The mid-nineties were upon us and Grunge wasn’t the only thing from the Pacific Northwest to start spreading across the country like a plague. Starbucks were beginning to pop up all over the place. Pull out of a parking lot, check your rearview and there’d be a Starbucks occupying the parking spot you just vacated. Many people embraced this interloper that served coffee that tasted like the beans had been torched in the fires of Hell, but many also clung to Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, extolling the virtues of coffee that tasted like coffee. These things I paid attention to, but had lost my way when it came to the beer scene. So many microbrews were blinking in and out of existence that it was hard to keep up with it all. Much to my regret, I didn’t even try.
Instead I started to explore the world of wine. Chianti Classico, Merlot and Cabernet were my early favorites. This started prior to my marriage in 1996 and became firmly entrenched during my bachelor party. At Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Weehawkin, we were served a Cabernet from Chappelet. It was so good that I delved further into the world of wine, coming upon Sauterne during the honeymoon. This would not have been a bad thing if it weren’t for the fact that I completely abandoned beer. Yes, I learned about so many styles of wine and learned how to pair food with wine and explore the subtle nuances of flavor on one’s tongue while drinking wine. I learned how to decant wine, pour wine and perform the little ritual when the wine steward presents the bottle and cork, pours the sample and then waits for your response. I was beginning to turn into a wine snob.
I was almost pulled back into the world of beer by a coworker who mentioned a brewery that was near where he lived. We decided we should visit. Stating that I “knew a thing or two” about beer I agreed. At that point, I only knew "a thing or two", which is woefully short of knowing much of anything. The brewery happened to be in the same town as the Crayola Factory, so we dropped the wives and kids off in the heart of Easton, PA and we headed off to the outskirts of town to visit the Weyerbacher Brewery. We took the tour, which was informational, but boring and then bellied up to the tasting bar. I couldn’t believe some of the brews I tasted. They had a stout (Old Heathen) that wasn’t at all like Guinness…it wasn’t thin in body or in flavor and it packed a wallop! There was one beer called Merry Monks that I had trouble wrapping my brain around; there was so much going on in my mouth. There was a barleywine with the awesome name of Blithering Idiot that struck fear in me. Back in the nineties I had tried Bigfoot Ale by Sierra Nevada which was a barleywine. I had not enjoyed that beer at all, but Blithering Idiot was different. It was not nearly as vinous, allowing the maltiness to really shine through. We finished tasting and then went and did what two dudes from Jersey do when in Pennsylvania…bought fireworks. While going to the register one of the wives called to question where we were. Apparently, they were done with playing with crayons. So we paid up and ran off to pick up our families, but not after stopping at a deli first to buy some cheese. Beer, fireworks and cheese…how can you lose? One way to lose is to leave your wife and kids on a sidewalk in Easton, PA. The rain wasn’t coming down all that hard when we pulled up, but the glares we received were certainly harsh. Liberal application of chocolate desserts kept us out of the dog house.
Later that year I accompanied the same co-worker and much of his family on a lunch that featured food pairings with Weyerbacher beers. The company was stellar and I actually thought that I started to understand some of the Polish that was being spoken. The day began with my friend's brother producing a tray of vodka shots. Being of Polish descent myself I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to down the shot with aplomb. It went down nicely; the man knew good vodka. At the luncheon, the food was really good and the pairing with the beers was perfect. Having been engrossed in wine culture for a while I was familiar with pairing food with wine, but doing so with beer was a foreign concept. That’s actually more literal than I intended, since they had been doing so in Europe for ages, but it was mostly unheard of in the US unless you counted drinking beer with pizza or stadium red hots. It was really quite an experience. These events came close to bringing me back into the beer scene full-time, but getting a bad batch of Merry Monks at my liquor store derailed the comeback. I was unwilling to try anything else and disappeared back into the wine bottle. Full beer awareness would be another few years down the road.
In 2006 I started a job that allowed me to travel the country. I was part of a small team that set up retail locations for a jewelry store and one of the members of that team had mad wine skills. I’ve witnessed him correct wine stewards and, if he had a mind to, he could probably pass the test to become a sommelier with ease. If you don’t know what a sommelier is, don’t bother looking it up. This is a beer blog after all and that term will never be used here again. We were also foodies, but not food snobs. You’d be just as apt to find us at a legendary hot dog stand in jeans as you would a legendary upper crust restaurant in suits. At those restaurants we had some really nice wines and much of what I know about wine was gleaned from this man’s expertise. Allowing me to select the wine for a dinner gathering for much of the company’s top brass was his way of signaling that he was impressed with my progress. Recounting this milestone still gives me great pride, especially since he was quite pleased with my choice that night and made a point of sharing that with the others at the table.
As much as I look back on that time with joyful reminiscence, I regret not being able to use the company-shouldered travel to partake in some beer tourism. Beer was not high in my consciousness. Another friend from the same company had introduced me to good tequila. Up until that point I had detested the stuff, but he pointed out that I probably had only tried Jose Cuervo. He was absolutely right. After trying Sauza’s Tres Generacions I was hooked. I experimented a while and now always have a couple of bottles of Corazon (one anejo and one blanco) on hand at all times. I then applied the same theory to bourbon. Having only tried Jack Daniels, hating it and condemning all bourbon was probably not fair to the distilleries that produced smaller batches and aged their amber treasure properly. After having a bottle of 12-year-old Pappy Van Winklel my theory was vindicated.
I had heard of Pappy’s from a show called Three Sheets that has a charismatic, funny and alcoholic host named Zane Lamprey. If you haven’t seen this show, it’s on Hulu. I suggest you watch it. Zane travels the world drinking and exploring the history and customs of their drinking culture. In each episode he visits the distillery, winery or brewery that produces the adult beverage that defines that area. Also in every episode there is beer and two episodes in particular concentrated on beer: Munich and Belgium...naturally.
Due to this show, I expanded my liquor horizons, but also came back to beer. Wine, tequila, vodka, bourbon and the rest would soon be pushed aside as other elements took effect.
Next Time: Sit UBU, sit...good beer!