Magazine | April 3, 2017, Issue

A Better Brew

From, and to, the beers of our fathers

Philip Larkin once wrote, only half-jokingly, that “it was that verse about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies.” And it was, I like to think, the bit from the third chapter of Genesis where the Almighty tells our first parents that from now on they will be earning their bread with the sweat of their brows that turned me off “craft” beer and so-called microbrews.

Beer, like reading, is one of those things that many of us become attached to in childhood. I come from a proud line of non–craft-beer drinkers on both sides. My father and uncles and their cousins drink Budweiser like water. It was my paternal grandfather, the first adult in whose presence I ever used tobacco, who taught me to call the old-fashioned snub-nosed bottles of Coors “yellow bellies.” Even in her old age, my great-grandmother — Justice Jackson’s secretary at Nuremberg, a lifelong hater of cats, and the only Republican with whom I share DNA — liked to take the edge off with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon poured into a glass.

The first time I drank a whole can on my own, I was on my way back from fishing with my old man and my great-uncle in Lake Huron. (Readers for whom that gerund denotes an activity performed while standing, with boutique lures made to resemble insects of the order Ephemeroptera and clothes purchased from an L.L.Bean catalogue, should note that by “fishing” I mean going very slowly in a small boat, talking about sports, and listening to the local classic-rock station while occasionally checking our lines.) A state trooper pulled us over, ostensibly because a flasher was out on the boat trailer. Shining his Maglite into the cab of the pickup like the eyes of some great and hideous serpent, he asked me, “Did your dad just give you a beer to hold?” “No,” I told him, pushing the item in question farther under the seat. He let us go. A mile or so later, my old man turned to me and said, “That one’s yours, son.” I, aged twelve, felt as if I had just kissed a Victoria’s Secret model, captured bin Laden singlehandedly, and won the pennant with a bottom-of-the-ninth double in the course of the same afternoon. It was exactly the sort of celebratory occasion that beer was meant for.

My beer apostasy, which ended four years ago, began in college. It was wonderful to realize then that malt beverages were not the exclusive province of men who wore Carhartt jackets and complained about the Tigers’ bats while spitting tobacco juice, and that there was a whole world of bearded and bespectacled enthusiasts who wrote things like:

Seductive and mouthwatering citrus aromas abound from the rim of the glass. The straight-up juicy fruity scent of the freshly squeezed pulp of ripe ruby red grapefruit with elements of citric acids, fruit sweetness that seems of thin honey, and some softer tropical notes of mango and apricot. It’s impossible to put your nose so close to the glass without taking a sip.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, reading IPA blogs and taking what amounted to 50-cent sips of Hopslam and Young’s Double Chocolate Stout! The only thing better than drinking beer with labels that looked like — and in some cases actually were — Ralph Steadman cartoons and names that a casual reader might mistake for the official rank of a World War II–era German tank commander was talking about it with like-minded friends. Craft beer for us was a kind of alcoholic soixante-huitardisme, a pint-based culture war: As far as we were concerned, people like our relatives, who settled for American-style lagers, might as well have been drinking urine. Nothing was more important when you were visiting home in the summer than turning up your nose at whatever swill your parents and their friends were drinking and sighing theatrically when the waitress at some local dive explained that while she had never heard of Founders they did have Miller Lite “in draft or bottle.”

I can recall very clearly the moment of my conversion, or rather reversion, to the pure faith of my ancestors. Like Saint Augustine under the fig tree, I too was sitting outside, at a bar that no longer exists, on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, smoking and drinking a $2 Budweiser. Just a month into my first full-time job, I was used to having only $20 to my name. This was a place I had started coming to because, leaving room for tax and a generous tip, I could drink four or five more beers and still have enough for a pack of Marlboro 27s the next morning. That day, however, I had just cashed what was then the largest freelance check of my life, the first one with four numbers to the left of the decimal. I could have gone across the street and ordered anything I wanted from the endless array of jazzed-up draft towers and mawkish novelty faucet handles. But all I wanted was more Bud. Why? Refined as I thought my palate was by interminable conversations in which “pour” was employed as a noun, here I was tasting something new for the first time: genuine leisure.

Leisure, as opposed to goofing off, is one of those things that by definition exist only for adults. Children who aren’t working are in their natural state. A college student who spends his days reading Don DeLillo on the clock at a make-work campus job and his evenings arguing about Hegel and indie rock is somewhere in between — old enough to get into bars with or without a genuine ID, but not to appreciate why older people value the time they have to themselves with the game on and a Miller Lite or two. Drinking beer is a welcome reminder that you are doing something other than your job, which is a relief even if what you do would have been unrecognizable as work to your grandparents.

This, of course, is precisely what the craft-beer enthusiasts with their reviews get wrong. The point of drinking is to get a bit of a buzz and maybe even drunk; beer should be a welcome respite from labor, mental or otherwise, not an inducement to it. Cracking the top off a Pabst at the end of a long day reminds us — in a way that taking mental notes on the crisp mouthfeel of a watermelon hefeweizen simply cannot — that “man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.” He might as well be full of beer, too. The fact that this is obvious to millions of NASCAR fans and union workers but mystifying to the nerds on is yet another example of why most experts should be regarded with suspicion and even contempt rather than solicited for their opinions.

It is not only their fetishization of nastily sour, and frequently very expensive, beverages that makes the microbrew crowd and all their pronouncements seem risible to me now. The snobbery directed by them at ordinary, decent people who drink normal beers — “macrobrews,” as a very funny Budweiser ad put it a few years ago — would be appalling if it were not so ridiculous. Anyone capable of writing the following paragraph about Coors Light, of all things, needs a more demanding day job and, probably, a wife and some very noisy children:

Taste: Quite sweet, dextrin-like with an odd fruit punch and watery banana sweetness flavour that makes it difficult to believe that this is purely a malt beverage. Paired with a tight carbonation, there’s a hop bitterness that follows. It’s mildly lemon-like in character and creates a semi-puckering dry snap. Metallic flavours pull thru with a slight grain dryness towards the end. Both linger on the palate for sometime [sic] and intensifies [sic], especially as the beer warms.

A “semi-puckering dry snap” as opposed to what exactly? This reviewer believes that one of the best beers in the world is something called “Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Star Oatmeal Stout.” Does he ever watch college football, I wonder? The furthest thing from my mind after watching Jabrill Peppers return a punt 63 yards for a Michigan touchdown is oatmeal. To write about beer that way, using the tone and vocabulary of a wine critic, is absurd on its face, like dissecting a bar band’s cover of “The Boys Are Back in Town” the way one would analyze a performance of a Bach cantata.

Unfortunately for those of us who have come to regret that we allowed ourselves to be carried away by the “craft” enthusiasm, it looks very much as if our old allies have won. As I write this, there are bars all across the country — in places like Grand Rapids, Mich., as well as in D.C. and New York — where it is all but impossible to order anything that would have been recognizable as a beer in our childhood, when the relevant portions of the menu in little family-owned restaurants were divided into “Domestic” and “Import” — e.g., Labatt Blue — and people invariably chose from the former. These days even my father drinks the occasional Bell’s Two-Hearted. I am starting to feel increasingly like Joseph Ratzinger a few years after the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

Still, unlike the unintentionally disastrous reform of the liturgy, the beer revolution is very far from completion; we do not — yet, anyway — require the tacit permission of bishops to go on celebrating in the old manner. In fact, we are at liberty to ignore everything the IPA clergy has to say about our favorite brews. “The world is full of idiots,” my great-grandmother always told me. She is never far from my mind when I am punching the tab on another can.

– Mr. Walther is the associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a 2016 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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