Let Us Now Praise: Fred Eckhardt

I typically mourn in private, not public, and almost never for “famous” people.

I make an exception for Fred Eckhardt.

More accurately, I honor him and the inadvertent role he played in a Pivotal life Moment. Fred magic, if you will. (Magic or no magic, I hasten to add, I’d mourn anyway. His character and rich soul demand nothing less.)

* * * 

Flash back to 2004. The research/writing that eventually became Ambitious Brew had finally led me to the “modern” period — the interface between the Glory Days of post-prohibition and the onset of the “craft beer” moment. (1)

During that research, I came across a guy who, I realized, played a crucial role in the earliest days of beer modernity. Someone I wanted to interview. He mattered. He had historical significance (ultimately, etc., the only criteria that matters).

His name was Fred Eckhardt. In the late 1960s, he, in a then-lone wilderness, preached a new kind of beer. 

“Preach” is appropriate. Michael Jackson created a vocabulary. Fred Eckhardt created a gospel. He preached. He prophesied. He never stopped doing so. Here's one example. (2) 

random photo series 2015

random photo series 2015

And as with every brilliant, impassioned prophet/advocate, his work and words fostered conversion experiences and others in their turn spread the gospel of the new beer. (And that's enough of that particular analogy.)

Of course I wanted to interview him. 

Back in 2004-05 the net/web weren’t as deep and broad as they are now (odd as that may seem). Finding a direct mode of contact with Fred was not easy. I learned that he lived in Portland, but: was the address I found (a post office box, if I recall) for him or another Fred E.? 

I admit it: I opted for the lazy woman’s route to an address: I phoned (using a land line) the offices of All About Beer magazine, for which Fred wrote a column. (No surprise there, either. AAB was/is the longest-standing American beer magazine.)

# # # 

Phone rings. Guy answers. 

I explain my purpose (emphasizing that I’m writing a serious book): I don’t expect AAB to hand over FE’s personal information, but would they facilitate the contact?

Guy says hang on a minute. I hang on a minute. 

Guy Two comes on the phone. 

I explain again and he shouts in delight and blathers like a madman (his normal mode of communication, as it turns out). Turns out he once pondered a career as a historian; he was thrilled to hear about the book; what could he do to help? (Said friend was Daniel Bradford, who co-owned and co-published (and co-edited) AAB from the early 1990s to earlier this year).

Half hour later, I have a new friend (we’re still friends; he’s still crazy), contact information for Fred —— and a long list of names, many of them, at that early stage of research, unknown to me: pioneer craft brewers, home brewers, writers, etc., to whom Daniel offered to introduce me.

Random photo series 2015

Random photo series 2015

Which he did, starting that very day. I interviewed a slew of them. My understanding of craft beer’s history, and thus my book, benefitted. Life-changingly so. (Okay, for me, not the book.) (Does a book have a life?)

I owe that to Daniel: without his mediation, it’s likely that many of those people would have ignored/declined my request. (And some, indeed, declined.)

But: I owe Daniel because of Fred. 

And yes, Daniel satisfied the purpose of my call: He put me in touch with Fred, who was happy to endure an interview.

# # #

I spent a delightful hour or more on the phone with Fred. (I’ve no idea how long we talked; generally these interviews ran 90-120 minutes. Sometimes more.) I learned much about his upbringing, what inspired him to a life preaching beer [and by the time I interviewed  him, saki], his experience with home brewers and that first generation of “craft” brewers, etc. (A year or so later, I read a biography of James Beard and I wish I’d done so earlier: Eckhardt and Beard both grew up on Portland, then a small town, and were more-or-less contemporaries.) 

The most significant takeaway from the interview, however, was this: Fred Eckhardt was an intelligent, passionate, curious, generous, loving human being. (Afterward, I said to my husband "When I grow up, I wanna be Fred Eckhardt.")

He invited me to the Oregon Beer Festival. “We have this festival out here,” he said. “You should come out. You’d learn a lot. I can make sure you get in.” I demurred. At the time a trip like that required time and money, of which I had little. 

I rue that decision. Wish I’d said “Damn! I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna come out to that  festival. Thanks for the invitation.” (3) 

random photo series 2015

random photo series 2015

Over the years, I maintained a small hope that I’d get to Oregon before he died. After all, no one lives forever, and Fred was in his late seventies when I encountered him. I imagined him at  99. I’d visit. Glory would abound! (4)

It didn’t happen. Now it’s too late. I regret. 

There’s no particular moral to this story — except for the cliche: “Somedays” are finite, folks. Don’t let ‘em slip away.

I’ve no idea what happens, if anything, after death. (5) This, however, I know: Fred Eckhardt’s spirit still lives, breathes, through me. (And I’m not alone.) 

Cheers, Fred.


Note: Stan reminds me that Tom Acitelli paid homage to Fred in his Audacity of Hops, and he links to one of Fred's pieces for AAB. Thank you, Stan.

 I know, I know: “For the love of god, woman, learn to write a jump!” I’ve tried. Truly, I have. I’ve read, experimented, asked for help. I’ve never written one that works. (6)

1. To the best of my recollection this was c. late 2004, early 2005. I’m too lazy to dig out my transcribed phone conversations. Because yes, I still have those documents. Where they are, I can’t tell you. Not precisely. But I have them.

2. It's worth noting the obvious: how closely Fred's gospel, as far back as 1969, echoed the foundational myth of craft brewing.

3: More fool me: Nowadays beer festivals operate 24/7. [Okay. I exaggerate]. But in 2006 they were relatively few and the OBF was one of the oldest.

4. “Glory” is intentional. The older I am, the more aware I am of the sheer glory of life. All of it. Every leaf, every laugh, every mortal coil. Fred at 99 would have been sheer super-duper-LSD-Bhuddha-Old-Man-At-Top-Of-Mountain-Zen meditative glory.

5: My hope (don’t laugh) is that “I” will, um, etherize, poof!, become matter. And then drift in eternity, if such exists, with all other matter in the universe/cosmos/galaxy.  You won’t see me on a moonlit night — but I’ll be there.

6: I think and this is only my opinion, that my inability is based on age/experience rather than stupidity. And no, NOT because I’m too old to learn. Quite the opposite:
I suspect many of you, by virtue of your relative youth, “know” elements of coding the way I “know” elements of, say, cooking or English language use: more by osmosis than intention. So I suspect that writing a jump requires some step or other that, obvious to you and so not noted, is simply unknown to me. 
Yes, yes, I ought to learn coding rudiments (more than creating a live link and italics). I’m too busy! Coding isn’t high on my “To Learn” list. Bonsai, yes. Pruning, yes. Golf, yes. Tai Chi, yes. Gardening, yes. Botany, yes. Coding? 
Not so much. There are still, alas, but 24 hours in the damn day. Besides, admit it. If I learned to write jump, the messy physicality of reading these footnotes would vanish. And we’d lose a bit of fun, would we not? (7) But, yeah, I get it: My footnote presentation sucks.

7: Or not. I could lay jumps within jumps, and only I could decide to what any note might jump. I could write a note as a subnote [such as the one you’re reading now] and jump it back to . . . the text? Its parent note? What if the subnote had a subnote?