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The Bitter Brewer: Chapter 8

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 9.35.07 PM

Photo via 3FloydsBrewing on Instagram

Note: The following is a fictionalized story written as a chapter a day for the National Novel Writing Month challenge. It’s inspired by real life places, events and, of course, beer. Catch up with previous chapters here

It’s never convenient to have your transportation stolen. It’s even less convenient when you don’t have the means to contact the police.

Of course James had left his phone in his truck, where it had been turned off and stowed away for the past two days. He had kept his promise to stay away from technology on this trip, and now it had come back to bite him.

James did in fact have his iPhone on him, but the battery had died sometime overnight. He was still waiting for his contact renewal to update to the 6. His 4s batter never stood a chance.

And so Todd and James found themselves alone in a pre-technology state in a supposedly haunted 1920s farmhouse in the woods. Todd couldn’t believe it. I mean, seriously. What was this, a bad Blair Witch knock-off?

Hitchhiking probably would have been out of the question, too. They were two burly, hairy brewers with long beards who looked exactly like they had just snuck into a cellar window and slept in a haunted house. Probably not the most appealing cargo to pick up during an office worker’s morning commute.

But in one way, they did luck out. The fortunate part of having your truck stolen, misplaced or just disappear under mysterious circumstances in the Bieker woods was that it was a mere 5 minute walk from the police station.

They never did notice any paranormal activity while spending the night, if you don’t count the parlor trick flashlights they played with. There had been stories of hearing screams of a man in pain from the basement, where legend had it a former resident died when he tripped and fell with wine bottles.

But then Todd thought he saw something as they started hiking their way out of the woods. It looked, oddly enough, like a naked man running away in the opposite direction. Todd thought he could even hear the twigs snap as the man sprinted through the thick brush.

He looked away toward James to see if he had registered the same thing. James was looking the other way and didn’t give away that he noticed anything unusual. When he looked back, the man — if he was ever there to being with — was gone. Todd decided not to bring it up.

They were told to wait by a receptionist when they got to the police station. And wait they did. They took a seat and had plenty of time to lean all about the latest happenings from the The Times of Northwest Indiana. 

Apparently, the Bieker Woods Night Walk over Halloween was “a frightfully good time.” The haunted house — actually, more of a haunted woods — had raised money for Munster Boy Scouts, Munster Girl Scouts, and the Munster Parks and Recreation. Seemed so wholesome. At least someone was having some success at the Bieker House.

The Munster High School football had also defeated its rival Highland, meaning the bridge connecting the two communities would once again get spray painted. Todd made a mental note to look for that as he left town. If he ever left town again.

He waited for at least an hour before a detective invited him to come with him to file a report. Apparently scary looking out-of-towners who illegally spend a night in a haunted house before getting their beer-filled truck stolen are not the police department’s first priority. Go figure.

The detective could not look less surprised as he took down Todd’s report. Todd tried to remember as many details from the night before as he could. Having enjoyed Three Floyds late into the night did not help his memory.

Finally, the detective asked if Todd noticed any signs of other people around the woods, either the night before or the next day. Someone talking a walk? Other vehicles? Anything?

Todd hesitated, then decided to tell him about the naked man he thought he saw sprinting through the woods. Did that make him sound completely crazy?

To the contrary, the detective didn’t look the least bit fazed. He nodded with a knowing look, wrote down the details, and moved on. Had others filed this same report with the same detail? Todd decided not to pursue the point.

Now that the paperwork was done, the questions was what would he do next?

Using his one call, James contacted his brother, Carl, to come pick them up. They discussed options on the way back to James’ house, which passed the Brew pub. He saw new decals being added to the Three Floyds silo.

As much as he’d kill for a fresh Alpha King right now, he didn’t want to deal with the awkward questions and nut-busting remarks.

James had made it clear that he was more than welcome to stay at his house for as long as he wanted. That option seemed extremely appealing, to be honest. He could hang out and have his fill of fresh Dreadnaught. Maybe he and his friends at Three Floyds could create a new collaboration brew. One of the highlights of his career was working on the BLAKKR IPA with Three Floyds. Now he could create the sequel.

But something about that plan didn’t seem right.

If he did intend on ever returning to his job at Surly, how would he explain the fact that he just hung around Three Floyds for an extended period of time? And worked for free? Like he had a hall pass to start working for other brewers unannounced? Nah, that didn’t seem like it would work.

Besides, he wasn’t on vacation. He was on this trip to keep moving forward.

The question was, how?


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The Bitter Brewer: Chapter 7

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Flickr photo by Brent Moore

There was one time when Todd had his car towed while staying overnight in Madison.

It was late, bitter cold and he circled his friend’s neighborhood again and again looking for parking. The area was just east of the University of Wisconsin, and cars were everywhere. Street parking was a nightmare.

Finally, he found an entire open block. He couldn’t believe his luck. He pulled over and had his choice of locations. He still had to walk about a half mile to get back to his friend’s place, but at least he had some place to stash his car.

Turns out, of course, that there was a reason why the block was unoccupied.

It was a lane for commuters. No parking 6 am to 9 am. Violators will be towed at the owners expense.

Stupid stupid stupid.

He tried not to beat himself up, but he couldn’t help it. That was just human nature.

Whenever something bad happened, he attempted to put it in perspective. It was going to cost him $50 to get his car out of the tow lot, plus another $20 ticket for parking in an unauthorized zone. That wasn’t too bad in the grand scheme of things.

To put that in perspective, if he had stayed in a hotel, he would have been out much more than that. He would have easily paid for more than the fine, even though his car would have been safe in the hotel parking lot. But that’s not how our brains work.

Todd had always been fascinated by psychology. He never studied it formally in school, but he read every article he could get his hands on. He recognized loss aversion when he saw it. Basically, that means that our brains react much stronger to losses rather than gains. Negative news has more of an impact than positive news.

In practice, this means that losing $10 means more to us than earning $10. If you found $10 on the street and then promptly lost it, it would have been better if you never found it at all. You’re going to be sad and frustrated after losing the 10 bucks even though you’re back where you started, and the $10 was never yours to begin with.


But that doesn’t change how your brain perceives getting your car towed. You’re still going to be pissed. There’s a reason your brain evolved loss aversion, so you’re careful to hold onto what you already have.

And you’re definitely going to be pissed when you wake up in a haunted house in a woods in Munster, Indiana — and your truck is gone. There’s no talking yourself out of the denial, bargaining and anger.

Stupid stupid stupid. 

The truck had been parked out front, and now it was just vanished. Without a trace. Along with his full truck bed of beer. All gone.

Stupid stupid stupid. 

He tried to think though the previous night and search for any sort of clues. It hadn’t been his finest moments.

James was one of his closest friends in the brewing business. Like Todd, he was really laid back for a dude who listened to Slayer. That’s what the bonded over when they first met at GABF eight years ago.

Todd figured he would completely take James by surprise by showing up at the doorstep of Three Floyds unannounced. He knew James would be cool with it. And he was.

It was James’ idea to grab a bunch of bottles of Dark Lord, Man o Awe, Arctic Fox and Gumballhead and head out to the Bieker House for an overnight party like a bunch of 17-year-olds. Fortunately, they didn’t get company from any other locals. It was November and the winds were starting to really pick up in Munster. Who in their right mind would spend the night in a supposedly haunted house in such conditions?

Their idea was to try to communicate with the ghost that lived in the house. James had heard of a method to try that using two flashlights.

It sounded kind of weird, but the theory went that ghosts could turn flashlights off and on as a way to answer yes or no questions. How someone discovered this method, he had no idea. You were supposed to unscrew the caps of the flashlights so they connected juuuust a little bit. Then using its apparition finger, it could press on the cap to turn the flashlight off or on.

One flashlight turning on meant yes. Two meant no. Todd had heard a scientific explanation for this once — something about the heat of the bulb expanding the lens — but that would take all the fun out of it. Just go with it. Sure, why not.

It took James and Todd a few bottles before they starting busting out the flashlights. It was probably boredom more than the alcohol, though. It was just something to do.

Interviewing a ghost turned out to be more challenging than they anticipated. Maybe it was putting everything in yes or no answer form. Hey, who are you wasn’t a valid ghost question, but it got one of the flashlights to turn on. They laughed at the suspect methodology. Then they got down to business.

Does Surly make the best beer in the world? 


No, does Three Floyds make the best beer in the world? 


This ghost needed to make up their mind.

Should I be taking this road trip? 


Should I keep going on this road trip? 


Should I have stopped in Munster? 

No answer.

Why won’t you answer me? Oops, not a yes or no questions. 

It went on like this for awhile. A mixed bag of answers, some what you were looking for, some not, some just confusing. Kind of like a Ouji board.

Finally, when they were quite drunk…

Should I go to bed?


That settled it. They crashed in their sleeping back in the linoleum back hallway of the house. Despite the creepiness of the situation, they were both too exhausted and tired to care.

That changed when they woke up, miles away from civilization, to find their sole means of transportation vanished. Like a ghost.

stupid stupid stupid 



Permanent Link

The Bitter Brewer: Chapter 14


Photo from

Note: The following is a fictionalized story written as a chapter a day for the National Novel Writing Month challenge. It’s inspired by real life places, events and, of course, beer. Catch up with previous chapters here

Todd wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

He woke up at his usual 4 am. But on a stranger’s couch. He couldn’t move.

Pain seared through his muscles. He saw flashes of sharp blinding light when he tried to move his neck from side to side.

Was he poisoned? Did he get in a bike accident? Was he paralyzed? Why wouldn’t his muscles work? 

He had a sudden bout of panic. Then it all started to come back to him. He began piecing it together.

The couch he was on belonged to a brewer who worked at the Arcadia brewery. Rachel was her name. She had just finished her shift and was drinking in the bar when John and Todd finished their bike ride and arrived.

She bought them their second round, cans of Sky High Rye. John did most of the talking to explain what Todd was doing in Michigan on a bike. Todd was his usual non-talkative self, and he was too tired to really think, anyway.

Sensing that Todd was ready to fall asleep any minute, Rachel offered to give him a ride home and let him stay at her house. To some people, it may have seemed strange for a woman to invite a smelly, dirty guy who looked a death metal band guitarist into her home.

But Rachel was used to treating guys like this like a brother. She had broken into a male-dominated industry and wasn’t easily intimidated by anyone. She could throw around a 50-pound bag of barley if she needed in her brewing engineer job. She commanded respect.

Rachel was the one who loaded up Todd’s bike in her truck for him as he crawled in the passenger seat. He actually fell on the way to her apartment, and Rachel had to shake him awake to get him to walk up the stairs. He didn’t seem drunk, just really, really tired.

Now Todd remembered falling asleep last night. He felt bad for his rudeness of just walking into a stranger’s house and immediately falling asleep. At the same time, he thought that made things easy for a host.

Slowly he started to try to sit up. He realized he could move his muscles, they were just incredibly sore and stiff. Like nothing he’d ever felt before.

He was incredulous that he had biked 30 miles the day before. How had he accomplished such a feat when he felt so awful now?

Some might call it beginner’s luck. But the technical term would be Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

In effect, the cycling he had done was so intense — at least by his sedentary standards — that the tears in his muscles took awhile to register with his body. It wasn’t used to this kind of strenuous activity.

What this meant was that he functionally couldn’t get out of bed. He stopped struggling to attempt to move.

He realized this was the most calm he had been since he laid in bed and decided that he was going to take this road trip. After that he always had someplace else to be. The next town. The next place to stay. The police station… the next police station.

For a very long time, he was still.

Todd wondered why he had started this road trip to begin with, and where he was going. Was he running away from something? Was he retreating and turning his back on all he knew? Or was he just recharging his batteries, stepping away from all that was comfortable so he could appreciate it from a new perspective?

Was that just something he was telling himself?

As he laid there, he noticed for the first time that there was a silence between his thoughts. There was space where there once was none. He was used to the jumble of noise in his brain, whether it had to do with the recipe he was brewing or the din of death metal music that consumed his head. He never had time to just sit with himself. Now he had no other choice.

It didn’t feel like an indulgence. It just felt natural.

Todd wasn’t sure how long he was laying in that state. Could have been 5 minutes. Could have been an hour.

Eventually, his thoughts returned to what he had to do next. His plan was to bike up to Grand Rapids next. But that was 60 miles away.

Maybe it was time to get moving if he had any hope of getting there before dusk. The days were getting shorter, after all.

So he tried to get up.

And yet again, pain seared through his muscles. He saw flashes of sharp blinding light when he tried to move his neck from side to side.

He couldn’t move.

For the first time since he started this road trip, he wouldn’t be going anywhere today.

Permanent Link

The Bitter Brewer: Chapter 13


Photo via Kalamazoo River Valley Trail on Facebook

It was a weird sensation being on a bicycle for the first time in more than 25 years.

Todd felt simultaneously deeply connected and disconnected to his surroundings. It was something he never felt before.

Mostly, his thoughts were consumed with the physical effort and the sensations of biking in the November cold.

Keep moving forward. Up down up down up down. Keep moving forward. Up down up down. Remember to look up.

His inner monologue was turned up to 10.

Why is there a metallic taste in my throat? Why is there a pounding in my left ear?  

At the same time, these flashes of thoughts about his surroundings popped into his head, in a way that he wouldn’t have noticed or had time to process at 60 miles an hour.

These thoughts didn’t make up any kind of coherent narrative. It was just a stream-of-conscious list of the world in motion around him.

Branch. Tree…. Tree. Gravel…. How much of our country is pavement? Sky. Birds…. I have to stop. 

He had been biking for 10 minutes.

He was exhausted.

It was 6 am.


Todd was glad to be biking on the Kalamazoo River Valley Trailway, where he could stop for a rest in the middle of the trail. Elmer had dropped him off at the Kalamazoo Nature Center trailhead this morning.

He felt embarrassed in relative solitude — save for the occasional commuter bicycle zooming past him — and was grateful morning traffic couldn’t stare at him. Part of him was glad James was headed home, so he couldn’t see how much he was struggling.

The path ahead of him was a 17-mile, 12-foot wide paved trail. It was beautiful. Eventually, it would be expanded to 35 miles, and the KalamaBrews jersey he got yesterday helped support that cause.

He wasn’t sure how long he rested against the bridge overlooking the river. At some point his heart rate slowed down and he finally sensed his own breathing and the sound of blood rushing in his ears.

He looked up and saw a sign that said Markin Glen Park was ahead. He made it his goal to make it there in one piece.

He got back on his bike and started pedaling.

He made it another 15 minutes before he had to rest.

This time while he was pulled over to rest, another cyclist pulled behind him.

“You need help?” the man asked. He seemed to be about 65 or 70. “Do you have a flat?”

Todd explained that he was fine, that he was just taking a rest. He said he’d be OK. But something in his voice must have given him away that he wasn’t fine.

“My name’s John,” the man said. “I’m headed to Fort Custer State Park if you want a drafting partner.”

Todd had no idea what drafting meant, but he was too tired to ask what he was talking about or argue. He just nodded his head and got back on the bike.

John did all the talking while they were biking. And mercifully, he slowed down to Todd’s pace, which for him must have been a crawl.

A part-time bike shop worker, John had been biking in the hills of South Dakota and now was headed home. With his camping gear, tools and heavy touring bike his load probably weighed five times as much as Todd.

“There’s no shame in going slow,” John told Todd. “The biggest mistake of new cyclists is they try to go too fast, and wear themselves out. Just enjoy the ride.”

Enjoy the ride seemed like an oxymoron. Todd wished that he was a faster biker just so he could ditch this guy. He wasn’t in the mood to chit-chat.

They continued on and past the police station, where Todd had been less than 24 hours before. He was tempted stop in and ask if there were any developments on the case, since they didn’t have any way to contact him on the road if they found his motorcycle. He still didn’t have a phone.

Instead, he kept pedaling. He didn’t believe the cops would have turned anything up in that short of time period.

Somehow, his racing thoughts managed to slow down for awhile and he started noticing the trail around him. It was really quite beautiful, even with bare trees and dead leaves covering the ground. Todd couldn’t remember the last time he had spent so much time in nature, if you could call it that.

He started seeing wildlife behind rocks, trees and sometimes in the middle of the trail. A mangy fox darted across their path. A group of wild turkeys — that’s called a “rafter of turkeys,” John explained — walked past nonchalantly. He even saw a few deers, including a buck with big antlers.

Maybe it was becoming just a little bit enjoyable.


It wasn’t long before John and Todd came up on Bell’s second brewery in Comstock. Normally, this is where Todd would have stopped for the day, and spent the rest of the day sampling brews.

To his own surprise, he wanted to keep going. What is going on with me? he thought.

He also wanted to keep riding with John. Even though John’s small talk had annoyed Todd earlier, he was good to have around. Todd realized he had no idea what to do if something were to happen like, say, a flat tire. Having a veteran cyclist with him was just smart insurance.

And John definitely knew what he was doing. He packed some extra water, gels and fruit that he shared freely with Todd. Sure, Todd had more Clif bars that he knew what to do with, but the bananas added an element of freshness that had been lacking in his diet.

Besides, he also had a reward planned for the end of the ride. Arcadia Brewing Company was at the other side of the trail.

John had planned to stop at the state park, but he decided to keep going with Todd to guide him safely to Battle Creek, where he could find Arcadia.

This section of the trail was brand new, having opened to the public in Comstock just two months ago, John explained. It ended just five miles out of town near Battle Creek.

The final miles were the longest of the entire journey. By now it was late afternoon, and if you told Todd he had covered nearly 30 miles, he wouldn’t have believed you.

Finally, they saw the outline of the pub. To Todd, it seemed like a mirage in the desert.

John ordered two IPAs for them. Todd inhaled the bright floral aroma and tasted the familiar resinous pine and lemon peel hops.

It was the most delicious and refreshing beer he had ever had in his life.

Permanent Link

The Bitter Brewer: Chapter 12

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Photo from Pedal Bicycles Facebook page

Note: The following is a fictionalized story written as a chapter a day for the National Novel Writing Month challenge. It’s inspired by real life places, events and, of course, beer. Catch up with previous chapters here

It seemed like Todd had a knack for getting vehicles stolen close to the police department. It was quickly becoming a talent he didn’t know he had.

In this case, the Kalamazoo police were 1.3 miles from the Eccentric Cafe, the scene where their motorcycles had gone missing.

How do two motorcycles just disappear? How does a GMC Jimmy just vanish from a woods? How did they not hear a thing?

It was eerie how they had just discussed Titus Bronson and the difficulty and impracticality of stealing a cherry tree, and then Todd noticed somehow had swiped two motorcycles in broad daylight. That seemed equally as difficult and impractical.

James was taking this episode surprisingly well, given how much time he had tinkered and toiled to get his Harley’s road ready.

“Better to have loved and lost…” he said, though Todd couldn’t tell if he actually believed it.

James explained that if it wasn’t for this road trip, short as it may have been, the motorcycles would have continued to collect dust in the garage. At least now they had been used doing what they were designed to do — ride the open road.

Fortunately (if you could call it that) this time they had Elmer’s vehicle to help them out. Elmer was in no shape to drive and he wasn’t yet ready to leave his spot at the bar.

“Take as long as you need,” he said. “I’ll be here.”

Todd and James took his truck down to the station, where Todd found he was becoming efficient at filling out stolen vehicle reports. It only took them around 20 minutes to finish this time.

In a way, it was almost too quick. Too routine. It didn’t really give them time to process what had happened to them. One minute they were raising their glasses in a toast, the next they were on the steps of the police department finished with missing vehicle reports. It all happened so fast, so suddenly.

What would they do next?


There was really one one thing to do. Go back to the bar and drink.

“I told you I’d be here,” Elmer said, greeting them at the bar. He bought them another round of Bells. Winter White Ale for Todd. Best Brown Ale for James.

They discussed their options.

Maybe this was the universe trying to tell them something, James said. Maybe it was the end of the road.

They could hitchhike back home. They could take a bus back. James said his brother would drive over from Munster and pick them both up.

They definitely needed another beer before a decision could be made.

“You know,” Elmer piped up, “my friend Tom owns Pedal Bicycles.”

He just let that thought hang in the air.

“You could just pay them a visit. See if they have something to get you down the road.”

The idea of turning this into a bicycle trip seemed absurd. The last time Todd rode a bike was probably in high school. Bikes were for hipsters or spandex-clad weekend warriors. Both were trying way too hard, in Todd’s opinion.

On the other hand…

He wasn’t ready to pack it in yet. He felt there was something else out there for him yet. He’d been on the road barely a week.

Todd had started this road trip in a GMC Jimmy filled with beer. Next came motorcycles, which was a big enough adjustment itself. Maybe a road bike was the natural progression?

Elmer told Todd to take his truck.

“Take as long as you need,” he said. “I’ll be here.”


James called his brother to start driving to Kalamazoo just in case things didn’t work out for Todd at the bike shop. In any case, James said, he had to get back to work. This was it for him.

Walking into the bike store was overwhelming. There was a buffalo head on the wall. There were road bikes, mountain bikes, fat tires, commuters, and even something called cyclocross bikes. There was also a bike jersey for sale emblazoned with the word KalamaBrews.  “We bike for beer,” it read across the back, with logos of Bell’s and other local breweries.

Huh. Cyclists were into beer too? Maybe, Todd thought, he had something in common with hipsters and spandex-wearing weekend warriors after all.

He must have looked super lost when a bike shop employee named Charlie offered to help.

“Yes, we do have a couple of brutally expensive bikes. They’re neat,” Charlie said. “We also have very nice, affordable bikes. They’re also neat. The question is, can we find the right bike for you? I think we can, and we’ll sure as heck try.” 

This sounded like words that came directly from the bike store’s website*, but he seemed nice so Todd gave him the benefit of the doubt.

(*It did)

Todd explained his situation. His truck and motorcycle had been stolen. He was on an indefinite road trip. Now he was on Plan C and thinking about biking the rest of the way, or at least enough to get him past Kalamazoo. He hadn’t ridden a bike since high school.

This was unorthodox. It was not Charlie’s usual customer.  He took two hours just to get him comfortable riding a bike again. The expression “just like riding a bike,” it turns out, is a misnomer.

In the end, they settled on a Trek cyclocross bike. It was sturdy enough to withstand some long-distance touring, without being too heavy duty to weigh Todd down. As a novice rider in November, he had enough of an uphill battle.

They outfit him with some winter gear, gloves and a balaclava. They gave him an orange KalamaBrews jersey. They put studded tires on the wheels for the inevitable snow that would come.

James spotted Todd the money for the bike and the store threw in a free (used) pair of panniers. Charlie had sample Clif bars that he filled to the brim of the panniers.

By the end of the day, all the bike shop staff knew of Todd’s story and felt some sort of ownership over his future well-being. He had a long, lonely road ahead of him. They didn’t want some sort of “Into the Wild” situation, even if this wasn’t exactly the Alaskan wilderness.

Charlie said he’d call in some favors to cycle shops he knew in the area in case Todd ran into any trouble down the road. With that, they wished him luck on his journey.

There was really one one thing to do. Go back to the bar and drink.

“I told you I’d be here,” Elmer said, greeting them at the bar. He bought them another round of Bells.

He invited them to crash at his place while James waited for his brother and Todd prepared for the rest of the journey.

In the morning, Todd would ride.

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