I should probably start by announcing that I'm not a doctor. So if you're reading this, and you (like me) have Crohn's disease, and you're looking for some sort of guide for how to deal with your illness or how to incorporate more adventure into your diet, please keep in mind that in this case, you'd be taking advice from a guy who plays in rock bands. On the other hand, they are really good bands.
No, this article is about beer. And while we'll get to that, first, let's talk about Crohn's: an incurable disease that affects the digestive tract, causing severe inflammation and other damage. Attacks (also called flare-ups) can be so severe that intestinal blockages occur, which can require hospitalization and/or surgery. Also, these attacks are fucking excruciating (and often incapacitating).
Crohn's affects different people in different ways in terms of what they can eat. Some people can't eat gluten, some people can't drink, and everyone is desperate for a cure: I remember that about 15 years ago, there was a rumor that a particular brand of coconut macaroons was putting people into remission. I tried it, and had one of my worst Crohn's attacks of that year.
Me, I don't eat much—usually just a snack in the day, and then dinner. I can't have fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole wheat, seeds, beans, red meat (except ground lamb), and a hell of a lot more. Even at my best, I can handle only a handful of different meals, and they are very, very plain. My diet makes a kids menu look like an Andrew Zimmern episode guide; my six-month-old daughter is already eating more kinds of foods than I am, and she doesn't even have a tooth yet.
And yet, I love food. I desperately miss salads and pizza and steak sandwiches and mushrooms and burritos and meatball subs and desserts and potato chips and celery sticks. I was diagnosed at 14 (though my stomach problems began around 10), and while there's a whole world of foods I desperately miss, there are even more that I've never even been able to try. My wife loves Thai food, but I have no idea what it tastes like. Thai food! We're not talking about some obscure Russian caviar here. We're talking about fucking Thai food. Or Korean food. Or Middle Eastern food. Or African food. Or Caribbean food. Or Canadian food. (Seriously, I've never had poutine, but despite all the jokes about it, I bet it rules.)
Also, I've been a touring musician since 2005, and a big part of going on tour is eating, from disgusting fast food when you're on a long drive to slightly less disgusting bar food at the venue to some weird vegan concoction that one of the bands makes on a hot plate in the venue's parking lot. Best-case scenario, you get to sample the local cuisine—like, say, when you go to SXSW in Austin, Texas, and chow down on barbecue and migas for four days straight.
But conditions on the road are horrible for someone with Crohn's. You deal with limited access to bathrooms, for one thing (because you're always in a van), and when you do have access, it's usually for a short time (and the place is usually disgusting). You've got no privacy, you get very little rest, and the resulting stress can itself cause a flare-up. Also, your safe food options are sorely limited.
Eating is one of the primary ways we connect with other people, and when you're on tour (especially with another band that you really respect), breaking bread with them really means something. So while my bandmates are downing greasy fast food, slightly-less-greasy bar food, and awesome local cuisine, I only eat about three different things on the road: saltines, plain turkey sandwiches, and rarely (when I have the money and access) salmon sushi with miso (strained, because of course I can't have the scallions, tofu, daikon, seaweed, etc.).
Fortunately, drinking is also a primary way we connect with other people, which brings us to the touring essential that I can, and do, enjoy: beer.
For me, beer used to just be a drink with alcohol in it; I generally liked it, but didn't really care about the brand, so long as it was dirt cheap or free. But after my wife and I relocated from NYC to Colorado four years ago, I found myself drawn into the world of craft beers. And no surprise why: In NYC, a decent six-pack of beer costs roughly $300, whereas here, a six-pack of great, locally brewed beer costs pretty much the same as Bud.
Where I live, in Boulder County, I can walk to Left Hand, Oskar Blues, 300 Suns, and other prestige breweries. If I get in my car and drive it in any random direction for anywhere between 10 to 45 minutes, I can find myself at TRVE, Avery, Odell, Wynkoop, Grimm Brothers, Crooked Stave, Denver Beer Company, Great Divide, Twisted Pine, Upslope, Bootstrap, Mountain Sun, New Belgium, Renegade, Prost, and many others. And that's why, if you're a resident of Colorado and you buy a case of some swill like PBR, Governor John Hickenlooper—who's also the owner of Wynkoop—will personally come to your house and punch you in the fucking face.
But for me, craft beer is more than just better beer, more than a source of joy I can actually share with my bandmates. And this is where the Crohn's comes back in: Beer has allowed me to re-experience, or in some cases experience for the first time, at least some of the foods I'll never eat, or never eat again.
A few months ago, while in town for Denver's Black Sky Festival, I joined a couple of metal dudes at Boulder's Avery Brewing Company. And naturally, as we were all metal dudes, we went with the heaviest, darkest, strongest, most brutal—nah, fuck that. Actually, we kicked off our bender with a passion-fruit beer. And then, after moving on to a whole bunch of other stuff, we came back to it, because whatever you might think about fruit beers, this one is phenomenal.
You know who else likes Lilikoi Kepolo? Everyone. It started out as a quiet experiment, available only in the brewery's tasting room. "We produced it on and off in incredibly small amounts at first," says Darin McGregor, Avery's national marketing director. "It was something different. Around the brewery, we refer to those kinds of beers as 'unicorn tears.' But a couple years ago, we started taking it out of the tap room for special events like beer dinners or tap takeovers, and people would just go bananas for it."
But it wasn't just the customers.
"We started noticing it was the No. 1 beer consumed by our own employees," Darin continues. "We're a brewery that's known for being adventurous. We produced Colorado's first IPA—we liked IPAs before everyone did—and we have this certain pride about that. But when we first started making this beer, we were all kind of like, 'Oh my god. We all like fruit beers?' We were almost ashamed to admit it. Then we started thinking about it, and one of our driving principles is that we like to brew the beer we like to drink. So if this is what we like to drink, so be it."
It's funny, because fruit beers kind of get a bad rap. Maybe because they're seen as somehow being weak. But try never getting to eat fruit again. I can't eat an orange anymore, and I can hardly tolerate more than a squeeze of lime in a gin and tonic, or over food. So to go from that to drinking 12 ounces of passion-fruit beer, it's almost overwhelming. I've never had passion fruit before, so I can't truly attest to its accuracy, but my fellow metal dudes tell me it's right on. But the most telling sign for me that I was dealing with the real fruit flavor (rather than some syrupy additive) is that it's not sweet at all. It's bright and sharp and really invigorating. And it makes you want to drink more.
"It's always Bob Marley," laments Nick Nunns, who runs Denver's TRVE Brewing, on the topic of craft-beer culture. "Everywhere I go, it's fucking Bob Marley everywhere. And it's always the same fucking song, and it drives me goddamn bonkers."
Yes, especially out here in Colorado, the scene can be a little … crunchy. I've seen more bluegrass jam sessions at craft-beer tasting rooms than I have ever have before, and consider that I lived in Brooklyn for seven years. Also, I can't help but notice how many breweries have an area set aside so people can play bags, aka cornhole. So between that and the inevitably blaring Dave Matthews Band (or Marley), kicking back at a brewery can sometimes feel uncomfortably close to hanging out at a frat house where I went to college in Champaign, Ill.
TRVE is not like that; inside, you're far more likely to hear Mastodon's "March of the Fire Ants" than DMB's "Ants Marching." So, I like this place very much. And I really, really like their beer, as this is the brewery that finally allowed me to enjoy the combination of coriander and sea salt.
With Crohn's, sure, it's a pain when there's a certain kind of food you can't eat. But the inability to eat herbs and almost all seasonings really sucks, because that's where so much flavor comes from. I don't need to have a breaded chicken breast smothered in sauce and served on a bed of vegetables with seven-grain bread on the side. But, damn, can't I just put some seasonings and herbs on a piece of chicken to give it some flavor? (No, I can't.) But I can have Prehistoric Dog, a gose that's at once sour, savory, floral, and sharp. It's assertive as hell, but it's not overbearing, it's not filling, and it's really drinkable.
Some of you may have noticed that TRVE named this beer after a song by an Oregon metal band called Red Fang. Nunns put a lot of thought into that.
"The salt and tartness … it sounds like a Red Fang show: really sweaty, and kind of sour," he says. "That's literally where my brain went for that one. I thought about being at that show, and the beer can be kind of sour like those dudes probably are. And the show was definitely sweaty."
For a brewery that does have a lot of bluegrass jams and cornhole games going on at its tasting room, Left Hand has a darker side, too. Their imperial stout is a heavyweight called Wake Up Dead, but in terms of getting some good food flavors from your beer, this is the one to beat: the first pepper porter I'd ever had, and still the best.
One of my favorite things to eat when I was younger was roasted peppers; I loved them all, sweet or spicy. They're definitely one of the foods I miss the most now: In fact, I go out of my way to cook my wife meals with peppers in them, just so I can huff the fumes.
So imagine my excitement when I walk into the local liquor store and find a pepper porter called "Fade to Black." I bought a case on the spot, and the taste was consistent with my beloved memories: I've had other pepper porters and stouts that seemed like they were merely brewed with Tabasco Sauce. Whereas this brought back memories of when I used to bite into the real thing.
Unfortunately, this beer is currently not available. "Volume 3 is very popular," concedes brewery marketing/PR coordinator Emily Armstrong. "It could technically come back as a draft-only. But the other thing is that you would not believe how much labor went into it. It was an assembly line of fold-up tables with serrano, chipotle, and ancho peppers, with our entire production team de-seeding them and throwing them in."
Wow. That sounds hard. You know what else is hard? Having Crohn's disease. They need to bring this back.
Hands down, the most inventive and food-like beer I've ever had is courtesy of the New Hampshire nano-brewery Earth Eagle. And fortunately, this one IS still available. I'll let owner/brewer Butch Heilshorn list the ingredients, which include "16 and a half pounds of beef bones, burdock root, galangal root, and then something we use a lot, which is a swamp plant up in the northern climes called sweet gale. Oh, it's also got some midnight wheat in there. And some oats. But otherwise, it's basically a standard porter."
Totally standard! The beef bones all came from nearby Maine Meats, but it's also worth noting that the sweet gale is locally foraged. "We actually have a forager," Butch tells me. "She goes out into the woods—barefoot, actually— and finds us roots and berries and barks and mushrooms, you name it."
So there I was recently, in a nearby recording studio hammered by freezing cold and pouring rain all week, and despite my best efforts, my stomach felt like hell. So I cracked open the growler of Them Bones, and a couple glasses of the brew truly constituted a meal: a delicious, savory, relaxing, nourishing meal. It sounds like a gimmick, but it's not: Earth Eagle has made beer with pig, elk, and bear parts, and they've even got a moose head on its way for an upcoming brew. But, as Butch told me, "It's got to be good. It has to be good. You can put all the crazy stuff in there you want. But if it doesn't taste good, you haven't done anything—you haven't succeeded." That matters to everyone, of course, but it especially matters to me.
I don't really have a sweet tooth, maybe because I have no real food options for satisfying it: For awhile, I'd munch on a few animal crackers when the urge struck, but even those fairly bland things starting giving me attacks, too.
What I've discovered, though, is that some beers make the perfect dessert. They're gimmicks for most people, but staples for me (when I can afford them).
Graham Cracker Porter, by Denver Beer Company. My son is three years old, and he loves graham crackers; I'd always loved them too, and I'd love to be able to share them with him. Instead, I reach for this beer. Confusingly, the can suggests that you pair it with actual s'mores, which seems like overkill, but in my case that's neither here nor there.
Bomb!, by Prairie Artisan Ales. The only other pepper stout that truly impressed me. It drinks entirely differently, though, as it's a stout brewed with cacao nibs, vanilla, coffee, and pepper. Dessert in a bottle.
Black-O-Lantern, by Wasatch. I still very much enjoy Pumpkinhead by Shipyard, but that's more of a session beer; for a real autumn dessert, I find myself reaching for this nice, big pumpkin stout. I used to love pumpkin pie, too, so it's a joy to sink my teeth into this, even if that's just a metaphor now.
David Obuchowski plays guitar in PUBLICIST UK, which will release its debut album on Relapse Records in 2015; he also sings and plays guitar in Goes Cube and Distant Correspondent. He tweets from @publicistUK.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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