The first beer I ever had was Budweiser. It’s amazing I ever drank beer again. It wasn’t the first booze I had – that was champagne on New Years Eve 1989, as befits Vanderbilt Man. Then when I started college, there was Bacardi silver (usually dumped in a Dr Pepper) and Asti Spumante (thanks to a new girlfriend in an Anne of Green Gables phase). But the first beer I remember having was on my birthday in 1991. I was turning 19. And it. Was. Disgusting.
Twenty-six years on, I have learned that apparently Budweiser does this on purpose. Whole hops, not pellets like many brewers use. Exacting quality control. “Beechwood aged.” As Pete Brown says, they are making this on purpose because they think this is what a quality beer tastes like. Which is truly a shame. By summer, my preferred alcoholic libation was vodka and Coca-Cola. By my senior year of college, it was the gin martini, served in quantity while watching Moonlighting reruns after class. I would drink Miller Lite if required, but any sort of cocktail was always preferable. Sometime in there I first made an effort at scotch and soda at some sorority function, and it was smoky and intriguing and I put that in the back of my head for later.
When I got to grad school, it was the age of red things. Red Dog was the official beer of the Vanderbilt Graduate Department of Political Science. We got through tons of it. I don’t know how. It’s not like it was good, but Gerst (the closest thing to a local microbrew in Nashville) was too expensive to obtain in quantity and Red Dog was…not. If we were boozing it up, my go-to was Jack Daniels Amber Lager while that was a thing – or better yet a Manhattan, the cocktail that Tracy J. said made me look like I didn’t have to prove anything. And that carried me right up to the end of my days in Nashville.
By the time I got to DC, I was part of a larger Internet community with a strong Boston contingent. So it became Sam Adams for a while. I’d even had the Samuel Adams Triple Bock once back at Vandy (one of the world’s finest syrupy beers) but I still spent the majority of my alcohol time with cocktails of one sort of another. I even have a copy of Paul Harrington’s Cocktail which I believe is worth about ten times what I paid for it. Maker’s Mark Manhattans, the “Drink Without A Name,” the occasional attempt at a Tom Collins, maybe a black and tan once in a while. And then, in a way, the dam was breached at the Vintage Virginia wine festival in 1999 when I had a nice dry amber cider that wasn’t sickly sweet and brought a nice punch without being leveling.
But then the 4Ps happened.
The loved and lamented Ireland’s Four Provinces, in Cleveland Park, Washington DC, was where almost everything important in our lives happened between January 2000 and June 2004. Birthdays were celebrated, co-workers were saluted in departure, new beaux were examined for faults, pipes were smoked and pints were drunk. And our Irishman swore to us that the 4Ps pulled the finest pint he’d had outside Ireland. I’d had Guinness before, of course, but this was the age before the rocket widget – bottled Guinness usually meant Extra Stout, not the creamy black perfection in the signature glass. 125 calories per 12 ounces, less than Coca-Cola. 4.2% ABV, comparable to an American light lager, which meant you wouldn’t die on those nights when you had ten or twelve in eight hours. It was smooth, it was flavorful, it was delightful. And because Washington DC had more Irish bars than the Bible has Psalms, it was available pretty much everywhere we ever drank, from the 4Ps to Nanny O’Brien’s to Fado to Mackey’s to the Four Courts.
Then I came West. There was still Guinness, but I found myself also drinking cocktails in a way I hadn’t in years. What with San Francisco being one of the world’s great centers of mixology, I found myself on a regular rotation through Bourbon & Branch, Local Edition, Clock Bar, House of Shields, Rickhouse, the Comstock Saloon…and that was just fine by me. Hawaii? Gimme a Mai Tai. Tokyo? That Scotch-and-matcha thing will do fine thank you. London? What’s the best you can do for whiskey? Drink it? Fine, Laphroaig. Schnapps in Salzburg. Elderflower gin in New York City. Anything at all at Trader Sam in Disneyland. And then, last January, I caned it pretty hard for the entire month before coming to the conclusion that it might be time to throttle down for a minute. And so for the entire month of February, it was only beer. And for some reason, I just never went back to the cocktails again. Not to say I never had one, but given the choice, for almost a full year now, when the menu comes out I’m looking down the list for whatever is the most local porter or stout or brown ale.
Okay, yes I’m late to the party on “craft beer,” but for good reason: somehow, all the craft beer scene in California (especially up North) is overwhelmingly focused on India Pale Ale, usually with as many hops as they can cram into it. Not to deny the efficacy of Cascade hops, but IPAs are showing up with IBU counts that are more suggestive of Scoville Unit counts on chili sauces with names like “Satan’s Shit.” It’s stunt brewing, and if you don’t want the most bitter thing you can gag down, you may have to go outside the Bay Area to find something that suits. And that’s entirely plausible. Last trip to Yosemite yielded “Sugar Pine Porter” from a local brewer. Down around Monterrey there’s a place doing cask-conditioned ales that show up at my favorite bar in San Jose. Last trip to Disneyland yielded a smoked imperial porter.
Or you could go to Birmingham, which is rapidly emerging as not only a remarkable food town but a legitimate beer town. I stayed at the Aloft in Homewood and drank at their bar, with four beers on tap. Every one of them was brewed within a 75 mile radius and not one of them was an IPA. The Vanillaphant vanilla porter from Avondale Brewing Company is a beer that would have changed my outlook on beer completely had it shown up twenty-five years earlier. Good People, Trim Tab, Cahaba Brewing…Birmingham has become a place to go drink beer, in a way that was inconceivable when Red Mountain Red Ale became its first local brew since before Prohibition.
Locally, though, the easiest thing to do is to stop at the nearby brewpub which fills a growler for $13 full of their brown ale or oatmeal stout (or, at the holidays, with something I just call Pie Beer – which, hold the applause, is a beer that tastes like pie). Or there are at least two or three bars I can think off right offhand with at least 20 or 30 beers on tap – one in Sunnyvale and two in San Jose. Which means that at any given time, without having to rely on the bartender’s ability to pull a proper Guinness, I have two or three things I can go for. And those have become the only bars I frequent, if you can even call it “frequent” at this point.
But something else happened this past year. One of the co-presidents of the San Francisco Vanderbilt Club is a big wheel at Lagunitas, the excellent Petaluma craft brewer, and among the many treats he brought to the Vandy-Stanford baseball tailgate was their fractional IPA. He also tipped me off to the Down Low, a beer they brewed originally for the Utah market, which is a perfectly functional craft beer that comes in at a slick 3.8% ABV. Not unlike Even Keel, the session IPA from Ballast Point down in San Diego. Later this year, we wound up in London, where I was greatly enjoying London Pride – and where I wound up buying books by Pete Brown, who apparently has written more about beer and the pub and drinking culture than anyone in Britain the last decade or so. And that’s where I found out that beer over 5% ABV was, until the last twenty-five years or so, almost unheard of in the UK. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, mild and bitter and the like were between 3.5 and 4.5% ABV and Stella Artois, at 5.2%, was considered a perilously strong “premium lager.”
And that rang a bell. Because at 4.2% ABV, Guinness was something you could have four or five of in an evening without ever losing your mind or feeling the worse for wear in the morning (in fairness, fifteen years on, that figure might be “two or three” instead). Meanwhile, an Imperial Porter at 9.9% is probably asking too much. Victory at Sea is a remarkable brew, but it’s also a swift ticket to a hangover if you have more than 20 oz of it in a single evening. That’s two and a half pints of Guinness for every pint of the Vic. Which was the other great discovery in London: bars routinely serve pints and half-pints. Not everything is meant to be consumed 20 ounces at a time. And there are plenty of times when a 10-ounce pull is just right – especially when you’re sampling the menu at my favorite place in San Jose for only $3.50 a half.
Here’s the thing: back when I was younger, the pipe and the whiskey-on-the-rocks got me tagged as looking like somebody’s grandpa. But the genuine mode of old-man-drink in the land of our ancestors is the pint or two, slowly staggered over the course of the entire evening. If you can feel the incapacitation, you’re already doing it wrong. At most, there should be a sort of unwinding, a relaxation, ironically the same peace-of-mind civilizing effect I once attributed to coffee in the morning fifteen years ago. If you want to go out and knock down eight pints, God bless you, but I’m not keeping up anymore. I’ll be over yonder in the comfy chair, with something dark in one hand and a Kindle in the other, relaxed in the dim light and reading my way away. Of which.