in his lap or, as Mandy claimed, had peed in pants, but I jumped on his shoulders anyway, and hooting and hollering, we ran amuck through the parking lot.
“Faster, steed!” I shouted as he purposely collided into whole groups of patrons, themselves much too intoxicated to put up a fight or do anything more than grumble incoherently.
Truth be told, a lot of really decent people had already come and gone by this time. They purchased their sought after bottle of Hunahpu, sampled casually but responsibly from some of the other rare and exciting beers offered by Cigar City, and made their way home to enjoy a quiet evening with their husbands or wives, but now it was nearing the wee small hours of six o’clock in the evening and those of us who remained were the dregs of society,
the scourges of the beer festival. I was among the same people I looked upon with pity and contempt not but a month ago in Deland. Dave and I had descended to the level of dumb beasts, grunting like pigs, hanging from trees like apes, and cackling and scavenging like hyenas. I hadn’t even finished a single, entire cup of beer. I was wasted on the ever-available samples that flowed continually like a decadent stream down my avarice gullet.
In the midst of our depravity someone handed me a vessel containing a dark, ominous beverage.
“Try this,” said Mandy, Dave, Garrett, Mike, a total stranger, or some deranged hydra with the heads of each.
I took a sip. Clearly it was an imperial stout. It was rich, delicious, thick and warming, sweet up front, but with a powerful alcohol presence and even a hint of spice in the finish. It tasted familiar, but my head and my palate were too muddled to place it.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Hunahpu,”the creature informed me.
The next thing I knew I was waking up in a lounge chair poolside at Dave’s hotel. My head throbbed and my dry throat craved hydration so badly I felt inclined to drink up the crystal clear pool water. Dave was relaxing in the hot tub with an attractive Belgian couple with whom, it was suggested, he later engaged in mysterious libertine activities, the details of which he refused to elucidate. He had asked me what Gonzo meant, and goddamnit there he was, the last man standing.
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