Thursday, June 12, 2014

Beer and Me

I love beer, many different kinds, and of course, I have my favorites and those  I rather detest, but will drink because someone I like usually gave it to me and I don't want to be rude by refusing it.  The majority of the time, I drink what I like, but there are those occasions where what I like isn't available, so I usually just smile and go bottoms-up.  

So many beers ~ so little time.

With food, many of us developed what you might call a standard from our days of youth.  I grew up in a city that had a significant Italian community, so there was a wealth of restaurants and styles from which to choose, and invariably one evolved an opinion on who had the best pizza, pasta, bread, etc.  Whether or not it was the best is debatable, but somehow, it did become the standard by which you judged similar dishes later in life. 

And so it was with beer, for me.  What I grew up understanding as beer, were full-bodied lagers (OK, this is America, now, not Germany) like Schlitz.  Beer was a beverage that had the taste of yeast, barley, a slight bitterness (from the hops) and in addition to giving one a buzz, it had a way of filling you up.  There were no advertised light beers back then; Miller Lite didn't hit the American market until 1975. 

Back in the day, we could drink at age 18, at beer bars, and I consumed my share of whatever was on tap at that time.  Living right in between Milwaukee and Chicago, you can pretty much guess what was being distributed in that area.  But it was my exposure to a local deli-liquor store that really opened my eyes (and my palate) to what the world had to offer in the way of fermented beverages. Here were beers from all over the world, and most significantly, from Germany and the Netherlands.  Once I introduced my taste buds to real, imported old world brews, everything changed.  I realized that there was such a wide variety of flavors (and alcoholic content) that I bought imports whenever I could, and drank a very basic German-style beer (Old Style) in between.

A few years ago, we were in LaCrosse, WI while on vacation, and decided to tour City Brewery (formerly Heileman), makers of Old Style and Special Export.  At the end of the tour, in the hospitality bar, the bartender asked me if I had enjoyed the former two beers in my youth and I said,"yes."  At that point, he served me up a glass and bid me taste it.  The effect was like remembering being in your mother's kitchen as she was making bread.  We have taste memory just like we have visual memory.  I smiled and asked what it was, and the bartender said,"That's the original Old Style recipe. We only sold Miller the name!  We now sell that as LaCrosse Lager."  He then drew a glass from another tap and served me.  I tasted it and again, it was like getting into a time machine.  He could see that I recognized the flavor. "That, my good man, is the original Special Export recipe; sold as City Lager."

Unfortunately, they discontinued City Lager, but I still by cases of LaCrosse Lager to this day.

Anheuser-Busch - the largest brewer in the world - is now owned by the Belgians.  Miller - the second largest - is now owned by the British, under the name SABMiller.  Thank God, the next largest are Heineken and Carlsberg.  Just because Busch and Miller are European-owned, doesn't mean we're going to suddenly stop making watered-down lite beers here in America.

I confess I don't understand the whole lite beer thing.  OK, I understand less calories, but please don't try to convince me that it has comparable taste to other full-bodied, legitimate beers.  One of the funniest lines I ever heard was,"Miller Lite is like sex in a canoe - fucking close to water."  I saw an ad for Miller Lite a couple years ago, in which they claimed to add hops three times, and my immediate reaction was,"What….in a tea bag?"  

I know people who consume pitchers of light beer at a sitting, and I just figure it's because they like to pee a lot.  I mean, if you wanted flavor, you wouldn't drink it.  If you wanted to get a buzz, you'd drink something stronger.  So, urination is my only answer.  You can't say it's less filling, if you're consuming it by the liter!  

It's so great these days to not only have myriad choices of beer, but also countless smaller craft breweries, where one can sample infinite flavors and they're all made fresh, on the premises.  I'm never happier than when I can visit a local brew pub.  I have one just up the road from me, and they do a fantastic job.

Once, at a midwest summer festival, I asked the brewmaster of a local brewpub why he didn't have a share of the business on the midway.  His response was classic.  "I'm in the business of making beer; Miller is in the business of distribution."  It was a matter of volume - not quality.

My favorites?  Stouts.  For me, Guinness - while being a totally legitimate beer -  is almost a light stout.  I'm always looking for a coffee stout or an oatmeal stout; something with a full body, smooth head, and just the right amount of bitter.  I drink porters on occasion, although as a rule, porters tend to be more on the sweet side.  A good stout is something you can linger over.  It's chewy.  It's savory.  I wouldn't drink more than a few in a row, or in a short period of time, as they really fill me up.  And that's rather the point; you know you drank a beer and not a glass of gold-colored carbonated water.  

There are a lot of beers of which I wouldn't order a second glass, but they were interesting and fun to try.  I mean, if you don't try, you don't know.  One brew pub had a beer that I told the brewmaster, tasted like cheese.  He laughed and said it was the particular brand of yeast used.  Some malt liquors obviously aren't beer, but again, interesting to try.  I do find Leine's  Summer Shandy refreshing on a hot day, but again, I wouldn't drink several of them in a row.  I just don't identify sweet with beer.

At another local Wisconsin brew pub, I tried a vanilla stout and I was dubious, but found I liked it.  I didn't think of it as sweet.  The vanilla was subtle, and blended well with the bitter stout.

I once had the idea of making a stout float with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  In a word - don't.  The flavor is not the problem; it wasn't bad, and tasted like I expected.  It's a chemical reaction, and when the ice cream hits the beer, it begins to foam like an experiment gone wrong, and doesn't stop until the beer is super-saturated with the cream.  The bartender was amused and I did my best to keep up with the foaming action.

There are imperial stouts and other beers on the market that are finished in whiskey and wine barrels and while they're fun to try and usually give you a heckuva buzz for the buck, the flavor is almost too rich.  The hints of whiskey and oak tannins just create a beverage that's more like a cocktail than a beer.  And no way would I drink more than one at a time.

And then, there are beers that are more experimental in nature (as in mad science) that use things like roasted goat's brains and roasted bull's testicles.  I might enjoy meat with my beer, but not in my beer. No thanks. You go right ahead.

Three breweries I really respect are:  New Glarus, Leinenkugel's, and Boston Beer Company.  They all get a share of my total business.

Well, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.  And now, I think I'll go have a beer.


  1. In the early 70's we would skip afternoon classes and run down to LaCrosse (a 30 minute drive) to take the Heileman brewery tour. In those days it was free and no limits on the samples one could consume after the tour. My favorite was Special Export and I was saddened when it was discontinued. However, like you, I still seem to have a LaCrosse Laeger in my fridge.

  2. That's cool. Thanks for sharing.