CVIndependent

Sat11282020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

We are more than seven months into lockdown—and my job in the taproom has changed considerably.

My asthmatic taproom manager wisely self-quarantined immediately—what a strange twist of fate that I can say "self-quarantined" and have it be an unremarkable phrase—while all taproom events and parties ceased to exist. Therefore, I am often by myself behind the bar.

I'm not sure how common my experience is, but my work has changed—and I want to talk about it.

After Gov. Newsom's stay-at-home announcement in mid-March, the taproom changed drastically. With my taproom manager out and my cohort behind the bar, Mikki, in her own self-quarantine due to her husband having been potentially exposed at his workplace, it was up to me for a couple of weeks to hold down the fort. Beer was only available to-go at that time, so my job mainly consisted of alternately filling crowlers (to-go 32-ounce cans filled from the tap and sealed on site) and sitting down, listening to the music I wanted to, and reading a lot. It also consisted of worrying about every single interaction I had with every customer, concern over every surface they touched, and making a game plan in case any anti-science imbeciles waltzed into the place looking for beer—and probably trouble. It also fell to me to deliver any orders called in to local residents.

I will not lie: It was a stressful time for me. There were many hospitality workers who felt the same way—and many who continue to feel the same way. (Never mind nurses and doctors on the front lines.)

In order to provide a good picture of what my job turned into, I have to try and convey what my job was before. That is to say, it was pretty fun as jobs go. Not that it didn't have trying moments, but I once worked on a roof in Palm Desert when the temperature was 128 degrees in July. I ran around the greater Los Angeles area setting up bouncy houses for a few months. I played jazz guitar for hungry country-club people, and I delivered liquor and sandwiches in Hollywood (yes, I met celebrities often; they are mostly tiny people), among other weird jobs. So being a Cicerone at a brewery taproom has been near the top of the "fun” job list.

Alas, much of what made it fun has disappeared for the moment, to varying degrees. I have no idea when it will be busy, for example. This creates a strange semi-anxious feeling, because it can go from dead to me being absolutely buried. This would be mitigated by having co-workers, but outside of a half-hour each week, I have no co-workers upon which to lean.

Another less-than-stellar aspect is the needlessly awkward state regulation that a meal must be on the same ticket as any beer consumed on premise. This often disappoints customers who are unfamiliar with this—which is a large portion of them—and it leaves me having to explain the situation many, many times a shift. I say "needlessly awkward," because the customer can order food through the delivery system we have set up with a local restaurant and, theoretically, throw it in the trash in order to drink beer in-house. There are only so many times I can repeat the same spiel about how it works and why before I tune out—or worse, I grow disdainful for the task.

All of this sits on top of the underlying realization that we are still neck-deep in a pandemic that has the very real potential to end lives. Yes, the state has eased the lockdown a little, but recent statistics indicate that we are heading for another reversal—as soon as next week, perhaps. Combine that with the influx of tourists (whose mask-less visages I've encountered regularly on the local Bump and Grind trail in Palm Desert), some of whom are from places that never took the virus seriously, and you may begin to see where I'm coming from in all of this. My tolerance of anti-science conspiracy mindsets, and just plain absentmindedness when it comes to protecting those around us, was low to begin with and has now reached what I assume is its ultimate nadir for me. Unfortunately, if social media has taught me anything, it's that there's always another nadir.

Please don't get me wrong here: I'm awfully grateful to be employed (albeit part-time with the kindness of tips and partial unemployment), and I know many people are facing a far worse fate than I. It's also nice to see the faces of regulars and visitors who are just grateful to be out of the house. I also have to mention that I've only had to bounce one older couple, because the woman refused to put her mask back on while she was trying to figure out our food service. (I felt sorry for her husband who was super-apologetic.) Therefore, my fears of dealing with misinformed Facebook-group-addicted ignoramuses have largely been for naught. But the truth is that COVID numbers are climbing again, and when I see recent pictures of a full stadium in New Zealand, or read news reports on how places like Tokyo—the most populous city in the entire world—are containing it far better than we are, I become indignant that we have turned some ridiculous corner in this country where caring for your fellow citizens by wearing a mask and social distancing is a bridge too far for too many Americans. No matter how much some of us have sacrificed, it is made meaningless again and again, thanks to the selfish babies whose battle cry is, "MUH FREEDOM!" It’s like in school, when the entire class is punished because of one idiot's misdeeds. We seem to be doomed to go back to square one, over and over, until we've either all caught the virus, or there is an effective vaccine (and that's assuming there will not be a swath of anti-vaccine morons to ruin it for the severely immunocompromised among us who can't take the vaccine—a rather large assumption).

I guess what I'm trying to say is, "Welcome to the taproom. If you'd like to drink on site, you have to order food …"

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

Find what you love and let it kill you.

This quote is often attributed to Charles Bukowski, but there’s no record of him ever saying or writing it; Kinky Friedman seems to be the actual source. I am now suspicious of every popular quote these days after being burned enough times.

Actually, I like this quote a lot better with “like” rather than “love”—find what you like and let it kill you. It rings more true; how many of us really do what we like, much less what we love?

I didn’t start as a cocktail dork. I got into the food-and-drink industry for all the wrong reasons—fast money, booze, parties, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll … the same reasons all of the best bands were started. As a bartender, I was a “volume guy” for a long time: Think a holding-four-bottles-at-once, pouring-a-Long-Island-iced-tea type. However, I always wanted to make better drinks, but this was the early ’00s, and the “cocktail revolution” was in its nascent days. We didn’t know any better.

Flash forward a few years to an unremarkable bar in Boston where a guy made me my first proper Sazerac. It was a revelation. That was more than 10 years ago, and today, I have no idea if it was even that great. Nevertheless, I dragged every one of my friends there for one. That bar’s not there anymore.

Six months later, I left my job in the city to do a craft-cocktail program with the help of a couple of books. It was a failure—so I went back to the volume racket. I never lost the drive to make a better drink, though, and I haunted the local craft bars.

I paid well for my education. I asked questions like a curious toddler. Young, arrogant guys with twisty mustaches and badass ladies with sleeves of tattoos—those were the stereotypes, and they weren’t unfair. These bartenders started making drinks because they actually cared about what your drink tasted like. This was, to me, like a used-car salesman who actually wanted to get you the right car at the right price—he’s either a unicorn or a liar. Also, these bartenders didn’t seem as strung out, and as jaded, as those in the bar scene I was a part of at the time. Eventually, I jumped ship to give craft cocktails another shot and was soon neck-deep in egg whites.

The change may have saved my life. The tourism and nightclub grinds are not healthy: Working a busy season, making money hand over fist and having nothing to show for it. Feasting in the summer and fasting in the winter (kind of the opposite of here). Forgetting I liked the beach because I hadn’t been to it in years, my skin pale from nocturnal living. Jostling a co-worker because we have another double-shift in four hours, and he needs to call it a night. Having a friend slap me lovingly in the face for the same reason. There were many nights when there was no one to do that, and I found myself pulling a shot of vodka out of a bottle from the freezer before I headed to the train so I didn’t run out of steam. I remember one particularly tough stretch; I still have friendships that haven’t totally mended over the consequences.

This is not a mea culpa, although maybe it should be; I want to emphasize how normal it all seemed at the time. When you see your co-worker arrive as bleary-eyed as you, Gatorade in hand, a cigarette hanging off his chapped lips, you feel better about yourself. God forbid he’s chipper. There was always another co-worker we would talk about who was “needing to slow it down” as we found the nearby bar that was open for 10 a.m. screwdrivers. We had a 14-hour shift to get right, after all.

When you get out of work at 3 a.m. (or later), it’s easy to lose all track of human life. If you have service-industry friends still awake then, you gather in the kitchen of someone’s apartment and pass the bottle of Jameson. For some reason, it’s almost always Jameson—not just in Boston, and I’ve worked all over. When the first birds chirp before dawn, you can almost hear them saying “looo-ser.” We call them the “loser birds.” They love to remind us that the sun is about to rise, and healthy people will be soon putting on running shoes for a morning jog. Everyone is in bed except for bartenders and drug addicts—and those are certainly not mutually exclusive. I have known people who used cocaine like coffee and cigarettes, never really high and never really sober. Weed, Valium, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, caffeine, cocaine, obviously alcohol—these were and are tools in the coping tool box for many in the business. That goes from the back of the house right up to the host.

Then there were the opioids. During season, it was common to lose a couple of staff members to rehab. Sometimes, you saw it coming; sometimes, you didn’t.

In some ways, the craft life is better … but it’s not like it is a health retreat or anything. So why would anyone put himself or herself through this lifestyle? The service industry is where your demons are always just at arm’s reach. I have tried over the years to justify it to my loved ones, as well as myself, and end up running in circles. Would it help if I said that some of my best friends in the world, people who would do anything for me, I met behind the bar? Would Stan or Janice in the cubicle next to me help me move? Maybe the idea of a 9-to-5 life is terrifying. Maybe I love the stage. Put a bar in front of me, and I’ll comfortably tell a joke to the pope, but when I go out into the real world, I have a hat pulled low and earbuds in to avoid small talk. Maybe it’s that I enjoy being surrounded by other lunatics, howling, ever so quietly, at the moon on a Monday, while the rest of the world sleeps. I guess the answer is I like it, even when it tries to kill me. Thankfully, my routine is much healthier than it was all those years ago. That’s not to say I never still stay up for the “loser birds” on occasion.

All of this is on my mind because of the loss Anthony Bourdain, a service-industry champion who truly seemed to love—not like—what he did. I have had so many emotional moments with chefs, servers, bartenders and guests since his suicide that I just couldn’t do the article on Negronis I had planned.

Chef: From one restaurant lifer to another, thank you for everything. To everyone else reading this: If things are getting dark, don’t let us lose you, too.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails