Stinge awoke in total darkness. He couldn’t specifically remember turning off his only dim bulb, but must have before falling into bed.
The man groaned and rubbed his eyes, trying to clear the fuzz from his head. Perhaps he’d had a few pints too many earlier in the night. That would certainly explain both what he’d seen and how he felt.
Glancing at the clock beside his bed, he noted the dull red lines making up the numbers on its face marked the time as 2:27 AM.
“Midnight, indeed. Humbug!” Stinge chuckled to himself.
A flicker of motion caught his eye, though, and focusing again on the clock face, he was astonished to find the numbers wind backwards.
“What’s this? 2:20? I sweat it was just…”
The numbers whirred again, now stopping at 2:00 AM.
“Nonsense!” the man growled, rubbing his eyes.
The red digits, brighter now, read a preposterous 1:00 AM.
Stinge grabbed the clock, preparing to throw it across the room when the digits spun again, landing precisely at 12:00 AM. Midnight.
The clock in his hands chimed the hour, and he dropped it in shock. Reaching to pick it up, he straightened, and found an unfamiliar face gazing back at him. The clock clattered back to the floor a second time.
The figure was somehow old and young, with a youthful face full of cheer yet long white hair that stretched down its back. Dressed in lederhosen and carrying a long handled spoon, it smiled at Stinge. The apparition’s face was lit by a strange glow emanating from its head, just above the open top of a mush tun worn as a cap.
“Are you the first of the sprits to visit me?”
“Yes,” the spectre said in a child-like voice, “I am the Ghost of Craft Brew Christmas Past.”
“Beer in the historical past?” Stinge asked.
“No, beer in your past, Edwin Stinge.”
“I am well aware of how beer has affected my past, spirit. Let’s not waste either of our time.”
“If only that were true,” the ghost said sadly. “Come, walk with me.”
“To where? It’s late and cold.”
“To visit your past, of course.”
Stinge scoffed. “Right. And how do you propose I travel through time?”
Extending the spoon in its hand, the ghost said, “Take hold here, barely a light touch, and we will flow easily as though poured through the ages.”
Stinge did as commanded, and in that moment a cold weightless sensation washed over him as if floating on the head of a beer. He squeezed his eyes shut until the feeling was gone. Opening them again, he stood outside an old brick building on a cobblestone street.
“Goodness, I know this place. It no longer exists! I grew up on this block. This is my old grandfather’s brewery, before it was closed and demolished by my father.”
Stinge gave the ghost a wistful look.
“Are you okay?” it asked. “You look stricken.”
“I’m fine. It’s just that…I always dreamed of running my grandfather’s brewery when I was a boy. To see it now, as a man…”
He cleared his throat. “Well, that’s under the bridge now. Show me what we came to see.”
“Can you lead us to your grandfather’s office?”
“Do you take me for an idiot?” Stinge complained. “I know the way it by heart.”
“With the building forgotten for so long, odd you would still remember.”
Giving the ghost a scornful look, he replied simply, “follow me,” and stepped into the brewery.
Through the grain storage room, past the mash tun, beyond the boil kettle, and up another long flight of steps, Stinge led the ghost through the deserted building.
Rounding the corner at the top of the steps, they stepped into an office where a small man with rosy cheeks and a broad smile sipped from a cup while looking over papers.
Stinge stopped short and gasped. “Grandfather!”
The man continued peering at his work, head down.
“He can’t see us, Edwin. These are only visions of the past, unchangeable. He can see and hear us no more than you could at the time.”
As it spoke, a child’s voice exclaimed, “Grandpa!” behind them, and a young boy raced past them to hug the older man.
“Little Eddy!” his grandfather returned with cheer, hugging the boy tightly.
“I had forgotten how I used to be so glad to see him,” the elder Stinge said. “He always had a smile and small treat for me.”
“Merry Christmas to you, grandson. A piece of toffee?” the grandfather asked the boy, as if on cue.
Taking the candy, the boy looked at the man’s desk. “Thank you and Merry Christmas to you too, Grandpa. Are you doing the books? And what are you drinking today?”
“I am. And today’s sample is our dunkleweizen.”
“Am I old enough yet?”
With a half smile, the older man shook his head. “Not yet, little Eddy. In a few years you can try the beer. You’ll need to know them well when you grow older, if you are to run the business some day.”
“If there is a business to run,” came a heavy voice between Stinge and the ghost. A vision of his father stood beside him.
“Good day, son,” his grandfather said. “How are you?”
“Worried, as usual of late,” the somber-looking man replied. “Profits were barely even this year, and the big companies are getting serious about expansion. I don’t know how we’ll compete against them as they branch out.”
The old brewer laughed. “I’ll take a year of the same profits a thousand times over one of losses, son. This is not such terrible news.” Growing more serious, he said, “and we will cross that other bridge when and if we come to it. But, in truth, I hear those brewers make their beer using the cheapest adjuncts they can order. There’s no love in it, no craft. It’s a commodity they expect to sell with big advertisements no matter how it tastes.”
“But enough of that; it’s time to celebrate Christmas and a year of blessings! Come. Let’s open a barrel or two to enjoy with the workers and their families.”
“Father!” Stinge’s own father looked stricken. “Surely this is not to time to be giving away our goods to people we already pay. Especially when our potential welfare is threatened.”
Looking stern, the older man said, “I will not leave young Eddy a company that abuses those people it relies upon.” Smiling again, he added, “come now, a few barrels won’t make such a mark against our profits. It’s time to rejoice in the holiday!”
Shaking his head, Stinge’s father, said, “As you wish, sir.”
“Good. It’s settled then. Now, little Eddy, I believe if you hurry, you might catch your grandmother downstairs bringing in the cakes.”
The young man dashed from the room and clattered down the steps and the men followed after him.
“It was your grandfather’s last Christmas, wasn’t it?” the ghost asked as they left.
“Yes.” Stinge replied. “A kind-hearted soul, he didn’t live to see the demise of everything he’d built. It’s just as well, too. The collapse that came during my father’s tenure would have killed him.”
“You did have the opportunity to sample his craft, though?”
“Yes, a few years later, when I was of an appropriate age, my father allowed me to try them all with the brew master at the time. They still followed my grandfather’s recipes, and each glass was marvelous.”
“Too bad,” the ghost whispered, “they are no longer brewed.”
“But surely,” it added, “your grandfather would have been proud of how you followed him in the business.”
“Are you mocking me, ghost?” Stinge growled.
“Not at all,” the spirit said, smiling. “Come, we are not finished yet.” It held the spoon out to Stinge.
He took it, and the cold effervescent sensation filled him again.
Opening his eyes again, he found himself in a laboratory, where three figures huddled around a large pot over a flaming burner.
“Ha!” Stinge exclaimed. “We’re in the chemistry lab from college. And there’s old Professor Williger and, my goodness, that’s Davey! David Parens, as I live and breathe!”
Watching at a wristwatch through horn-rimmed glasses, the white-haired professor said, “Davey, Eddy, that’s 30 minutes. Time for the next dose of hops.”
A young Edwin Stinge lifted a small container and dumped it contents, a pile of green leafy cones, into the pot.
“I’d nearly forgotten it,” Stinge said, breathless. “My first brew. Davey and I had been caught chattering about home brewing something in our dorm room, and Williger grabbed us and gave us the rough side of his tongue us about setting the building on fire.”
“And then, much to our surprise, he offered to help us. We spent that Christmas Eve drinking Williger’s homebrew and learning the ins and outs of making beer. He even had a special holiday beer he only made at Christmastime.”
Each of the men raised their glasses and clinked them together, offering a hearty cheer.
“We were so proud of ourselves. That was still one of the best beers I ever made.”
He licked his limps, keenly aware of his thirst.
“Such a kindness Williger did us then,” Stinge went on. “We were young and foolish, and left to our own devices might have actually set the place on fire, or at least made something tasting like dishwash. A few hours of the Professor’s time made all the difference to both of us.”
“What’s that?” the ghost asked.
“Just that he had such power to affect our lives, with so small a thing.”
“Indeed. Was there something else you wanted to say?”
“Just that…well, it’s a shame we didn’t keep up the tradition.”
“Did you not brew again?”
“Oh, the three of us got together the next few years on Christmas Eve to brew, and we even made that same recipe. But then Davey and I graduated and each started our own breweries, which brought our collaborative brewing to an end.”
“But you did continue a Christmas Eve relationship with him for a while….” The ghost held the spoon forward again.
Expecting the cold, Stinge squeezed his eyes together before taking it, and opened them again when it left him. He found an older Davey Parens sitting alone in Stinge’s customary booth at his nightly pub.
A stiff wind blew through the bar as the door opened and another, slightly older version of Edwin Stinge stomped inside, coat and boots covered in snow.
“Bloody cold,” he groused.
Parens stood. “Eddy, it’s good to see you! Let’s warm you up. I’ve brought a quarter barrel of this year’s Christmas Ale, which should do just the trick.”
“That’s kind of you, Davey. I’m afraid our stock is very precious,” Stinge said. “I couldn’t liberate any from our shipments.”
“Well, that’s alright. We can still have a nice evening. Truly, I don’t know why we don’t do this more than once a year.”
The older Stinge, standing beside the ghost, frowned, and shook slightly in agitation.
“Something wrong?” the spirit asked him.
“No, no. He was always such a generous soul. He’d have given me the shirt off his back.”
“Listen, Eddy, I’ve been thinking,” Parens said. “We haven’t brewed on Christmas Eve in years, not since we last saw old Williger. Next year, let’s do something special. Let’s both our breweries make something special. Maybe each do a version of Williger’s holiday recipe? Or something new and unusual. It would be great fun!”
Stinge rubbed his chin. “I would love to taste Williger’s again, but I’m afraid I can’t put my company’s resources to use for our own amusement, Dave.”
Parens frowned. “Come on, Stinge, it would be glorious! Just as a small commitment. I’ll even front the capital. We would both just need to clear a tiny wedge of time for brewing and distribution.”
Shaking his head, Stinge took a gulp of beer. “I’m sorry,” he said, wiping white foam from his mouth, “but our production schedule is overburdened already. I couldn’t possibly squeeze something like that in next year. Maybe sometime in a few years, if we increase our capacity.”
A sad look fell over Parens. “Sure, Edwin. A few years.”
An awkward silence fell over the two men in the booth. Parens looked away, crestfallen, and Stinge began to read over the menu very pointedly.
“Take me home; I’ve had enough,” Stinge growled to the ghost.
It grinned back wickedly. “Don’t blame me if you find your own past skunked. These are simply visions of what happened.”
“Bah!” he roared. “Enough, I said!”
Laughing, the ghost tapped him on head with its spoon, and the cold sensation returned. Rather than floating, though, this time Stinge felt as if he was falling though the air.
Falling, falling, falling…
And startling awake in his own bed, lying on his back.