Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Beers That Made Me: Part 1 of a Series

This will not be a display of connoisseurship. I do not think I could make a hierarchical list of my favorite beers by a criterion of quality if I wanted to. I don't have the discernment (and at this point probably not the language, either), for that sort of undertaking. Every day my children ask me some question such as how gingerbread tastes different from graham crackers, and I find I cannot really say. My experience with beer is not far dissimilar most of the time. While all of these long-ago associations rely on a sense of taste to a degree, the strength of the pleasures and feelings of self-actualization that are recollected, along with the mild jolt of elation I still feel upon seeing even an image of their labels, are mainly dependent on the atmospheres which marked my first encounters with the brands. Nothing has made such an impression on me since 2001, and I cannot remember or find the name of the beer I am thinking of in that last instance. Everything I drink now that is not total swill seems essentially the same, and I am willing to try whatever fancy things come my way. But as with books, new experiences that really effect me and change the course of my mind going forward in positive ways just do not happen anymore.

I was going to do the whole thing in one post but the time involved makes me think it is better if we do another series.

Kronenbourg 1664

This is the primary mass market beer of France, and esteemed nothing spectacular, though it is refreshing enough on a hot afternoon, especially if you are sitting at an outdoor table after a long day of sightseeing. I went to France when I was 20, my first time out of the country, which made the ubiquitous Kronenbourg the first beer I ever had the pleasure of being able to order in a bar or restaurant. I mostly stuck to this brand the entire visit, because it was easy to do so. I was alone, I did not speak French very well, I was thrilled enough at being able to hang out in bars that I did not really care about what I was drinking. I was depressed because I was crimped in soul, timid, confused, mentally paralyzed, and I knew I was not doing the trip right, I was not opening up and improving and breathing new air and taking my place among that society of smart young people who travel and make the world turn. This is not a happy beer memory--I am not sure that any of these will be that--and certainly not a triumphant one, but it did symbolize a sliver of Real France that I had managed to lay some claim to, and served as some indication of what my trip could have been, if circumstances had worked out differently. It was a terrible wasted opportunity. 23 years later I have never been able to go back for 1/10 as long, and of course the country and the city of Paris, like everywhere else, is greatly changed from what it presented to me then.

Genessee Cream Ale

I have not had this in 20 years, and I have no doubt that it is terrible. At the time however, perhaps because I was low in spirit, or perhaps because I was accustomed to drinking even worse stuff, or perhaps because I was manipulated by the evocative promise of a "cream" taste, I thought at the time this was absolutely wonderful. The first time, when I was around nineteen, I was hitchhiking outside of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and was picked up by a couple around thirty, friendly, but in a rough around the edges, heavy metal listening roofer and his Bon Jovi-preferring chick kind of way, where the conversation, especially that part of it directed towards me, was jovial but constantly interspersed with sarcasm and little digs at my lack of any kind of interesting qualities or apparent reasons for my doing what I was doing, which I did not explain to them because I did not think they would really get it. Their car was one of these old deals from the 70s that had ripped up seats and was full of tools and junk and smelled like dogs, though the woman's seat had some kind of macrame afghan covering over it. Anyway, it was near evening at that point, and I had come up from Pottsville, which is a down at heel old city in central Pennsylvania that happened to be John O'Hara's hometown (I did not mention this to my hosts), all day through the mountains in misty, drizzly weather. I had slept out the previous two or three nights too. The lady, sarcastic motormouth though she was, I now realize was probably at least mildly concerned about me, because she insisted that I get a room somewhere and get to bed. These people did not pay for it or anything, but they did take me to a motel that cost $21, which was pretty cheap even at that time. They also threw in a six pack of Genessee Cream Ale (which they had paid for) before they drove off, for which as you can imagine I was extremely appreciative. I think I could only finish off three before I fell asleep that night but I carried the rest with me in my bag and had one a night for the next few days when I could find a discreet and pleasant enough spot to do so in.

Later, when I was in college, there was an occasion when a case of Genessee Cream Ale was the evening's offering--actually I might have been the one who provided that offering, but in any event, the remembrance of my old associations with this beer acted upon me positively on this occasion as far as my overall spirits, and my impression was that other people found it a marked improvement over the usual fare as well. My recollection is that the night overall was one of the happier ones in the annals of my freshman year group of friends. Maybe we thought it must be too good for us to have on a consistent basis, or perhaps subconsciously we knew that we could never recapture the particular spirit of camaraderie that had infected us that night, and which the beer would inevitably call up the memory of. We did, even long afterwards, sometimes talk about why we had never gotten the Cream Ale again and ought to do so before even what was left of the original crowd went its inevitable ways; but our hearts evidently weren't in it, for it never happened.

Watney's Red Barrel

This was the "good" beer on draft at the Little Campus Tavern in Annapolis, which does not exist anymore. It cost $1.90 for a glass like this:

The cheap beer, which was Michelob, went for $1.10 in the same glass. I usually got that. The Watney's would be for a special occasion. That's if you were drinking beer at all. Cocktails were $2, and at happy hour, which lasted from 4 to 7pm if I remember correctly, you got 2 identical drinks for the price of one. I was thinking the other day how when I was in school I would to go to the bank on Friday and take out $25 or $30 for the whole weekend. I didn't have any credit cards, and I did not have an ATM card either, because I knew that especially if I was drinking I would not be able to resist withdrawing cash to buy myself food or more drinks. I can only remember a few occasions where I had spent all of my money by Saturday night and was very unhappy that I couldn't get more, but obviously I lived through them. I wish I could live this way now, but getting to the bank when it's open, and with a bunch of children to boot, is a hassle, and you'd probably have to go every day unless you want to carry around hundreds of dollars in cash at all times. I spend more on a single tank of gas now than I spent in a week in 1992. Of course my grandparents could remember when you could slap a dime on the counter at Woolworth's and be served a full meal, so we didn't think we were all that lucky at the time.

But this is about Watney's. Its redness, of which it was so proud, seemed to me to truly effect the taste. It was different, and that difference seemed to me to lie in that redness, almost like it was a beery cherryish syrup injected into a ordinarily-bodied ale. I don't know whether I thought it good or not. I liked it, and it was certainly better than Michelob and anything else readily available, but I don't know that I ever knew it was good, the way I knew beers were good when I got to the Czech Republic. So the influence of Watney's is really the influence of a now-defunct tavern operating under a woefully outdated business model even in the early 90s. And it was a good influence, too. I have never felt that a minute of the time I spent in the place was wasted, even though you could hang out there for many hours and drink a lot before you had spent 10 dollars. But then at that time of life, very little that you do is an absolute waste of time compared to nearly everything later on.

I have to go to bed.

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