Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bad Beer

Proust had his madeleine and I have the bad beer of my youth. In his case it was the taste of a fragment of buttery madeleine soaked in tea that evoked a forgotten memory. Luckily I didn’t have to taste any of the aforesaid bad beers since they mostly disappeared several decades ago. It was an article (you may have to endure an ad) in that triggered my memories.

It turns out that with the sale of Anheuser-Busch to the Belgians, Pabst is the largest American owned brewing conglomerate. According to the article they’ve also acquired many of the national and regional cheap beers and, if they don’t retire them, they keep the label and fill the bottles with something made by Pabst.

The only Western New York label they mentioned in the article was Genesee Cream Ale but it got me thinking about driving up a two lane highway, maybe an hour outside of Buffalo, heading to graduate school in that city in 1968, and seeing a weathered sign for Topper Beer, with the silhouette of a dapper gent in a top hat. I’d never heard of it but it seemed to announce that I was in new territory now. I really had left the Washington D.C. area where I had spent my life so far.

America at one time had hundreds of brands of beer but by the late 1960s they had mostly disappeared, victims of their inability to compete with the big national brands. Of course they really didn’t have much of a basis for competing since all American beer tasted pretty much the same, except for some that tasted particularly bad. American beer was a universal anodyne lager and the national brands had more money for advertising to push their imaginary unique qualities.

When I got to Buffalo I found that Topper was not generally available (it was actually a Rochester beer) except on tap at a particularly low dive on Allen St. that was briefly popular with grad students from the English Department I was part of. I’ve forgotten the name of the bar and the beer tasted like all the others. Iroquois Beer was local but wasn’t very good and the label featured a painting of a Native American wearing the war bonnet of the Plains Indians, which had nothing to do with the Iroquois.

A friend and I took up Stroh’s. It was made in Detroit and, in an effort to get it into the Buffalo market, was selling for 99 cents a six-pack. Plus it was “fire brewed”, although if that process added anything extra to the taste of the beer, I could not detect it. We did discover a great selling point with a select audience, but societal prejudice would have kept the brewery from advertising it. After taking acid that was far too powerful, out in the wonderfully named Zoar Valley, the same friend and I made a hallucinatory and dangerous trip back to Buffalo and, lacking Thorazine©, drank a ridiculous amount of Stroh’s. It smoothed out the rough edges and brought us back to “normal” reality.

Even back then I really liked the idea of regional beer, beer rooted in the history of a place. Maybe at one time the various beers of America did taste very different from region to region but refrigeration and industrial methods had robbed them of any uniqueness. A decade later I made it to San Francisco and tasted Anchor Steam. It didn’t taste like anything else. Within a few years it was joined by other beers from small regional breweries.

Today we have battalions of artisanal beer and, although they probably represent a tiny fraction of the beer sales in this country which is still dominated by the horsemen of the “Lite” brewing apocalypse, many are delicious and they don’t taste like each other. Bravo!

The logo below doesn’t really equal my vision on that country road but I thank this web site for it.


Anonymous said...

I am surprised, not a mention of "Old Eisenhower"- A little known but powerfully influential western NY brew.

Bureau Chief said...

Since only one case of "Old Eisenhower" was produced, it was known only by the cognoscenti.