August 11, 2018. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
In the deepest hidden recesses of the internet, on a vague Wikipedia page about “brewing in New Hampshire“, I learned that there is one beer that stands above all others. It is a Russian imperial stout lovingly handcrafted by an unusually tall hill dwarf, undoubtedly from an ancient recipe that his clan brought from under the mountain untold ages ago.
Wikipedia claims it is “the best beer in America” and also “the most sought-after beer in America”. It’s called Kate the Great, and legend has it that it can only be obtained by locating this master brewer on his home turf, the Portsmouth Brewery, and praying to whatever gods you keep that the stars have aligned and it’s in season.
It was drizzling on Mystery Hill, but it hadn’t quite started to monsoon in Portsmouth yet. Thunderclouds loomed in the sky like hanged men, shrouding the little downtown in portentous darkness. Everyone we encountered hated us. This isn’t altogether foreign to me, I’ve chosen the Bastard moniker for a reason, but the Girl tends toward amicability and we hadn’t done anything yet.
In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, an archaeologist crossing New England in search of genealogical information finds a foggy, derelict port town. He thinks it might be interesting to check out, so he books a room and pokes around. The locals seem to share a common deformity, a scaling skin disease, puffing around the face and eyes, and unusual hydrocephaly. They spurn him outright. We’re talking like, Amish shunning. The inhabitants call him an outsider and refuse to sell him anything. They bar most public places against him, and retreat into their homes if they see him on the street. As the novella goes on, he discovers that the inhabitants of Innsmouth have been interbreeding with a race of cannibal fish-people, the Deep Ones, who conduct grisly rites in worship of a bloodthirsty aquatic god called Dagon.
I thought the parallels were cute at first, but as our time in Portsmouth wore on, they got more distressing. We’d driven across New Hampshire into an HD remaster of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
The Portsmouth Brewery was wall-to-wall with people, easily the most active building in the town. The hostess sneered that the wait for a table would be 20 minutes. The Girl said that would be fine, and asked if we could get a drink while we wait.
“Yeah, I guess.”
We dodged around the teeming masses of people and, for some reason, all their infant children, to get to the bar. When did the bringing babies into bars phenomenon start? And why? Babies don’t go in bars. Babies go in, I don’t know, parks. McDonald’s Playplace.
Eventually, the girl tending came over to us.
“Hey, we’re here treasure hunting,” I said, trying for charming. “Legend has it this is our best shot at getting Kate the Great. Do you have that right now?”
She scoffed. “We’ll never serve THAT beer again.”
I exchanged a glance with the Girl.
“Is this like, a sensitive subject?”
“No,” she said, providing the exposition she really should have led with, “It’s just, the brewer just quit working here, it was this whole big thing, so we don’t have Kate the Great anymore.”
“Do you know where he went?”
“He opened his own brewery, Tributary. It’s in Maine. But here, you can see our draft list.”
This was technically true. It was in Maine, across a bridge, an 8 minute drive from our present location. It was also technically true that we could see the draft list. It consisted entirely of IPAs, which would have been clutch if I’d ever liked one.
“Can we have a minute to think about it?” the Girl asked. The bartender nodded and drifted off. We escaped to the place next door, which had a similar draft list, substituting one of the IPAs with Budweiser which it listed as a “light lager”.
“I can’t Yelp,” the Girl said. “This is impossible. Two for two. You do it. I’m losing hope.”
A few blocks away was a brewery called Earth Eagle, which specialized in a hopless proto-beer called “gruit”. It’s a Danish word, and should be pronounced “gryoo-IT”, but I pronounce it groot and will continue to do so until dead.
We made our way past the cute little technicolor New England cottages to Earth Eagle. Random assignment from day two of any outdoor music festival would give you the clientele. It was also crowded, but not as bad as the Portsmouth Brewery.
“Could we sit outside?” the Girl asked. The waitress glared at us balefully.
“You can if you want,” she said. “But it’s gonna rain.”
“If it starts to get bad, we’ll move back in,” the Girl said.
“You should probably just sit inside.”
The Girl was ready to fight her on this. She was hangry. I’m always hangry, and so I’ve developed a tolerance. I steered her aside.
“Not worth it,” I said. “If we sit outside, no one’s going to come take our order.”
It looked like no one was going to anyway. After a while, one of the Deep Ones waddled over, and we ordered gruit. It tasted like beer-flavored juice. They also played the entirety of Rancid’s “And Out Come the Wolves”. I found that suspicious. Like they were humoring me, and when I left they’d return to their backward recordings of whale song and those high-pitched meditation bowls.
The scene was about to turn. I could hear them sharpening their knives. During the next ponderous waitress’ circuit, we waylaid, paid, and am-scrayed.
“I’m so hungry,” the Girl said. “This is where we die.”
“Very possible. I’ll bet they have a sacrificial table here, too.”
“Bastard, we need to find something,” she said. “I’ll go back in there and eat tofu puffs if I have to.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I said. “Listen. We’ll go back to the pizza place. We don’t need to drink there. We’ll just get a pizza. It’s impossible to ruin pizza.”
She was hesitant, but I kept saying, “Huh? Piiizza?”, and that eventually won her over. That’s a pro strat for you, fellas. No charge. Just remember where you learned it.
They were kinder at the pizza place, probably because it was in a basement full of aquariums, and being below sea level and surrounded by their brethren soothed the agitated merfolk. They had a giant neon sign for RED HOOK, which I presumed to be of “The Horror At” fame, and would have won me a prize had I remembered my Mythos bingo card.
We asked the first pleasant waitress in New Hampshire for garlic and it baffled her.
“Garlic? Like, whole garlic?”
“No, like, powder,” the Girl said. “Or salt, if that’s all you have.”
“We… might have some in the kitchen.”
“That’s only a thing where we’re from,” I told her. “When I went west, none of the pizza places had garlic. A lot of ’em didn’t even have oregano.”
The Girl looked as though she might cry. “But… but why?”
“Forgive them. They know not what they do.”
We were given this.
We walked back out into the building tempest. The fishfolk were growing stronger as it became soggier. It was like you could hear the Jaws theme playing in the distance.
“We gotta look at the whale wall,” I said. “That’s like the only other attraction. Then we get the hell out of here.”
We looked at the whale wall. It was both.
Then, we scurried back to the car.
Unfortunately, the Deep Ones were lying in wait for us. A supply truck was sitting in the middle of the street, right next to my car, parking us and only us in. I couldn’t get around it, and there wasn’t enough sidewalk for any real desperate escape maneuvers. I waited, crouched in the driver’s seat with a fileting knife clutched to my chest. The Girl sat shotgun, slowly pumping up a super soaker full of tartar sauce.
Some other lost tourist/genealogist had parked in front of us, and finally returned to her car. She got the hell out of my way and we made our daring escape.
We crossed the bridge into Maine. It immediately stopped raining. Whatever ancient cult magic held sway in Portsmouth didn’t extend beyond its borders.
Tributary Brewing Company even had a parking lot for free! It was busy, as one would expect for the chosen brewery of the creator of America’s alleged best beer. We sat on the bench along the wall and had a flight and took in the ambiance, most of which consisted of impressionist paintings of this dude’s face.
Mott the Lesser is what he renamed Kate the Great, presumably in order to avoid legal disputes with Portsmouth Brewing. It wasn’t in season, but that was all right. Ask Tennyson. It was never about the Grail. The quest is all.
The man himself sat at a table, eating his lunch and grinning the grin of a man presently living his dreams. He was surrounded by a squadron of adoring Dads. I will admit the dude had an aura, and his biere de miel and porter were magnificent. The porter tasted like smoked joy.
We went next door to a tasteful mermaid-themed restaurant with walls colored in equally tasteful mermaid tiddy art. In retrospect, I should have photographed that, instead of whatever the hell it was we ate. (I know mine was scallops, and I know they were excellent).
Our next stop, continuing with the supernatural theme along New England’s eldritch ley lines, would lead us to the most haunted restaurant in America.
But that’s a spooky campfire story for another day.