I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the mountains like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of brewer Walter E. Kurtz's memory any more than being back in Africa was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.
I met with the brewers and they told me to infiltrate his brew team by whatever means necessary and terminate Kurtz's command. He's out there operating without any decent restraint, he started out using ginger in a beer and now he's brewed an IPA without a strong hop bitterness. He has to be stopped. He must be terminated. Kilgore wanted to stick to the standards.
If that's how Kilgore brewed the beer, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just hops and malt; there was enough of that to go around for everyone. No wonder Kurtz put a weed up Anheuser-Busch InBev's ass. The brewery was being run by a bunch of Siebel brewers who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away by sticking to the basics.
It was a long arduous trip up the river. I had plenty of time to think. Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him. Along the way we met a journalist who had met Kurtz and quite frankly, had drank many of Kurtz's brew concoctions.
I told him I wanted to talk to Kurtz. He said “Hey, man, you don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet brewer in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll... uh... well, you'll say "hello" to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you. He won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say, "Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you"... I mean I'm... no, I can't... I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's... he's a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas..” .
I tried to defend myself against the journalist and said he can't use those ingredients in beer. You can't make an IPA without a heavy hop flavor. You can't brew beer with ginger and make it taste good. The journalist was appalled. He said “Man, you haven't got a clue, he's a great man. He's a great brewer. He can do things to hops you wouldn't believe. He can mellow the ginger's harsh. You don't know, man. You can't know. How could you? You came from them.”
He was right, I couldn't know, I wouldn't know until I got there. How many beers had I drank and loved? There were those six that I knew about for sure. The ones I had in Europe when I was out of their grasp. But these were brewed by an American. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Liking an American beer with ginger was anathema to being American. Kurtz had gotten out of America and he split with the whole f...in brew scene. But I had taken the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?
When we finally got to Kurtz's outpost it was a true hell, there was no beer that was familiar. He had beers brewed with cacao, cloves, guava and an interesting one using miracle fruit (you could eat a lemon with the miracle fruit beer and the lemon tasted sweet) in addition to the IPA and ginger flavored beer. I sampled them all and loved them all, especially the IPA and ginger flavored beer.
Then I got to meet the man behind the beer, the new way of thinking. He asked if I enjoyed his beer. I said I did but I didn't understand what he was doing.
“Did they say why they wanted to terminate my brewery?”
“They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.”
“Are my methods unsound?” Kurtz asked.
“I don't see any method at all” I replied.
“ I worry that my son might not understand what I've tried to be. And if my brewery were to be terminated, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you tasted, because there's nothing that I detest more than the stench of beechwood aging. And if you understand me, you will do this for me.”
“I do undersand you. Now. I think we can come up with another solution. Even without methods, you are brewing great beers, beers that are complex, yet simple and wonderful. Anheuser-Busch InBev isn't ready for this but I know someone who is.”
Kurtz and I worked on finding a brewer who did understand and we found it in Left Hand. They decided to buy the IPA and the ginger flavored beer saying that there are no other beers like them. “Any monkey can throw a bunch of hops into a beer and call it an IPA. But does it taste good? No, it tastes like hops. What you have done, Kurtz is nothing short of astounding, you've balanced the hops and the malt in an IPA and made it taste wonderful.” They decided to call this beer 400 lb. Monkey.
On the one they call Good Juju, they said “It's nothing short of remarkable how Kurtz has made a beer with ginger and get a light, fruity taste yet full flavored with malt and hops. A more complex beer that tastes so simple can not be found. This beer is equally good for a beer connoisseur or a beer novice. We never knew ginger could be so refreshing”.
I helped give Kurtz a life. All he wanted was to be appreciated for being unconventional. Kurtz was able to reconnect with his son and they collaborated on the label and six pack art using the African influence the beer was brewed with. For now, Good Juju is only a spring./summer seasonal. 400 lb. Monkey is a year round beer. Look for the African inspired sixers and you too can taste Kurtz's madness.