When Water Meets Water — Surviving the Myths of Jack Kerouac and Craft Beer — Good Beer Hunting – Michael Kiser

Every morning, I wake up woolly and woebegone, a shriek jolting through my mind. Sometimes, it’s anguish. Other times, delight. Daisy determines which.
Daisy determines most everything, these days. Ever since my fawn-eyed daughter came suddenly and quietly into the world in June 2020, she has dictated the course of every morning, to the point where I no longer remember other reasons I would wake up so cobwebbed. Until one Tuesday in May, when she reminded me. 
Sitting between my legs, one hand on the middle of a bookshelf, Daisy spilled a half-dozen novels across the floor. As I reached down to clean them up, I saw one that I’d been meaning to read since the last time I awoke on a stranger’s floor: Satori in Paris by Jack Kerouac.
There is a version of me that drank until the next day’s moon. A version that couldn’t write a paragraph without a drink on the desk. A version that wrote sorry prose where I was a poet and Kerouac was my literary father because my real father—also named Jack—had been sober 25 years.
A decade later, here I am at 5:30 a.m., with an 11-month-old in the cradle of my body and one of Kerouac’s last published works in my hand. I spend my days thinking grimly about my own drinking and nights writing about beer. My intake has curtailed significantly since I first read Big Sur at 20 years old and made an internal promise to drink myself into creating great words. (Fatherhood really is the spirit-racking awakening other dads tell you it is.) 
But I still worry about how I drink. And when. And how working in the beer industry makes it too easy to forget why. And I think about Kerouac, even when I’m not reading him, and how he’s all tangled up in it.
The Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts and New Hampshire was the crucible of the American industrial revolution. Incorporated as a mill town in 1826 and named for textile magnate Francis Cabot Lowell, Lowell, Massachusetts, boomed throughout the 1800s until the early 1920s, when much of the country’s manufacturing moved south and the Great Depression hit. It was during this sharp downswing, in 1922, that Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, son to Québécois immigrants.
The Beat Generation author’s early life in Lowell has been heavily mythologized. He only spoke French until he was six years old and later claimed to be descended from Breton nobility. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926, and Kerouac grew up convinced Gerard was a saint.
Kerouac later became a star high school fullback, eventually earning a scholarship to Columbia University and leaving Lowell for the first time—a journey he chronicled in the roman à clef The Town and the City, published in 1950. At Columbia, he met Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. He would publish their exploits in his rollicking text On the Road, and he instantly became an idol of post-World War II American counterculture. 
Though I was born and raised in coastal Massachusetts, the first time I heard the name Jack Kerouac was over a beer pong table in a Duke University dorm. It was 2009, and I was on the road with my college hockey team; I’d snuck out to Duke to visit a high school friend, Eriks. Eriks’ life had more or less mirrored the plot of The Town and the City—big-hearted son of immigrants grows up in Somewhere, Massachusetts, becomes a football hero, goes to college on scholarship, opens himself to the universe. 
Eriks never fit in with the other football players. He had long, boyish hair and would write poems in the sports section of the local paper. He brought up the name Kerouac while we were getting drunk with his teammates, shouting from across the room while I raced to chug red cups from the table. He spoke in a way that entranced me, his teeth dancing over the words. Outside, we smoked cigarettes while he told me about Big Sur. I ended up getting so sideways I lost the key to my rental van.
Written in 1962, Big Sur chronicles Kerouac’s life after the controversial success of On the Road. On the Road made Kerouac a celebrity, a position he never sought or wanted. His writing surged with a wild, sexual energy that had made him both a hero and a pariah. Kerouac could not handle the attention, and he drowned himself in alcohol to numb the anxiety.
I saw Kerouac as a great, fervid engine. A saint consecrated in equal parts ink and alcohol. I learned that he wrote in powerful Benzedrine fits, famously typing a draft of On the Road from margin to margin on a 120-foot roll of paper. He called this zone of creative intoxication “the flow,” and the flow was fed by booze—first cheap beer like Harvard Ale; then Johnnie Walker, port, and tequila; and eventually cognac.
In Big Sur, he flees to fellow Beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Canyon and tries to piece himself back together. He fails three times, each failure more profound than the last. Eriks was doing his independent study on Kerouac, during which he wore a GoPro on his forehead and drank furiously around campus, recreating those failures. He channeled the libertine nights into a thesis he called Hello, Jack.
“I thought what would happen if Jack didn’t drink. Would he still have the empathetic pen that matches his empathetic heart?” Eriks wrote in Hello, Jack. “I do not empathize with Jack. I feel very sorry for him.” 
I did empathize with Jack. At the time, I was awakening to my own family’s history of alcoholism. I was just old enough to know what it meant when my grandmother started to speak loud and slow after dinner. I knew why my uncles would disappear from birthday parties and come back singing. My mother was afraid of all these things, and the first time she caught me sneaking Heineken in the side door, she spoke to me with the consternation of a woman who had seen a vision.
But I was helpless. Kerouac’s writing had flowed into me. Before, I wrote stilted poems, training in iambs and dense patterns of rhyme. When I got back to campus from North Carolina, I read Big Sur in a single night. At the end of the novel, Kerouac sits in a basin of the Pacific Ocean, listening, transcribing poems that spill out of the tide. The resultant piece, “Sea,” became what I saw as the true essence of being a writer. That is: not to carefully construct beauty, but to be a conduit of the beauty already hidden in the world. To hold an ear to the universe and a pen to page. 
Didja ever tell him
about water meeting water——?
O go back to otter——
Clock——Gomeat sea need
be deep I see you
When Kerouac was listening to the Pacific, it told him to abandon his peace. It shouted down his fantasy of being Thoreau and told him, “GO TO YOUR DESIRE DON’T HANG AROUND HERE.” He spent the next months boiling through San Francisco, boozing recklessly, absconding with Cassady’s mistress, and hallucinating the crucifixion. 
The first time Gerald Nicosia read The Dharma Bums was in 1972. What struck him was not only the musicality of Kerouac’s bop prose or the unpredictable language, but the empathy.
“He was influenced by Jack London in terms of caring about the poor, the working class, down and out, the bums, the hobos, the people on the outside of wealthy society,” Nicosia says, contrasting Kerouac’s work with that of John Updike and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who were preoccupied with the accords of the upper class. “He had a very compassionate view to the lives of ordinary working-class people.”
Nicosia is a Chicago-born journalist, poet, critic, and author, but he is probably best known as Kerouac’s most candid biographer. His exceptionally studied 1983 book, Memory Babe, examines the dissonance between Kerouac’s life as he lived it and his life as he wrote it. 
Kerouac’s blue-collar background is ultimately what separated him from many of his Beat Generation comrades. Carr was raised in well-heeled St. Louis society. Burroughs was the scion of a wealthy family, and he got an allowance from his parents until he was 50 years old. Kerouac was the son of immigrants, his father a printer, and his mother a factory worker. He only went to Columbia because he got lucky on the gridiron. 
Kerouac’s oeuvre is a tribute to the ho-hum, clock-punching American worker. In the opening salvo of his 90-page narrative poem “Old Angel Midnight,” Kerouac names everyone from the painters outside his window to the microbes in his kidney in his personal definition of the proletariat. And he sanctifies every life form between.
Nicosia is currently self-publishing an updated version of Memory Babe, and he is initially hesitant to speak to me for this story, worried about glorifying Kerouac as some sort of steel-bellied literary Wade Boggs. But when we do speak, we connect immediately. He speaks of Kerouac in words I wish I had, awash in new findings from his research. He sends me a picture from 1963 of Kerouac lounging in an armchair while his friend Stanley Twardowicz does a Russian step, four cans of Ballantine Ale in his hands.
“[Kerouac] originally started drinking beer because he was a poor working-class guy,” Nicosia says. “He drank to get high, trying to ‘get his glow on,’ as he would say.” 
For Kerouac, alcohol is what opened the channel between the personal and the universal. It thinned boundaries, effaced inhibitions, gave voice to the tide. This was an addictive mentality to me when I was leaving college and trying to become a writer. It’s the bottle on the table that makes you the voice of the world, I thought. The empathy comes by the ounce. 
“When you’re a kid and you’re sort of taking these new ideas, you don’t think about the context of what or how this happened,” says Oliver Gray, a poet and beer writer. “Kerouac drank himself to death in isolation. Same with Hemingway. Same with Joyce. I consider myself an artist, for whatever that’s worth, but I don’t want to be a tortured artist.”
When Kerouac was six years old, he gave his first confession. During the rosary, he claimed that God spoke to him and said he would “die in pain and horror,” but ultimately receive salvation. Another piece of lore from his childhood in Lowell. Kerouac would prove this vision prophetic, if you believe it happened at all. If there’s one thing Ol’ Jack was addicted to more than a drink, it was a good myth.
I only wish I’d had Gray’s aversion to myth as a young writer. Maybe it was my own blue-collar upbringing bleeding into my work, but I was convinced that, like all those writers he mentions, the work had to come through tragedy. I was reading Bukowski and nodding affirmatively. 
“Pity the poor writer, he not only attracts madwomen, he not only destroys his liver with drinking, he also has no Union,” Bukowski wrote to his editor in 1981. “Stuck with his sickness for the word and usually having contempt for the business world he is left with nothing but to trust the others, and leaning on that, he is usually taken.”
Yes, I thought, here I am. Later in that same edition, Bukowski tells a story of how he got too drunk and fell down in the fireplace, waking bleeding later that night. That could’ve been me if I’d been able to afford a place with a chimney, sacrificing the obstacle of my body for the freedom of my creativity.
“I’m less enamored by the narratives, because I feel bad for the person who wrote them,” Gray says, nearly quoting Eriks. “When you’re 16 and you think you understand how the world works, it’s a completely different perspective than when you’re old enough to know what alcoholism is and what it does to people.”
I was 22 when Kerouac became doctrine. By that point, I’d read Big Sur, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Pomes All Sizes, and the unedited original scroll of On the Road. Unable to find a job, I moved to Thailand to teach English and drink without worrying about mornings.
I’d arrived in Bangkok only five days after graduating with a degree in creative writing and journalism, and there was no outlook. It was 2011, one of the worst economic downturns in American history, and to make that point all the more dramatic, my graduation was held on a day foretold by religious fanatics to be the Apocalypse.
And I was taken, like Bukowski said. Not by some clever scheme or financial ruse, but by the romance of this doom. I told my girlfriend at the time—a kind and idealistic woman who had studied to be an elementary school teacher—that I wouldn’t write anything worthwhile unless I was unhappy. “No art is possible without a dance with death,” I told her, straight-facedly quoting Kurt Vonnegut. 
Over the months, she said that I’d become bitter and despondent. I said that this is how it happens. So, she gave me the tragedy I’d been prophesying, and she left me. I spent my last five months in Thailand miserable, drinking from night to noon, listening to recordings of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” on YouTube. I got stuck thinking there was something in me booze could unlock, and I wrote almost nothing. A sales brochure for a pool chemical company, an e-book on auras for a television psychic. Nothing of substance.
Kerouac was the same, I learned. The right amount of booze built his momentum. Too much stopped it cold. “Once he got to the point of obliteration, he really couldn’t write anymore,” Nicosia says. I lived my life beyond that point.
By 1960, Kerouac had drunk so much wine that he was totally impotent and his tongue turned white. Nine years later, Kerouac was at home writing in St. Petersburg, Florida, when he started vomiting blood. He was rushed to the hospital, where they performed surgery and depleted their blood bank with transfusions. Because his cirrhosis was so advanced, he couldn’t recover. He died the next morning, done in by an esophageal hemorrhage. 
At the time, all his books were out of print, and he had $91 in his bank account. The Guardian’s David Barnett called it “a painful and undignified death,” but what was more shameful was Kerouac’s behavior in the years leading up to his death.
Alcohol had made Kerouac belligerent and vicious. He was spiteful of his legacy, vengeful of the fact that he received no formal recognition from the literary world for his contributions. In his last published work, an embittered essay entitled “After Me, the Deluge,” he dismissed the rising generation of artists influenced by On the Road and the Beat Generation as “parasites feeding on their own national host.” He’d alienated himself from his few living contemporaries, to the point that Ginsberg, his spiritual kin, refused to be around him anymore
Nicosia says you can track his abuse of alcohol to the abrupt and spectacular success of On the Road in 1957. It was then that Kerouac switched from beer to whiskey and from “the flow” to a falling-down alcoholism. The towns he lived in late in his life—Lowell, St. Petersburg, and Northport, New York—all carry legends of a piss-drunk Kerouac being thrown out the door. At New York City’s White Horse Tavern, it’s still customary to write “Kerouac Go Home!” above the urinals.
I wonder now what Bangkok remembers of me. A decade after reading about how Kerouac fell apart, I do not recognize the person who slurred through go-go bars on Christmas or fought on top of tables in backpacker bars. It took me only weeks after coming home through the side door and living with my sober father to realize how badly I needed to dry out. Over the next few weeks, I compressed my beatnik year abroad into a stark, seven-page poem called “Ajarn,” after the Thai word for teacher.
“Hallelujah holy mistakes,” I wrote, “We are makers indeed.”
As I write this, I am finishing a beer: a delicate Cream Ale made in a nearby suburb by careful artisans. It is easy for me to tell myself that a 3 p.m. beer is dignified when it’s made like this; that drinking, in this instance, is an appreciation of a trade more than an act of hedonism. I am not afraid of Daisy watching me drink this beer, because it is craft beer.
When I returned from Thailand, ready to consider my drinking, craft was waiting for me. It billed itself as a responsible alternative to the kinds of low-quality, high-consumption, factory-made beers that Kerouac drank. It is a powerful myth, one that is baked into the Brewers Association’s identity. And it persists even as the craft beer narrative crumbles due to labor disputes, racist allegations, and institutionalized gender-based harassment. Through it all, taproom culture favors considered, congenial consumption over no-brakes blackout chasing. Kerouac would’ve scoffed.
As I finish this beer, my thoughts wander to another beer. There are more just down the stairs, sitting as they do when they come in the door. And when you’re a beer writer, they are always coming in. It makes me remember Norman Miller, the Framingham, Massachusetts, beer writer who, instead of giving in to demanding things, quit his beat because he knew drinking would kill him.
I seek solace in Peter Crowley, the director of fermentation at Haymarket Brewery & Taproom. Crowley is a man who has no time for myths.
“I wouldn’t say [craft beer] is supposed to be a responsible consumption model,” he says. “It’s definitely an alternative. I look at it as, I don’t like fast food. I like to go home and make my own burger. I like to make it better, fresher. I’m still eating a cheeseburger.”
For the past decade, Haymarket’s Chicago location has been involved with the Drinking & Writing Theater, co-founded by former assistant brewer Steve Mosqueda. Though they’re currently on hiatus, the once-annual festival pays homage to the archetype of “the hard drinking writer,” typified by wordsmiths like Bukowski, Hemingway, and of course Kerouac. Crowley sees no dissonance between these writers’ drinking habits and the principles craft beer stands for.
In the world of craft beer, Kerouac is an infrequent, though evocative, muse. At least 14 breweries and homebrewers on Untappd have named beers in his honor—from Hill Farmstead Brewery’s Dharma Bum to Magic Hat Brewing Company’s Kerouac Beet Ale. There is even a nano brewery in Mexico City named Sal Paradise, after the pseudonymous main character in On the Road.
Only Haymarket has gone back to Kerouac, and the Beat Generation, for several beer names—Kerouac Kolsch, Ti Jean Saison, and an Amber Ale named Naked Lunch. Much like Haymarket was branded to remind Chicagoans of the 1886 labor riot that took place in the West Loop, Crowley insists that the Kerouac beers are an invitation to think more concertedly about what you’re drinking and why you may be drinking it.
“There is some inspiration and creativity that comes from drinking alcohol, because you’re talking about it, and you’re learning things,” Crowley says. “Beer names can create conversation that is something about, say, Kerouac. I think that’s really cool. It gives people knowledge and interesting conversation.”
But not everyone agrees. Nicosia is skeptical about naming any kind of alcohol after Kerouac. “His alcoholism was one of the really dark places of his life,” he says. “Why pick the worst part of a person’s life and celebrate them?”
In Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Navigation Brewing Co. has somehow found a way to honor Kerouac without compromising craft’s self-mythology. 
English teacher and Navigation bartender David Iverson grew up in Lowell detesting Kerouac. His mother’s hairdresser was Kerouac’s niece, and she never spoke a kind word about her old uncle. But now, Lowell has become a tourist destination for Kerouac’s devoted readers, who are prone to leave bottle caps on his headstone in Edson Cemetery. The city is eager to tout Kerouac’s legacy, but there are residents who resent the King of the Beats for his uncouth reputation. 
“In Lowell, it’s a very mixed bag as far as reaction to the name Jack Kerouac,” says Iverson. “For every fan of his work, you’ll find two people who knew him personally and talk about what a bum he was or what a jerk he was.”
Iverson was an avid reader as a kid, but he steered clear of Kerouac. That was until college, when, during a blizzard, he picked up his roommate’s copy of On the Road. The allure was undeniable. These days, he’s on the committee of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, an annual celebration that hosts poetry readings, scholarly discussions, and most famously, a pub crawl.
“Within Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, there is a real push and pull as to what to do,” Iverson says. “A good number of the events take place in Kerouac’s old watering holes, but on the other hand, there’s a real sensitivity within the organization to not focus too much on the drinking aspects. There are some people that would rather do away with any references to drinking at all.”
There is drinking, of course, and that’s sometimes the only reason people get involved. But Iverson saw his position at Navigation as a way to bring the craft beer ethos of moderate consumption into the citywide celebration. In 2016, the team brewed a special, oak-infused Strong Ale called Tribute to Jack Kerouac, and the taproom has hosted downtempo events that provide thoughtful counterbalance to rowdy Kerouac haunts like The Worthen House.
“Within the realm of craft beer, it’s way more about quality over quantity,” Iverson says, echoing old myths, nearly true through their repetition. “One of the concerns was that they want people to be very careful about naming beers after Kerouac because of this very issue of naming a beer after a guy who ended up having horrible problems with alcohol addiction later in life. Is that responsible? That’s something that we struggle with, and we still have not come up with an answer to it.”
Now that it’s out and lying on the floor, I decide to read Satori in Paris as I read Big Sur over a decade ago: as fast as possible, in a late-night fervor. That night, after Daisy is through with her demands and sleeping face-down in sweaty surrender, I start. It takes me a few days longer, but I burn through the text. 
In the novel, only four years removed from Big Sur, Kerouac stalks around France, halfheartedly searching for the origin of his name, distracting himself with bars and midnight romances. On every page he is a fool; his roving, empathetic vision turned inward until he comes to the realization—the satori or “sudden awakening” alluded to in the title—that his destiny is to be pathetic. To provide a piteous figure that drives those around him towards kindness. “A-ha!” he thinks, jabbering at the cab driver who provides his illumination, all charm gone.
The edition I own is bound with Kerouac’s final novella, Pic, about a poor Black boy in rural North Carolina. It is written in shockingly racist dialect, amounting to little more than literary blackface. I make it no more than a paragraph into the story before I shove the whole edition onto a much higher shelf.
By this point, I have caught up to Eriks. I no longer empathize with Kerouac. I pity him, but not in the way he hoped would enlighten me. I think too much about him transcribing the tides in Big Sur, unspooling gibberish and calling it God. The first time I read him, I thought it was water meeting water. These days, I think of how awful he was to his own daughter, a tragedy that only Nicosia ever talks about. I think about my own drinking, and Bangkok long ago, and how Kerouac warns me to keep thinking about it. I don’t think enough about my father, but I’m working on that.
And I think of Daisy, every moment, and in absolute innocence. She talks in God, herself. When she speaks, it sounds like the ocean, and I need no drink to hear it.
To order the newest edition of Nicosia’s Memory Babe, send an email to Nicosa at gerald@geraldnicosia.com or write to him at PO Box 130, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0130.
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