Anita Riley is Certified Beer Server Cicerone and a student of Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation at Rockingham Community College. She works as a Cellar Operator at Mystery...
Lara Murphy and her husband, Paul Hobson, embody the name for their brewery in planning: Modern Romance Brewery. Their story is a thing of beauty. They dated for two years when they were in high school, but when Paul went off to college, Lara was only in her sophomore year. The relationship just sort of fell apart. Paul finished college, got married, and moved to Texas. Lara went to college a few years after Paul, then moved to New York City to start her career. While they had each moved on in their own way, neither forgot the other. Some fifteen years later, a twist of not-fate (neither of them buy into the notion) reunited them. Paul had just gotten divorced and moved back to North Carolina. Lara, who had also moved back to North Carolina, had just experienced a break-up herself. She went out with some friends to celebrate their birthday. Almost immediately after they arrived, Lara spotted Paul sitting at the bar with a group of old college friends. He looked up to see Lara looking back at him.
It wasn’t long before they were dating again. Just over a year later, they were married. “It seems radical and fast, and it kind of is, but things clicked back into place in such a way. We definitely grew up and matured apart, but we did it in such a way that made us even more compatible, I think,” Paul says. I know, right!? Just when you thought romance was dead! “A lot of our getting to know each other again and date as adults was centered around craft beer,” Lara says as she recounts stories of the brewery tours, bottle shops, and tasting rooms they frequented during their courtship. This naturally led to shared experiments with homebrewing, which led to award-winning recipes, which led to even loftier ambitions.
Fast forward six years to September of 2015, and Modern Romance is really starting to come together. Paul and Lara had savings to use as seed money to start their own brewery. They found a location in close proximity to other Durham breweries and bars, wrote a business plan, found other businesses interested in sharing a multipurpose space, and Lara found a tiny lump on her breast.
She recalls the initial diagnosis. “The younger you are, generally, the more aggressive the cancer is. So, when I was diagnosed at thirty-six years old, treatment started pretty immediately. There wasn’t even really time to process what was happening. I was having chemo treatments and going into meetings with our realtor about the space we were considering. At that point, our business plan was really taking shape. We were excited about it, and wanting to move forward.”
Paul continues the story: “At a certain point we realized that as much as we want to push through, we would be in the middle of a build-out in the throes of chemo and surgery. Our designer,” he says motioning to Lara, who has an interior design background, “couldn’t build her own taproom. We would have had to watch from afar.” At the same time, Lara was holding down a full time job that she needed to keep in order to keep her health coverage. Her employer found a way to put her into a position she could do from home while she completed chemo, recovered from multiple surgeries, and underwent radiation. “We had to hit pause on something,” Paul recounts, “and we couldn’t pause work or cancer, so the brewery had to go on hold.”
“Even from a financial aspect,” Lara points out, “we couldn’t really say what we could afford to put down as a down payment, and what we needed to divert to hospital bills. Even with a great healthcare plan, this has been an expensive year.”
Another downside to chemo is losing your taste for almost everything, including beer. “It was starting to get cooler, and my favorite, Vienna Lagers, were starting to show up. There was one that came on draft at Surf Club in Durham. I’d had a few treatments. I couldn’t really tell what was changing. I still had my hair, I hadn’t really gotten sick yet. I took a sip of this beautiful beer that I knew I loved, and it tasted like pennies. And I was just like, ‘It’s starting. What a bummer.’ Losing beer was really crushing because it is this lovely emotional escape when you’re facing something hard. It’s also a great treat after a difficult situation. Especially since my doctors said that I could still have beer, I just couldn’t go crazy with it.”
“It was actually an adventure trying to find something that you did still like,” Paul remembers. “Your go-to’s, like Pilsners, Saisons, and IPA’s, weren’t doing it for you anymore.”
“All of those styles were really harsh to my senses. I would taste a lot of perceived salt that wasn’t really there. It was awful. I’m a super taster, too, so to not be able to help with our test batches was also crushing!” Lara lamented.
Paul put that into perspective of what that meant for Modern Romance Brewery. “It was basically a year of relying on my perfectly adequate taste buds, but her sense of taste is so nuanced compared to mine. We just weren’t brewing and testing batches at full capacity at all this year.”
Lara continued, explaining how the couple found a way to move forward given the obstacles. “We ended up working on our barrel aging and sour beers that could take a year to make. We were also lucky enough to get to brew collaboration beers with Pink Boots Society, Bond Brothers Beer Company and Mystery Brewing during treatment, getting our name out there a bit and getting some experience on a pro level. I could smell things. My sense of smell wasn’t wrecked. I just couldn’t taste it.”
She and Paul started to experiment outside of her typical comfort zone. “I was never really a fan of heavy sweet things before, but that’s one of the things you can still taste when you’re undergoing chemo. So I found that I could drink dark, sweet beers like milk stouts. Anything with vanilla. Soft, round sort of beers I could taste…I got an entire case of Moo-Hoo and crushed it. I was actually worried that my palate wouldn’t come back, but it actually came back pretty quickly. We celebrated the end of chemo and my birthday in January 2015 with a bottle sharing party at our house, right as I got my taste buds back. Every sip at that party tasted like victory. There were lots of happy tears surrounded by dear friends that day."
“Do you think as messed up as the situation was,” Paul asks, “that this experience altered your appreciation for dark beers?”
“Totally!” Lara replies. She continues, but Paul interrupts with a premeditated, “Thanks, Cancer!”
I need to stop right here and acknowledge how wonderful these two are as a couple.
We collect ourselves, and Lara finishes her thought. “It was actually an opportunity to start working on Cookie Mountain, our dark beer with shortbread, caramel, and chocolate that was conceptualized at that point, but we hadn’t brewed it yet.”
While Paul and Lara both have clearly found ways to get through this past year and still look on the bright side, Lara warns that this is not a feel-good story about a warrior that has won a battle with cancer. “A lot of my issue with feeling isolated is that at my age, there aren’t a lot of people going through this, whereas there is an intense support system for older women because they tend to come from the same walk of life. Most of them are worried about their kids. Even the few women my age that are diagnosed usually have kids, and I just don’t have that experience, so the concerns of people that I would otherwise reach out to as peers, were not my concerns.
"I found some blogs that were helpful. Mostly they were written by snarky, single women, often living in large cities, who were writing in a voice that I could relate to. I wasn’t looking for someone to be all sunshine and roses. It just didn’t feel right. It made me mad, and it just didn’t ring true. I felt like a lot of those people were getting wrapped up in putting on a brave face so that their friends and loved ones are comforted or so that they can get the admiration of their friends, which is a powerful thing. Even among people that know you really well, there is a powerful pull to want to draw that bravery story out of you. Like you aren’t allowed to have a bad day. A couple weeks ago I said ‘I’m so f*#@ing over this,’ and the friend that I said it to was like, ‘But aren’t you lucky that you’ve…’ and I was all, ‘Absolutely. I’m a white lady in a first-world country with great health insurance. I have an immense amount of privilege that I have to check every day, but also, I’m a thirty-six year old with cancer, and it sucks. And I’m allowed to say it sucks, and I’m allowed to have my feelings about it. Don’t gaslight me out of my cancer feelings.”
Lara goes on to explain how well intended people can do damage when they think they are being helpful. “There is a flip side to that fighter analogy, in that if things don’t go well with your treatment it means that you didn’t fight hard enough, or you failed, or you’re weak. If there is a war analogy to be made, it’s really more like you’re the battlefield, and science is fighting cancer. That warrior analogy can be really hurtful when things aren’t going well.”
But things are going well with Lara’s treatment. Her cancer is gone by all accounts. The science worked. She got her final treatment on August 30, and now she and Paul are picking up where they left off with Modern Romance Brewery, even though their own modern romance never skipped a beat. They are now adding to their business plan creative ways to give back to the non-profits that touched them throughout Lara’s treatment. You can keep up with their progress through their website at www.drinkmodern.com or on social media: @drinkmodern or facebook.com/modernromancebrewery.