A Life of Craft Beer and Calypso
Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 21, 2009
I’d hate for it to get around that what follows is the upshot of my ongoing research (nobody tell my Dean! not a word to Fulbright!). But the fact of the matter is that while delving into the history of calypso—and race, and multiculturalism, and immigration, etc.—in Canada, I’ve also been schooling myself about Ontario craft brewing.
Instead of finishing Himani Bannerji’s Dark Side of the Nation, for instance, I’ve been falling asleep at night with Nick Pashley‘s hilarious first book, Notes on a Beermat: Drinking and Why It’s Necessary, and before that, his latest, the delightful Cheers: An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada. The good people who post at sites like The Bar Towel and CASK! have also served as discerning and enthusiastic guides to the region’s best efforts. (Heaven knows you need someone to show you the lay of the land, since Ontario’s Liquor Control Board—like its surprisingly large contingent of United Empire Loyalists a relic of the province’s whiter, tighter days—is not much interested in enlightening you, and the hopefully named “Beer Store,” owned by the multinational overlords of megabrewers Labatt and Molson, would really just as soon keep you in the dark.)
And then there’s the, erm, “field research.” While there are honest folk who’ll dispute this claim for a variety of reasons, Hamilton has, to my mind, precisely one genial spot for acquainting oneself with Canadian craft beer: the Winking Judge on Augusta Street. In a city of half a million, with a major university. Go figure. Luckily Toronto, the urbane sister city along the lakeshore, which unfairly casts its long shadow westward all the way to Hamilton, features any number of friendly, first-rate establishments to which one may repair for a pint of locally brewed, cask-dispensed refreshment after a hard day slaving over a hot microform reader.
One of Pashley’s favorite haunts (he’ll be having a book launch there on Tuesday, November 26, in fact) is the Granite Brewery at Eglinton and Mount Pleasant, where I took myself on Thursday after a pleasant afternoon at the home of George Maharaj, author, archivist, and (we decided) “adjunct lecturer”—just three of his many titles—and still, for the time being, at least, the owner of one of the world’s foremost collections of recorded calypso. (For decades, Maharaj has been trying to persuade the government of Trinidad & Tobago, or failing that, the University of the West Indies, to preserve and promote the nation’s cultural heritage by founding a calypso institute and research library with his formidable collection at its core. Let’s say it’s been a frustrating twenty-odd years. You can find out more about Maharaj, and buy his two books, at Roots of Calypso.)
To judge by his spiral-bound address books, the gregarious Maharaj knows just about everyone in the world, and one of his six-and-a-half billion connections is Wilma Cayonne Cromwell, widow of “Jamaica Johnny” Cayonne, a Trinidadian who performed in New York in the late 1950s (and later, in Canada, in the 1960s), notably at the beatnik hangout Cafe Bizarre. Even more bizarre: there was a second Jamaica Johnny, a rough contemporary of the first, who made his name in Amsterdam, where he recorded several sides for Philips, including this ode to the fruits of brewing science (a copy of which was on the shelves of Maharaj’s collection, of course):
Okay, so Amstel hardly counts as craft beer, and Jamaica Johnny isn’t the first entertainer, or even the first calypsonian, to employ his talents hawking products of questionable quality. (While the Netherlands produces a number of top-shelf brews, Amstel is the Dutch Bud: clean, consistent, and thoroughly unadventurous.) Just the same, I couldn’t help but see, in my serendipitous introduction to the commercial side of Jamaica Johnny’s career, an emblem of my current idyllic life. A week or so ago, NPR’s A Blog Supreme ran a feature on Bruno Johnson, founder of the Okka Disk record label and proprietor of two highly esteemed Milwaukee taverns. The latter specialize in craft beer (American and Belgian), while the former specializes in free jazz, by the likes of Ken Vandermark, Fred Anderson, and—you knew there was going to be a Dutch connection here somewhere—Peter Brötzmann. “Good music by day, craft beer by night,” wrote Patrick Jarenwattananon, pithily summing up Johnson’s life.
Back in my home state of California, a cabal of administrators, under cover of an ongoing budgetary crisis, is busily realizing one of the right wing’s oldest and wildest dreams, deprofessionalizing the professoriate and methodically dismantling what used to be the greatest system of public higher education in the land. (That’s one way to shut up those tenured radicals.) It’s not a hopeful prospect for an academic to return to. But for now, I still get to relish a core feature of what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job in America.” I.e., I get to hang out in libraries, read books, and enjoy the hospitality of good people like George Maharaj by day, then pore over my notes, catch up on my periodical reading, and quaff pints of Granite Best Bitter Special (well, okay: and delight in the company of my longsuffering family) by night. As Jarenwattananon said of Bruno Johnson: “Best. Life. Ever.”