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Bird: brewer of beer and tales

Tracy Bird's creations run from East Indian cuisine to stories to award-winning beer

Posted: Friday, February 02, 2001

Tracy Bird will talk your ear off and chances are you won't mind.

His vocation is brewing beer and doing research and development at the Alaskan Brewing Co. His avocation is storytelling.

He has spoken at the Juneau Folk Festival, when you were allowed to tell stories there, and at other storytelling venues.

If it takes him a while to get to Juneau from Cobleskill, in upstate New York, where he was born and raised, that's OK, because you get to learn that "kill," for example, is a Dutch suffix for "stream"; that a certain Mr. Cobles built a mill on that kill, hence the name; that the locals are called Schoharie "sloughters," - after Schoharie County and after some person named Sloughter, maybe (actually, nobody really knows); and that the whole area has a certain "Appalachian feel" about it.

Bird's accent is end-of-the-Appalachians Maine - minus the irritant of too much Yankee and with a touch of that Motel 6 guy. Coupled with his resonant baritone, it lulls the listener into seeing the sense in Bird's endeavors and dreams. These include brewing the perfect beer, growing decent vegetables and herbs in Juneau's swampy loam, exploring East Indian cuisine, mastering the pennywhistle, trashing loser Democrats who whine about Nader, and building a windmill someday.

Unobstructed by the speed bump of a question, Bird streams ahead and reveals further that the town - Cobleskill - was pretty big at one time and that there were many such towns along the kills - prosperous and scenic and with big enough hotels to draw tourists from New York City. The Augustan Hotel was one, in Cobleskill, though now it's a furniture store.

Dairy farms thrived, then. Much grain grew - and lots of hops until that big hop blight early in the century, just before Prohibition. You can still see pretty, feral hop vines growing in the area, Bird said.

The hops, of course, were grown for the regional brewers of beer, of which there were many more then than there are today. Utica Club was one - a brewer, that is - and Ballantine another, he said, the latter a rare producer of ale.

A kind of beer connection existed early on "because we did all those country kinds of thing you do for your own subsistence," Bird said. "We made root beer, picked dandelions for dandelion wine."

When he finished high school and moved away from home - still in Cobleskill - to make his own way, Bird learned to cook a little, he said, experimented with making wine, and bought his first pennywhistle. In fact, he bought 12 pennywhistles since the music-shop person in Albany - "all-benny" in the local way of speaking - was willing to let them go for only a nickel apiece because some of them were split - they are only a narrow sheet of rolled tin after all - and you had to put a piece of tape along the flap to make them work.

Eventually, Bird went to Europe and gave the pennywhistles away to children who were drawn to his tent by his efforts to learn to play the instrument.

Now he plays the bodhran, an Irish drum that is thumped with a double-headed beater.

Bird made wine, too, he said, though he left Cobleskill a couple of years afterward without tasting it. He returned 10 years later but, of course, the wine was gone.

So - when did he come to Juneau?

"I arrived in Juneau - a big town with one-way streets, the biggest town I'd ever seen - in 1976, on a dark, wet and dreary day," Bird said, sounding ominously as if he were beginning another in a string of novels.

He settled down to live in Aurora Harbor on a "tug-like" 70-foot boat, a former "territorial boat," and got a job with Acme Disposal, owned by a fine fellow - a retired Army sergeant with a terrific bark but no bite - as a welder of disintegrating Dempsey Dumpsters.

Eventually the story wends its way to Dillingham and back; the monthly manufacture of five to 10 gallons of home brew and the consumption of same at potlucks and music parties in a big old house full of musicians and, yes, hippies; and the job in a hardware store as the paint person who was daubed, eventually, because of his know-how: Professor Pigment.

But the harmonic convergence truly happened after Alaskan Brewing got started and began hiring extra help on bottling day. Bird pitched in, he said, and after a couple of years of romancing by Alaskan Brewing, made the hard decision to leave the hardware store - which he had loved and found truly interesting.

"I brewed for two or three years, was head brewer for two years, and am now a production assistant involved in research and development," Bird said.

What Bird researches and develops are ways and means of dealing with variations in the raw materials from supplier to supplier and from grower to grower.

"With wine, people expect differences in vintages," he said. "But with beer the challenge is to make it come out the same - to have the same quality. The farmers, the brewers, the suppliers, we all have to work together."

Co-worker Kristi Monroe says, "Those who know Tracy say he's extremely complex, engaging and very passionate about what he does in all areas of his life."

Is this the culmination of his dreams?

Bird thinks about the question and begins a fond reminiscence about Cobleskill and the possibility of someday returning there. He tells about how as a boy he picked apples at cider time and fed them into a cider press. Some of that cider was stored down in the cellar for the men to drink later. The leftover mash of course was fed to the heifers, and if the mash was a bit ripe, well, it was a treat to watch those heifers stumble around in the pasture ...

But that's another story.

Fernand Chandonnet can be reached at fchandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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