It was about an eight-block walk from the American Legion hall to the subway station. Maria’s house was on the way, so we walked with Maria and her dad, who was carrying a half-empty case of Coors Light left over from Maria’s Sweet 16 party. When we got to the steps in front of their row house, he opened one of the silver cans and took a sip.
“You want some?” Maria’s dad asked, barely extending the can toward us.
“No thanks,” either Marc or Burt said. The twins and I were mutual friends of Maria’s and we’d taken the 90-minute subway ride together from the Bronx to Sunset Park, Brooklyn for the party. I laughed nervously.
“No, I’m serious,” Maria’s dad continued. “Kids need to start drinking young. That way, when they’re old enough, they’re not wimps when it comes to alcohol.”
I was 15. Marc and Burt were two years older than me. We each took a sip; the Coors Light was bitter. Maria walked with us the rest of the way to the subway station, finishing the can during the trip.
That was my introduction to beer.
I was never one of those teenagers who saw drinking – and getting drunk – as a rite of passage. As a freshman at Syracuse University, I attended many of the off-campus house parties where, for two or three bucks, I could have as many 12-ounce cupfuls of keg beer as my 18-year-old heart desired. But, I rarely had more than a couple of cups of beer – even my unrefined pallet knew the beer in those kegs was substandard – and I never got drunk; I went to those house parties less for the drinking and more for the chance to hang out with friends and to meet other people. Unlike many of my underage college peers, I never tried to acquire a fake ID or sneak into the myriad bars near campus. If beer were made available to me I’d have some, but I didn’t view a lack of beer as an acute problem.
I did know that, when I had beer, I wanted to drink good beer. I have no idea where the desire to drink something other than the likes of Budweiser and Miller came from; I grew up in a family of beer and liquor drinkers, but I don’t remember anyone who had discriminating taste when it came to beer. Perhaps since I had little desire to get drunk, I decided that, if I was going to drink, I wanted to enjoy what I was drinking. As an underage drinker, I rarely had a choice of beers but, when I did, I always went for the most exotic-sounding brew available. Heineken? Beck’s? Labatt? Those are imported, so they must be good! Michelob Ultra? It’s got “ultra” in its name so it has to be special! It didn’t take long for me to learn that some of the “exotic” beers were just as bad as the “non-exotic” ones. However, no matter what, I refused to drink light beer: I tend to eschew “light” products in general and I didn’t want to choose my beer based on its calorie count.
I wanted to learn more about the beers I was drinking so, my senior year at Syracuse, I enrolled in a two-credit Beer and Wine Appreciation course that met once a week. The class was taught by a husky-voiced adjunct professor who was a local restaurant owner. For the first half of the semester, the class focused on wine: the world’s main wine-making regions, different types of wine and how to properly evaluate and taste wine; we tasted at least two or three different wines per class. I found that portion of the class interesting, although I didn’t retain much of what I learned; however, because of it, I’ve never felt intimidated or apprehensive when it comes to purchasing wine and I know how to properly open a bottle of Champagne.
The second half of the semester proved to be more compelling to me; for those eight weeks, representatives from different breweries visited the class, each bringing beer for us to try. We heard from everyone from Anheuser-Busch to local brewers of craft beer (Upstate New York is home to lots of smaller breweries). I learned about the difference between ales and lagers and what hops and malt do to a beer’s flavor. But, most importantly, I got to try lots of different beers, helping me develop my likes and dislikes. My favorite beers were the flavored stouts and the sweeter beers in general, as well as the pale ales. I wasn’t as crazy about beers with a high concentration of hops, because those tended to be more bitter.
Fortunately, I was going to college in the right city for beer experimentation. There were several bars in Syracuse that offered a wide selection of beers and I took full advantage. Once I got out of college and started to travel for work, I got to experiment even more. Because of the craft beer revolution that’s taken place over the last couple of decades, nearly every locale has its own beers. Whenever I’ve moved to a new city or when I’m on the road for work, I always try the local beers and I’m rarely disappointed. When I lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan I fell in love with Oberon, a heavy, sweet summer beer made by Bell’s Brewery; part of the reason my favorite bar in Kalamazoo was my favorite bar is because they’d have Oberon on tap late into October, long after other places had exhausted their supply. My eight months in Yakima, Washington made me a fan of Mac & Jacks, a rich amber ale unlike any beer I’ve ever had anywhere; unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it since I left the Pacific Northwest. I currently live in Kansas City, where I like drinking the beers put out by the Boulevard and Free State breweries; I first tried Boulevard’s pale ale several years ago, when I visited a Springfield, Missouri restaurant that had it on tap. I miss the Brooklyn Brewery beers I drank on a regular basis when I lived in New York City and in Binghamton, New York; their brown ale is the perfect beer as far as I’m concerned. However, I have been able to find another one of my favorites – the Vermont-brewed Magic Hat #9 – at a handful of liquor stores in the Kansas City area.
My friends make fun of me because they know I’ll only drink “good” beer; I will pass on drinking beer entirely if there isn’t a craft beer offering available; I’m a self-professed “beer snob”. I am proud that several of my friends, and a few of the women I’ve dated, credit me with broadening their horizons when it comes to beer; I believe that anyone who drinks, regardless of their taste in alcohol, can find a beer they like if they look hard enough. There is always a six-pack of craft beer in my refrigerator and I enjoy getting others interested in the beers I enjoy.
However, if you’re expecting to find a Coors Light in my fridge, you’ll be disappointed.Follow @raford3