Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Beer Enlightenment

I don't have any beer, and it makes me sad.

There was never a time in my youth that I thought I would ever become what I am, which is a Beer Advocate. I never thought that I would ever even like beer, let alone love it. Let alone find not only a sense of community, but an unusual serenity in enjoying it.

It used to be that when I thought of beer, I thought of a foul smelling mug of some foamy, malty concoction that my dad would drink at one of his parties which I could scarcely bear to look at. It was usually Genny Cream Ale, the flagship brew of the commonwealth of Rochester, New York, the jewel of the Genesee River.

My father, while not strictly a drunk, was a fan of the alcohol. He has been sans-spirts for about 6-7 years now, and though I still love him, I miss the nights he would come home from work and gently drift away on the couch after work with a deep snore and a divine calmness on his face. In his later years, he was a screwdriver man, but early on he was a fan of beer, as I remember. In fact, there were many times when my parents would host a Casino Night or some such spectacle, and a beer-ball would be present. (In this case of course, "casino night" meant a night my mom and dad would invite a bunch of their friends over and dad would somehow always end the night wearing nothing but an undershirt and holding a handgun. I miss those nights.) Ah, the beer ball, what a relic of the 1980s.

But given this pandering to mass consumption, my first and formative impression of beer was of a stale and smelly yellow liquid, bitter to the taste buds and nearly impossible to choke down. (I think my dad snuck me a Genny Cream back when I was about 7 or so. Sorry mom. I didn't want you to find out this way.) But given the questionable element with which my father was associating at the time, I assumed beer was for nothing but low-lifes and hooligans. At any rate, my initial impression of beer was unimpressive.

But things change. And when one goes away to college to live on ones own, one tends to experiment. So one William H. ended up going to school and was exposed to beer. The beer, I believe, was Keystone. Or maybe Rolling Rock. What do I remember about it? I remember that I had to choke it down and that it had almost no redeeming qualities other than it made my face feel numb and made me all giggly. Its qualities as a social lubricant far outweighed its qualities as a delicious elixr. Many of my best male friends have been gained with the assistance of beer.

But even to this point, beer was the means to an end. It was never something consumed for pure enjoyment; it was a conduit through which to get inebriated. Sloshed, bombed, ripped, tanked, wasted. It was a vessel by which you would start slurring your words and end eating Doritos at 3AM and watching some crappy late night movie back at the dorm with a dozen of your most wasted friends. Beer was not the destination, it was just the path.

For years I treated beer as such. It was a fizzy yellow liquid, about $15 for a case. It was usually about 5.5-5.9% alcohol, with little deviation between the Buds, Millers and Coorses (or BMC as we Beer Advocates call it). Basically, back then, I would look at the choices available to me in the local Wegmans, and then maybe look at the unit price of each one, and decide which was the best value. Whatever would give me the most beer for my buck would be my selection.

Brief aside: it is amazing how the palate operates. On one hand, most people can identify great food vs. mediocre food. When we are babies, we eat whatever we are given, but when we grow older, we can tell the difference between good beef and mediocre beef. We can tell if the food at a restaurant is simply passable, or mouth-watering. We do not have the same sophistication with beer. Maybe it's the fact that we are not "allowed" to enjoy beer until we are 21, but many people tend to stunt their growth beer-wise early on.

One day -- and I'm not sure what day it was -- I grew up. I realized that all beer was not the same. I realized that the purpose of beer was not to get tanked, but to drink beer. I realized that I had been drinking the beer version of McDonald's my whole life, but had been missing out on the gourmet beers on the menu.

It was an awakening.

Because now, and over the last year, I no longer drink to get drunk (which, let's face it, was the only reason to do it in the first place). Now I drink to enjoy. I drink to find out whether a beer has dominant malt or hops. Whether beer has a fruity flavor or if it's bitter. Whether it's smooth or "chewy." Just tasting a beer and immediately identifying the style is a strangely satisfying sensation. Being able to tell the difference between a Belgian White and a Hefeweizen, or between a Pale Ale and an IPA, is such a pleasure. Yes, I do make notes of the different properties of beers as I drink them. Yes, I do sniff the inside of the pint glass. Yes, you could consider me a bit of a "nerd" when it comes to beer. I've been called worse.

But much as a hungry man has a hankering for a porterhouse, I too have the almost constant yearning for delicious beer. This does not, I submit, make me an alcoholic. Because whether or not I actually get drunk off of beer is purely inconsequential. (Although try telling that to a State Trooper.) The beer is now the thing. If it should happen to give me a slightly light-headed sense of euphoria, so be it. I could do without it. If you put ten delicious beers in front of me and told me I would not feel the slightest buzz, I would gladly sip each one down with the exuberance of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, but with the fervor and meticulous eye of Paul Giamatti in Sideways.

Mr Bohall and I have had this discussion, and I would have to agree with him. Though wine has its place, with its foreign names and fancy looking vineyards, beer is just as majestic, just as refined, and just as well-crafted. Wine, with its sweet or dry fruitiness, may be a more palatable to delicate or uninitiated taste buds, but beer (in my experience) has just as many various styles, just as many deviations in ingredients, and is made with just as much care. (Plus, President Jimmy Carter made it legal again to brew beer at home in November 1978. No wonder he's considered our greatest president!) Beer also ages, just like wine; it's just usually better to let the heavy-alcohol beers age longer.

Yes, I have drank beer with a pen and a pad. Yes, I know what IBUs are. Yes, dammit, I do believe in the tenets of the Reinheitsgebot! Well, plus yeast, and other stylistic exceptions. (And no, that doesn't mean I'm a white supremist.)

We are in the midst of an American brewing revolution. In the last decade alone, the United States microbrewing industry has given us some of the finest beers in the world. I would have to say that to my taste, Americans are leading the way in high quality beermaking. If we could only get people to shell out the extra couple bucks for a six pack of Dogfish Head (instead of a half-case of Bud) or a 22-oz of Middle Ages 10th Anniversary. Even the middlebrow selections, like Magic Hat, Long Trail or J.W. Dundees are a good step up.

Even if you are a person who doesn't like beer (a.k.a. a "wuss"... just kidding), there is at least one beer style for everyone. Once American society starts embracing beer as a dignified beverage, and not just an excuse to show stupid Bud Light commercials, we may finally pull ourselves out of this lowest-common-denominator culture and into an age of true enlightenment. Of course we'll have to add fine arts, good music, thought-provoking literature, innovative humor, important films, appreciation for history, political awareness, work ethic, conservation and dexterity in math and science. But beer's a start.


Paul said...

What you Hatin' on Genny Cream?

Bill said...

Mad respect to Genny Cream Ale. "Screamers" have been on my training table, since I was a kid.

d. dunford said...

I had a delicious Flying Dog bock last night.

bojangles said...

I had three delicious cans of Beast Ice last night. And some cheese.