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Distillations: Talking Garage Brands at Mikkeller Bar 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015

"The typhoon washed our dancefloor away," Ian told me. "So we had to see if we could relocate the party into a Taoist temple."

I was already laughing past the point of no return when it occurred to me to ask, "No one was hurt ..."

"No," he said. "It's okay. We had about 45 minutes warning on the typhoon, so only the dancefloor was lost. You can laugh."

We're sitting in Mikkeller Bar on Mason, just off Market. It's yet another brick wall/refurbished industrial space kind of room, with wooden tables and art on the walls, low hanging lights, exposed beams ... I'm sure that at some point spaces like this were interesting and daring, but I can't remember when that was. At this point the best they can hope for is to fade into the background, which the Mikkeller décor does.

The menu is far more interesting — a beer bar that specializes in hard-to-find brews that are worth the effort, along with house beers of unusual styles and variations. (Mikkeller itself is a Danish microbrewery founded by two home-brewing enthusiasts.) I'm drinking an Old Numbskull (barleywine); Ian is drinking a Jolly Roger High West (an American imperial black ale aged in rye whiskey barrels). Both are exceptional.

It's amazing what projects of passion can become. These days "a couple of guys screwing around in their garage" is practically synonymous with changing the world. Mikkeller's founders started out of their kitchens, and now only 10 percent of their worldwide sales come from Denmar.

The story Ian is telling me is about his work setting up Taiwan's first official Burning Man event late last year — it ended up being held in a Taoist temple. "The priests turned out to be great, but I literally had to apologize to the gods for all the ruckus," he said.

But for all this activity the world is stubbornly resistant to change. Ian's spent much more of his time studying the democracy protests across Asia in recent years; he just got back from spending a month, in a tent, in the main square in Hong Kong, talking to the occupy protesters there.

"I attended some of the Berkeley protests, shutting down I-80, but those were mostly confrontational and police baiting," he said. "In Hong Kong, they were so optimistic, so inviting — that's why it got so big, because they kept finding new ways to reach out and be unified, instead of new ways to be angry and divided."

"It broke my heart, because they never had a chance," I said.

We order another round: a Noir De Doittignies (Belgian dark strong ale) and a Seven Swans a Swimming (a Belgian quadruple with a little dark sugar); the waitress also brings us a sample of a Belgian tripel aged in Jim Bean barrels that we'd been asking about. All were superb — and there are 42 taps in all. Beers like this are costly, hard to produce, and need all the champions they can get — and Mikkeller's interest in supporting other creative brewers makes this world just that much more open to passion and imagination.

"But they have had an impact," Ian says. "Nobody in China, even Hong Kong, expected it to get this big. They've inspired every dissident movement in Asia, they've changed the terms of the debate in Taiwan, they've completely shattered the idea that accountable government isn't an 'Asian value.' They were never going to make the government change, but they've changed everything else."

I'd like to think he's right. But ... living in San Francisco, I've had it up to here with moral victories. I would like an actual victory. I would like the people fighting the good fight to actually win a fight instead of raising awareness and elevating consciousness and having documentaries about them sweep the awards circuit.

Our humanity these days seems entirely confined to the realms of art and culture — we make movies affirming the human spirit and two friends start a microbrewing revolution out of their kitchen, and television is full of little guys pulling off big victories. While in the actual halls of power the people who don't give a damn about art, culture, and the human spirit have taken root and learned that they don't need moral victories to get what they want.

Something about talking to Ian makes me optimistic, though — but a little sad that the next day he'll be flying back to Taiwan, where the gods still care if we're making a ruckus.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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