Monday, April 20, 2009

Maine Sig Eps Celebrate One of Their Own

Finishing his last drink
Celebrating Andrew Gerke's life and love of beer
Zach Dionne

When Andrew Gerke told me in an interview he'd booked the Dropkick Murphys for a concert at UMaine, I said "cool" and wrote it in my notebook. The next thing he told me was that it was on a Thursday - and we started laughing about it being a thirsty Thursday with an Irish-punk band from Boston. Andrew said he was looking into the possibilities of a beer tent for the show.

While we never found time to hang out apart from our relationship as editor at the Maine Campus and Student Entertainment maestro, he texted me more than once suggesting we chat over beer.

That's a long way of me proving the guy was a beer lover. Since last fall, he'd been a fan of Novare Res Bier Cafe in the Old Port - a pub that offers "members" a checklist to keep track of their conquest of 200 beers. When he died last Tuesday, he had 13 down, 187 to go.

Andrew Gerke's friends and family made a pilgrimage to Novare Res on Saturday night to finish what he started, just as Christopher Tolkien finished the work of his father, J.R.R., in chronicling Middle-earth.

At 9 p.m., I find the brick pub and proceed to wait 15 minutes for a beer; a side bar is completely mobbed with people chipping away at Andrew's list. Novare Res and its spacious beer garden are swarmed with people wearing both red and blue Red Sox hats reading, "In Loving Memory: Andrew Gerke: 8/8/84 - 4/14/09." Later, upward of 40 people gather for the event to sing a boisterous rendition of the Maine "Stein Song" outside.

When I finally get my hands on the list, there are hardly any beers left. According to Andrew's friend Brandon Aaskov, a separate group from Team Gerke heard what was going on and pitched in, purchasing some of the more expensive beers.

Cory Sims, Andrew's sister's boyfriend, orchestrated the event. Cory is quick to downplay his role.

"It's all in the name of Andy." Cory says. After hearing Andrew was a fan of the establishment and that he'd hoped to finish all the beers, Cory spoke to the Novare Res manager.

"He'd never done anything like this before, and he was ready to just do it," he says.

Cory left with Andrew's sister, Katy McAlister, at seven for dinner at Margaritas.

"At that point, the bartenders were like, 'You know, if you guys don't finish it tonight, we'll keep it going. You've got a long ways to go.' And we got back here at nine and they're like, 'There's only about 12 beers left,'" Cory says, laughing. "So people did a lot of work."

The beers range from $5 to more than $30 and come from all over the world, with a big chunk hailing from Belgium and Germany. With no method, I pick a Belgian Augustijn Ale from the menu; the bartender ducks into the bottle room and returns with a green monster reminiscent of a wine bottle, cork and all. I'll find out later it costs $21. I'm okay with it because I know why I'm here.

"To finish his list, to finish his goal? I think this is the perfect tribute, because no matter what Andy and I were doing, we had a blast. No. Matter. What," says Kyle Norris, punctuating each word with a slap of his hands. He's known Andrew since age six. "Bringing all these people together - from his fraternity, from high school, from drum corps, from bands, everyone together in one place, to celebrate the life of one of the most amazing people I've ever known - is incredible."

He goes on to tell me stories unfit for print, but fit to make me laugh until my face hurts - one memory ends, "that was the best $10 I ever spent."

That's the vibe of the evening - there doesn't appear to be much sad drinking. "Commemorate Andy Gerke" is the name of the Facebook event, and that's what is happening.

"By the time today came around, we'd gotten a lot of our tears out," says Dennis Boyd, a 2005 UMaine alum and one of Andrew's many Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brothers. He was at the hospital with Andrew when he died.

"He wouldn't have wanted a bunch of people sitting around crying about it. He would've wanted all his friends to get together, raise a glass, here's to you," Dennis says. "This is how I wanna go out. Line 'em up at the bar."

Boyd has done his fair share working through Andrew's list. He estimates 25 Sig Ep brothers came to Novare Res to do the same.

"We had people come incredible lengths just to say goodbye," Dennis says. Andrew's friends traveled from Massachusetts, New York and Colorado.

Novare Res is a pub for beer lovers. They serve beer in more than 35 styles of glasses. They decorate the tables with makeshift beer-bottle vases filled with baby's breath. Empties of prestigious brews line every spare inch of shelf space.

A guy I've never met toasts my glass and says, "To Andy." Photocopies of Andrew's list float around - "Gerke, Andrew, November 14, 2008," is written in his handwriting.

At 10:13 p.m., Andrew's sister Katy buys the last beer. It's an Allagash, from Maine.

"We are here for one man," someone yells as a toast. Glasses clink and tears are shed.

Each person who finishes the 200-beer list is given an engraved chalice and a spot to keep it in a locked room.

"There's one person that's awarded with a key," Cory tells me. He holds up a small, ordinary silver key. "Whenever we want, we can open up the gate with this key, grab the chalice and just commemorate Andy Gerke."

We do just that. Cory removes a large link of heavy chain from a formidable metal gate, and we go into a room full of cubby holes; less than two dozen belong to champions of the challenge. The room is peaceful and quiet, even with the roar of the bar audible in the background.

Cory and Katy say the chalice will be engraved with Andrew's name, his birth and death dates, and the word "commemorative." They'll also put a picture of Andrew in the cubby. They've been drinking from Andrew's chalice - they give me a sip before setting it in his cubby and showing me his completed list.

The list is like Andrew's life: You show up, it's astonishing, and you can't wait for it to go on and on. Then all of a sudden, it's over with three hours till last call. And it's still a hell of a way to be sent off. There's no question everyone here will remember the night and tell the story for ages. The Beer Police will certainly be back, thinking of Andrew and sipping one in his honor.