March 18, 2009

Mug Shots

Reveling in the innocence of a swill-soaked youth

This is the 30th year of my professional beer-drinking career.

The autumn of 1979 provided a familiar impetus for renouncing amateur status and turning pro. There was a messy breakup, and one morning during the worst of it, my car suddenly veered away from the university’s parking lot in the direction of an adjacent package store. I wasn’t carded, and breakfast was two quart bottles of Colt 45.

There was no looking back — except at those embryonic years of preparation, perpetually trapped in adolescence, but looking enviously at juicy adult privileges just around the corner.

Apart from wee nips taken during childhood from bottles of my father’s Oertels 92, I consumed my first real cold one at a junior-high-school party. Actually, four of us split a single can of Budweiser while hiding in the woods, safe from the prying eyes of the hostess’s parents, ostensibly attaining instant credibility by boasting of beer on our breath and mimicking the outward appearance of drunkenness.

Later, like so many generations of New Albanians, my gang climbed another rung around the time our first driver’s licenses were issued. Wheels meant easy access to the bountiful paradise of Louisville’s West End liquor stores, just down Vincennes Street and across the claustrophobic steel lanes of the K&I toll bridge.

Raging acne and social ineptitude excused me from being chosen as the one to go inside Liken’s or the Corner Store. Consequently, I was at the mercy of my companions’ tastes in beer, and this was problematic, because at this early stage of my palatal development, the “flavor” of a beer was the single biggest impediment to ingesting its desired alcohol. My friends liked Sterling and Pabst. I didn’t, but they were doing the heavy lifting of acquisition. Being in no position to argue, I learned to adapt by chilling.

The colder the beer, the less “flavor” it had, and the more of it I could drink. Accordingly, my mission in life became Styrofoam cooler maintenance — to nurture it, protect it from harm and, most importantly, keep it filled with ice.

But in high summer, the cans got warm very quickly. Crammed into the back seat of a late model junker and pulling the tab on a can straight from the ice, I managed to down the first frozen gulps before being overwhelmed with the dismaying recognition that in spite of all reasonable precautions, the can still contained rapidly warming Sterling or Pabst.

Chugging made me gag. What to do?

A sufficient interval would pass, enough to encourage a carload’s presumption that the warm and thoroughly vile can in my hand had been emptied, and then the magical time would arrive for throwing it out the window. This called for consummate skill. In the humid still of a hot summer evening, misjudging the distance from the open window of a moving car to the muffled cushion of a grassy rural roadside meant disgrace if a loud “thump” echoed through the valley as the half-full can struck unrelenting pavement.

The verbal abuse to follow was not at all good-natured. After all, hadn’t we driven all the way to Louisville to spend every last dime on beer? 

And so it came to pass that in this manner, slumped shamefully in the back seat trying desperately to choke down a warm Sterling, I resolved to become a better beer drinker than all of them. Granted, the precise meaning of “better” remained unclear, but as the others began to plan their careers in physics, cosmetology and insurance sales, I worked at developing a feel for the generic concept of beer, which I came to understand as light-bodied and usually bastardized when compared with the golden continental lager that inspired it, and a taste for its flavor, or at least those discernable qualities differentiating it from cola and orange juice.

After turning pro, these youthful stumbles were brushed aside in favor of broader experiences. It was hard work moving from the degradation of Schaefer “Weekender” 30-packs to the sublime pinnacle of Belgian Trappists and American Barley Wines, but at least those swill-soaked years of my youth were not wasted.

Or were they?

 

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.

  

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