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PERSPECTIVE – A BEER BIOGRAPHY

September 12, 2012
Like many people, I have come in and out of what I might call “beer culture” many times since my first beer forty years ago. I can still taste that first one—thin and slightly fizzy, mildly bitter, half-warm in the can—quickly shared before we got on a bus for a high school trip. Almost as memorable was how bad that single can of beer had made me want to pee over the next 25 miles to the amusement park.

But what I remember, or perhaps appreciate most about the 1970’s, was that I can recall when most beers tasted pretty much the same. As anyone will tell you, short of Prohibition, it was truly the low point in American beer history. In seeking something different, we were forced to settle for “Cream Ales” (ooohhhh, never had one of those before, sounds tasty) or strong malt liquors with exotic, Latin-sounding names (remember Maximus Super). Of course, there were still some quality local brews here and there, but you couldn’t find them at the store.

My college years started on a good note, too—when my first roommate showed up and introduced me to a dorm-fridge packed full of the original Coors banquet beer, unpasteurized and straight from Colorado. This was back when it was not sold east of the Mississippi, and was, for a teenager, the golden nectar of legend. A damn fine beer at the time.

Later, with a little extra money in our pockets, my friends and I became enamored of imports, and although there weren’t that many available in little Oxford, Ohio (Heineken, Bass Pale Ale, Lowenbrau {brewed by Miller), St. Pauli Girl, Carlsberg ‘Elephant’ come to mind) they did allow us to understand what higher-quality, more flavorful beers should taste like. That was what we drank at the beginning of the month, when we had money. After the 2oth of the month, it was back to Little Kings, Miller High Life, or maybe even Falstaff. One of my best college drinking pals was Joe Conway, whose brothers Pat and Dan went on to found Great Lakes Brewing Company several years later.

At the turn of the late 70's-early 80's, however, there was something else going on. Long before the idea of craft brewing had even taken hold, a few of America’s brewers were starting to roll out or re-introduce older-style brews, some with names from out of the past. They were slightly richer, a little more flavorful—and the marketing, which promised a more traditional,  retro-brew didn’t hurt either. Beer drinkers began to take notice of names like Christian Moerlein, Andeker, Henry Weinhard, Jacob Best…and though there were fits and starts, by the dawn of the 1980’s it was clear that at least in terms of choice, things seemed to be taking a slight turn for the better.

Of course, the establishment of Merchant du Vin in 1978 and the expanded availability of high quality imports was going on as well, followed shortly by the emergence of American “microbreweries” as typified by Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing. In the early 80’s, I had a second job at a drive-thru and carry out that had by far the best selection of beer in Akron at the time. This not only allowed me to try a lot of different beers and ales, but also to learn the importance of stock rotation and how various factors can affect beer freshness. I also bought books about beer, started collecting beer steins, and became intrigued by the idea of brewing my own beer. But that didn’t happen for another 10 years, after someone bought me a beer kit for Christmas.

My first batches were a rich brown session ale, very similar in character to Newcastle Brown. It was delicious, and I happily bottled quite a few batches before stashing the equipment away in the basement several years ago. Since then, work and life have conspired to soften my interest in beer. I still always seek out quality over quantity, and try to add to my stein collection when I can (though I am running out of places to put them).  Whenever I get together with friends, they’ll sometimes ask what kind of “shitty beer” I brought along—not to disparage what I have in my six-pack, but more in joking reference to the fact that—whatever I might have, no one has probably heard of it.

My point being here is that every beer lover has their own history, or “beer biography.” As a result, each one brings a number of beliefs, experiences, prejudices and sometimes crazy notions to the table, usually constructed over years of home brewing, months of taste-testing, or decades of simple beer enjoyment.  I am no different, and it clearly colors my views and my writing.

I suppose all of this goes back to my first post.  We do indeed live in Great Beer Times, and it’s easy to get caught up in the glory of new brewery openings, unending beer reviews, brewer celebrity-watching and ongoing style controversies. But perspective ensures that I don’t forget that there was a time when all beer did taste pretty much the same—though discerning drinkers could sort out and appreciate the differences even then.

It also tends to ease any over-enthusiasm for the “next big thing” and ground one’s expectations—knowing that it’s easier to hide mistakes when you’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the brew kettle. If you think that means I don’t like a lot of today’s big, heavy beers, you’d be wrong. But like most things, bigger doesn’t always mean better.

Besides, I’m older now, and I can’t enjoy those big beers as much. They don’t mix well with my blood pressure medicine anyway, so now, after a while, my eyelids get heavy and I just fall to sleep. That’s now part of my beer biography.

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