Dave Fleming: Great Brewer, Better Guy

By Frank James

I hadn’t realized it until recently, but it turns out that Dave Fleming, the Fifth Quadrant brewer, has been a significant player in a couple of the more memorable moments of my adult life. It’s easy enough to love the wonderful beers he creates, as they are as appetizing and as pleasing as any you’ll find anywhere. But I only recently discovered that he’s just one helluva guy, the kind of guy with all the intestinal fortitude and character you’d ever want in any real friend. And anyone’s life is always enriched – and hopefully changed – when you’re lucky enough to happen across such a a person.

So what happened?

Well, I hope I don’t embarrass him, but this is the story…

I was standing in the gravelly, craggy, pot-holed parking lot of the Hawthorne Street Lucky Lab the instant a vague concept morphed into a clear decision. Right then and there, I decided that I was going to quit my job, pack my stuff and give the NW a try. As I sipped one of their fine beers and watched a mass of wet dogs, squirming, barking and trying to sneak beer from their owners’ cups, during the 1998 Dogtoberfest Dog Wash, I formulated a plan that would result in a cross-country moving trip 2&1/2 years later. Even though my adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin is a great place and they brew great beer in the Badger State, I’d never found that kind of experience or tasted beer that tasted quite so good, and at that very moment, the deal was sealed.

I’d been visiting Portland, exploring it on bike, and had luckily happened across the annual dog-washing fest. Just as fortunate was the fact that Dave Fleming apparently was working at the Lucky Lab as a brewer at that time. As I was later to discover. Would I have made the same decision if I’d been standing there on that cool fall day drinking beer created by a mediocre brewer, barely tolerating the swill in the middle of such a great day? Hard to say, but there’s no doubt that the Lucky Lab’s great brews helped me make a decision I’d been rolling around in my head for a couple of years.

In 1998, I’d had no idea who the brewer was, I just knew the beer at the Lab was delicious. And, along with many other factors, I decided right there that I wanted to live in a city where they brewed such delicious beer.

Fast forward to the early spring of 2010.

My partner and I had just stopped by the Fifth Quadrant for a special event – I believe it was their chowder tasting event – and I was trying to decide what to drink. The Fifth Quadrant, one of New Old Lompoc’s brewpubs, is just around a corner from the Sidebar, another New Old Lompoc bar that serves as a sort of adjunct. They’d opened, and were utilizing, a common back-area work/storage space and the public could walk from one bar to the other without going on the street. My partner and another friend stayed out near the Fifth Quadrant patio area, and I snaked my way through the back area, past the kegs and tanks and bags of grain, and eventually found my way to the Sidebar’s tiny service bar.

I’d been visiting the Sidebar on a regular basis for months, because the Fifth Quadrant showcases their most unique beers, their specialty beers, in that small, boutique space. It’s a great little place, not much bigger than a college classroom, with a few long, wooden tables, a couple of comfortable sofas, a wood-burning stove and and maybe two dozen wine and bourbon barrels that contain aging beer.

We had gotten into a pleasant routine on the weekends: a two hour hike with the dog through a 10,000 acre dog park in Troutdale, and then a stop by the Sidebar to see what kinds of treats they’d have on tap.

Several times, this thirties-looking guy with a couple days growth of beard and a baseball cap would be hanging around the bar, and he would always start up a conversation. Pretty quickly, I figured out that he was the guy who was brewing the bar’s beers. So we’d chat about stuff, but mostly I’d pick his brain about his beers, in my own basic, brewing-illiterate way. Because I don’t brew, I’m sure my questions were truly elementary, and maybe even kind of dumb, but Dave tolerated me and even seemed to encourage more dumb questions. Instead of being irritated or bothered by this persistent guy who kept coming in on Saturdays, asking him stupid questions, he actually seemed to enjoy the process. He also had the rare gift – that the best educators have – of being able to explain complex matters in simple language that lay people can understand.

So I was very familiar with the Sidebar and the bartenders who usually worked back there, and was mildly surprised to see an unfamiliar face behind the service bar. This new guy had a sharp, lean, ferret-like face, small, beady eyes, and bushy mutton-chop sideburns that crept down to the corners of his thin lips. He was filling several pints when I walked up, so I formed an impromptu line at the right elbow of the guy who was waiting for his beers. Our elbows were so close, they touched. The bartender glanced up – he faced the public as he manned the taps – looked me right in the eye, and then went back to filling glasses with the amber-colored liquid.

The Sidebar service bar is made of dark gray poured concrete, it has a small surface area – it’s about 12 feet long, a couple of feet wide – and there’s no seating. Two sets of draft taps allow the bartender to face the public as he or she pours beers. A large water keg and stacks of large, plastic tumblers sat on a turned-up wine barrel next to the end of the bar where I stood. Two plastic, letter-sized menu stands and several small bowls filled with bar snacks dotted the bar. And that’s it. It’s designed as a place for customers to order their beers, and leave, but if it’s not too crowded, you might stand at the bar and chat with the bartender for a while. And the bar is so small a bartender could reach out and touch just about anyone at his bar, if he’s at the taps.

There are no ferns or hanging lights or anything else to block the view, nothing to get in the way. Anyone working behind the bar has a clear, unobstructed view of anyone standing at the bar.

The bartender handed the full pints to the guy next to me. Then he processed his credit card payment, wiped the bar down, pulled hot, steaming glasses from the dishwasher and stacked them along the bar’s back shelves. After wiping his hands on a towel, he turned his back on me, picked up a pen, and began writing something on a notepad. His body was slightly angled so that he could see if anyone walked up to the bar.

Hmmm…interesting, but no biggie. He probably had to write something down before he forgot it. So I waited a minute. He continued fiddling with his pen and paper. After another minute, it was becoming pretty obvious what was happening. He could see what was happening at the bar, and he glanced up briefly, caught my eye and then turned back to his pen and paper. Two minutes turned into three minutes which turned into four and then five minutes. After the first couple of minutes, I’d realized what was going on, and I’d decided that I was going to find out just how long this idiot was going to refuse to wait on me.

And that was not my imagination.

He obviously saw me. He looked right at me. And I’m certainly hard to miss. I’m six foot tall, two hundred and twenty five pounds and I wear a size 48 suit jacket. I also have a big, shiny, bald head and was the only person of color in the entire bar. Only a completely blind person could not have noticed me standing there, waiting to be served.

Then another guy walked up to the bar, and the bartender immediately turned around and politely asked, “Can I help you?”

The second customer, a beefy, balding white guy in his 40’s, looked at me, awkwardly, and then glanced over at the bartender, not really sure what was going on, but clearly uncomfortable. I’m sure he could clearly feel the odd energy and tension that was floating around in that space like a foul smell.

Politely, and with a matter of fact tone, he informed the bartender that I’d obviously been waiting, and that he should take care of me first.

With the kind of sharp irritation you see when rude and disrespectful teens talk to their parents, Mr. Muttonchops finally acknowledged me, but even then he did not speak. He merely turned in my direction, stared at me and invited my question, obviously irritated that the customer had stepped in the middle of his little game.

I suddenly flashed back to the summer of 1976, when I spent the summer working at a plush five-star Colorado resort, the Broadmoor Hotel and Resort.

I was living in Colorado Springs that summer, and I’d landed a job at the resort, with the help of a friend.

But I’d been struggling with a dilemna: I could keep the prized beard I’d had since my junior year of high school and work in a non-food service job; or, I could shave it and join my fellow students and friends in the main dining room, wearing crisp white jackets, serving the swells drinks and dinner and making lots more money. Initially, I’d refused to shave and had been exiled to a bathroom at a new, Jack Nickolas-designed golf course. I was a houseman, handing out towels and polishing chrome in the expansive, blindingly-white tile prison. I felt like those characters in George Lucas’ first feature, “THX-1138”, where prisoners were stuck in a seemingly endless, white limbo world.

After a couple of weeks of that netherworld, of standing, statue-like and staring at mirror-like chrome, ivory-colored porcelain, and the backs of overweight businessmen, I decided that shaving might not be such a bad idea, after all. And at a raucous, work party, where booze and 3.2 beer flowed freely, I finally felt the touch of a cold razor for the very first time in my life.

Free at last, free at last, free at last.

At the time the resort, which sprawled across Cheyenne Mountain, had three golf courses, seven restaurants and over 1,500 employees. And two other African-American waiters. All the other black and Mexican dining room workers were busboys and dishwashers. After a short training stint as a busboy, I got my shot as a waiter.

On one of my first days, a couple of middle-aged white guys in business suits were seated in my section, and I went over to take their order. One of the men glared at me, and refused to respond when I asked if he wanted something to drink. Instead, he turned to his dining partner and informed him that he wanted an iced tea. His partner conveyed that information to me. And that is how it went the entire time I waited on them: the one guy glared at me, then spoke to his partner, as though I did not exist. And then his partner relayed that exact statement to me. I endured that weird scene for a couple of hours. I never found out the exact reasons for his refusal to speak to me, though it’s pretty easy to conjecture as to why he did what he did.

Thirty four years later, in the Sidebar, that incident flashed through my memory like a bad movie.

“Do you have any C-Note on tap?” I asked.

He merely shook his head and I took that to mean, no. Immediately, I turned to walk away, and slapped the other customer on the back, making a show of thanking him for giving me the kind of consideration I had not gotten from the bartender.

I stormed back to where my friends sat, perched on the edge of a huge planter, and immediately tried to explain what had just happened. However, within a minute of my leaving the service bar, Mr. Muttonchops had come over to where we sat, picked up a couple of empty pint glasses and looked directly at me as he came within arm’s reach. He chuckled and smirked. Then he turned and started to walk back to the Sidebar, one empty pint glass in each hand.

Thanks for being such an asshole, I told him, quietly, but firmly. He’d gotten close enough and I spoke quietly enough so my friends, sitting right next to me, did not hear what I’d said. They simply saw me turn, speak to to his back, and then turn back to them and demand that we leave.

I hated to surrender to possible paranoia, but he appeared to have specifically made that little glass-gathering trip to drive home the point he was making. He was literally laughing in my face about the fact that he’d refused to serve me.

A temporary, portable bar, a “jockey box”, had been set up only 10 feet away from where we sat. The person manning those taps was obviously the person who was responsible for empty glasses in our area. And the Sidebar had not been so busy that Mr. Muttonchops was running out of glasses.

No, he was doing exactly what he appeared to be doing: refusing to serve me and then running a victory lap out there on the patio.

For whatever crazy reason.

Well, if his goal had been to drive me away from the bar, he’d succeeded, because I was through with him, the Fifth Quadrant and the Sidebar.

I didn’t finish the story, I didn’t explain what had just happened right in front of them. I just hurriedly gathered myself, my partner and stomped out through that back area, past the Sidebar service area and out onto the street.

As I passed, the bartender had been pouring a beer, seemingly unaware that I’d just walked through the dimly-lit bar.

Our car was a mere 20 paces down the street, directly in front of the next storefront. As I was settling into the passenger’s seat, my body half-in, half-out, I noticed that Mr. Muttonchops had come rushing out onto the sidewalk. He gathered himself, craned his neck and yelled something that I could not make out.

“What?” I responded.

Now, I’d thought that he may have had a second thought about the rude way he’d treated me. I’d imagined that he might have decided that he didn’t want to alienate a Fifth Quadrant/Sidebar customer.

Silly me!

Instead, he yelled back, very loudly:

“And don’t come back!”

I was frozen and I must have looked stunned, because he repeated it:

“And don’t come back!”

And don’t come back?

And don’t come back!!!!

Who was he? The owner?

Or the owner’s son?

Was he somehow running the place?

I didn’t know the answer to any of those questions, but I did know that I was madder than I’d been in a long time. The scene at the bar was bad, but not something I was going to create a hassle over. But….

And don’t come back!!!!

Like he’s the friggin’ sheriff of Dodge City.

I jerked my leg out of the car, slammed the car door and sprinted back into the bar. Searching the small crowd, I didn’t see Dave or anyone else I recognized. After extracting Mr. Muttonchops’ real name in a brief, hostile, tortuous exchange, I dashed through the back area, and asked the big, full-bearded, dark-haired guy who was manning the jockey box: Who was in charge, who was running the show that afternoon? Even though I tried to be calm, I’m sure that I looked very upset and with a sense of real urgency, he left his little mini-bar and disappeared.

I’m sure the last thing he wanted to have to deal with that day was a big, burly, angry black dude.

A couple of minutes later Dave appeared and I began telling my story. I told him the whole story, from the first moment to the last, apologizing for losing my temper and calling the bartender an asshole. As we spoke, we walked towards the Sidebar. His face tightened, as we walked and talked, and before I knew it, we were standing in front of one of the wooden tables, only a few feet from Mr. Muttonchops.

Then Dave started talking, and the more he talked the faster he talked. A torrent of apologies and condolences flowed. After fumbling to find the exact words to express his anger, he went over to the cooler, pulled out a bottle of their barrel-aged Lompoc Special Draft, and offered it as a token.

He was steamed. He was upset. In fact, I wondered if he was even more upset about the situation than I was.

As we talked, a slender, neat man walked up and introduced himself. He was the General Manager for the Lompoc Pubs and Breweries. The GM was casually-dressed, with a salt-and-pepper Van Dyke beard, and if you plopped a beret on his head and put him out in the French countryside painting flowers, he’d look right in place.

I repeated the story I’d just told to Dave. The GM listened intently, though dispassionately, not quite sure what to think.

That’s when Dave chimed in again. I’ve forgotten exactly what prompted him to do it, and I cannot recall exactly what preceded his words. But I think he sensed the GM’s skepticism. He may have sensed that the GM was not quite sure whether I was just some guy who was imagining things, some guy who may have had too much to drink, some guy who was flying off the handle about something entirely inside his own head.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t know that guy,” as he nodded at the bartender who was a mere 15 feet away. “I don’t know that guy at all.”

“But I do know this guy,” he insisted, motioning in my direction. “But I do know this guy, and…!”

Again, the memory is fuzzy, six months later, but he may have said something like, screw him, or I don’t give a flying flip bout that guy. The exact words escape me, but his meaning was clear: if I’m going to believe anyone and side with anybody in this controversy, it’s going to be this guy standing right next to me.

I was stunned.

I looked at Dave and the GM and didn’t quite know what to make of the scene. Here was Dave, saying, in so many words:

“I don’t care if this guy works here and I don’t care if he’s white and just thinks that he’s supposed to be entitled to a favorable presumption because of some white guy tribal affiliation kind of thing, like we’re all in on the joke because we’re all white guys… But he can’t pull that kind of nonsense in a place I work my butt off at and serve my beers. This guy comes in here all the time…he likes my beers, we talk about my beer, we have that bond, at least, and even though I don’t know him that well, I believe him. I believe him. And I’m not going to allow another human being to be treated like that in the place I bust my butt.”

Now obviously, I am using a bit of creative license, as I imagine and piece together what I think was going on inside of Dave’s head at the time. But my reconstruction of his internal monologue is reasonable, I believe.

His words, actions and demeanor revealed his fundamental posture: he believed that I was telling the truth.

I had/have no idea about the nature of the relationship between the GM and Dave. I have no idea about how strong Dave’s job security was or is at New Old Lompoc.

I do know that it’s never a good policy to choose sides with a non-employee in a situation where his or her credibility is matched against a fellow employee. Especially in racial matters where truth is often murky and cloudy and impossible to nail down.

At the end of “Chinatown” Jack Nickolson’s buddy tells the Jake Gittes character to forget what has just happened, cause he’ll never really know the truth.

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown…” he tells Jake. Racial controversies are often the same way.

So I do know that it is pretty extraordinary for a white guy to stand up so strongly for a black guy who’s just claimed that kind of discrimination, to willingly dive into that swamp.

And it’s certainly obvious when a spontaneous, unequivocal show of real courage happens.

It would have been very easy for Dave to have listened to me complain and then just defer to the GM. He could have given me that bottle of LSD and quietly disappeared into the the busy afternoon. I’m sure matters of that sort are more appropriately within the GM’s purview. He is, after all, the General Manager, the guy who handles those kinds of things, the guy who’s going to get the blame if anything bad happens as a result of a situation like that. There was no reward whatsoever for a person in Dave’s position to have inserted himself in the middle of that mess.

But, for some reason, I just cannot imagine Dave taking that easy way out. Instead, he insisted on staying, doing what he could, to make certain that I was taken care of, with no real apparent concern for how that might impact on his standing at his work place.

Why is that important?

Because of this…

If you ask anyone who’s ever suffered an incident where they’ve encountered racism or sexism or any other kind of discrimination, the most maddening problem is usually the fact that no one believes you. Suffering through an incident is bad enough, but subsequently, if you seek redress, you end up being treated as some sort of delusional, paranoid person who should really just go away and shut up.

The fact that Dave Fleming would, instinctively, jump in and give credence to my story, says a lot for his open-mindedness and his courage. And it is also indicative of a basic, unshakable integrity.

Now, it may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I also think that the beers that he brews seem to have that same kind of integrity. They appear to always be honest, solid beers that don’t cheat a drinker and they always taste as though someone has put a lot of hard work and love into the final product.

Every time I go into the Sidebar or the Fifth Quadrant and drink one of his beers, I can’t help but ponder that basic, essential truth about Dave and his beers.

That’s why I’ll always be a huge fan of any of the beers that Dave designs and creates. And those are the odd connections between Dave Fleming, my move West and one of my best memories here in Portland. The GM and I exchanged emails about the incident over the next few days. He indicated that the bartender would not be working at either the Fifth Quadrant or the Sidebar in the future. He also indicated that he’d have the manager of the bar give me a gift certificate so that I’d be able to enjoy their product in the future.

I don’t care about the bartender losing or keeping his job. In fact, I’d almost have preferred that he suffer some sort of sanction, learn a lesson, hopefully grow, and then incorporate a new-found awareness into his daily life. Maybe a future customer would benefit from his round of hard knocks.

And I haven’t asked about that gift certificate, some six months later, even though I’ve gotten back into the habit of stopping by both the Fifth Quadrant and the Sidebar.

For a couple of months, I’d been too embarrassed to stop in. One of the worst things about dealing with racism is that it can often cause you to respond in ways that are not as calm or as rational as you might like. I wished that I’d not called the bartender an asshole, because I hate to stoop to the level of someone who does ugly stuff. But it’s hard to do the Gandhi-like thing when someone is intent on treating you as something less than human. And I’m not quite that gracious a person.

In a real way, Dave’s response that afternoon was enough for me. Not to get all cosmic or mushy, but small instances like that, where you get a chance to see the best qualities in another human being…well, those moments are priceless, and they act as their own reward.