ADVENTURES IN BEERLAND
is a two time winner of
the Quill and Tankard
writing award from the
North American Guild of
Vince's column is now
a regular feature of
Pass the Beer, Hold The Goldfish
Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a guy sitting on flag pole. Don’t worry; he’s not high on beer, just
the pole. Besides, anyone who was anyone seemed to be doing it in the 1920s . The idea is simple - you climb a
pole and sit there for a few days and become the hit of your social group. Serious sitters however might be there for
weeks, or months waiting for fame and fortune, neither of which came often. If you were around in the 1930s you
might try marathon dancing (calling Bruno Tonioli), a sort of bread and circuses for the masses enduring the Great
Depression. In the 1940s the pop culture fad of the moment was one for sea food lovers - Goldfish swallowing, right
from their bowl. For reasons unknown to those without a PHd in the study of psychotic behavior it was all the craze
with the college set.
In the 50s phone booth stuffing took hold. The stuffing, like Soylent Green, is people. The contest was to see which
group could squeeze the most folks in the booth. If you had the highest number of the stuffees(?) and could still
make a phone call, you won. Well, you didn’t actually win anything, you just, ah, won. In the 70’s streaking became
the rage. It reached its summit during the live telecast of the 1974 Academy Awards when a man, wearing only a
smile, darted on stage and ran behind shocked presenter David Niven. While the audience howled, Niven simply
said “that guy is trying to get a laugh by showing his shortcomings”.
It’s hard to forget, no matter how hard you might like to, other fads like mood rings, lava lamps, pet rocks, hula
hoops, CB radios, leisure suits, and the three martini lunch. Wait, that’s a good one. More recently we’ve been
assaulted by things like planking – you lay face down, hands at your side in a weird place, take a picture and share it
on social media - and the cinnamon challenge. Just search Youtube for “cinnamon challenge” and you’ll get well
over 700,000 videos of pop culture fad devotees trying to eat a spoonful of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds with no
water. I’m guessing it’s impossible since every single one of the video ends with gagging, coughing, or vomiting.
Even our beloved beverage of choice, beer, has not been immune from fads. The first beers were often thick, more
of a gruel than a beverage, forcing inventive Sumerians to use drinking straws to avoid the bitter solids left over from
fermentation. Not tasty I imagine, but it still better than goldfish. This primitive version of beer quickly became a
popular fad in the ancient world once again proving that good taste has never prevented a fad from catching on.
Then, eureka, medieval towns in 13the century Bohemia perfected the use of hops and began to export a liquid that
really could be called beer. Hops were soon being planted almost everywhere and beer was trending worldwide.
Interestingly, beer became one of the first fads (the oenophiles said it would never last) to have serious legal
restrictions. Yes, the oldest food regulation on the books is about beer - the 1516 Reinheitsqebot beer purity laws
which lasted officially in Germany until 1987. Before you get too upset at their demise, I’m happy to report that anti-
flag pole sitting laws are still on the books in twelve states along with three that forbid goldfish swallowing.
Fast forward to two modern beer fads that can’t end fast enough for any self respecting former coonskin cap wearer,
Whamo toy user, tie dyed hippie, zoot suit wearing, embracer of fads who cares about good beer. First in this
rogues’ gallery is the shandy fad now sweeping the nation. The shandy is touted as a refreshing beverage; a low-
alcohol mix of beer and juice/soda designed it seems to especially appeal to a traditionally anti-beer, pro-wine,
feminine audience. One of the largest selling shandy culprits comes from Leinenkugel which calls the craze for the
style “shandymonium”. I would have given it a shorter word, oh, say one about four letters long.
P.T. Barnum said, you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the public". How else might you explain
that worldwide, the number of shandy product launches more than tripled between 2009 and 2013. Even worse, now
in 2014, manufacturers are also mixing traditional shandy flavors with things like cardamom, coriander, and white
pepper. Clearly those are grounds for a citizen’s arrest. Actually, that’s not a farfetched idea. The oldest known
group of laws is the Code of Hammurabi from ancient Babylonia, about 1750 B.C. Part of it regulated the practices
of drinking houses, and called for the death penalty for proprietors found guilty of watering down their beer. Now
those were really the good old days.
Because shandy is beer mixed with another, usually non-alcoholic drink, it's about half as alcoholic as the same
volume of a regular beer. Proponents of the drink say it’s perfect for those who are worried about government
reducing the legal limits for how high drivers' blood alcohol content can be before they're breaking the law. Well, if
that’s your worry just don’t drink and drive. Walk, jog, bike, skateboard, ski, swim, swing on vines – just don’t settle
for a shandy when you really want beer.
Let’s be honest, a shandy is something that teenagers who hate the taste of their dad's beer would choose when
first trying to get intoxicated. The fact of the matter is that fruit in beer just isn’t right. Wait, what am I saying? Fruit
works perfectly with bad beer. Did you ever have a Corona without the lime? If so, you know what I mean. I can
also see why some parents might buy a shandy six pack. They can give their kids a few sips, have them jump
around a bit, and then watch them quickly zonk out in a blissful and quiet snooze.
Now please don’t tell me you drink shandys for the tart flavor. That doesn’t compute since there are actual beers
available that out tarts your tart needs any day. Try a Bells Oarsman, Allagash Confluence, Jolly Pumpkin La Roja,
Festina Peche from Dogfish Head, or a Russian River’s Consecration. Those are great tart beers, not just a pseudo
beer that is tart. Even more, you’ll never be served any of them with a little umbrella in the glass.
So forget the lemonade, Sprite, and other mixers. The only thing acceptable addition to beer–on rare occasions – is
whiskey. Case closed.
And now for the other beer fad that also proves Barnum right – session beers. Unlike the discredited you know what
above, some session beers are legitimate. There’s no denying that part of the foundation of beer-drinking tradition
is the session beer, be it a British bitter or mild, the low-alcohol farmhouse saisons of Belgium, a weiss beer, a
pilsner, or a kolsch. These are serious styles that just happen to have only 3-5% alcohol content. Today’s session
beers are the opposite. Now, the brewer takes a legitimate beer style and reformulates it for one reason only – to
lower its alcohol content. Think margarine instead of butter, corn syrup instead of sugar, evaporated milk instead of
Easily the most popular of this manipulation is the session IPA. Seemingly very craft brewery has jumped on the
bandwagon. No mystery there, not once breweries saw that the current single best selling beer from the renown
Founders Company is not their Breakfast Stout, Dirty Bastard, Devil Dancer, or Backwoods Bastard. It’s their All -Day
IPA, at a session strength of 4.7%. I can almost hear management telling the Founders brewers the secret to
making the beer: “take our wonderfully hopped IPA and then add water; a generous amount of water. That’s it. Why
are you staring at us? ” By the way, to create a session beer at home just to the same thing with any bottle of
serious beer. It’s a mistake proof technique.
Try a blind taste test of the new Stone Go To IPA and the regular Stone IPA. All I can say is don’t bet the house on
the Go To, unless you betting with me of course. Go To is a watery cousin of the real deal. So much so, I’m
guessing most people don’t buy it for its flavor. They don’t buy it for its price (usually the same or higher than the
real deal). And they don’t buy it to experience a creative and exciting expression of the brewer’s art. It’s purchased
mainly for its low alcohol content. Surely (no, I'm not calling you Shirley) that can’t be what the craft beer revolution
is all about. If that’s the case, head on back to Coors Light, or move on up (or is it down) to the truly serious
contenders in the session sweepstakes like Bud Light 55 (2.4% ABV), Miller 64 (2.8% ABV), Michelob Ultra
(4.2% ABV), or for the adventurous palate, BL with lime (4.3%). And then there’s always Yuengling Light Lager
which boasts the only beer in the category with a three digit ABV – 3.15%. As an added bonus, it comes 24 ounce
cans. Wait a minute. If I drink one 24 oz. can at 3.15% am I consuming more alcohol than one 12 oz. bottle of real
beer at 5.5%? I’ve got a hangover just thinking about it.
There are times however a low ABV beer can magically turn into a BIG brew. Several years ago my favorite local
pub, the Gaslight Brewery in South Orange (NJ), featured a tasty English dark mild, a legitimate style. They honestly
listed it on their offering board simply as “Dark Mild”. It quickly became was one of my favorites but somehow didn’t
strike a chord with the student clientele from the local university down the street. After a period of slow sales
management pulled the beer or so I thought.
On my next visit “Heart of Darkness” listed on the beer board. Being brave, at least when it comes to beer, I ordered
a pint. The title was an apt description of the dark, foaming, foreboding liquid that filled my glass. I looked around
the bar and noticed many of the younger patrons with glasses filled with the same Heart of Darkness and more of the
same being ordered. Jeff, the bartender, told me it had quickly become a best seller with the students. I noticed
that several of these college age drinkers had finished just their second pint but were already beginning to show
signs of inebriation. Now wary of the beer’s power I slowly took a small sip. I sipped it again and then once more.
That sealed it. The Heart of Darkness was in reality the Dark Mild. Perception had trumped reality.
It struck me that those new found Heart of Darkness fans were not really different than the session beer evangelists.
On one side is the drinker who selects a beer mainly to feel its effects (real and imagined) regardless of taste, and
on the other side are those who select a beer so as not to feel its effects regardless of taste.
Both miss the point of what beer is all about – great taste.
Having said all of this I am forced to admit there is one place a shandy is a better choice of drink than any beer made
– sitting on a flagpole, in a streaking non- wardrobe, trying to wash down a goldfish. On second though, pass me a
beer and hold the goldfish.
click to contact vince