is an award winning
member of the North
American Guild of Beer
Writers. His column
Adventures in Beerland
is now a regular feature of
Did you ever hear of Heinrich Geissler? Neither did I. It seems he is considered to be the Father of Fluorescent
Lamps. His "Geissler Tube" was a glass tube with electrodes at either end containing a gas at partial vacuum
pressure. He developed a way to arch current through it to produce light. The tube was the basis for the sparks seen
in every Frankenstein, mad scientist, and Destructo Ray movie ever made (well, at least in the 1940s and 50s).
From unstoppable beams of annihilation to sparks from miniature space ships flying on a string he changed the world
or at least the world of primitive movie special effects. More importantly for us beer drinkers the Geissler Tube was
the genesis of the neon sign that became the lighthouse which led many a thirsty traveler to a pub.
A bar didn’t need to have a sign that said “welcome, come in” if it had a friendly beacon flashing in their window
saying things like “Ice Cold Old Style Beer”, “Rainier The Only Beer”, “Ballentine (with the blinking three rings) ”,
“Miller High Life – On Tap”, “Yuengling –Famous for Quality”, “Budweiser – We’re Open” and countless other
immortal beer names and phrases. But neon signs are not just nostalgic Breweriana; they are still out there singing
their siren call. Be aware however you will not see them in the windows or on walls of expensive cocktail lounges,
upscale wine bars, high end craft beer emporiums, or even local breweries. You’ll mainly find them in local hangouts,
neighbor gin mills, and the now trendy but still lowly dive bars.
More times than not a neon sign translates to beer and fun and I’m guessing that’s what inspired my BeerNexus
colleague Sandy Feld to come up with a “Neon Sign” beer adventure.
The premise is genius in its simplicity. You pick a local road or one loaded with never ending mini-malls and stop at
every bar that has neon sign in the window. You can also stop at a place even if you can only see a sign through
said window hanging on an interior wall. That however gets less style points. Each member of the outing group is
then gently encouraged (required) to order one drink of any kind before everyone moves on. Special credit is given
to anyone getting whatever beer the neon sign is touting. The caveat is that you can be sure the beer will not be the
best you’ve ever had. Or second best for that matter.
And so I joined Sandy’s Saturday cast of intrepid beer hunters on an official Neon Sign Adventure last week. The
first sighting was a sign that proclaimed “Coors Light” in flashing script. The place was called the Liberty Tavern
mainly because it was on, where else, Liberty Avenue. I had been there once before. Years ago BeerNexus’s own
Dan Hodge had brought me there saying it was the “King of Dive Bars”. He added, most eloquently of course since it
was Dan, that “it's a throwback to bygone years of fun, relaxation, and real beer.” When Dan speaks, I listen. He
was right as usual – it was a dive and had, as he said, “real beer”. That could mean only one thing when it comes
from a Iron City lager devotee.
I hoped the place was still the same. It was. Years of dust, grime, and wear bore telling testimony to its unchanged
authenticity. And there was no reason it should change, unless of course a health inspector was due in.
It may have been a sunny afternoon but considering the only two windows in the place were as opaque as an
extremely thick, unfiltered, NEIPA you didn’t have to worry about the light streaking through and skunking your beer.
Still, that concern might also explain why three Bela Lugosi lookalikes had sequestered themselves in the far end of
the bar. It was either that or they were comparing notes on the Witness Protection Program.
The beer menu ran the full gamut from Bud Light to Miller Lite. The bottle list was even more eclectic which meant I
was able to get a Rolling Rock while my companions opted for drafts. Four beers poured; total bill was $12.50. I
wondered about the 50 cents since beers were $3 each but then realized my bottle was considered a “premium”
brew. No problem; I’m a big spender.
Off we went and less than a quarter mile away saw Paddy’s Place’s red, white, and blue Budweiser neon blazing next
to a Coor’s Light one. Two neons in a window had to be a good omen I thought. Well Paddy’s may have been close
geographically to Liberty Tavern but not in décor or sophistication. It was in a league of its own. This was a dive so
bad even the Russian judge wouldn’t give it a point.
The place was half filled with regulars. They had to be regulars simply by the fact they were there. Those able to lift
their heads turned and stared at us in bewildered amusement. The cone of silence that had fallen on the bar was
lifted by the bartender: “are you folks lost?” I was ready to yell “yes” as soon as I ran safely outside that is. Sandy
however simply said, “No, we’re here for a drink.” That five letter word was as magical as Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, and a
lot less letters too. Upon hearing that the regulars dropped their menacing stares and went back to doing whatever
regulars do there. The bartender warmly waved us to a group of empty seats near the middle of the bar and asked
what we wanted. Following the old axiom of when in Rome order a pizza, we ordered a shot and a beer. To show my
beer writer tough guy bona fides I asked for my shot in a dirty glass.
The place turned out to be fun as we chatted with the bartender and a couple of the now friendly regulars. Breaking
tradition we each had another beer. It didn’t matter which one since they were all macro lagers meaning they tasted
the same. The downside of having a second beer meant the first trip to the restroom. All I can say is when you come
down to it just how important is it that the restroom doesn’t have a hole in the wall, sticky floors, cracked mirror, and a
smell stronger than a weight lifting Limburger (think about it) anyway?
As we left the bartender actually said “come again”. I don’t think it had anything to do with the big tip he got. Even
some of the regulars said it too. That could mean only one thing – we had been accepted. I don’t think the round we
bought for the house had anything to do with that either.
We circled around on to a cross sectioned street and continued driving. We passed many a bar but nary a neon
sign. Just as we were ready to end the day’s quest we saw it, glorious in its directness – “Beer Inside” in bold yellow
neon. Under that was something new for us– the bar’s name in even larger neon, Tavern Off The Green. And yes,
it was green neon.
The inside was actually as clean as a dive bar can be without losing its credentials. The back wall was a neon sign
lover’s delight with nearly a dozen beers being touted in shimmering beams of mesmerizing color. There was a
jukebox on the wall telling us that Tom T. Hall likes beer, George Thorogood wanted one whisky, one shot, one beer,
and that Allan Jackson’s watch broke because he kept singing it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. We had stumbled on a
They even had a beer list of sorts with some decent craft, Guinness, and loads of classics like Genny Cream,
Schaefer, PBR (tall boys of course), and Schlitz. All well and good but the highlight had to be the big special - Coors
in a frozen 24 ounce insulated cup for $5. I couldn’t resist ordering one. I know you’re thinking it’s Coors, how could
you? In my defense it was a hot day and 24 ounces of even bad beer that's so cold a liquid nitrogen snowman would
be envious was pure refreshment. As an added bonus you get to keep the cup, well, that’s if you’re pockets are big
enough and no one is looking.
That was our last stop of what turned out to be a great day. But it wasn’t just fun, frolic, and drinking. No, it was an
educational experience too. I learned that a neon sign signals dive bars and dive bars are places where you can
always get a good deal on a beer and a shot. Sometimes that includes cocktails, no umbrella ones allowed of
course. Liberty, for example, had a Sunday morning special starting at 7 AM – a double shot Screwdriver. If you didn’
t like orange juice you could come back for the evening Happy Hour of PBR mugs for a discounted price of $1.25. Be
aware however that if you say “Pabst Blue Ribbon” instead of “PBR” you pay full price.
I also learned that a dart board and pool table are dive bar de rigueur but not so for beer mats or napkins, that the
place’s history is best told by the walls, ceiling and bar-back (even more so if they look like they’re about to fall
down), that having a majority of interior lighting from strings of Christmas tree lights in the middle of August isn’t
necessarily a bad thing, and that you can get needed liquid solace without emptying your wallet. Maybe most
importantly, I learned that just because a place and its patrons might have a weary, worn weathered look that doesn’t
mean it can’t have an engaging, energetic spirit.
My big question is how many of these beer adventures will I have to go on to find a neon sign proclaiming –
“On Tap: Westvleteren XII and Pliny the Younger.”
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