James 'Dr. Fermento' Roberts

This whole COVID confinement thing freed up a lot of time for me, not that I wanted it to. I’d rather be back running through my favorite breweries and watering holes and sampling the fermented wares of our local craft brewers instead of hanging out and drinking beer at home while I tinker with shit in my garage, or hang out on the computer and use social media to chew up spare time.

I guess it doesn’t help that I’m a borderline insomniac and that I don’t watch TV. No, I’m not abject to TV; it’s just not for me. I’m a voracious reader, and certainly I love to write. I’ll amuse myself with a crossword puzzle once in a while, but any more, I often find myself without a lot to do.

A great diversion for me is going through the thousands of beer pictures I’ve taken over the years, almost entirely within the state of Alaska. I have a massive, original digital collection, but I’ve also been going back through thousands of more, actual acetate-based film photographs that I’ve taken were printed and am scanning and digitizing them, then categorizing them in subject matter directories I’ve built.

First, a disclaimer. I won’t say I’m a photographer, because that phrase to me implies that I might be particularly good at using a camera and that maybe what I do with it produces some sort of art form or at least gives me some sort of recognizable creative or artistic signature. I never said any of the pictures are any good; I just take a lot of them.

Second, because the pictures in this collection are all about beer and the people that drink it, I do my work with a beer in hand when I can. The pastime makes the evenings go by quicker, and I get to enjoy my cups without feeling too shitty about not being out there supporting our local breweries and beer-ish establishments.

No, I don’t do this during the day – at least not the beer drinking part - I have a full time job I’m very committed to. I don’t do this every single night, either. There are just some idle times where combining memories with good beer feels really super good, and that’s happening more for me lately. I’m not complaining about it.

I got to Alaska in 1979, and with a fresh set of eyes, everything fascinated me. But it wasn’t until 1992 that I really turned the lens toward beer. I’d started homebrewing, and became a bigger part of the Great Northern Brewers (GNBC), Anchorage’s homebrew club. I became the second president of the club in ’92 and ’93, and started writing the club’s newsletter. Out came the camera to break up the writing with some art.

In those formative years, I spent a lot of time testing my social comfort zone by getting in people’s faces with a camera. I was nerdish before beer came along in a more formal, structured fashion, and with a purpose. I broke out as I found favor in bigger and bigger beer circles. This eventually led me to the Anchorage Press as the contributing beer columnist in July of 1997. The camera really went to work then. My focus expanded to include the commercial and industrial side of the beer drinking world, and the expansive hospitality side that supported it. Both were (and still are) incredibly complex, social, somewhat incestuous interwoven systems that fascinated me, and I quickly became part of the extended family.

In 2000, I decided to create a recipe book for the GNBC that combined the recipes of the winning beers entered in the various sanctioned homebrew competitions the club had been sponsoring up to that point. It was a labor of love which mustered and combined what little creative talent I had back then. Again, I found another use for the pictures I’d been unwittingly collecting over the years.

The recipe book was a hit, and over 200 copies sold to mostly GNBC members. In a club with a membership that averaged around 45 people, this seemed pretty good in those days. The profits went to the club, and a second version came out in 2004. That edition did just as well.

I started squirreling pictures away for an anticipated 2008 edition of GNBC recipe book. It never happened. But that didn’t stop me from continuing to dump club-related beer pictures into the 2008 directory set up for that original purpose.

At the same time, up to 2001, the self-appointed GNBC curator – Patricia Ryan – amassed hundreds of pictures from contributing members – me included - and put them in photo albums. She just kept adding to them. She was unwittingly recording and organizing the club’s middle history while I was recording what’s become my own version of Alaska’s commercial craft beer’s middle history.

When interest in GNBC waned, and Ryan eventually distanced from it, the massive photo albums were handed from official to official and eventually ended up in my lap. A current project – well, a project that’s been ongoing for close to 10 years now - is pulling the pictures out of their sleeves and digitizing them for some unknown future use.

Between that ongoing project and digitizing my own massive printed collection, I just keep doing it, kind of like Forest Gump jogging across the country with no real purpose or destination. It just feels good, and it goes really good with beer.

I’ve got pictures of people partying, passed out, puking, peeing and drinking from toilet plungers. I’ve got pictures of breweries, brewing, beers in bars, beer festivals, beer dinners and beer in boxes in liquor stores. I have a digital directory for every brewery in the state and most of our popular local bars here in town going back to 1986. I just keep scanning and tucking both pictures and scanned documents in them. That’s a total of over 4,000 in that subset.

In the zany, brief GNBC snapshot that’s comprised of scanned pictures, the 2004 recipe book directory has over 300 pictures in it and by comparison, the ever-bulging 2008 directory has over 3,000.

The collection so far has served just a little bit of purpose over the years. An old homebrewer from the reached out after his house burned to the ground with everything in it, including all family pictures. I searched by name and was able to quickly print him out a couple of dozen pictures that he may or may not want to share with parents and grandparents, but they’re pictures. They’re happy ones, too. They’re little snippets of foamy fun and smiles that include his family members.

Whenever there’s a celebration of life for passing homebrewers of that same era or a need to celebrate something specific, I’m happy to open the vault and do a quick search to provide something I hope adds value and is meaningful.

Oddly enough, the biggest self-serving return on my investment so far is the smiles, the likes and the comments I get on Facebook for sharing a somewhat distant past with friends and acquaintances in my beer world.

I guess there can be pictures in a shroud, but pictures are for sharing with the living, even if we don’t pass them around in the physical format like we used to. I love beer, I love beer people, and I love to share. It’s a lot easier to do in today’s world. Hell, if you’ve done any public beer drinking around town in our more visible venues and events between 1986 and now, chances are you’re in one of these pictures too.

Am I bragging? I hope not. I certainly don’t mean it to come across that way. Maybe I’m just doing a little bit of validating while I try to figure out what to do with all this stuff as I continue to add to the digital pile. Meanwhile, the humming of the scanner fills the void while I continue to digitize, adjust, crop, resize, catalog and sip beer. It beats watching TV.

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