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Friday, May 2, 2008

The Session #15 -- Where Did it Start?

Boak & Bailey invited us to tell stories for this month's Session: how did 'it' -- seeing beer in a different light -- start for you? I've always been a traveling kind of beer guy, so I decided to focus on where it started for me.

I had my first beer, my first full beer, in 1978. I was 19 years old, a late bloomer. It was a Genesee Cream Ale. I liked it. That's not where it started.

I had my first beer out of the American mainstream in 1981. I was 22, and I thought I knew a lot about beer. It was an Altenm├╝nster. I liked it. That's not where it started.

I brewed my first batch of homebrew in 1986. I was single, living in a dry county in Kentucky. I read Charlie Papazian's book, I got the equipment and supplies, and I brewed. The first batch sucked. The second one was pretty decent. That's not where it started.

I had my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on August 14, 1987 in Tahoe City, at a deli, a little before noon (hey, like I always say: some people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot...and I'm dissembling: it wasn't "a little before noon," it was 11:55. I looked at a clock, it was so good). I got a bottle to go with my corned beef special. I loved it. That's not where it started.

Where it started was at the Front Street Pub, a brewpub in Santa Cruz, California. It was October of 1987, and I'd been living in California for two months, and the beer scene was just starting to pop. My boss's husband was a Brit, a likable guy who ran computers for one of the big vegetable outfits in the Salinas Valley. One day in September I was driving home and saw him jogging alongside the road. I stopped, said hi, and we got to talking beer. He told me I should really go over to Santa Cruz and see this place.

I did, and I was so taken that I got out a little notebook I'd been carrying for grocery lists and such, and started keeping a Beer Diary. That's where it really started, because that's when I started thinking about beer, about why I liked it, what it tasted like, what the people who drank it were like, what they said, how they thought about it, and about how we'd gotten to the place we were in.

I started it that day, and I've been keeping them for 20 years; I've got a file drawer full of them. I kept them for six years before I ever even thought about writing about beer for money; I just wanted to get some thoughts down so I could go back and look at them and think some more.

And you see, once I started thinking about what I was drinking, it just got more and more interesting. I went out to find more to read, more to drink, more people to talk to...and that's what I've been doing ever since, and in the process, I talked to a LOT of people. I became unafraid of stating opinions, and thinking as deeply about beer as I felt the urge to, and not worrying about what beer was supposed to be. That's some of the most important stuff to me about how I experience beer today: clearing my mind of pre-formed impressions and diving into the beer in front of me and enjoying it...assuming it's worth enjoying!

It all started at the Front Street Pub, a wonderful place in memory.


Brad said...

I've thought of this question from time to time, and I struggle to find an answer. For a while I was drinking "plain old" beer -- ya know, for its intoxicating qualities -- and that was that. The first time I had Sam Adams (the ads were cool) I thought it was awful. For a while I would occasionally branch out to JW Dundee's Honey Brown when in search of flavor. Even when my pals and I first brewed beer (because we realized distilling was too complicated) we were drinking Corona and Dos Equis to provide the pry-off bottles. So I suppose it was homebrewing that really brought up to a boil what had been a simmering interest* in flavorful, outside-the-mainstream beers -- and even then probably in no small measure because we realized how easy it was to play around with different recipes and styles. Now, I'm so entrenched in beer geekery it's not funny -- at least, it probably isn't to my ever-accomodating girlfriend. I suppose I should thank Honey Brown ...

*You like that lame-ass pun?

Bill said...

I was pleased to learn that C. Papazian and I both started on a sip of Ballantine's at a very early age!

I lucked out, I think, because in jr. high and high school (the early 1980s), my dad homebrewed once in a while, and for some reason Merchants du Vin were pushing into NH supermarkets. So in addition to the occasional Rolling Rock or Moosehead or Molson, I quickly got exposed to MDV's then-offerings of the Sam Smith brews, Ayinger Celebrator, and the Lindeman lambics. I don't think I had Bud, High Life, or Lite until after I was in college!

Anonymous said...

Mine started at the Stoudt's brewfest(worst of the wurst?), (2000 or 2001 my memory has slipped)where I tasted the first World Wide Stout. It was poured from a growler by Sam himself. I remember a little sign saying at 3pm the world's strongest beer will be here. I was already deep into beer fun at that time, Michael Jackson at the Book and the Cook (US knocks off Begium, 1997) at Penn for only $15, I had my first Hop Devil around the same time, on a trip to SoCal I had a HopOttin IPA from Trader Joes(the PLCB sucks), but it was that World Wide Stout that put me over the edge. Every year since 2000 I get a case of World Wide Stout, I have all of them in the cellar, one year (2005)I met Sam and he told me there was a big party on 11/1 when the WWS is bottled, I contacted the person at the brewery and went there to get my case. No party, just me and my case.

Anonymous said...

You know my history....Yuengling Porter was made available to volunteers at the 1973 Phily Folk Fest....soon followed by a birthday gift of a case of Ballantine India Pale Ale (WOW)!
But you are absolutly correct....It really started on a visit to Stoudts soon after brewing began in 1987!
However, I did not meet a kindred spirit until I met you in 1994!
Joe Meloney

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed thinking about this topic. As I thought back I realized I tasted my first beer while sitting on my late grandfather's lap on a sunny day in his rocking chair on his back proch overlooking Wilkes-Barre, PA. I'm 29 right now, so this was early 80's. I was probably about 4 or 5. The beer, icy cold and sipped out of a small straight sided thin glass (I can still always remember him wanting a "thin" glass) was Gibbons. I think a german style Pilsner or Lager made right in Wilkes-barre at the Lion's Head brewery. He drank the stuff like it was his religion.
Sometime later, after a high school and college experience filled mostly with the cheapest kegs we could find, I moved down to Baltimore for a few years in 2001 to teach. At PJ's pub, right across the street from Johns Hopkin's campus I tried a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap, as they didn't have any Amstel Light (at the time my sophisticated beer). I thought this was different, noted that it was called "pale ale" and went on my way after a few.
It was shortly after that I was at a place downtown called Max's Taphouse, where they have numerous beers on tap and bottled. There I decided to try something else that was labeled "pale ale" after the Sierra Nevada experience and stumbled upon Hop Devil, this basically sent me into a Hop obsession which lasted awhile, until in the past 3-4 years I've expanded my taste to all things good; be it American, German, Belgian and couldn't be happier. So, Thanks Gramps!

Lew Bryson said...

This is great, guys. I didn't really expect to start a whole mini-version of The Session here. I'll have to make a note over at Boak & Bailey's site.

Anonymous said...

Well, I come to this confession from a little different bent. My dad worked for the late, great Jones Brewing Co. of Smithton, PA, and I kind of grew up there. My first significant memory happens during the summer back in the days when brewers still used whole flower hops, which arrived in huge, burlap-wrapped bales. They were kept in a refrigerated room on the brewhouse floor, and I'd open that big wooden insulated door and sit in the darkness inhaling that incredible aroma. I always considered Stoney's a respectable brew (still do, along with most regionals), but it wasn't until college when I tasted a Yuengling Lord Chesterfield ale and couldn't even finish it...what WAS that flavor?? I couldn't even equate it with the aroma in the hops room. I soon moved in with a roommate who liked Molson Ale (now Molson Export Ale), and whose dad was a Ballantine IPA fan, both new worlds!
Other regionals provided interesting diversions with the likes of National Premium, Heileman's Special Export, and Koch's Jubilee Porter.

My first brewpub was Commonwealth in Boston in 1987, and it was a revelation! Cask dispensed ales of amazing character, and the local package stores gave me Sierra Nevada Celebration ale and Anchor Liberty ale. I've never looked back. I still admire the remaining regionals for their part in maintaining tradition in this country. Back when England had abandoned porter, I was proud that Yuengling and the Lion were among the few breweries worldwide that produced that style, and still do.

God bless the brewers, all of them. They still fuel my passion!

Boak said...

Loving the Session-within-a-session!

Nice post Lew, even without notes, thanks for contributing"

Anonymous said...

In 1985 I went to England for a college junior year abroad. The Americans went to get city map books. A fellow student, Tom, got the CAMRA book. It had maps WITH pubs. It was all I needed. I had never leard of real ale (or ale for that matter).
I learned more from my 1985 CAMRA book than all my classes. Hook Norton was the closest brewery. Several Old Hookys later and I never when back to dull beer.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Oddly enough, I have no solid memories of any specific "nirvana" or "seeing the light" moment. I was "of age" to drink in Delaware at 20 in 1983, but nothing in the typical college environment appealed enough to me, although I had some "social" drinks of Michelob Dark and Guinness with some friends in the classical music circles. Sam Adams came out for the first time around that time, and it became the best respite for us. Wild Goose was founded about the same time I started making exploratory jaunts around the Chesapeake Bay in 1987, back when if you actually found the front door of the place you were rewarded with a bottle of beer, and Wild Goose quickly became my occasional tipple even though it wasn't available in my home region of central Pennsylvania. I believe I have early issues of the Barleycorn (later Mid-Atlantic Brewing News) to thank for my educations into where to find brewpubs and craft beers and what to drink when there. And yes, somewhere along the line I also discovered homebrewing and bottled my first batch in the used Beck's bottles originally used by Wild Goose!

Boak said...

Hmmm. Old Hooky on tap. Luvverly stuff.

Our roundup's been posted now, by the way.

okbrewer said...

The first beer I can remember drinking (sipping) was Busch Bavarian Beer in 1963, while sitting on a curb with my dad.
As I grew older my favorite beer was whatever was the cheapest! Old Milwaukee suitcase for $4.99! That was what quenched our thirst as my friends and I lounged on Pensacola Beach. My 'epiphany' was my first taste of San Miguel while in the Philippines. Then I found Australian and Brit beers in Hong Kong! But it wasn't until the mid to late '80's that I had my real awakening: Anchor Steam at Jack London Square in Oakland. It was that beer that got me thinking about why I liked beer, about the body, flavor and aroma. That's when I started homebrewing and learning more about beer, and finding kindred spirits in an on-line forum and meeting up in a place called the No Bull Inn! Ahh... Beer!