People have strong opinions about beer, which is as it should be. Beer is regional, it’s also associated with leisure—baseball, beaches, the rest. You drink it when you’re young and can watch your taste change over time, the same way your taste in music evolves. Thankfully the college days of Natty Light and Dave Matthews Band are behind you (good grief). But in college I listened to the Cure and drank Beck’s, which tells you everything you need to know about my level of pretension at the time. Generally, I try to drink the beer (and wine and whisky, for that matter) of the place I’m in, which feels natural and even helps you understand the place a little better. But every time I try a cask ale in England I keep waiting to finally like it. Of course, beer is more than one thing—it serves different purposes in different settings. Let’s consider some of these.
There are things we love but can’t explain, or if we can explain them it’s because of a sense of nostalgia. These are both easily dismissed and very important. That would be beer you grew up with and associate with a time or place in your life. For me that’s Leinenkugel’s, which nobody would describe as technically good, but for me it’s one of the best. It reminds me of summers at our cabin (I wouldn’t drink it any other place)—it’s made in nearby Chippewa Falls (“by 73 people who care” was their famous claim, not that it’s owned by a conglomerate that number is a lot higher). It’s always funny to me when I see the (dreadful) flavored Leinenkugel’s on the East Coast. Stick with the classic, but if you didn’t grow up with it then it’s probably too late. And you no doubt have your own nostalgic beer. You can’t reason with this sort of thing any more than you can tell somebody you don’t like their family recipe. It’s just too personal.
The platonic beer is hard to get. Not only does the beer have to be great you have to be in a great place. For me that’s draft pilsner where pilsner is best: Germany or Holland. A Lowenbrau at a worn wooden table in an empty Munich beer hall is just about perfect. Also, Heineken in Amsterdam, where it comes in those narrow glasses and is quite foamy (they clear off the top of the head with a piece of plastic). It tastes different there because it is different, more carbonated, less alcoholic. Head to one of the great cafes on the Spui. If you order one at 8am while you’re waiting for your hotel room to be ready your waitress will think it’s perfectly natural. Which it is.
This is beer with a larger purpose. When I go fishing I need a widely-available beer in quantity that will not wear me down. Do you remember that Mad Men when they’re discussing how to market a “diet beer” and they all keep asking, “You mean for women?” No, Don Draper says. “For men.” How right you are, Don! There’s nothing better on the river than between three and six Miller Lites. Everything you’ve ever wanted in a beer. And less. One of the greatest copy lines ever written. As a boy I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was important. For once, I was right.
DELIBERATELY LOCAL BEER
This is a new category to me. The other day I was on a boat on the St. Croix River with my friend Jim. And he was shocked (and possibly embarrassed) that I didn’t know what Spotted Cow was. It’s an unfiltered beer from New Glarus Brewing Co. that’s only sold in Wisconsin. In my defense it hadn’t even occurred to me to try a new beer in Wisconsin since I’m set in my Leinenkugel’s ways. It’s not available on the other side of the St. Croix in Minnesota. People drive over just to get it. Now that is a major calculation that oddly, in this instance, worked on me. I loved drinking their surprisingly fresh ale with the knowledge that other people couldn’t have it. I’m not proud of that moment. But there you are.
HYPER RARE BEER
This is different than local—it’s hard to get, but it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s the small batch of the small batch. This is where I get off the train. If you read about a beer in an online forum for other beer obsessives then that’s dangerous territory. The currency can’t just be rarity. It’s beer. I think I mostly react against this category because I don’t respond to the (often heavier) extreme micro beers. But if you have suggestions—and I’m sure you do!—please leave them in the comments.
All of this is why more marketing money has been spent on beer than just about any other object. It’s also men are susceptible to such things. I’m not above it. I still remember The Night Belongs to Michelob campaign from the late 1980s, which is still an all-timer. Great tag line. Great Clapton. Great everything. Not every concept translates—does anybody remember Special Export? And, far worse, Special Export Light? But these associations are real and everybody tries to find the right equation. And in the end everybody does. That’s why everybody considers himself a beer expert, and rightly so.