Our 46th Session is hosted by Mike R. Lynch of Burgers and Brews. For his topic, he chose “An Unexpected Discovery: Finding Great Beer in the Last Place You’d Look,” or as he describes it:
I recently drove out to Colorado for a concert, and realized this was a perfect opportunity to stop at as many “beer destinations” as I could. I researched, plotted routes, looked at maps, and generally planned the entire trip around beer. What I was surprised to find was that despite all the amazing stops I planned, one of the best beer experiences of the trip was completely accidental. I found great beer in the last place I thought to look for it.
Has this happened to you? Maybe you stumbled upon a no-name brewpub somewhere and found the perfect pale ale. Maybe, buried in the back of your local beer store, you found a dusty bottle of rare barleywine. Perhaps a friend turned you on to a beer that changed your mind about a brewery or a style. Write about a beer experience that took you by surprise.
Recently I was asked to write a profile of Michael Jackson for one of the newer beer magazines and that got to me thinking about Michael and his legacy. I first met him at GABF the first time I went to it, in 1992. The book I’d written with a friend of mine, “The Bars of Santa Clara County: A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Silicon Valley,” had just been published, and I treated myself with a trip to Colorado for the festival. That was the beginning of a treasured friendship that lasted many years. But I actually “discovered” — and rather unexpectedly I might add — Jackson’s writing many years before that, when I was living, or rather stationed, in New York City in the late 1970s.
In chapter 23 (of 24 — it was a case of chapters) entitled Jazz in the Dark, I reminisced about my time playing with an Army band in New York, and how it was during that time that I discovered beer that was different (at least to the kind I’d grown up drinking) while going to jazz clubs in Manhattan. Trying to learn more about these and the other new-found beers we were drinking, I also discovered Michael Jackson’s book, the World Guide to Beer during this same time period.
Here’s an excerpt from Jazz in the Dark:
We went to the big venues, of course, like the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, the Knitting Factory, the 55 Bar but smaller ones, too, all over the East Village and the lower east side. And one thing you could count on in those days was that they carried Bass Ale and Guinness. It seems odd to think of both of those beers as new, but they were to me. Both were very different from my usual choices and I loved the way they tasted. Many of the jazz clubs did not have much in the way of food but often had trays of cheese, bread and fruit (usually sliced apples) which went with both Bass and Guinness quite well. It became our standard jazz club diet.
But while music was the reason I was there, it was the discovery of all this new beer that really made the experience sing. With Bass and Guinness, both beers had fuller flavors and tasted so different from what I was used to that it made me wonder what else was out there that I also didn’t know about.
About that same time, we discovered a bar in the East Village, Brewsky’s Beer Bar. It was a little hole-in-the-wall on 7th Avenue, but it had, for its day, a great selection of imported beers. I think the owner was Ukranian, or something like that, and there were a lot of beers from central and eastern Europe. There were dozens of similar-tasting lagers and pilsners with enchanting labels I couldn’t read. But it was the darker beers that really stood out, simply because they were so different from what I’d grown up drinking. For example, I recall Dortmunder Union vividly as a beer with distinct flavors unlike any other I’d ever tried.
I liked most of what I tried, though at the time I was drawn to the English ales, I think because they tasted so much different to me than what I was used to drinking. I was certainly hooked. I already had a somewhat obsessive love affair going with beer, but to find out that it was so much richer and more varied than I’d realized was something of an epiphany.
I longed to know more about what I was tasting, but there was scant little information available. Happily, that changed one day at the end of another long month. In the military, we were paid twice a month. I set aside about $100, a sizable portion of my paycheck in those days, for what I referred to as spiritual growth, usually books and music. With the Army’s hurry up and wait protocols, we usually arrived at our gigs hours in advance, so there was a lot of down time. I read like a fiend in those days, finishing books every couple of days.
During one of these post-payday trips to a bookstore, I happened upon Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, which had been published the year before. I almost didn’t pick it up, because the garish gold and green cover had a large Miller ad in the center. But then I spied the red triangle from Bass and flipped through it. Needless to say, I bought it on the spot. Finally, I had some context to what I’d been drinking and was able to organize my head around the various tastes I’d been trying so chaotically.
Looking back, it seems odd that there was so little available information on beer and, compared with today, how truly ignorant I was. And it wasn’t just me. Practically everybody I knew had little or no idea about beer. The regional and national breweries at the time made no effort to educate consumers. Jack MacAuliffe founded New Albion Brewery in California two years before this, but it might as well have been located on the Moon for all the impact it had for me in New York. We had no concept of beer styles. I hadn’t the foggiest notion of where beer color came from, or why so many of the new beers I was trying tasted different whereas most of the beers I knew locally tasted so much the same. I was only vaguely aware that ales and lagers were fundamentally different, but didn’t really understand why.
So Jackson’s book was a great big wallop, a slap in the face, but the good kind. The welcome kind where afterward you say, “thanks, I needed that.” It opened up a whole new world for me, even though it would be several years and a cross-country move before the ideas that took root that year began to flower. But that was the beginning: the first awkward sips that set me on my way. And I have jazz to thank for it.
Coincidentally enough, Michael Jackson was also a jazz lover and years later it was a favorite topic of conversation whenever I saw him.
In the intervening 30+ years since those first unexpected beer experiences when I lived in New York, the journey I started then has led me to one unexpected discovery after another. To the question Mike poses in the Session topic, “has this happened to you?,” I can only say it’s been happening nonstop for over thirty years. It’s that very quality that keeps life fresh year after year as a beer lover. Because I’m not much of a ticker, I have no idea how many different beers I’ve tried over those years, but I imagine it’s a fairly big number. Whatever the amount, it’s certainly been satisfying.
It’s to the point now that I rarely despair, because I usually end up finding good beer in the last place I’d look, and almost every time. Hopefully, that’s a sign of the times but whatever the reason, because I still remember when good beer was a rarity, I treat each discovery as the treasure that it is. Expect the unexpected, that’s my motto.