This is the story of how I slept in a parking lot for beer.
About a month ago, a guy named Ray Goodrich called and asked me to blog about the Foothills Brewing Sexual Chocolate 2014 release party.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s a Sexual Chocolate release party?”
“Oh,” I said, when he finished. “So this is an event for insane people.”
Sexual Chocolate, I learned, is a much-prized commodity in the North Carolina craft beer community. This is largely because it’s a goddamn delicious beer: a full-bodied imperial stout that looks like black walnut and pours like heavy cream, flush with layers of savory cocoa and coffee. It’s like eating a piece of dark baking chocolate, except it also gets you drunk.
But Foothills only releases it twice a year. And if you want to be guaranteed your allotted four bombers, you have to wait in line.
I’ve camped out in the woods. I’ve pooped in holes I dug myself, I’ve made pudding in Ziploc bags, I’ve slept in tents in thrashing thunderstorms. But I’ve never camped out for a THING. A thing like concert tickets or a phone or a console or a book about morose teenage vampires. That seemed stupid. That is the domain of Schadenfreude. It’s harder to laugh at the suckers in the line when you’re one of the suckers in the line.
But, I mean, beer. Right? Beer. Let’s all agree on that. Beer.
Here’s how it would go down:
On the night of January 31, Foothills Brewing would host a bottle swap, in which craft brewers would circulate through a room pouring various fermented nectars down one another’s eager gullets. Foothills would put Sexual Chocolate on tap to sample, and everyone would socialize and talk about how terrific beer is.
At around 2 a.m., Foothills would turn off the lights and lock all the doors, at which time a few dozen very committed, deeply disturbed individuals would queue up on the street and adjacent parking lot, where they would cheerfully strive not to freeze to death. At 8 a.m., they and whatever limbs remained to them would all be let back into the brewery. Each of these certifiable headcases would be issued a numbered wristband, and starting at 10 a.m. would be called up in groups of 50 to buy no more than 4 bombers—22 oz. bottles—of the sweet stuff. Then they would go home and sleep until 2068.
I’d come to Ray’s attention after a little Twitter mix-up with Wil Wheaton. Back in October, I gave Wil some beer. North Carolina has a respectable, rapidly growing craft beer culture that deserves to be shared, and as Wil is a home brewer, I decided to drop some Cackalacky knowledge on his Hollywood ass when I caught him at a tour stop in Virginia. I stopped into Raleigh’s Bottle Revolution, loaded up a DIY 6-pack with selections from Big Boss, Highland, Duck Rabbit, and Foothills, and gave the booze to the Wheatons. This seemed to satisfy everyone.
Then, at the end of December, this conversation happened:
Ray, whose officially official Foothills title is “Marketing Guy,” had been hunting around for an observant master of the English lexicon to describe the experience of the event. Failing that, he’d settle for any vulgar, self-loathing jackass on Twitter. When all of them turned him down, he went with me.
“I don’t know anything about beer,” I warned him. “Just that I like to drink it.”
“That’s fine,” he assured me. “I’d actually prefer someone from outside the craft brewing community. Someone with the kind of innate, powerful-yet-refined sexual magnetism only an unwashed junior ad copywriter can possess.”
“Just as long as I get fucked up, man,” I said, sucking at an old chili stain on my shirt.
I explained the situation to my boyfriend, Dustin, who a month and a half in still has that unmistakable new OKCupid smell (turns out you can get it in aerosol cans), and asked if he’d like to come along. He didn’t bat an eye.
“Just as long as I get fucked up, man,” he said.
“That’s what I said!” I cried. We high-fived.
Wil, for reasons pertaining to both distance and, I assume, dignity, could not attend. Luckily, I had a surrogate.
On Friday night, in anticipation of copious potables, Dustin made us a badass steak dinner. Then we piled ourselves, Lil’ Wil, and a bunch of camping gear into my janky old Focus hatchback and made for Winston-Salem.
We arrived around 9, by which time the event was in full swing. Ray—who I wouldn’t describe as “unreasonably tall,” but whose skull has probably had its share of altercations with low door frames—set us up with a couple of glasses of Sexual Chocolate before ushering us to the rear of the brewery, where most of the action was happening.
What’s the collective noun for a group of microbrew enthusiasts? A fermentation? There was one yeasty fermentation of beer nerds packed into the back of Foothills Brewery. And the booze flowed. There were stouts and porters and blondes and hefeweizens and pale ales aplenty, with a smattering of fruity ciders and sweet meads to round out the palate. Our little glasses were kept full by one enthusiastic, bearded pourer after another.
Near the back of the room, Foothills was pouring samples of its Jade IPA and seasonal Cottonwood Frostbite Black IPA. I’m generally a stout/porter kind of girl, and tend to resist a lot of hops, but both of these were refreshingly fruity, eminently drinkable beers. On the opposite wall was the craft brewers’ setup: a few kegs, a few coolers, and a table littered with with evening’s offerings. All of it had been pretty well picked over by the time we arrived, but Lil’ Wil plunged in with gusto.
We also got a look at Foothills’ actual brewing operation—or, at least, the smaller iteration they keep at their store, which they reserve for experimentation and small-batch brews. We were very professional about the tour.
Ray gave us an overview before leaving us in the hands of a staff brewer named Matt, whose casual knowledge of the beer-making process vastly outstrips the skillset required to perform complex neurosurgery. I was doing an okay job keeping up with him until I made the mistake of comparing his job—brewing alcohol—to Dustin’s, which is brewing parts of people (specifically, vascular grafts). I said it as a joke. But when their eyes met, I knew the broment for what it was.
The conversation took a turn for the esoteric, with each man unpacking his encyclopedic knowledge of microorganisms: their habits, byproducts, and the best things to feed them to make sure they don’t die. My scientific vocabulary is not insubstantial, but I could feel my eyes glazing over. Let it suffice to say that Foothills appears to be in capable hands.
The next few hours: drinking, drinking, quesadillas, drinking, falling asleep on a couch upstairs, and being rudely awakened at 1:30am by a humorless staffer who was not happy to find us there.
“Sorry,” I said, serving up my most charming, most crooked rueful smile. “We were just waiting until it was time for everyone to get kicked out.”
“Well,” he replied, impervious, “I’m kicking you out.”
I hope his entirely unpaved bed was everything he so obviously longed for.
The line had formed some time while we were dozing, and had already begun to spill from the main street into the side parking lot. At 1:30 in the morning it was barely 30 degrees, and we were groggy and surly from our accidental nap. The line was capped by a group of gregarious young gentlemen who, undaunted by the nipple-pinching chill, were occasionally given to fits of whooping, cat-calling, or cheering at nothing in particular. For five agonizing minutes, they engaged with a trio of passing young ladies who were not suitably attired for the cold.
We decided to let the line grow a little before we pitched our tent.
Tetrising ourselves into the back seat of my car, we dozed fitfully until somewhere around 3 a.m. By then, the line had moved up such that the obnoxious brodudes were now around the front of the building. A few tents had sprung up, but most people had just brought collapsible beach chairs (with cup holders, obviously); some groups huddled around portable stoves, talking in low voices over mugs of steaming coffee or, yes, bottles of beer.
We hauled our asses out into the night, where it was now in the mid to upper 20s, and got our tent pitched as quickly as possible. We filled it with approximately 37″ of blanket and comforter. We zipped our sleeping bags together, crawled in with whatever we were wearing, and tried to get some sleep. Our prior talk of clandestine semi-public parking lot tent sex evaporated with our breath.
Dustin sleeps like a brick no matter where he is, but I had a little more trouble. We seemed to be bracketed between the only two groups of people really committed to talking and laughing all night long. I would drift off for a while, then be startled by a burst of laughter or the vibrations of a passing car’s subwoofer.
I used the latrine in the back. Twice. It was cold. Let’s not talk about it.
At around 5:30, I was awakened by the chill seeping in from the ground.
I crammed on a few more layers, then lay in the dark eavesdropping. My attempts to sleep were at last derailed by the sound and smell of our neighbors cooking sausage and hash browns and, by the sound of it, passing around bourbon and sherry. Their discussion revealed they were seasoned pros, having done this every year for who the hell knows how many years now. I could hear more voices now, too, and realized the line was again beginning to grow. I figured I’d better emerge and take some pictures.
Here’s what things looked like at about 6:45 in the morning:
As 7 a.m. approached, I figured I’d better rouse Dustin from cryostasis. He wasn’t too happy about it. I was sympathetic, but unmoved. Like, come on, this wasn’t a picnic for anybody. Who the hell knew when our nipples would regain feeling?
Luckily, Lil’ Wil finally pulled his tiny, tiny weight.
At a few minutes past 7, we were prompted to present our IDs to wristband-wielding Foothills staff members. Dustin and I were assigned the mid-70s, which must have meant that there were at least 200 people behind us; the line now stretched to the rear of the parking lot and back again, curving around so that we faced the end of it when we emerged from our nylon cave. We broke down the tent, unceremoniously crammed it and the rest of our shit into the back of my car, then took our place in line.
For a bunch of uncaffeinated people who slept—or didn’t—in a cold-ass parking lot for six or seven hours, the atmosphere was convivial, almost celebratory. A guy in front of us played dance music from a speaker foisted onto his shoulder 1980s style. Most of the talk was about how fucking cold it was and how stoked we all were to get back inside and buy some beer already. But there was no malice in it. We’d weathered a night of discomfort together, a motley drunken tribe, and soon we would be rewarded for our fealty. It had sucked. But the suckage was fundamental to our victory.
As promised, the doors opened just after 8 a.m. The line moved fast, and Dustin and I found seats in the same booth we’d dined in the night before. Waitstaff circulated with huge trays of sausage biscuits; our waitress pointed the way to the coffee table, and confirmed that we would, in fact, like some Sexual Chocolate with our breakfast. Soon, everyone in the place had a spread like this:
I have the gastrointestinal system of an 80-year-old man, but I stuffed enough biscuit, sausage, coffee, and beer down my gullet to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. For the next hour and a half, we ate, stretched, snuggled, awakened, and indulged in some marathon people-watching. The home brewers had their wares out again, and had gathered around a table to partake and discuss. At a table adjacent to ours, a group of half a dozen guys raised their glasses in a weary toast to perseverance. Slowly but surely, coats, sweatshirts, hats, and gloves took their places on benches and empty chairs. Seeing the crowd thaw out made me feel warmer, too.
Eventually, as promised, a voice from a loudspeaker began calling us up in groups of fifty. We thought. It was hard to tell over the noise of the room. We saw the 1-50 group line up, and heard instructions for the 50-100 group to queue up… somewhere?… in anticipation of being called. We paid our check, gathered our stuff, propped ourselves against a wall, and waited.
And waited. And waited. And waited.
We began to perceive that we had missed something.
My only real criticism of the event is the way the buying line was handled. Instructions were very difficult to hear, and when we wanted clarification, there didn’t seem to be anyone to ask. There were two different lines on two different sides of the restaurant, and it wasn’t obvious which one was for which purpose. There were no staff members directing traffic or even verifying wristband numbers to ensure no one was sneaking in prematurely—and if I’ve slept in a parking lot just to be cut off by some smarmy fratbro who swaggered in at 8:23 a.m., you bet your sweet saccharides that someone’s getting his grains mashed.
Questioning members of the line, we discovered that no one really seemed to know quite what was going on, and that the 50-100s had just sort of randomly merged in at some point. We jumped in at the end, still feeling vaguely abashed and confused, but at least we didn’t have to wait very long; the two women taking orders were brutally efficient. We paid for four beers, then made our way to the rear of the brewery, where we were to present our receipt and collect our hard-won prize.
Ray, who was working the brewsky package assembly line, was so excited to pose Lil Wil’ for pictures that, in one arm-jerking moment of enthusiasm, he nearly swept our beers AND our commemorative glass to the floor. I would have laughed, Ray. I would have laughed a lot.
That catastrophe averted, we gathered our goods, thanked Ray and his staff, and stepped through the back door into the mid-morning daylight. The temperature was arrowing towards the low 50s, and we stripped off our jackets as we walked to the car, grateful for the experience but eager to get our drive home underway.
When we arrived, we stood back and admired our take. I took some fancy pictures of it.
Last Thursday, I got a phone call from Ray. “Hey,” he said, “what are you doing tomorrow night?”
Nothing, I said. Why?
“Do you want to be a judge for the first annual Miss Sexual Chocolate Beauty Pageant?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s a Miss Sexual Chocolate Beauty Pageant?”
“Oh,” I said, when he finished. “So this is an event for insane people.”