Two-row Barley

19 Oct

I took a photograph of my father-in-law in the crowd by the wort tanks on the Sam Adams Brewery Tour and something about seeing his face in the digital frame amid the crestfallen faces of those around him and the tumbling flakes of hops found an answering call in my soul and I came to sense powerfully that something was wrong.

But what?

The brewery tour could be described as an unstructured flow of innocuous sound ostensibly related to beer. Occasionally words would emerge from the undifferentiated progression like the hair on Alfalfa’s head, adhering momentarily to your consciousness, such as the memorable expression “two-row barley.” But the flow would quickly lull you back to somnolence. Now and then there would be a gap in the sound and people would trudge to another location for no discernable reason, whereupon the faucet would be opened again. You get the idea. The tour was about the same as any other average tour, or lecture, or conference presentation, or commercial, or news conference, or your pick of occasions when people talk from a real or metaphorical podium, soap box, moral high ground, pickup truck tail gate, beer keg.

What is two-row barley? Why is it better than six-row barley? Why would a person dedicate their life to the cultivation of such a thing? Why are we here on the planet? O, ask not!

It occurred to me that the tour was representative of education at its nadir. Someone stumbles into a room, finds themselves enpodiumed, reaches deep inside their inner resource quiver for something meaningful to say or do, and pulls out, not the arrows of desire exactly, but . . . a flow of words. Some others enter the room, look about themselves, take stock of various cues visual and mystical, ascertain an empodiumed other, assume accurately that they are in a designated learning moment, and thereupon immediately start to shut down higher brain functions in a self-protective way. The designated learning moment reduces itself to a kind of robotic Trail of Tears, negotiated in a foreign language between a down-trodden, devastated and starving people and a Kafkaesque bureaucrat in a distant capitol, the tour givers (in this example) praying for release and the tour-takers shuffling along in a mechanical, semi-conscious march to nowhere overseen not by their brightest intellectual parts but rather by the grounds crew of the brain stem, which allots to the activity a priority somewhere below the responsibility of checking on the enzyme mixture of the lower intestinal tract.

This much I shared with friends. Responses were varied yet critical. Friends were annoyed that I would expect pedagogical sophistication from a free beer tour. They noted that I was not the intended audience. They noted with a significant look that 18-yr olds are the spokespeople. They suggested that the company’s goal was not to teach you anything but to get you to do a certain something. They noted that people on the other hand had only one expectation of a brewery tour, and it wasn’t about ingesting knowledge.

All valid points. And yet I ask what I would do if Jim Koch invited me to redesign his free beer tour. My thoughts, in three dimensions:

The New Beer Tour, Dimension 1: “Freshness”

You might decide you want to teach people more about brewing beer. The chemistry. The skill. The process. You can’t do it in 15 minutes. But you could do justice to aspects of it. Sieze on key ideas or challenges and develop something lively and engaging around each. Don’t water it down with extraneous stuff. Be concise and visceral. Convey the interesting and essential core of the idea. Have a few topics; offer a different one every tour. Watch your tour guides and pick the ones who most like the topic. Change ideas regularly (as regularly as you ask bars to change your beer kegs). “The 11 o’clock tour, ‘Two-row Barley and Why You Want to Marry It,’ will start in 5 minutes,” etc. This would be be a beginning. This is what I call the first dimension of the improved beer tour.

The New Beer Tour, Dimension 2: “Foam”

But it’s still an information dump. So then you might say, let’s do some active learning. Find out who your people are in advance. Figure out what they care about. Engage them in pre-tour activities so they know each other. Ask ’em what they want to know. Speak to those questions. Admit you don’t know everything. Get them to help figure out the answers. Let them design the tour, where it goes and what it talks about. Let them give the tour. Let each tour group lead the next group. What the heck, drop the whole tour idea. Let the people brew a batch and goof it up. Let them shadow the wort scooper, run the bottle capper. Let them hop over the hops. Let them encounter and run from the verboten Six-row Barley like Luke Skywalker did the image of Darth Vader in the cave. See what happens.

Unstructured, unpredictable, and people are engaged, learning, alive. Foam in their hair. They understand the perspective of the brewer, his or her challenges, possible solutions. They appreciate the art from within. They draw life lessons from the process that they can apply in numerous other rewarding areas of their existence. This is what I call dimension two of the improved beer tour.

The New Beer Tour, Dimension 3: “Apotheosis”

But you might say, what exactly are we adding to the world here? What could we do that would let the tour and its participants and the Earth be more than the sum of its parts? Instead of recreational, could it be creational? Generative, the stuff of legend? Not just contribute to the community but put community where none was before? Be an activity that the participants would want listed in their obituary before military service and family? An activity that would render an obituary unnecessary? Could we make it such that people would talk 100 years hence of the wondrous humanizing social revolution that started at the Beer Tour, making an interesting bookend to and correction of the very bad stuff that started with the Beer Hall Putsch?

What would this be? I don’t know. The Brewery turns into a theater wherein we achieve the dramatic transmutation of society via the modern equivalent of the medieval morality play, the tour members being the cast? Each beer tour adopts a civil right and works tirelessly to champion it, in 30 minute increments, after which they get free beer?  The tour-takers are empowered to undertake experimental art in a new kind of Works Progress Administration? Playing instruments they never saw before, etc.?

This is the third dimension. Is this learning? What is this? Why in a beer tour? Well, why not? Isn’t there a legend that beer was the cause of civilization? Let it be the redeemer then, too.

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