The Great American Saloon Series

Confessions of a Beer Snob

By From the May 1976 issue

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"Beer," the venerable Nürnberger confided to me with a discreet belch, "has one distinct advantage over sex; when you finally have the time and the means to make the most of it, you can still do the stuff justice." The pronouncement, delivered over brimming steins of Rauchbier, a fascinating tawny brew made with smoked hops in Bamberg, and available only in an old Nürnberg tavern a few steps from Albrecht Dürer's imposing medieval house, carried a certain weight. So did the toper, who must have tipped the scales at close to three hundred pounds. Given his years and tonnage, there was certainly no question about it in his case -- spirited quaffing must have been easier than spirited lovemaking.

None of our neighbors at the stout wooden table argued about it, for unlike most liquors and many wines, beer has a tendency to soothe rather than arouse unseemly wrangles and hankerings. In the right hands, it has always been a wholesome, easy sort of beverage, seldom, if ever, incendiary. Not that this has stopped it from being a target of saloonwreckers, social meddlers, and other improvers of the race from earliest antiquity. The dread specter of prohibition may have first reared its ugly head in the second millennium before Christ when a wretched band of government do-gooders attempted to suppress the beershops of Pharaoh's Egypt. The superior minds of all historic periods, however, have sympathized with beer as the most benevolent of alcoholic beverages. Even Frederick the Great, a confirmed winebiber, observed that drunkenness and desertion increased whenever the Prussian army left the beer-producing north of Germany and entered the wine-growing regions along the Rhine and Moselle. Nor is it any accident that parliamentary democracy has flourished only in countries favoring grain over grape.

As to spirits, Hogarth, in his eighteenth-century "Gin Alley" and "Beer Street" engravings, contrasted the squalor of London's gin-swilling slums with the healthy, happy life of England's beer- and ale-drinking artisans, tradesmen, and shopkeepers. In Hogarth's day, the brewing trade even managed, albeit inadvertently, to patronize the arts. Mrs. Thrale, whose glittering social circle and lavish dinner table provided Dr. Johnson with some of his most memorable conversations and best meals, was supported by the earnings of Mr. Thrale's brewery. Not long after that amiable gentleman went to his grave and the brewery failed, Johnson's friendship with the widow also expired. But at heart the good Doctor was a lover of taverns anyway. "There is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves so well as in a capital tavern," he once said, and he went even further, asserting that there "is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn."

If this is less true today in the United States, I would submit that it is due to the scarcity of good taverns rather than any flaw in the Doctor's basic maxim. Independent Parisian and Viennese cafés, German beerhouses, and British pubs may be gradually losing the economic battle to chain concerns, but they still afford ample consolation to anyone with a healthy sense of leisure and an even healthier thirst. In America, however, television, singles bars, and a combination of brain rot and hunger for instant kicks among the lower middle class -- not to mention dynamite-decibel Muzak -- have nearly wiped out a good thing.

As for beer itself, although local breweries in the States have tended in recent decades either to fail or to be absorbed by national brands, an impressive variety of beers, porters, and ales, both imported and domestic, are still available in most decent-sized American communities. Some offer historical oddities like San Francisco's Anchor Brand Steam Beer (which tastes something like British bitter), and there are still a variety of interesting regional brands, though Coors and Olympia are much over-touted. It really is pathetically amusing the way trendies have inflated the price and reputation of Coors, a good but scarcely remarkable (in fact, to my mind, slightly watery) light beer. One thinks of the White House Mess during the Nixon years, where you couldn't get anything to drink except on Thursdays when an ersatz California-Mexican lunch was served and daring souls could order a few rounds of Coors or sip saccharine Margaritas, the latter a fate worse than sobriety and good for nothing but ridding the world of surplus diabetics.

What transports of delight the availability of Coors threw certain White House colleagues of mine into. I always suspected that they were more excited by the idea of its being specially flown in from Colorado than by what little taste it -- or, for that matter, they -- had. Most of the waiters and kitchen help were Filipinos who must have laughed in their sleeves at all the fuss, especially since their native land produces a far superior beer, San Miguel, which goes much better with well-seasoned food. Today the Coors cult still thrives, its devotees buying it even at the most ridiculous prices, and liquor store windows across the country proudly displaying banners blazoned with the inspiring motto, "Coors is here!" To their credit, the owners of the firm have never tried to gouge buyers, that being the work of less scrupulous retailers, and Coors, although now widely distributed, still adheres rigidly to the quality controls of earlier days, when few people outside of Colorado had ever heard of it.

A less lasting fad also involving the White House was Pearl beer, a Texas brew beloved of Lyndon Johnson and immortalized in film footage purporting to show the late Great One tossing empty cans of it out his limousine window while careening around the LBJ ranch. With its most famous consumer's fall from political grace, Pearl beer returned to its humbler but rightful place as a sound if unspectacular regional brand fairly widely consumed in the Southwest. Alas, poor Lyndon, while dozens of aging society beauties and frayed demi-mondaines enthusiastically announce the intimacies they shared with JFK, few people are even willing to admit that they ever sampled your favorite brand of beer. Fate, as Major Hoople once pointed out, is a fickle mistress.

If one must choose from among today's leading American brews, almost all of which fall somewhere in the sickly, albino, and highly-carbonated range, the best would have to be the Anheuser-Busch brands. Between Budweiser and Michelob, the St. Louis brewery turns out the biggest single chunk of the premium market, and the quality of its products is at least consistent. When I do switch to Schlitz, it is mainly because I seem to remember reading somewhere that the firm, or some of its senior members, donated to the Goldwater campaign in a year when most corporate money was sacrificing principle to interest and backing the Great Society.

Folly on my part? Perhaps, but drinking, like dining, is not an entirely material matter. We cherish the recollection of certain viands and vintages because of the sentiments and the settings attached to them. So, too, with beer. There is, for example, a decent but in no way superlative Austrian beer by the name of Gösser which I am fond of to this day because of many happy hours spent sipping it at Vienna's Cafe Schwarzenberg during a bittersweet August that for nonbeer reasons I shall never forget. Nor shall I ever completely forsake a Norwegian lager called Ringnes, despite its slightly sugary aftertaste. My friends and I had too much fun disposing of vast amounts of it one afternoon in Oslo, where there is very little else to do.

Fortunately, there are also many genuinely superior beers one can encounter in memorable surroundings. Throughout Berlin, for example, you will find posters large and small asking and answering the rhetorical question, "Was trinken wir? Schultheiss Bier," which comes in several grades wrapped in silver or gold foil, all of them outstanding at the price. In 1974, at Bayreuth for the Ring Cycle, my most valuable and reliable friend was a beer called "Monk's Brew" which had been made in nearby Kulmbach since the Middle Ages. And, of course, one could spend a lifetime simply cataloguing the beer delights that abound throughout Germany -- pale, dark, medium, and peculiar. In the latter category I would rank "Baker's Beer," "Frozen Beer," and "White Beer," which last, served in warm weather with an infusion of raspberry syrup, sounds disgusting but tastes delicious.

Such is the diversity and richness of German beers that one comes away temporarily spoiled. Not long ago, arriving in London after two weeks in Bavaria, I immediately sought out a Curry House in Soho, desperate for a spicy meal after a fortnight of ample but bland German fare. The Bengali curry, Tandoori chicken, and mango chutney were everything I had hoped for, but the lager served with them was just the opposite. After so many delightful samples of robust local beer specialties in Germany, the standard London "lager" tasted like tapwater. It took several days to adjust to it. As for the dubious fluid the British call "beer," the orange-amber bitter produced by Watneys and so many other firms, it has a sharper tang but doesn't taste all that good. And John Bull, with characteristic obstinacy, still insists on serving it tepid, thereby bringing out the full nastiness of the flavor.

Far happier he who finds his way to Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, or even France (where good Alsatian beer like Kronenberg is as much a national product as Burgundy). The Danes, in Tuborg and Carlsberg, have two brands to be proud of, although Americans buying Tuborg at home are actually getting a product of the National Breweries, based in Baltimore, Maryland. On behalf of National, it should be said that their version, which is authorized, tastes like the Danish original and is certainly a good light beer by American standards. (Please note that I said light, not "Lite." The whole point of beer is that it is an indulgence; take away the alcohol or the calories and you remove much of the appeal and most of the taste. I have yet to sample a low-calorie beer that didn't taste like flat, watered-down draft with a few soapsuds added for visual appeal.)

The Dutch, who still carry on a thriving worldwide quality export trade with Heineken, also turn out many less expensive but nearly as tasty brands including Breda (which has been brewed since the sixteenth century and is thus about the same age as Velasquez's famous painting of its namesake city's surrender) and Oranjeboum (which I have always favored politically because of the monarchist connotation of its name, the orange tree and blossom symbolizing the reigning House of Orange).

Little Portugal has for many years given us a very pleasant lager called Sagres and it is to be hoped that the late Lusitanian political upheavals have not crossed the brewery wall. If I never see another gaping doubleknitwit crack open a bottle of Mateus or Lancers rosé, I shall be quite content -- but should the Marxists take Portugal, Sagres, an ancient and honorable beer, would be a heartfelt loss. Marxist orthodoxy and good brewing simply do not mix. To this day, the poor Russians, although they produce gallons of inferior beer and Kvas within their own borders, are dependent for really good beer on their much more westernized satellite state, Czechoslovakia, where the very word Pilsner was born centuries before Karl Marx. (The name is derived from the Bohemian city of Pilsen.) True, Pilsner is expensive, but it is worth it, for it is still one of the world's greatest and noblest beers. I even know of one West German businessman who always keeps a keg of it in his office, despite his rampant anti-Communism and general Teutonic chauvinism. What higher tribute could one pay?

No one in his right mind, and with hard Western currency in his pockets, will ever settle for Russian beer in Moscow. All the best hotel bars and restaurants have Pilsner available, for a price, and much to the chagrin of less affluent locals whom I noticed looking on in envy as I spent a few hours of Nixon's last visit to the Soviet Union sipping it in an Intourist establishment... although, come to think of it, a fellow-traveler of mine was sipping tea and that may have been what aroused the disgust of the spectators. The Muscovites, who are inordinately fond of alcohol in any form and amount they can afford, were probably amazed that a visiting capitalist, who didn't have to, would voluntarily order tea.

But let us pass to greener, or, rather, yellower pastures. For one of the most outstanding modern achievements of a "westernized" Japan is the existence of a thriving, high-quality brewing industry. Tradition has it that the trade was founded under the tutelage of imported German brewmasters, which would help explain the success of smooth, delicious Japanese brands like Kirin and Asahi. Less commendable are some of the innovations of lesser Japanese brewers, including, rumor would have it, the use of formaldehyde as a flavor additive.

Closer to home, Canada deserves praise for several splendid ales, the name of Molson coming to mind in particular, and Mexico is not without its distinguished brands, notably Carta Blanca beer and an excellent ale, Bohemia. Which brings us back to the States, and the end of this bibulous ramble. I would only add that, next to the beer itself, and the company in which it is drunk, the most important thing is the container. Silver, pewter, porcelain, earthenware, and glass all have their special advocates. Silver is fine, except that it tends to taste tarnished even before it looks so. A good, highly polished pewter tankard, preferably Cornish, has always seemed to me a more practical substitute. In former years, most thriving breweries and taverns produced their own tankards and steins, and special editions were issued to immortalize everything from hangings to horseraces. In my own collection is one mysterious item -- a tall, dignified white porcelain piece, which proudly but enigmatically commemorates "Ivanhoe 36, Reading 42, August 17-18, 1910" in fine Old English characters along with an odd heraldic crest and "Reading Pa." in smaller print. All of which is very impressive, but I haven't the slightest clue as to what it means. Far less mysterious is the rhymed message on a small earthenware mug manufactured for "Celebrated Royal Pilsner Beer of Kansas City and Weston, Mo.":

Here's to the lying Lips we meet,
For truthful Lips are bores,
And lying Lips are very sweet,
When lying close to yours.

What luxury of sentiment and economy of expression -- and how appropriate here in Washington, D.C. There are times, however, when one inclines to the melancholy rather than the romantic, and when that mood seizes me, I invariably resort to a lidded clay beerpot of German manufacture, fashioned in the form of a human skull and reminiscent of a more celebrated verse than the one chosen by the makers of "Celebrated Royal Pilsner Beer" -- Lord Byron's Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull:

Start not -- nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull

Why not -- since through life's little day
Our heads such sad effects produce?
Redeem'd from worms and wasting clay
This chance is theirs, to be of use.

At any rate, it beats leaving your brain to science. Bottoms up, everyone.

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.