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Massachusetts Reviews: Liquid Whitman

Some poets are wine poets. Walt Whitman is a beer poet. In a Brooklyniana piece from 1862, he describes the Eastern District breweries as “sources of the mighty outpourings of ale and lager beer, refreshing the thirsty lovers of those liquids in hot or cold weather.” In American literature, the boisterous and sprawling poem that made his name still refreshes lovers of innovation with its mighty outpourings. Bell’s “Song of Myself” India Pale Ale isn’t Whitman’s first beer incarnation. Enlightenment Ales brewed a “Song of Myself” American Pale Ale in 2014, and Philadelphia Brewing still makes a Belgian White Ale dubbed Walt Wit. Nor is this Bell’s first release with a literary name: Two Hearted Ale evokes Ernest Hemingway. The brewery’s first liquid Whitman fronts a seven-part Leaves of Grass series marking the poet’s bicentennial year. Expansive like Whitman’s Song of Myself, the literary series of beer tributes draws its names from a range of his work. Forthcoming are The Prairie-Grass Dividing, Oh Captain! My Captain!, To a Locomotive in Winter, Song of the Open Road, Salut Au Monde!, and Spontaneous Me. A promotional video features Bell’s employees reading Whitman aloud, another fitting tribute to a famed patron of Pfaff’s Lager Bier Saloon.

Bell’s Song of Myself is an American IPA brewed with German malt and hops, pouring out with a golden translucence and a bright white foam that approaches champagne. It yields a distinctive taste that fuses a bitter-piney hop (Herkules?) and a bockish malt. The latter provides a wide conduit for the former. If you’re also a fan of Two Hearted Ale, you’ll feel a tongue-lingering hop line akin to Centennial. There’s just a hint of wildflower honey in the tongue-tip finish. Song of Myself IPA spreads over your palate like a prairie.

Whitman’s poems quaffed all the sensations around him. Song of Myself relishes the sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, the smell of hay in the barn. The poet hails these aromas with the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind. Walt Whitman was an American graniac. I find counterintuitive the brewery’s innovation of using German grains (and hops) in an American style IPA. Leaves of Grass was first translated into German in 1889 (Grashalme). Before that, Whitman had published a piece about German immigrants, lager beer, and Bowery beerhalls. Whitman’s Manhattan was a kosmos, and Song of Myself stretched over the roofs of the world. His signature volume Leaves of Grass spanned widely:

            This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is
            This the common air that bathes the globe

In Bell’s “Song of Myself” one robust beer culture embraces another.

This 12-ounce liquid Whitman comes close to containing the most unbottled of American poems.


* Quotations from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass come from these sections: 2, 52, 17.

Marsha Bryant writes about modernism, poetry, women's writing, popular culture, and pedagogy. Her recent essays have appeared in Feminist Modernist Studies, The Classics in Modernist Translation, and The Conversation. Bryant is Associate Editor of Contemporary Women's Writing, and Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida.

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