The Pint of No Return: New Excerpt
The Pint of No Return by Ellie Alexander is the second book in the Sloan Krause Mystery series, where the amateur sleuth investigates a movie star who’s murdered not long after arriving in Leavenworth, WA, to film his latest project.
No other festival compares to Oktoberfest in Leavenworth, Washington. The whole town is buzzing with excitement over this year’s activities and eagerly awaiting Nitro’s latest offering Cherrywizen, made with locally sourced cherries. But local brewmaster Sloan Krause is tapped out. Between trying to manage the pub, her pending divorce with Mac, and her mounting feelings for Garrett, she’s fermenting in internal turmoil.
To complicate matters, dreamy movie star Mitchell Morgan and his production crew have arrived in the village to film during the authentic Bavarian brewfest. Mitchell has his eye on Sloan and a taste for Nitro’s Cherrywizen. Sloan escapes his advances for good when she finds Mitchell slumped over the bar. Is this a case of one pint too many, or has Mitchell been murdered by microbrew?
THE SOUND OF ACCORDIONS PLAYING “The Chicken Dance,” Leavenworth’s most popular polka during Oktoberfest, filled the bustling square. All around me city crews, dressed in matching baby blue T-shirts with this year’s Bavarian crest—two pewter beer steins, a pretzel, a black bear, and a German sausage—were setting up for the weekend festivities. The town gazebo had been decked out in strands of fall foliage wound together with yellow, orange, and white twinkle lights. Hay bales and pumpkins flanked the cement steps. Navy blue banners with golden leaves and the word WILLKOMMEN hung from the lampposts that lined Front Street. Even the trees burst with welcoming fall color. It was no wonder that Leavenworth had become one of the most popular places to visit during Oktoberfest.
I smiled and waved to a worker inflating a bouncy house on the grassy area near the gazebo. Front Street would soon be filled with vendor tents, arts and crafts booths, and an entire kid zone (known as the Kinderplatz) with a climbing wall, clowns, and tons of games and activities to keep our youngest guests entertained while their parents imbibed the dozens of imported German beers that would soon be tapped. Over the next three weekends, thousands of visitors would make the trek through Washington’s breathtaking mountain passes and winding roads to join in the revelry.
When Oktoberfest first began in 1998, four hundred people raised a pint glass in a toast to Germany’s famed beer celebration. Through the years the festival had grown exponentially. Now events stretched over multiple weekends and drew crowds, brewers, performers, and beer lovers from all over the world.
It was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement, especially with every shop in the village getting in the spirit with elaborate fall displays. Collections of nutcrackers wearing lederhosen and baskets of apple strudel and kuchen (sweet cake topped with powdered sugar and toasted nuts) tempted passersby from the front windows of the square, where each storefront was designed to resemble a chalet in the German Alps. From half-timbered structures with ornate window carvings to balconies lush with blooming geraniums and white stucco siding framed with dark trim, every shop looked like a cottage from the German countryside.
Despite the craziness that had surrounded my life the past few weeks, I felt a sense of calm watching the familiar bustle that accompanied fall’s biggest bash. Oktoberfest brought out the best in our remote village. Preparations had begun months in advance with shopkeepers ordering cases of German flags and spending weeks washing their front windows and sweeping their sidewalks. The fact that the annual festival coincided with the official start of fall made it that much more spectacular. Our little Bavaria looked like a movie set. If I didn’t live here, I might not believe that our pristine cobblestone streets and sunlit tile rooftops were real.
Could there be any place more beautiful? I thought as I stopped to admire a leafy oak tree, glowing gold with sun.
Alas, that thought quickly evaporated when I heard someone call my name in a nauseating singsong tone.
My stomach sunk. I knew the nasal voice all too well. Play nice, I reminded myself and turned to see April Ablin racing toward me. April was Leavenworth’s self-proclaimed town ambassador and my nemesis. As always she was dressed in a barmaid costume that squished her ample bosom up to her neck.
I thought about making a run for it, but I knew that wouldn’t do any good. April was persistent.
“Morning,” I said, trying not to stare at her garish makeup.
“Oh, Sloan, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She gasped for breath. “Have you heard the news?”
“No. What news?”
Her face, which was caked in three layers of foundation in an attempt to hide the wrinkles creasing her brow, gleamed with delight. “Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe you haven’t heard. I was under the impression that the Krause family knew everything there was to know about beer.” She gave me a look of pity and fluffed her white ruffled apron tied over a red and white gingham skirt. “How rude of me. I’d forgotten that you’re not exactly part of the Krause family anymore, are you? I suppose that means you’re out of the beer loop.”
I didn’t bother to acknowledge her dig. “What’s the news, April?”
“Right.” She twirled her fingers together. They were painted red, white, yellow, and black with the German flag adorning her thumbnails. Like everything else on April, from her hair extensions to her gaudy lashes, they were fake. “It’s incredible. We are about to be movie stars.”
“Movie stars?” I frowned.
“Yes! Can you believe it? A documentary film crew is arriving later this afternoon. They’re shooting their film here. Right here in Leavenworth! Our little Leavenworth, or as we natives like to say—Haus.” She butchered an attempt at an accent. “And during Oktoberfest no less. This is going to be huge for us—huge. This is going to put us on the map.”
“Aren’t we already on the map?” April brought out the worst in me. I thought about pointing out the fact that Leavenworth attracted thousands and thousands of visitors each year. It was hardly as if we were struggling to get people to come to our version of beertopia. Actually the opposite was true. Hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and rental properties had been sold out for months. Oktoberfest was so popular that tourists who had booked late had to stay in nearby Wenatchee or Cle Elum (a thirty-minute or hour-long drive respectively) and get shuttled in for the day. The same was true for the Christmas markets. Families reserved hotel rooms and Airbnbs over a year in advance. Every season brought a new festival—the winter lights, Maifest, fall foliage, and many more. There wasn’t a moment that went by when our village wasn’t brimming with out-of-town guests.
“Sloan, you know what I mean. Having a major film shot here is going to elevate us even higher on a national and international level.” To emphasize the word “elevate,” she placed both hands under her chest and shoved her cleavage up toward her neck.
“That’s great,” I said, starting to back away.
“Not so fast.” April reached for my arm to stop me. She appraised me from head to toe and scowled. Then she leaned in. I could smell stale coffee that she had attempted to mask with a breath mint. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your…” She paused and gave me a once-over. “Attire.”
My eyes betrayed me and followed April’s gaze to my jeans.
“We need everyone in town on board for this film,” April continued. “And those ratty jeans, ugly yellow boots, and beer T-shirt are not going to cut it. I’ve sold the film crew on the fact that we are the next best thing to being in Munich at Oktoberfest.”
That was a slogan I had heard repeated many times. Villagers prided themselves on Leavenworth’s famed festivals. Rightly so. Attracting visitors to the North Cascades had been a community effort. If it hadn’t been for a small group of residents who banded together to transform their beloved town into the German mecca it is today, Leavenworth might not exist. The town had been on the brink of collapse after major mining and logging industries departed in the 1960s. Given its remote location in the Washington Alps, Leavenworth could have become a ghost town, but thanks to a resourceful and creative community, the town rebranded itself. Every shop and business had been spruced up and given a Bavarian face-lift. The community embraced the idea of modeling itself after a quaint German alpine village, as did tourists. Hence, Leavenworth, as we know and love it today, was born.
“What does that have to do with my outfit?” I asked April. In my work at Nitro, a new start-up brewery, jeans and a T-shirt were standard attire. Not to mention, every self-respecting brewer owned a sturdy pair of rubber boots. Waterproof, slip-resistant footwear is essential in the brewing process. My bright yellow boots had been special ordered from a brewing supply company in Wisconsin. They had reinforced steel toes and thick soles. When carrying or cleaning heavy kegs and equipment, you could never be too careful.
April rolled her eyes, which were outlined in black and coated in emerald green eye shadow. “Sloan, we have to show them that we’re a real German village, and that means that all of us need to dress for the part.” She did a twirl in the middle of the sidewalk to show off her dress. “As they say in the motherland, it is wichtig that we all embrace our heritage and duty. That’s ‘important,’ in case you didn’t know.”
As always April butchered the German language. I could picture Otto and Ursula shaking their heads at her failed attempt to correctly pronounce the German word for “important.” I wanted to remind her that in reality we weren’t a German village and that I was pretty sure no one in modern Germany dressed in April’s outlandish costumes. Of course, there were a handful of shop owners in town who outfitted their staff in German costumes as a marketing tool to attract more customers, but April was the only resident I knew who embraced the idea of dressing like a barmaid on a daily basis.
“Thanks, I’m good.” I started to back away.
April’s pumpkin orange lips thinned into a hard, narrow line. “As Leavenworth’s official ambassador, I must insist that you rethink your anti-Beervaria stance.”
“I don’t have anti-Beervaria anything. I’m just not going to dress up. That’s all.”
Her cheeks burned with anger. “You haven’t heard the last from me, Sloan Krause.” With that, she stormed away on strappy high-heeled sandals that caught on the cobblestones and nearly made her topple over.
April wasn’t going to ruin my morning. I crossed the street and rounded the corner to Commercial Street. Nitro, the small pub where I had recently been hired to help with brew operations as well as manage the bar and food service, sat just two blocks off the main strip near Waterfront Park. Garrett Strong, a home brewer and former engineer from Seattle, had inherited the building from his aunt Tess. When Tess died, she left what had originally been a brothel—in the late 1880s, during the height of the Great Northern Railway expansion—to Garrett, her only nephew. The two-story chalet-style building had served as a diner and bed-and-breakfast for years. Tess had been a fixture in the village and one of the driving forces behind Leavenworth’s transformation from a run-down mill town to a thriving Bavaria. Garrett had made the space his own by tearing out the dingy vinyl booths and tossing his aunt’s huge collection of German kitsch. The main floor had high ceilings and exposed beams. In the front, there was a collection of high bar tables and stools where customers could leisurely sip a pint. A twenty-foot distressed wood bar separated the dining area from the brewery equipment, kitchen, and office in the back.
Garrett’s aesthetic was sparse and sterile. The walls had been painted a stark white, which made the brewery feel open, but also gave it a clinical feel. I had wrapped the exposed beams in twinkle lights and arranged vintage black-and-white photos along the walls to give Nitro a touch of home. So many of Leavenworth’s shops and restaurants were packed with nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, glockenspiels, and German souvenirs that I appreciated Garrett’s clean, industrial vibe.
He was also extremely tidy. Cleanliness is close to godliness when it comes to brewing. There are so many things that can taint a beer or make it go bad. Good brewers know that keeping fermenting tanks and wort chillers in tip-top shape ensures a high-quality craft beer. Garrett was no exception. Nitro’s shiny steel tanks sparkled, due to our regimented cleaning schedule and the fact that they were still new. As did the cement floors that we mopped down every night.
I opened the front door and weaved through the bar. Garrett tended to be a late sleeper, so I wasn’t surprised to find the brewery quiet. I left my coat and purse in the office and went to check the tanks. We had been perfecting a new beer that we would be debuting just in time for Oktoberfest—Cherry Weizen. Leavenworth’s proximity to the lush organic orchards of the Yakima Valley meant that we had an abundance of scrumptious handpicked produce at our fingertips. For the Cherry Weizen, we had ordered flats of bright, tangy Washington Bing cherries. I removed a taster from the tank with a turkey baster. Then I siphoned the Weizen into a tasting glass and took a sip. The beer was a gorgeous amber color with a touch of pink.
I swirled the liquid on my tongue. The Weizen had a perfect balance. It wasn’t too sweet or tart. The refreshing summer flavor of sun-ripened cherries came through without being overpowering. I could already picture tourists sipping a cold pint of the picnic-worthy brew on our front patio.
One of my favorite parts of the brewing process was seeing a beer come to life. After fermenting for weeks in our tanks, this beauty was ready to carbonate and tap. I had a feeling that it was going to be a hit and sell out fast. Garrett and I planned to keg the Cherry Weizen this morning. As long as everything went according to plan, it would be ready later this evening, and would be flowing out of our taps by the time the crowds descended for Oktoberfest.
In addition to the fruity wheat beer, we would be pouring our regular lineup of brews—our signature Pucker Up IPA; Bottle Blonde, a light summer ale; and Perk Me Up Porter, a chocolate coffee brew. Unlike Der Keller, Leavenworth’s oldest and largest brewery, Garrett preferred Northwest-style beers. Der Keller was one of the featured brewers at Oktoberfest and would be showcasing their signature German beers, like Kölsch, Hefeweizen, Doppelbock, and Dunkel. My in-laws, Otto and Ursula Krause, had brought their native beers to Leavenworth when they immigrated to the United States. It happened to be at the same time that the town was going through a major rebranding. They’d jumped on board with the idea of creating a Bavarian village, and within a few years, Der Keller had become one of the largest producers of craft beers in the state.
Without the Krause family, I would probably have been waitressing or bartending somewhere—if I was lucky. I grew up in the foster care system, which meant that I never had permanent roots. My early and teen years were spent bouncing between homes. Some were kind and welcoming, and many were worse than being abandoned. Once I finished high school, I paid for community college by working at a farmers’ market and waiting tables. A twist of fate changed my future when Otto and Ursula happened upon my farm stand one day. They were regulars at the market, coming each weekend to source local produce for their new brewery, Der Keller. We got to talking about baking, and Ursula’s eyes lit up. She regaled me with tales of sweet twisted bread brushed with butter and hand-spun honey from her homeland. Their enthusiasm for baking, beer, and life was contagious. I began to bake test batches of cookies and cakes and ask for their feedback. Their bighearted personalities made me long for a family like theirs.
The Krauses offered me a job at the brewery and wanted to set me up with their oldest son, Mac. At first I declined, but they were relentless in their quest. Not that they were pushy. Rather, Ursula would take my hand and pierce my soul with her kind eyes. “Sloan, the brewing world, it is changing. It needs a woman’s touch. You will be perfect. Tell her, Otto.”
Otto was equally insistent. “Ja, it will be good. You have the nose. It is a gift that not many people have. I will teach you how to use it. You will become a legend. Sloan, the pretty female brewer with the super sniffer.” His eyes twinkled when he spoke.
How could I resist? I dove into craft brewing with Otto and Ursula as my mentors. Then they introduced me to Mac. It didn’t take long for him to charm me, or for me to end up pregnant. In hindsight, it might have been a mistake to marry him, but I didn’t regret becoming an official member of the Krause family. For the first time in my life, I had a place and a home to call my own. Otto and Ursula taught me everything they knew about craft brewing, German-style baking, and how to be a parent. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Or without Alex, my teenage son, and Hans, my surrogate brother. Sometimes I wondered if I would have fallen so hard and so fast for Mac if it hadn’t been for his family.
When I had caught Mac cheating with one of Der Keller’s youngest barmaids a few weeks ago, I had thought my life was over. All the years we had spent together carving out a home, raising Alex, working side by side in the brewing—were they a waste? I blamed myself. I’d been too lonely and let my heart loose. Growing up alone had taught me to stay guarded and closed. But once I met the Krause family, they cracked me open. I never should have allowed myself to love them.
Mac’s cheating hadn’t just been the end of our marriage—I feared it might mean that I was going to have to give up the only family I had ever known. Not that Otto, Ursula, or Hans felt that way. In fact, Otto and Ursula had recently given me a huge stake in Der Keller. They were preparing to retire soon and wanted to begin stepping back a bit. However, they were concerned about leaving the company in Mac’s capable but impulsive hands, so had outlined a deal that gave Mac, me, and Hans each an equal share of ownership. They both had insisted that I was like a daughter to them and that, no matter what transpired between me and Mac, I always had a place at Der Keller. I believed them, but I had been tossing and turning, trying to figure out what was next for me. Part of me wanted to sever ties with the brewery, but I couldn’t do that to Otto and Ursula.
The sound of movement upstairs shook me from my thoughts.
Garrett was awake. Time to focus on brewing and shelve my worries about my personal life and future for the moment. A minute later, he appeared in the brewery looking bleary-eyed. “You’re here early, per usual.” He winked. “Please tell me we have coffee.”
I glanced toward the bar. “I’m pretty sure we have a fresh bag of beans. You want me to make a pot?”
“Good God, yes.” He ran his hands through his dark and disheveled hair and followed me into the front.
We kept an assortment of soft drinks along with coffee and tea at the bar for anyone who wasn’t a beer fan and for designated drivers, who could drink unlimited nonalcoholic beverages on the house. I found the bag of beans in one of the cupboards beneath the bar and poured them into the coffee maker. The scent of nutty beans made Garrett inhale deeply.
“How late were you up?” I asked, filling the carafe with cold water.
He blinked twice and stretched. Garrett was tall and thin with a casual style typical of brewers in the Pacific Northwest. This morning he wore a pair of jeans and a light gray T-shirt that read TALK NERDY TO ME. He was the exact opposite of Mac in almost every way. Mac was shorter and stouter with ruddy cheeks and blond hair. He could talk to a stranger for hours and convince them into doing anything for him. Garrett, on the other hand, was quiet and almost pensive. He chose his words carefully and tended to listen rather than join in a conversation.
“I can’t remember,” he replied, brushing a strand of hair from his brown eyes that reminded me of warm sand. “Maybe around one thirty or two? I wasn’t keeping track of time.”
“Were you brewing?” Many pub owners, especially those who owned nano breweries like Nitro, would brew at midnight after last call.
“I was playing around with a couple small batches of a pumpkin ale, but I’m not really feeling it.” Garrett leaned over the bar to catch a whiff of the brewing coffee. “That smells so good. Why does it have to take so long?”
I laughed and glanced at the pot. Dark coffee dripped slowly into the glass carafe. “It’s been brewing for two minutes.”
“Exactly.” Garrett pulled out a barstool and sat. “What do you think of pumpkin? Is it too much? I know that it’s a huge trend in Seattle and Portland right now. But do we want to be trend followers or trendsetters?”
He sighed. “Yeah, and getting the balance right is going to be tricky. The first batch I brewed was way too heavy. It looks like sludge in the carboy.” The carboy that Garrett referred to was a five-gallon glass tank used in the secondary fermenting process when we tested small batches. We brewed our signature beer on a larger scale in the stainless steel tanks in the brewery, but when experimenting with new recipes, we used Garrett’s old home brewing setup in the kitchen.
“I think the second one is going to be too weak,” he continued. “You’ll have to give them a try.”
He was right about beer trends. Pumpkin had been hot for quite a few years, with brewers offering seasonal holiday pumpkin ales in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving. Even though it was only the end of September, we were already planning and preparing our holiday line. Craft beer took a minimum of two to three weeks to brew, which meant that we had to get started on our next batch as soon as we kegged the Cherry Weizen and cleaned the tanks.
“Hmm,” I said, reaching for two coffee mugs. “Personally I’m not a huge pumpkin fan, but could we do something in its place? I think having a late fall seasonal would be good, and then we can release our winter ales in time for the Christmas markets.”
Garrett massaged his temples. “Yeah, a fall beer that would pair well with turkey.”
I thought about it for a minute while I grabbed cream, sugar, and a stirring spoon. The coffeepot was nearly full. I poured a splash of cream into the bottom of one of the glasses, hit the pause button on the machine, and poured a cup for Garrett.
He clutched the mug with both hands. I offered him the sugar. “No thanks. This is perfect. Thank you.”
“No worries.” I added a half teaspoon of sugar and a healthy glug of the cream and poured myself a cup. “What about cranberries?” I asked, stirring the latte-colored coffee. As of late, I had taken to adding cream to my coffee. I blamed it on Garrett’s influence. He had insisted that a touch of cream and a hint of sugar made for a perfectly balanced cup.
“Cranberries?” Garrett wrinkled his forehead.
“Yeah, what if we do an IRA with fresh cranberries? They would give the beer a nice bite and probably a gorgeous red color.” IRAs, or India Red Ales, are a great choice for beer drinkers who like a malty finish with a touch of hops. The popular Northwest-style ale pulls a ruby color and has a slight bitterness married with notes of caramel and toffee.
Garrett nursed his coffee. “I like it.” He nodded. “Cranberries are very fallish, right? And they go well with turkey, yeah?”
“Right.” I took a sip of the coffee and tried to think if anyone around had done a cranberry beer lately. Nothing came to mind. “Sour beers are super popular right now, so it could almost be a mash-up of an IRA meets a sour.”
“Yeah, let’s try it. Can you get your hands on some cranberries?”
“I’ve got a guy.” I chuckled.
“Of course you do.” Garrett grinned. “Sloan, you have ‘a guy’ for everything, don’t you?”
“Call it the curse of living in Leavenworth forever,” I kidded. Although there was truth behind my words. In a town this size, it was impossible to go through a day without bumping into a friend or neighbor at the grocery store or post office. Living somewhere where everyone knows your name has its perks, and also a unique set of drawbacks. Like the fact that everyone in town knew exactly what had gone down between Mac and me.
We mapped out our plan for the day over coffee. The first order of business was kegging the Cherry Weizen. Then we would clean the clarifying tanks. I agreed to hunt down some cranberries for our test beer. When working on a new recipe, we only brewed five-gallon batches. I was confident that the grocery store would have enough cranberries in stock for that. After that, I would finish the food for the tapping party, and we would open the tasting room by four. It sounded doable, and like we had a full day ahead of us.
I finished off my coffee, happy to have the distraction of Nitro to keep me from my thoughts.
Copyright © 2018 Ellie Alexander.