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July 17, 2013

Brewery visitor tells tale of beer, hope and autism

By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — MIDDLEFIELD — When Lance Rice reads a beer label or reads books about the history of particular breweries, he doesn’t forget any of the details — the color of the label, the designs on the packaging, the saga of the brewmasters or the response from the consuming public.

The data is all retained in the encyclopedic mind of this 55-year-old autistic man from the Cleveland suburb of Vermilion.

Lance Rice, you see, has a photographic memory. And the topic that most interests him, he said Tuesday, is the history of beer brewing in the United States.

During a stop at Brewery Ommegang on Tuesday, his formidable ability to recall with precision so many details about hundreds of varieties of beers was on full display, as a film crew focused on him for a documentary about his effort to produce a book on the history of the beer industry.

The documentary, a project which is being overseen by Rice’s nephew, Aaron Rice, will examine the hands-on research Lance Rice is undertaking: visiting more than 60 breweries across the nation, including Brewery Ommegang, just south of Cooperstown.

Here, on a sun-splashed afternoon, they met with Simon Thorpe, Ommegang’s president and chief executive officer, who enjoyed a glass of fine craft beer with Lance Rice on a outdoor patio just outside Cafe Ommegang.

“His courage and tenacity are something that we as a brewery should be inspired by,” Thorpe said as he toasted the guest of honor at a reception for him. “And as human beings, his story is something we should take into our hearts.”

Thorpe said Ommegang is planning to brew a special blend of beer that will be dedicated to Lance Rice’s autism awareness efforts.

Until recently, Lance Rice had been working at a glove factory in Ohio. He was laid off, however, and began volunteering at a local library. Enter Aaron Rice, who decided now was the time he would assist his uncle in fulfilling his dream of writing a book about the saga of beer production in America.

For Lance Rice, dealing with people had always been difficult, until recently, he said, because of shyness that he attributes to his autism. But he said recently he has become much more outgoing, and now looks forward to meeting new people.

“I think I’ve made very good progress by overcoming obstacles that I had before me,” Lance Rice said in an interview. “I’m not a person who is used to talking to people. Now, I’m on a journey of personal growth.”

This reporter, who has had some experience as a consumer of beer, randomly asked Lance Rice if he was familiar with “Billy Beer,” a brew produced in the late 1970s that was promoted by Billy Carter, the youngest brother of then President Jimmy Carter.

Lance Rice then went into his windup, reciting a long litany of facts about the history of Billy Beer (all of them accurate, based on the Googling we did back in the office later) and noting it was considered the “Edsels of Beer” because consumer interest faded fast after the initial hype.

Asked what he likes about beer, Lance Rice said: “To me, it’s more interesting than soda pop and hard liquor. I like the taste of beer, in moderation. There is life inside a glass of beer. You see all the thousands of carbonation bubbles, and you can see the yeast at work. A beer is a living thing. And no other alcoholic beverage has received more attention for its packaging than beer has.”

He also noted he was particularly fond of the two Ommegang products he sampled at the local brewery, Three Philosophers and Belgian White IPA.

Chris Thomas, the producer of the film in progress, said the film crew is following Lance and Aaron Rice to more than 60 breweries from coast to coast. the documentary will be shopped around by a production company to various outlets when it is completed later this year.

Thomas said he has been very impressed by the giant strides taken by Lance Rice in the brief time he has known him. “His growth the past three months has been amazing,” he said.

Aaron Rice, who has been raising funds for the film by enlisting support from the breweries and using the web site fund-raising vehicle, said he is enjoying getting the message out to the public about his uncle’s determination to complete a book about the history of breweries.

“For those with autism, our goal is to let them know that there is always hope,” Aaron Rice said. “We want people to know you can never give up on your dreams, You just need to believe in yourself and have people willing to walk hand in hand with you. And we want to let people know abut the beauty of autism - and the hidden beauty of the craft beer world, which is not very public.”

Those interested in tracking the journey of Lance Rice can “like” the Facebook page, Lance’s Brewery Tour.