June 5, 2019KR BlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiterature

“Song of Myself,” the Beer

“Sobriety,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1842, is “that virtue which every mother and father prays nightly” will reside “in the character of their sons.” Tell that to Bell’s Brewery, which has decided—in a glorious comingling of booze and books—to brew seven new beers in honor of Whitman. Tell that to Whitman himself, who frequented Pfaff’s beer cellar in Manhattan and wrote the above sentence, by his own admission, while soused on gin cocktails. Its source? The introduction to his temperance novel, the forgotten Franklin Evans; Or the Inebriate, which he’d later call “damn rot.” (He was right.) So raise a glass to Leaves of Grass. Raise a glass to Whitman on his 200th birthday.

I certainly will, having just poured myself twelve ounces of “Song of Myself,” Bell’s first offering in its Leaves of Grass Series. (Each beer bears the title of a poem.) I’ve got the poem nearby. I’ve got every intention of putting my Ph.D. to its best possible use here, reviewing this beer as only a trained Whitman scholar might—as a hoppy homage, as a pint-sized paean to its poem. But let’s pause first to revel in the pleasures of this moment. It is the year 2019. A $12.99 six-pack co-exists with a $7.25 minimum wage. The earth is dying and a filthy Presidentiad helps it along. Still, if this is what late-stage capitalism looks like—old products find new packages in the form of old poets—then package on! Next up: prophylactics. We can call it the “Longfellow.” Next up: the Baltimore police get a mascot. We call him the “Poe Poe.”     

You might wonder, then, what sort of beer is “Song of Myself”? Bell’s calls it a “German-Inspired American IPA.” It’s got a 6.5% ABV (alcohol by volume). It glows with an amber translucence that you wouldn’t call “hazy” (a favorite IPA tagline) or pale. It is, at first drink, quenchable, not too hoppy—a common misstep in so many IPAs—and backyard ready. This is a lawn-mowing beer, a break-time beer, a beer for loafing at your ease and “observing a spear of summer grass.” I taste notes of pineapple and citrus. I noticed that its profile mellows quickly, ending—unlike my reading of the poem—with more denouement than damn! Am I “mad for it to be in contact with me”? Is it, like the atmosphere, “for my mouth forever”? No, but “I know it and like it.”

The trouble with a “Song of Myself” beer—or the trouble, to be fair, with me drinking a “Song of Myself” beer—is in reconciling the achievement of that poem with a single beverage. The scholar James E. Miller describes it (the poem, not the beer) as an “inverted mystical experience.” Randall Jarrell claims it contains more than half of Whitman’s best lines. How do you squeeze that much awesome into twelve fluid ounces? How do you fit Whitman’s contradictions and his “kosmos” into a can? (For the record, this one comes bottled.) You can’t, not really, but you can ask your drinkers to be readers, and good on Bell’s for doing just that. Their label here recalls the title page for the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Their future offering will draw new light to lesser known verse.

This is precisely why I am so jazzed about Bell’s Leaves of Grass Series. It’s a project that’s quite in keeping with Whitman’s aesthetic. His poems grow by sections. His art—and its one book—is accretive. These beers too will gather force, each marked as I–VII, a Roman numeral stamped on their caps. Bell’s will offer different styles to suit the seasons. They are like the parts of a long poem; they aspire to capture—in barley and malt, fruit and hops—the expansiveness of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It was the one book that Langston Hughes didn’t throw overboard while traveling to Africa. (It’s that comprehensive.) It’s the only one that claims, “this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man” (“So Long!”). Drink enough of this new “Song of Myself” beer—I recommend it—and you’ll be convinced he is right.

Bell’s “Song of Myself” is currently available in bottles and on draught. Their next offering, “The Prairie-Grass Dividing,” will appear in July of 2019. Check back at the Kenyon Review Online blogs for future reviews—I plan to drink all seven—of Bell Brewery’s Leaves of Grass Series. Let’s call it: “This Distillation Will Intoxicate Me Also.”