Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Best Beer I Ever Had

As Homer Simpson would say: "Beer is the cause of and solution to all of life's problems."

I don't remember having my first beer, but I know I didn't like it. It probably tasted bitter, sour, sharp, and for that reason, I don't like ales, as I prefer an amber over anything else, and the darker beers are best for my tastes. But back in the day, I never used to like beer, I never drank it. And it isn’t as if it shares the some lofty requirement of the acquired tastes of caviar or lobster, I just never cared for the taste, and I preferred something that had more of a kick to it: Southern Comfort (part of the reason I can't drink it today with out invoking the gag reflex).

Growing up, very rarely did I ever see my dad drink a beer (I can only vaguely think of one time and it was some obscure beer given to him if memory serves right) so because of that, there was never any around the house. But there was plenty of other liquors, but I just wasn’t exposed to beer until after I started college. Well, that’s not to say beer wasn’t around when I was in high school, as it was; I just never drank any of it.

When finances reared their ugly head soon after I moved out on my own in 1992, I found myself standing at the crossroads of a decision in the supermarket: Do I spend my last 20 bucks on some grain-based alcohol and forever hate myself for it the next day or do I save half of that for groceries and rent and grab a case of cheap beer instead. The whole point was to get lit, and after the first beer goes down your throat like a chimney broom, the taste of the other improve. With logic like that, cheap beer won every time, and when you drink a dozen or so in a single day, the taste will grow on you like... well, cheap beer. I soon discovered that it’s only beer, after all, and it doesn’t take a culinary genius to appreciate what a good beer can offer: taste, flavor, texture. A good beer, if you've ever had one, is a complex combination of aromas, bitters, hops, grains and the like, and quality brews allow themselves to be compared to the same standards of fine wine, as it has matriculated from the cooler in the rec room where beer-gutted sports obsessed Neanderthals chug cheap fermented grains and stare blankly into flickering TV sets to finding its way into fine dining rooms, cradled in crystal, esteemed by those with admiration for the finer brews in the world.

This isn’t about any of those kinds of beers, as I don’t generally drink the finest grain beverages on the market today. Again, I don’t want to allow myself to afford it. In college, when funds were constricted beyond a pauper’s paycheck (after taxes of course), I settled for the cheapest beer available, and that was usually Miller Light, Rolling Rock, Milwaukee’s Best, Ballantine’s (it’s three cardinal principles, Purity, Body and Flavor became my fraternity pledge class’s motto) or a locally produced Lucky Lager (which was less than four dollars for a case); its claim to fame was that each bottle was inexplicably only 11 ounces, and under the cap were riddles that got more difficult as the night wore on.

These beers, which played a principle role for entertainment in my college years, were not lavish quality beers but instead beers of circumstance, association with the memories and the times that I shared with them and my friends. Here are some of the best beers I’ve ever had, not because the quality of the beer was memorable (and most of them I don’t even remember what I was drinking), but because they were instrumental in creating the memories.

Fort Smith, Arkansas. My friend David and I drove back to Arkansas in the summer of 1993 to visit our good friend Scott at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. We drove straight through the night, stopping only for gas, and we got there in 23 hours and 45 minutes. I don’t really remember a whole lot of what we did, as we spent a lot of time either drinking beer or getting beer… and I don’t think Scott even went to school, or work for that matter.

During our week-long stay we paid a visit to Weidman's Old Fort Brewery in Fort Smith, where we proceeded to remain there all day long, talking, laughing and enjoying what the brewery had to offer, which was a seemingly endless chain of beer glasses, emptied, filled and emptied again. It was located upstairs in a quant old bar, and the three of us were the only ones in the place (it was a Tuesday or Wednesday after all). The bathroom was outside along a catwalk that crossed the roof of the brewery below. It was a great day with great friends, a time I will remember up until the brain cells that retain that memory succumb to the affects of the memory they hold. The brewery closed down in 1997, or so I’m told.

Calafia, Mexico. What beer expedition wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Mexico. Since we went down there several times in the course of my college years, I don’t exactly recall the date or the circumstance of the visit, as each trip melds to the others in my memory, but it was in the early 90s. Depending on the instance, the usual gang was there; One such trip, Kara and my fraternity brother Robert and I piled into his VW Sirocco and trekked south of the border. No doubt, among the usual haunts in Rosarito we would take the road farther south to a spot on the precipice of the Pacific ocean called Calafia (, a hotel, restaurant and bar carved into the cliffs over looking the ocean. Tables and chairs occupied small alcoves and a Spanish galleon was permanently buoyed in the water, acting as a dance floor. Coronas, Dos XX, and Pacificos were the faire of the afternoon. Don’t ask how we got back to our hotel…or if we even had a hotel… sometimes we didn’t; I don’t remember.

Big Bear, California. Octoberfest is a big deal in Big Bear, occupying each weekend of the title month every year. Kara and I went with our friends Dan and Jeneal twice in consecutive years, 2000 and 2001, long before Natalie and Matthew were born… or even thought of. I don’t remember the beer, but there was a lot of it, a damn lot of it, and each stein (I mean, a poor man’s stein: a giant plastic cup) was 36 ounces each…that’s three beers, and I had eight or nine of those throughout the day (we opened the place at noon and closed it at midnight). You sit community style on big long tables, drinking, singing and dancing to Polka music. An older lady at our table lived locally, went home and brought back a pot of beef stew, and the Chicken Dance and the Polka was the entertainment of the night…and beers. Our transportation to and from our hotel was a repurposed Swiss troop transport taxi, a Unimog if you know what that is, and thanks to the stew as an appetizer, I was quite hungry when we got back to our hotel room. Kara and I ordered a pizza at two in the morning, and there’s nothing more refreshing to wake up after a binger in the clear mountain air, full of fall foliage and the sounds of nature.

San Francisco, California. A week after returning from Arkansas and two weeks after one of the many trips to Mexico, Robert and Rico called me with the idea of spending the weekend in San Francisco (no, I don’t think I had a job at that point), visiting one of Rico’s high school friends. We didn’t need a whole lot of convincing to visit a city virtually for free… free ride up, free place to sleep and the big city at our disposal. Robert, Rico and I (affectionately known by our fraternity brothers and friends as The Three Rs) walked around the wharf area and stopped at Pier 19… or 29 or 9, whatever… it was well before noon and we heard a band warming up in the bar upstairs so we wandered up, blended in with the goings on (we weren’t yet 21 if I remember right), found a seat by the windows and made friends with the server. Soon the band started, the place filled up and we stayed there all day, literally 10 hours of music, beer and strangers. A group of biker cops on vacation were at the table behind us, and I remember rounds of beers being bought back and forth between our groups. It was a great time. The music probably was terrible if I were to hear it with a clear sense of sobriety, but at the time, it was the greatest group ever.

It seems that massive amounts of beer leads to hungry stomachs, and we got it in our minds that it would be appropriate to have Chinese food in Chinatown. Of course, we had no idea where that was. So we hired a guide, a homeless guy and his friend were selling a pair of women’s shoes on the street, and we offered him and his friend dinner if they showed us the way to Chinatown. They got us there and we had authentic Chinese food in San Francisco… but afterwards, they suggested we go to a dance club for more drinks. I think they saw a cash cow and wanted to make a night of it; can’t blame them. Little did we know they took us to a club on the corner of Market and Castro, and needless to say there were more men in there than women. I actually saw chaps, live, in action… and it wasn’t in a western, and underwear was not invited to the party. Deciding that wasn’t our speed, we gave the homeless guy money for a cab and we left (which in hindsight seemed stupid. I mean, he’s homeless, where is a cab going to take him?).

Other highlights: Robert riding down Lombard Street on the roof of the rental car, borrowing a ten-speed for a ride around the block, and other such debaucheries that only beer can allow.

Well, there are literally hundreds more such stories that I may or may not remember, but if I’m around the right combination of people, those stories start to come out: The time I split my head open after being thrown in a pool and drank beer in the bathroom of the hospital holding a compress to my forehead… and there’s the time I spent the entire St. Patrick’s Day in “The Beer Bar” on campus, little knowing that I had to work that night at the coffee shop, so with the help of Rico and Robert we completed the shift, blitzed… hilarity ensued with the owner showed up unexpectedly…. And there are the Mammoth Mountain trips, the Road Trips to Nowhere, the dozens of parties at the Red Door, and the hundreds of memories that I probably wouldn’t have ever had were it not for one of the oldest drinks on Earth.

The best beer story of all happened on January 25, 1992: the night I met Kara.

Thank you beer, as I probably would never have had the guts to do it all by myself.

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