Stinge sat up in bed and looked around his dark room. His clock, inexplicably sitting in its proper spot on his nightstand read 1:00 AM. The exact minute he was told to expect his second visitor.
At yet he was alone.
He waited, unmoving in his bed, save for a slight shake of his hands that matched the quick beating of his heart. Every few seconds, Stinge would glance again at the clock, to confirm that it was, in fact, time for the next spirit.
Two minutes past and nothing.
Five minutes, and still no sign.
At last, at ten minutes past the hour, Stinge stepped from his bed and shuffled to his tap. If this was all just madness – or some peculiar dream – perhaps another beer would help him back to sleep.
Grabbing on the faucet handle, an unusual gleam shined from beneath his bathroom door. The light blazed around the door frame and grew brighter and brighter until it filled the whole room like midday.
Stinge approached the door with careful steps, not sure what to make of it. And then, putting his hand on the knob, he opened it and a voice boomed from within, “Come on in! Come on in! We need to meet!”
He let his eyes adjust to the blinding glare, and found himself back in his own single room, watching a man rest comfortably on a beer barrel, surrounded by a dozen other kegs and barrels, curtains of hop vines hanging from the ceiling, and sheaves of barley. This ghost resembled a man, tall and slender, but seemed a giant in Stinge’s mind, large enough to somehow fill an entire room with just the presence of his spirit.
“I am the Ghost of Craft Brew Christmas Present,” the spirit said.
He wore what appeared to be a simple t-shirt and blue jeans, but upon scrutiny, Stinge noted that both were made from the finest materials that could be put together and were as new as though they just came from their maker. The spirit’s shirt was emblazoned with a face held in a mighty grimace, open-mouthed, as if screaming in defiance and boundless determination. In his hand, he held a megaphone that somehow seemed to burn at the end like a torch.
Raising it to his lips, he said, voice booming through the implement, “Do you know me?”
Stinge faltered. “No. I don’t think I do.”
“In all the years of your work, have you never spent time with one of my brothers or sisters? While I am very young, you could have known one of my older siblings?”
“I don’t think so. How many are there?”
The ghost smiled. “Hundreds. Thousands.”
Stinge furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand, but if you have something to show me, spirit, let’s be on with it.”
Rising from the barrel, the ghost approached Stinge and said, “Hold onto my shirt.” He did, and a bubbling sensation of a hot, delicate foam rose from his feet, up his legs and torso, and over his head. The room vanished.
The light, hot foam fell back again and snow was at Stinge’s feet. A brisk wind blew past his face. Chill as he knew it should be, though, he felt no cold. The pair stood on the sidewalk outside a tavern.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Just a pub. A place where people gather to share in the joy of Christmas with good friends and good beer.”
The sign above the front door read “Cratchit House.”
“Wait, I know this place,” Stinge said, rubbing his chin. “I believe this place is a frequent stop of my brew master, Kolsher.”
“Let’s see what’s happening inside, then,” the ghost replied. Stinge took his shirt again, and after the oddly hot sensation of being covered over in foam, the pair was inside the building.
Bob Kolsher stood at the head of a long table, a full mug of brown-black liquid raised, before a host of faces Stinge recognized as his employees. Kolsher’s own wife sat beside him, smiling ear to ear with a glass of her own. In front of Bob on the table stood a number of bottles, lined up like soldiers.”
“To Peter, our porter,” Kolsher roared happily, “with never too much bite and never too much roast, it has always been the perfect, slightly sweet one in-between.”
“Hear, hear!” each person seated at the table cried, and they all drank deeply from their own mugs.
A woman beside Mrs. Kolsher said to her, “They’re just like his own children, these beers. What will he do now?”
Bob’s wife gave her a forced half-smile. “We tell ourselves it’s like being a parent. There comes a time when they must go out into the world. And then you hope the best comes of it.”
“Letting that…company,” she said with a grimace, “take over them is certainly no one’s first wish, but Bob will always be there, as, what did he say, Brewing Liaison, to watch over them as best he can.”
Kolsher slammed his empty mug down on the table and wobbled slightly. Then, taking up the last bottle in his row, he kissed it with reverence and pressed it to his cheeks. Holding it out he said, “And finally, last but by no means least, there’s the Christmas Ale. My favorite brew, the one that’s had a special place in my heart since Merrill and Stinge first told to me to come up with something for the season. I nicknamed this one Tiny Tim, years ago, because there was so much flavor, joy, and life in such a small bottle.”
He tilted the bottle and watched it pour slowly into his mug, his eyes shining with the threat of wetness. Holding the mug solemnly into the air he said, “Merry Christmas to us all and God bless us.”
Those present around him smiled and echoed the sentiment, and they all sipped from their Christmas Ales. Wiping foam from his lips, Kolsher sighed contentedly. “God bless us, every one.”
Stinge, seeing their admiration for the beer, so lovingly cared for by Kolsher as to give it a personal nickname like “Tiny Tim”, sniffed quietly and rubbed at his own eyes.
“Tell me, spirit, will it ever be the same again? Can our Christmas Ale, Bob’s Tiny Tim, somehow manage to survive the coming years?”
“You know the answer already. I see an empty bottle, covered in dust, sitting alone on the memento shelf above the bar here, if nothing changes. But then, better to get away from…”
The apparition raised its oddly burning bullhorn and triggered it with a dark grin. Stinge’s own voice radiated from its bell forcefully, “‘wasting our time, energy, and precious capital on brewing.’”
Stinge lowered his head in shame, hearing his own cold words echoed back in the midst of the laughter around him of others finding so much Christmas joy together, even in the face of an uncertain future.
Still standing, Kolsher added, “And one last toast, to good Mr. Stinge, for giving us all a chance to have such a day!”
“Such as day as this, indeed!” Mrs. Kolsher exclaimed. “I’ve never had such a sad Christmas as today, with friends together, bidding our family of beers goodbye. If only Stinge was here, I’d have a few more drinks and then give him quite a bit more than a toast, I’m happy to say, although I doubt he’d find it a very pleasant meal!”
“Please, sweetheart, it’s Christmas,” Kolsher said softly.
“Fine,” she relented. “Because it’s Christmas and because we still have proper beer, made with care, here to toast with. A merry Christmas, then, for Stinge!”
“For Stinge,” everyone around the table repeated, without enthusiasm. And then each sipped, faces dark, from their dwindling mugs of Christmas Ale.
The ghost nudged Stinge on the shoulder and bent his head toward the street. Stinge took his shirt again, noticing how the grimacing logo at it center seemed to stare at him in anger.
The hot foam rose and fell again, and they appeared in another tavern, with a sign reading, “Fred’s, since 1843” above the bar.
Stinge found himself standing beside Mr. Paren, Jr., the son of Davey Paren, his old college friend, at a tall round table beside a ancient wooden bar running the length of the pub’s main room. A number of his contemporaries, men and women of brewing, known to both, Stinge and Paren sat with the junior brewer, tall glasses of a ruby-brown beer in front of them.
“I believe this might be their finest yet,” one woman said taking a full drink. “It’s a shame there will likely never be any more.”
“I must admit,” Paren said, “I do think it’s better even than our warmer this season. Stinge’s man Kolsher outdid himself with the Christmas Ale this year.”
A chorus of agreement ran around the table.
“I still can’t believe you invited him,” another man said.
“Well, he was a good friend of my father’s once. And I know my father always wanted to work with him, specifically on a special holiday release.”
The woman scoffed. “Old friend or not, I don’t know how you deal with him. He seems to have no care for what we do. Everything he sees seems to be boiled down immediately to a quantitative value, which is instantly analyzed for profit. I don’t have the patience.”
“I can’t bear his cold, scrutinizing look,” another of the men said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Paren cried, laughing. “Yesterday, when I wished him a merry Christmas, he called the whole thing trivial!”
Everyone at the table shook their heads in disbelief. “Such a wonderful time of year for us,” the man to Paren’s right said. “I brew my entire year looking forward to this season. It’s hard to not smile as our winter brew boils, knowing that hardly anyone who tastes it will be doing so except in moments of happiness and celebration with those they love around them. I can’t imagine NOT making it.”
“Hear, hear,” they all said, toasting to the sentiment.
“And yet, next year, Stinge will be giving that all away and worse, letting MegaBrew pour whatever cheap ingredients they can squeak past Kolsher into those bottles.”
“Too true,” Paren laughed again. “I don’t think he realizes that he’s hurting himself more than anyone else this way. In the end, I’m sure his many customers will find joy in sharing together different, well-made beers, while old Stinge will have nothing to drink but his own distasteful, cheaply made swill.”
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “in honor of the season, and my father, which is why we all came today, I will continue to wish the poor soul a ‘Merry Christmas!’, as well as offer an invitation each year for him to join in our holiday brew, whether it be one year since he fired his kettle or 10.”
“To poor Stinge, then” one of the ladies said, then, raising her glass of his own Christmas Ale. “May he have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, whether he want it or not, and may his boil kettle stay hot, in spite of his cold calculations!”
“To Stinge!” the others all cried, and drank deeply.
Tapping him, the spirit nodded again, and Stinge took his shirt once more. Another hot foam covered him and fell, and they materialized on a dark street corner.
The spirit’s eyes looked heavy and its clothes had become well-worn as their time together had gone on. The face on the t-shirt, though, while having the same basic features as before, somehow now seemed more ominous to Stinge. More accusing. More hostile.
“My time is nearly up,” the ghost said.
“Excuse me for asking, spirit,” Stinge began, “but why do you wear your own face on your chest, in such a sad, contorted shape? Especially when everything you have shown tonight me has been full of warmth and joy?”
“This time each year, Man is called to look at himself, within himself, and evaluate what he is offering to mankind. But very few really glimpse what’s inside. The face on my shirt, then, echoes what each person should see, if they truly saw themselves with honest eyes.”
“If you have been giving of yourself and your talents, to bring joy and comfort for your brothers and sisters, the face would seem a rallying cry, a cheer for good works, and hearty, stirring call to strengthen and support further efforts. If you have not, though, the face would seem a mean, ugly look of condemnation.”
“What do you see, Edwin Stinge? What does it mirror inside yourself? I know. I know that when you ignore the gifts you could offer others, give up on your craft, and trade your responsibilities to those who would sell fizzy, yellow water in your name because you chase only profit, well; unless that brew is changed, what I know spells Doom.”
“But!” Sting cried. “I’ve only done what I thought right.”
The ghost’s face changed, then, to match the angry grimace on it’s now faded t-shirt. Raising the burning megaphone again, it pressed the handle button and Stinge’s own cold voice filled his ears, words slightly twisted from his phone early conversation with Paren.
“I will allow you to continue your work uninterrupted. Good day.”
A wristwatch chimed the hour, and Stinge looked around for the source. Before finding it, the phantom noise stopped.
Looking back, the Ghost of Craft Brew Christmas Present* was gone, leaving him alone on the street corner.
Movement caught the corner of his eye, though, and he turned to see a dark, shadowy figure in a belted robe approach, gliding along a fluffy tan foam.
The solemn creature filled Stinge with dread.
*I’d like to offer a very large, extra special “Thank You” to Greg Koch of Stone Brewing (stonebrew.com) for letting me borrow a few of his more well-known traits for the Ghost of Christmas Present. I owe him a beer next time he’s in town!