Only in Minnesota.
It’s odd enough to celebrate winter in any way and even odder to have a winter carnival, in January, outdoors. It’s an old tradition here, fueled by alcohol and hubris and, admittedly, a certain amount of hardiness. One of the more recent events has been the Beer Dabbler. It sounds like a great idea. Craft brewers let you taste their creations. You pay a fairly reasonable price to enter the premises and you get a small, small glass that says “Beer Dabbler.” Then you wander around among the 150 or so brewers, wait in line, and get your snippet of the brews they are most eager to market.
So I go to this thing. It’s completely outdoors, at the Fairgrounds, which now look like the remains of a Siberian town in deep winter. It’s 4° and wind whips the snow around my feet. Everyone dresses warmly, except for a few of the young men who are making a machismo statement, and their soft whining fills the air, like the background noise of bees in a clover field.
I am wearing mittens made of bison hide. I bought them at a bison ranch. They are warm but they allow very little hand movement. In fact, I am a lobster, and I clutch my little glass between the barely movable thumb and the rest of the mitten, sideways.
I notice people peering into their tiny beer glasses. Sometimes they are holding the glass over their heads and looking up. Sometimes they are shaking them. I soon discover why. Moments after receiving your ounce or two of beer from a blue lipped server, the beer turns to slush and then freezes solid. You can’t get it out. This limits your ability to taste other beers and you have to put the glass inside your jacket, which means opening yourself to the knife-like cold and placing a frozen object against your torso. Inevitably, it melts and spills, but you do get to sample other beers. You learn you have to adjust. You get your tiny pour and then slug it down like a shot of tequila, then wait for the brain freeze. My strategy is to only sample the beers with the highest alcohol contents. The benefit is twofold. It’s slower to freeze and more quickly spreads a warm glow of invincibility known in Minnesota as a beer jacket. This is commonly worn by snowmobilers who rocket from tavern to tavern until the cold and their beer jackets lull them into sleep and they are found again in early April. If you drive around Minnesota in late winter, you will see an occasional gloved hand or booted foot emerging from a snow drift. Ignore this. Trucks will come along to collect them when the time is right.
I survive the Beer Dabbler for two hours. The sun goes down, the wind picks up, it’s well below zero now. The experience is much like deep space, out between galaxies, but with air. I buy a sausage roll on the way out. Something to snack on in the car, but I find I can’t chew it. My face is too frozen. In fact, it’s too frozen to talk and explain why I am ramming a sausage roll against my lips. This must be what Botox is like.
In the end, it’s not the experience of beer tasting that makes this worthwhile. The beer is too cold to taste. It’s the bragging rights, that you made two hours at the Beer Dabbler and only lost one toe, or maybe the end of your nose. Can’t wait for next year.