Bottle Pop

Most of us divide our beer-drinking careers into two eras: the benighted past and the enlightened present. Everyone’s journey was different, but we’ve all arrived at our personalized version of the same destination, a very happy place where we know what we like and generally have the means to acquire it.

Of course there were twists and turns and Lime-A-Ritas along the way —it’s not as if we eased ourselves into gutter-sleep with a couple buckets of Keystone Ice one night and then magically awoke the next morning floating peacefully down the River Pliny. But for most of us, there were significant milestones along the way that let us know we were on a more tasteful path.

My first major beer epiphany came in my very early 20s when I was toiling in my first office job and sharing a crappy apartment with a couple dozen other dummies. Every weekday on the walk back from the train station, I’d stop into the beer store to pick up dinner. For the first month or so of this arrangement, that meant a 40-ounce bottle of Budweiser and a tube of peanuts. But one evening I was either short on cash or long on courage, because I decided to give Schlitz a shot instead. I figured that if it was at least tolerable, I’d have cut my grocery budget by a third. So imagine my joy upon discovering that I actually prefer Schlitz to Budweiser!

I’ve never been good with money, so rather than invest my 50-cent daily savings in Google, I treated myself to a nut upgrade from lowly peanut to lordly cashew. This was financially ruinous in hindsight, but at the time it drove the lesson home even more clearly: by downshifting to Schlitz —which was no sacrifice given my personal preferences and wouldn’t be too great a burden for all but the most loyal Budman — I was able to climb all the way to the top of the nut heap. Such is the power of knowing your beer palate. I’ve been a dedicated Schlitz drinker ever since.

I’ve had fancier beer breakthroughs since, but that was the first time I really understood that a given beer could offer so much more than its peers. Last week, I asked several beer-world luminaries and Jeremy Danner to share stories about their own awakenings. This is what I learned:

Matt Brynildson, Brewmaster at Firestone Walker:

My first beer crush was Bell’s Amber Ale. The beer that turned me onto craft beer was Bell’s Porter, but I had a silly crush on their Amber Ale.  My friends and I would pool our money and buy kegs of the sweet malty nectar as often as we could. Funny thing was that I was homebrewing like a madman in those days, but I never tried to replicate that particular beer, I just accepted that it was a beer that stood by itself.  We regularly threw “amber” parties at our house, collecting a few bucks from everyone to keep our amber ale obsession fed and keep it on draft at the house. At one point, we had six people living in our $500- a-month, old Victorian-style house in the student ghetto, so I’m pretty sure I was spending more money on Bell’s beer (and homebrew supplies) than I was on rent.”

Suzanne Schalow, owner of Craft Beer Cellar chain:

The first beer that I really feel in love with back in the day was Boulder Sundance Amber. What I remember about that beer was that it had a beautiful caramel sweetness that was balanced by bountiful citrus hops; the beer was sweet and zippy without being bitter, which I COULD NOT HANDLE at the time! Funny how our palates change over time .  I’m a fairly adventurous drinker these days but I don’t drink too many amber ales because they seem a touch too sweet for my (current) likes, and I haven’t had this one in a long time as they stopped making it several years ago.

Jenny Pfäfflin, Exam Manager for Cicerone.org:

My junior year of college, I was living in a dilapidated house on Gorham Street in Madison with four other girls. One Thanksgiving, myself and one of my roommates had to stay in town while most UW students dispersed back to their hometowns. We decided to make the best of it — and we made ourselves a proper Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, mashed potatoes, those cranberries that come in the can and still stay can-shaped on the dinner table … anyway, of course a Wisconsin Thanksgiving needs beer!

So, we walked through the slush and around the corner to the Cork N Bottle, our local bottle shop that, in true Madisoness, also has an in-house bluegrass band of the same name. Both my roommate and I had a little crush on the guy who worked there, a musician from Idaho who played in a band that sounded like Built To Spill, so we had also packed up a little paper plate of Thanksgiving dinner to deliver to him (because we were cute like that). My roommate and I had decided to forgo our usual six-pack of Spotted Cow and spring for a bottle of wine, but Cute Bottle Shop Guy was like, “Well, how about a bottle of New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red instead?” It was cheaper than a bottle of wine and it came in a wine bottle, so sure, we thought, why not?

It was the most novel beer I had ever had at the time — it was my first Belgian style; it was large format; it had red wax around the neck. But the “aha” moment for me was when we sat down to drink it with dinner. Cute Bottle Shop Guy was pretty clever — the tart Door County cherries and the brown sugar malt made for the perfect accompaniment to a turkey dinner. It was like those can-shaped cranberries in a spectacular form. It was the first time I also realized that beer wasn’t just for drinking but for elevating a dining experience as well. For me, New Glarus Belgian Red is one of my favorite food beers and I always drink it, fondly remembering that Thanksgiving in Madison.

Dave Berg, Brewmaster at August Schell Brewing Company:

Probably the beer I fell in love with was Anchor Steam. They had it on tap at the Sun Club, a crappy music venue in Tempe, Arizona that I used to frequent to see bands like the Meat Puppets. As I recall, it wasn’t really expensive and always tasted great (perhaps more because it was different, as I’d be surprised if the tap lines were cleaned regularly). That would have been the late 1980s. I was always interested in different imports but this probably led me to start searching for “microbrews” (as we used to call them).

Kate Bernot, Beer Editor at Draft Magazine

My part-time college job was to sling amazing sandwiches at Al’s Deli in Evanston, Illinois (probably the best job I’ll ever have), and the two brothers who owned the shop were total Francophiles and gourmands, albeit unpretentious ones. They nurtured my love of food and drink, lending me cookbooks and sharing wines with me that I never could have afforded on a student budget. On a Wednesday night, the only day of the week Al’s was closed, they took me and a few other staff to revered Belgian beer bar The Hopleaf in Chicago. They ordered me a Caracole Saxo and it amazed me that beer could taste like spices and fruit and citrus without those flavors being artificial. I wasn’t used to such strong beer, though, so I got a little tipsy and ate everyone else’s orders of frites. I haven’t had that beer in a while, but I couldn’t have asked for a better gateway beer in terms of both ambience and company.

Jeremy Danner, Ambassador Brewer at Boulevard Brewing Company

I LOVED Blue Moon when I first discovered that beer could have flavor. I would go so far as to say I was borderline obsessed with it. I had recently turned 21 and was working as a server at a Fox & Hound at the time and suggested it to all my tables. Just smelling the beer as I placed it on tables made me jones for one. If I get the chance to go to Sandlot Brewery whenever I’m in Denver, I definitely drink two or five Blue Moons. I’m probably going to have to drink one later today now.

So what’s your story?