On Beers I’ve Drank: From Busch Light to Oberon

  On Beers I’ve Drank: From Busch Light to Oberon By: Karl Klockars   Everyone has a “first beer” story, here’s mine:   A can of Miller Genuine Draft, pilfered from a cooler in a garage on New Year’s Eve 1994, split between four young gentlemen in the Chicago suburbs. Our unrefined palates not accustomed to the flavors of malt and alcohol, it probably took us 90 minutes to kill that can amongst the four of us, so long that the three ounces we each sipped had next to no effect on our teenage brains.   We stayed up until 4AM that night, probably talking about Slayer, girls and golf clubs – my high school friends were a weird mix of metalheads, caddies and metalhead caddies. I don’t remember much else about that particular holiday other than that one single beer took on a significant symbolism to it. I didn’t have a ton of friends, being the kid dumped from small Catholic grade school into big, bad public high school, but when the 36-year-old me looks back on that 14 year-old-me, he sees someone taking baby steps into a form of acceptance that took place over the rim of a can of Miller.   I can honestly still remember how it tastes.   Everyone has a beer confession, here’s mine:   I drank Busch Light for a long time. It was less a beer of choice than it was a beer of necessity, being cheap, readily available thirty cans at a time. It was also a beer for the marathon drinking one does right out of college when you live in what is essentially a hovel with your ne’er-do-well punk rock friends and union worker buddies.   It was another symbol in a can: we ain’t no fancy Miller Lite drinkin’ fellers, we don’t have extra cash to spend on no fancy bottles of Budweiser, we are separate, we are unique, we are a band of brothers. We drank Busch Light aggressively, we freely shared our cases and 30-packs among friends and strangers like we were a commune, and we wore the pain it induced like a cold-filtered badge of honor.   I find myself in a rural bar a few times a year, or a college bar, or just some place where the upper-scale choices range from “bottle of Heineken” to “last Pete’s Wicked known to man.” Invariably, I am more than happy to pass two one dollar bills across the bar for a bottle or can of watery, corny, blue-labeled bliss in a can. I know what I’m doing. I’m a pro. I drink Busch. I drink Busch Light.   And I’m not just drinking a cheap beer in a can because it’s ironic or because it’s amusing ­– I drink it because part of me still thinks I can be that kid that still fits in those cutoff camo shorts and drives a 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham that probably isn’t going to pass emissions and stays up until the bakery next door opens at 5am.   At least, it’s a reminder that he existed at one point.   Everyone has a gateway craft beer story*.   Fairly new to actual city life, I had taken myself out of the garages and bowling alleys I had frequented in the suburbs to live with the girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. At that time I had moved on to a mix of High Life and 22-ounce bottles of Olde English 800, with the occasional draft Old Style. You know, for variety’s sake.   She took a job waiting tables and went to grad school while I dropped in and out of school, internships and eventually settled on the crazy hours and low pay of a radio gig. And on some Saturdays, I would wait at Simon’s Tavern, in Andersonville, waiting for her to get done with a brunch shift so we could walk home together.   I remember it being late spring, I remember the bar being that special shade of dark you can only accomplish in a bar and I remember watching whatever baseball game was on the television. And in front of me was the first craft beer I learned to love: Bell’s Oberon.   I didn’t know what it was, really, but I knew it was something good. I knew it was different, and I knew it was beer from Michigan, where my girl was from, and if I couldn’t be with her until her shift was up, at least I could drink a beer that came roughly from the same place she did. It was one of her favorites, so it became one of my favorites. And we would watch the Sox play the Tigers, the first games of many, and we would order Oberons. Even in the midst of school and low-paying jobs and insane hours, we would always have a few bucks for Oberons, and we would always find time for each other.   (And when Larry Bell pulled Bell’s out of Illinois for a brief period of time, I learned my first lesson about distribution rights and the three-tier system.)   Three different beers. Three different versions of myself.   The larger story of beer is the story of civilization itself, the story of communities, the birth of gatherer life, of religion and culture and indulgence. I often hear the Lagunitas team talk about not being in the beer business, but being in the tribe-building business. Whenever I hear that repeated, I always think, “But it’s the exact same thing.”   Beer is a unique thing – it’s an industrial product, but endlessly creative, historically associated in this country with a particular demographic, a particular class, a particular stripe of American. Hell, a very particular stripe of Chicagoan. I appreciate it, all the things it takes to make a simple product that gives many of us a simple pleasure, because it’s just so very us. The beer world around us has…


December 2015
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