Fermenting a social scene — Secret brewing society heavy on the society

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Homebrewing can be as much about social interaction as chemical interactions, especially in small towns.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Homebrewing can be as much about social interaction as chemical interactions, especially in small towns.

Author’s note: Except for the swimming part, the following is true, but some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, plus several other people who are nearly innocent.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

About 70 years ago — when today’s cities of the central Kenai Peninsula were no more than villages or scattered clusters of buildings along a new and sometimes barely drivable Sterling Highway — goods and services could be scarce. Winter mail had only recently been arriving by dog team. Fresh fruits were rare, and expensive. And a nice, cold beer might be found only many bumpy, uncomfortable miles away.

So it’s no wonder that those who enjoyed a sudsy adult beverage now and then began making their own and sharing their product with friends.

In Bush Alaska today, where a liquor store may charge more than $40 for a case of Budweiser and nearly $20 for a six-pack of IPA, it’s also no wonder that residents have taken to producing their own.

In retrospect, then, it should have been no great surprise to discover a thriving beer-making culture in place when I moved to Southwest Alaska.

The bigger surprise came in learning of the quasi-covert nature of this solo, yet highly social endeavor.

I first heard about the Dillingham International Swim Club a few days after I’d moved to town.

“Swim club?” I asked. “Dillingham has a pool?”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Jim, one of my pre-Dillingham contacts and a former college classmate of my brother. He smiled and leaned forward. “That’s the whole point. It’s code. It’s the official name of our homebrewing group.”

About 30 years ago, it turns out, a handful of homebrewing enthusiasts — spurred on by the staggering Dillingham price tags on commercial beers and turned on by the science of brewing — decided to distill their disparate interests and unify to create an ongoing competition. They settled on the idea of a best-brew contest, and they planned a party of brew-loving buddies who would congregate every few months in someone’s home to judge the best local homemade beers.

When Yvonne Leutwyler and I first attended a Swim Club function, we were surprised — pleasantly — by a house packed with participants (brewers, tasters, onlookers and judges) and by the variety and high quality of many of the beverages.

An eclectic mix of perhaps 50 people filled the front porch, living room, kitchen and sunroom. They milled around the pony kegs and the table laden with potluck dishes. They chatted in groups while tipping brown and green bottles bearing taped-on labels. They sampled and nibbled, told stories, shared brewing secrets and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

Some of the homebrewers in attendance appeared more excited by the chemical and culinary aspects of beer than they were enamored of actually drinking it. But most were clearly fans of the beverages themselves. Some extolled the benefits of IPAs, while others raved about their most recent wheat beers or porters.

No one there mentioned swimming. As expected, we saw no pool, wet towels or bathing suits. We smelled no chlorine anywhere on the premises.

As the evening progressed, and in the months to come, we learned more of the history of this social activity known as the Dillingham International Swim Club.

The club (and its fanciful moniker) was the brainchild of two homebrewing buddies, William Sweetheart and Isaac O’Gordon, who shared their idea with other homebrewers, who, in turn, concocted the group’s initial, somewhat arcane, and still-extant bylaws:

Rule 1: For identification purposes, all brewers will go by the middle name of Bob at meetings.

Rule 2: Members will not own a dog that is a member of the Communist Party.

Rule 3: Socially redeeming behavior is not allowed at official meetings.

Rule 4: Nothing official may happen at official meetings.

Rule 5: Members must like homebrew or those who do.

Rule 6: No member is allowed to swim in Dillingham.

Judging varies from contest to contest, but often the entries (usually 12 to 15) are divided into dark and light beers, and a panel of judges for each category is chosen from among the nonbrewers. Judges receive a new score sheet and a fresh glass for each beer they sample. Each sample, usually about 2 ounces, is numbered and anonymous, and all votes are tallied once all the judging is complete.

One of the winners is selected (or volunteers) to host the next gathering at his or her home three to six months later, depending on the season. The Swim Club tends to meet more frequently in the winter, when no one is fishing. After all, more than anything, the club is just an excuse to get together with friends and enjoy each other’s company.

The Swim Club name was created in the beginning to suit twin purposes — keep the club and gatherings private, allowing new members to join by invitation only, and create a clandestine means of advertising gatherings.

The most effective means of promoting club meetings, especially in those pre-Internet days, was via the public airwaves, which meant Community Calendar announcements on KDLG, the sole public radio station in the area.

This effort was aided considerably by the fact that Robert Queen, the station’s news director, was also an avid member of the club.

One time when he was the host, O’Gordon created additional advertising with a series of signs leading to his home. He recounted the result: “I made some hand-drawn signs to post along the road to tell where the meeting would be. On some, I drew a swimmer. One afternoon I had just put out the signs, and a couple neighbor grade-school girls knocked on my door, asking if this was where the Swim Club would be held. The answer was yes, so they wanted to know if they could swim, or watch. I had to explain that since there was no place to swim, they couldn’t watch, because it was adult activities involving drinking beer. They went off very disappointed, and shaking their heads.”

Despite the subterfuge involved in the name, word does occasionally slip out, sometimes with humorous results. Six years ago, a prominent international swimming magazine called up Sweetheart and O’Gordon for information on swimming in remote Alaska. Although the reporter was initially disappointed to learn that Dillingham had no pool, let alone no legitimate swim club, he convinced his editor to let him write about the homebrewers instead.

The article provided some history of the club and a vignette of life in the Bush, and it concluded with these lines: “It’s a story that just goes to show how long Alaskan winters are. Or maybe it goes to show that the best part of swimming in Alaska is the beer.”

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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Filed under beer, community, View from Out West

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