THE NOISY, laughing, tearful, music-filled scene inside Village Idiot Brewery, in Mount Holly, N.J., was exactly what Rich Palmay wanted.
His business partner was tending bar.
His family and friends were gathered ’round tables.
His son was playing an upright bass.
Everyone’s glass was filled with his beer.
And there was Palmay, cigar stuck in his mouth, taking it all in.
It was just a photograph on the wall, part of a memorial display that Village Idiot installed after its 56-year-old co-owner collapsed and died in the brewhouse on the night of Aug. 19.
And, yet, with each sip of Palmay IPA – the beer he was making that fateful evening – the crowd could taste and feel his presence.
They traded stories. They took another sip. They raised their glasses.
They remembered and cried and remembered and drank.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Brian Plyant, a Merchantville, N.J., graphic artist who’d known Palmay through their home-brewing club. “I feel honored to be drinking it. But it’s sad because, unless we find an old bottle of his home-brew stashed somewhere, this is the last Rich Palmay beer I will ever taste. “
Nearby, Ted McComb, of Riverton, N.J., took another gulp from his glass.
“It’s delicious,” he said. “It’s everything Rich said it would be. “
McComb was alone with Palmay in the brewhouse on his last night. A beer enthusiast, he had won a charity auction to brew at Village Idiot.
“I didn’t know Rich before that night,” McComb said. “We just talked about beer the whole time – the types of beer we liked, the whole brewing process.
“He was just awesome.
“We had ordered some food from the pizza place across the street, and we were cleaning up the spent grain when it happened.
“Here I was, having a wonderful time with Rich, and he just collapsed.
“It was the first time I ever spent any time with him. It was just a surreal experience. “
As part of the auction, McComb had won the privilege of naming the beer. A few days after the funeral, he got a call from Palmay’s partner, Vince Masciandaro.
“Vince is saying, ‘Do you mind if I name the beer after Rich? ‘
“I told him, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Of course you have to name the beer after Rich. ‘ “
Masciandaro poured me a glass and handed it over with a sad smile.
Across the room, Palmay’s widow, Noreen, choked back tears.
“I met Rich when we were in high school – we were married 31 years,” she said. “At first, brewing was just a hobby he developed in the garage.
“He’d come back into the house, talking about beers he brewed, the flavors and so on.
“Look, I’m not really a big beer person, and I could only handle so much talk about beer. So, one day I just told him, ‘Rich, honey, you’ve got to go out and find some friends who share your passion. ‘
“That’s when he joined the home-brew club, Barley Legal, and that led to this great friendship with Vince.
“The two of them spent so many afternoons brewing together. At some point they decided they wanted to do it as, you know, a real business.
“I told him, ‘Go for it. ‘ I loved him so much, and I knew that this is what he had to do. “
She looked around the room.
“For the first time in my life, I’m meeting so many of the people in the beer world that Rich lived in, putting faces to names.
“I’m so sorry he’s not here to see this.
“Rich is gone, but I feel his spirit. “
Every brewer makes his last beer, of course. And, yet, his beer lives on.
Its yeast will ferment another batch.
His friends will raise another glass.
The flavor will mingle with the memories.
The brewer is dead. Long live the brew.