Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Few of My Beer Buddies

The June edition of the Oshkosh SCENE is out and available all round town. Inside, my Oshkosh Beer Garden column is about Kirby Nelson, brewmaster of Wisconsin Brewing Company.

When I was interviewing him for the article, Nelson mentioned something that has been bouncing around in my head since the moment he said it. “My philosophy about beer is that I think it should be your companion,” he said. “It's an adjunct to the enjoyment of life. It's about socializing and visiting with your friends and relaxing and enjoying the environment around you. It’s not about just sitting there focusing on the glass.” Damn, if that ain’t the truth.

The achilles heal of most of us who become obsessed with beer (or just about anything else for that matter), is that we tend to concentrate on piddling minutia and lose track of our basic love for the thing at hand. When beer drinking becomes an exercise in sensory analysis instead of an enjoyable, congenial repast, it becomes absurd.

I fell in love with beer at a very young age. If the kid I used to be could hear me going on about, “a persistent pine note that threads through the toasty malt flavor,” he’d laugh at and ridicule me until I punched him (I know that kid too well; believe me when I say he had it coming. And, yes I did write that about a beer on this blog). Shit, there’s nothing wrong with getting into your beer, but you have to remember what captured you in the first place: filling your mouth with those delicious suds and not thinking too hard about anything while you enjoyed it.

Enough with the navel gazing and preciousness. Here’s a pack of beers that don’t need to beg for your attention to prove how good they are. These are companion beers built for “socializing and visiting with your friends and relaxing and enjoying the environment around you.” If that’s not what it’s all about, then what’s the fucking point?

Sprecher Black Bavarian
Sprecher Brewing Company was the first craft brewery in Wisconsin. It was launched in 1985 by a former Pabst employee named Randy Sprecher. I got drunk with him once. I think it was 1987. It happened at the original Sprecher brewery in the Walker’s Point neighborhood of Milwaukee. I had gone their with my girlfriend, Denise, and my friend Cookie to pick up some beer and get a tour of the place. Randy Sprecher gave the tour. It didn’t amount to much. About 15 of us stood around in the old warehouse and listened to Sprecher as he pointed to pieces of brewing equipment and talked about what they were used for. It didn’t take long. When it was done he started pouring beer. This portion of the tour was much longer. He kept pouring beer after beer. People began drifting away until it was just Sprecher and the three of us left. At some point he admitted that he was hungover. He had been to a beer festival the night before. He kept right on pouring beer for himself and for us. He was in no hurry. By the end of the afternoon, I had quite a buzz going. Before we finally left, we bought a couple cases of beer from Sprecher that he had packaged in big, 16-ounce bottles that he said were cast offs from Pabst. That really appealed to me. Not always, but sometimes when I drink Black Bavarian I think of that afternoon drinking beer with Randy Sprecher. That was a great day.

Ale Asylum Madtown Nutbrown
Every time I drink this beer I get the urge to make some homebrew. It smells exactly like pale malt does when your grinding it up for a batch of beer. I can’t remember why I ever decided to start making beer at home. It’s a pain in the ass. But I love doing it. I had thought about homebrewing for years before I actually dived in. Other people thought I should be doing it, too. They kept telling me that. Everybody knew I loved beer. I think it was 1986, somebody even gave me a copy of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian. I read it. I came away with the impression that homebrewing was a big pain in the ass. Eventually, I started homebrewing anyway. We were living in Oshkosh by then. I can vividly recall that first batch. It was a nut-brown ale. Nothing went right. The brew day went on and on. Cooling the wort took forever. I remember thinking to myself that the entire process was one long pain in the ass. The beer ended up tasting mediocre at best. Why do people do this? Of course, it was impossible to stop once I had started. Since then I’ve brewed 164 batches of beer. I don’t think I’ve had a single brew day where at some point it didn’t occur to me what an enormous pain in the ass it is to make beer at home. Still, it’s one of my favorite things.

Sure, I know this is macro-swill. I don’t care. I like it. When I was a kid, my dad had a friend who worked at Schlitz. His name was George. You took one look at him and you knew he was Kraut. I mean that affectionally. Growing up, I knew a few guys like that. They’d always have that old-style haircut with the severe sidewalls. George was a big, barrel of a guy with a booming voice and a raunchy sense of humor. He appeared to give no shits about anything. As a young boy, I looked upon him with awe. He had a large German shepard that terrified me. We’d be standing around in George’s garage with that dog bullying me around. George would bellow at the dog to “Get the FUCK away from him!” Dog wouldn’t listen. Whenever I think of George I think of being with he and my dad and that dog in George’s garage. George kept beer on tap in his garage. Schlitz. He drank beer all day long. He’d walk around with a big pewter mug filled with creamy lager. That mug of beer never left his sight. But he never had a problem with me picking it up and taking a good drink or two off it. I believe he got a charge out of seeing me drink beer. I hope it reminded him of his youth and the old, strange Krauts he knew who had shared their beer with him.

Wisconsin Brewing Co. #001 Amber Lager
This was the first Wisconsin Brewing Co. beer I tried. It’s essentially a Vienna lager, one of my favorite styles of beer. Prior to it coming out, I was really looking forward to trying it. I’m partial to good lager. I thought if anybody can do this beer right it’s going to be Kirby Nelson. Then I drank the beer. I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I was hoping for. There was a buttery aroma in there that annoyed me. A couple months later, I had it again, almost by accident. This time it was on tap. It was around lunch time. I only ordered it because I didn’t have the stomach for any of the other high-alcohol, over-hopped beers the place was serving. I got my beer and was jabbering away not thinking at all about what I was drinking. I was about half-way down the glass when it hit me: something has changed, this tastes great! This is my favorite way to fall for a beer. You’re just sitting there drinking the beer and not paying it too much mind as you shoot the shit, when all of a sudden the flavors begin to glow and it makes you appreciate what a fine time you’re having. I sometimes forget it, but for me, that’s what beer is really all about.

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