“Since we’re drinking beer at 8:30 in the morning, does that make us alcoholics?” a friend asks only half sarcastically. “I can’t say I’ve done this — on purpose, anyway — in a long time.”
Me, either, I tell him, save for last year’s Gravity Head kickoff at the NABC Pizzeria and Public House in New Albany.
That marked the first time in decades I drank beer so early, the first time ever that it was actually good beer, not to mention, consumed under civil circumstances. (That short-on-civility event was the Talledega 500 NASCAR race in 1987. Just use your imagination.)
Begun 15 years ago as a celebration of high-alcohol (i.e. “high gravity”) beers, Gravity Head has grown into a month-long event where nearly six dozen, seriously potent brews (some from NABC, most from guest breweries) get top billing at the brewpub.
Always held on a late February Friday, it used to begin at a more respectable time in the evening. But several years ago the start time got pushed back to 7 a.m., when Indiana allows restaurants to begin serving beer.
“We had a TV news crew here that wanted to do a live shot at 5 in the morning, and we couldn’t be seen on TV drinking beer before it was legal to do so … right?” says Roger Baylor, co-owner of NABC, smiling wryly. “We wouldn’t want to break the law or anything, so we moved it to 7 a.m.”
And the crowds came. Way more than Baylor or his partners ever expected. For the past few years, the 7 a.m. crush packs the humble pub which seats about 80 people and has standing room for at least 20 more.
Why is anyone so eager to suck up serious suds at an hour when most people want a java jolt?
“I think people see it as kind of sinful, but in a fun way, to drink that early,” Baylor says. Gesturing to the crowd, about half its original size at opening, Baylor adds, “And though I don’t know what most of these people do when they leave here, I doubt many of them are going to work. Drinking high-gravity beers is not something you do before work.”
Indeed. It takes proper planning to consume beers with no less than 8 percent alcohol (most beers chosen for Gravity Head hover around 10 percent, though some go much higher). It is not an affair geared toward quick quaffing or guzzling the light stuff. High-gravity beers are made to be sipped slowly, both to best enjoy their flavor and ensure safety. Tipping these back and driving somewhere else is not only ill-advised, the pub discourages it.
Given to every table is a two-sided sheet of paper listing the day’s lineup on one side, and on the other, some behavior recommendations. At the top it reads, “Enjoy Gravity Head RESPONSIBLY,” and admonishes drinkers to arrange for alternative transportation and not drink on empty stomach. (A small breakfast buffet is available for early attendees, and at midmorning the kitchen starts selling breakfast pizzas.) The best line of all reads, “Please respect your beer, and respect your beer-drinking neighbors. This is not the time to reconnect with your inner Neanderthal, and there’s zero tolerance for inebriated asscappery.”
Baylor leaves to mingle among the crowd before I can ply him for tales of past tomfoolery that turned into carcass-ejecting asscapery. And to chase him down would mean abandoning the morning’s first beer just arriving: a glass of Against the Grain/De Molen Bo and Luke, a wood-aged brew boasting 14 percent ABV, notes of smoke and leather, and flavors reminiscent of a slightly bitter imperial stout.
Other pours around the table include the Flying Dog Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout (8.9 percent ABV), the Three Floyds/Mikkeller Risgoop (10.4 percent ABV) and the Rogue XS Old Crustacean Barley Wine (11 percent ABV).
If none of the names look familiar, that’s by design. Gravity Head’s other mission is to expose drinkers to rare beers made in small quantities and sold in 5 gallon barrels rather than the common kegs holding six times that volume.
In an unusually techy move for NABC, this year’s menu features a QR code that takes smartphone users to a webpage describing every beer garnered for the event.
Still, most of us like to learn it the old fashioned way, either walking to the center of the pub, where beer descriptions are posted in large type along the wall, or just asking others there, “What are you drinking?”
A guy at a table next to ours tells me he’s had the Sun King Batch 777 and the aforementioned Rogue barley wine.
“They were both great, but I’m done for the morning,” he said. (Just in case any of the people with me or interviewed by me should have been at work, I’ve chosen not to identify them here.) Asked if he took the day off, the 50-year-old biologist said, “I am at work. I work from home and set my own schedule. And I’ve scheduled myself out of the office today.”
He says he’s returning that evening with several friends “for some real experimenting. That will be fun, but we may have to get a ride home.”
To avoid needing a ride home, our table orders a pile of liquid-absorbing starch shaped into breadsticks and breakfast pizza. And given that all high-alcohol beers are poured in 10 ounce servings, half that of an imperial pint of sensible beer, we drink about as much water as beer.
And we take our time. In the three hours we stay there, our group’s drivers stop at two. Passengers sample a bit more.
Eager for a second beer, I walk to the description wall to learn more about the lineup’s styles and potency and strike up a conversation with a retired couple in their late 60s. (For whatever reason, it seems no one here this morning younger than 35.) Seeing three glasses in front of each, I ask what they had drunk and sought recommendations.
“I really liked the Wee Muckle,” the wife says.
“The Dominator dopplebock is my favorite so far,” adds her husband. “I love this event because it’s all about beer. I don’t care for anything else, no bourbon, no wine, nothing. This is something I’m really into.”
I take their recommendations and the Wee Muckle and Dominator, both 8 percent ABV and made by Sun King Brewery, arrive at the table. Powerfully flavored, yet delicious and smooth, both are voted the table’s favorites for the day.
Sharing is an essential element of Gravity Head, too, because people want to taste as many beers as possible. And given that one tends to forget little details like names while sipping potent potables, smart attendees make a list of their selections for later purchases.
Though it’s only 11:30 a.m., it feels as though the day should be ending. Though our group is sober, most of us are talking about napping when we get home.
Later that evening when some of us gather at a cabin outside of town, we share a couple of wheat beers that clock in at comparably anemic 3.5 percent ABV. This incredible lightness of brewing is impossible to ignore given the heavyweights we drank earlier in the day.
“Boy, this is different, isn’t it!” a friend remarks. “I’m not sure what to think: whether I like it or wish I had a heavier one again.”
Even his wife, who isn’t a fan of strong beers, admits she’s closer to becoming a convert after this morning.
“I liked what I ordered, even though it was waaaay different than what I’m used to,” she said. “I know I’m going back next year, though. Drinking beer in the morning is way fun!”