Robert Frost and the Poetry of Ale

Tyler Flynn, accomplished homebrewer, naturalist and teacher of American History, approached me a week ago with an article he wrote about who has most influenced his love of beer. I was inspired by Tyler's interest in combining the outdoors with the love of beer; in some ways it reminded me of my own work with Beers Made By Walking. So I'm happy to publish this essay here. If interested, Tyler's information is at the bottom of the page.

Monk's Café, where Tyler first discovered Orval Trappist Ale

Robert Frost and the Poetry of Ale

The person who has helped me appreciate craft brew more than any other would certainly be American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963). Although none of his poems are about beer, Robert Frost taught me to observe life through the eyes of poet, to slow down and appreciate the preciousness of one’s current moment and the beauty that is often concealed in the ordinary.

“Going for Water,” for example, is a poem about two children fetching water from a brook on a cold autumn evening. What the poem becomes, however, is a reflection on more than just doing chores: “[the youths] ran as if to meet the moon, That slowly dawned behind the trees, The barren boughs without the leaves, Without the birds, without the breeze.” Here is a scene of a still, frigid, fall night that most of us would find inhospitable, but which Frost encourages to endure a bit longer. In “Going for Water,” the children end up playing a game of hide-and-seek with the rising moon, darting between tree trunks; they do this despite the loneliness of the leaf-less wood and the reality that summer’s warm greenery has passed and winter lies ahead. It is as if Robert Frost is challenging his readers to adopt a poet’s sensibility, to linger, listen more carefully, and become aware of a deeper sensory world of wonderment.

Another favorite of mine is Frost’s poem “A Line-Storm Song” written to a female companion he hopes will be his lover. “Come over the hills and far with me, And be my love in the rain” he states, acknowledging that this country walk will dampen their neat clothes, but that messiness is the price of living life with abandon and courage. Again, this New England poet advocates for a frame of mind that cherishes each passing moment, partaking of the fruits within reach when they are ripe even as unavoidable realities like misunderstanding, loss, and ultimately, death, loom.

Certainly, Robert Frost’s ethic about valuing the moment flows most elegantly into the present-mindedness that so many beer enthusiasts share when drinking, brewing, and talking about our favorite fermented beverage. Yet my appreciation for Frost has gone further than drinking of the literal and figurative cup set before us; he was also a lover of the natural world in a time of dramatic urban and industrial growth when human beings were becoming increasingly removed from their agricultural past. Robert Frost’s poetry reminds us that we are part of a natural world, that we are biological creatures, and that loving the out-of-doors is a good thing.

"an apple orchard that abuts the shore of Lake Ontario near a small town called Olcott just north of Buffalo"

The connection between Robert Frost’s aesthetic naturalism and quality beer became apparent to me while sitting in Monk’s Café in Philadelphia three summers ago. Up to this moment, I had been searching for a way to express my love of my own favorite place on earth, an apple orchard that abuts the shore of Lake Ontario near a small town called Olcott just north of Buffalo, New York. Since childhood this area where my father’s family called home since the late nineteenth century had served as a refuge for me, a place I could retreat to during vacations and, throughout the rest of the year, in my imagination when mired in the tedium of day-to-day life.

Prior to this first encounter with Orval Trappist Ale, I had yet to find anything that so competently expressed my memories of being at this orchard, particularly in August when summer was in its final, fleeting, glory. Late summer at this spot was when the air was filled with the aroma of grass, wildflower, and near the shore itself, of pine, dark and fecund earth, and Lake Ontario’s rotting seaweed drying on the rocky beach. Biking from my grandmother’s house through thirteen miles of open country roads in the afternoon heat was the perfect preparation for swimming in the cool of this placid body of water.

Far removed from this orchard while sitting at the barstool of Monk’s Café in Philadelphia I realized this Orval Trappist Ale expressed much of what I loved about Olcott, New York, and this rocky shoreline. Orval’s funky barnyard character, its white, sea-foamy head, and its refreshing drinkability reminded me of a swim in the lake while lighter hop notes were akin to the cut-grass and uncultivated foliage of the orchard itself. Orval was poetry in a bottle, in a sense, and mysteriously encapsulated the wildness and elegance of my beloved lakeshore orchard. Drinking it freed me to travel there in my mind in a state of private bliss before settling my bill and getting on with my day.

I would imagine that each of us, if we pause, may discover our own strong associations of certain beers with a memory, a place, or a season of the year. Few of us possess the skill with words that Robert Frost did, but why should that stop us from uttering imperfect poetry about, alas, the meaning of beer? Next time you are enjoying a glass of remarkable ale, ask yourself, “Why exactly do I like this so much?” Who knows, the answer might surprise you.

Contact Tyler:

Tyler Flynn is an avid home-brewer and professor of 20th century American history at Easter University in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Having grown up in pastoral Massachusetts and Connecticut, he early on developed a love for the out-of-doors, and while a graduate student at Penn State University met fellow naturalists who fermented honey into mead wines. Tyler has won two home-brew competitions for his "Pumpkin Old Ale," which features bourbon, oak, vanilla bean, and a trace of cinnamon to create the effect of an October hike in the woods, as he describes it. His "Pumpkin Old Ale" is going to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this year as a collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, submitted in the Pro-Am category.
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BeerEric Steen