There are people who say, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” That’s kind of how I am about beer. I’ve got a working-man’s understanding of this nectar of the gods, and much of that understanding is rooted in my taste buds. I’ve had, or at least tried, lots of beers. While my intellect comprehends what ABV means and my wallet comprehends what the price tag means, my mouth figures out what matters when I pour that golden deliciousness in. I get around people sometimes who want to talk history – this foodie thing about knowing the story – or who want to critique brewing methods or to pontificate on regional practices— I just want to drink good beer, preferably with other people who like to drink good beer.
The idea of what beer should be was defined for me by Miller High Life. That was my dad’s beer, the one he imbibed after work, the one perched in his hand on the armrest of his recliner. When I was a boy and my dad said, “Go get me a beer,” I went to fridge and brought back a Miller High Life. That beer, in its gold can, is the gold standard by which other beers are measured. Some are better, some are worse, but all the beers that pass my lips and tonsils are evaluated by the zero-counter that is the Champagne of Beers.
We’re lucky in the Deep South to have some darn good breweries. In Alabama alone, we’ve got Good People, Straight to Ale, Blue Pants, Yellowhammer, Red Clay, Fairhope, and Back Forty. I’d put Good People Brown, Back Forty’s Truck Stop Honey, and Yellowhammer’s Rebellion up against most beers. My favorite among Straight to Ale’s products is Brother Joseph’s Belgian Dubbel, named for the creator of the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, but it’s 8% ABV, which is a little stronger than most folks want. From over in Mississippi, Lazy Magnolia’s brown ale is quite good, and for higher-ABV beers, I’m also particularly fond of Southern Prohibition’s Mississippi Fire Ant, which, like Brother Joseph’s, is 8%. For good solid drinking, though, Louisiana can be counted out, too; I heartily recommend Dixie Lager, which just came back to New Orleans, and any of Abita’s beers, especially Purple Haze (one of the few fruit beers I like) and Andygator (another at 8%). About Georgia, I’ve liked what I’ve had from Red Hare, and I also liked Red Brick but since they changed their name to Atlanta Brewing, I can’t tell what’s-what anymore . . .
However, about this current craft-brewing craze, I must say that it has opened things up but not always for the better. All in all, I’m pleased, but not overly pleased. Where it used to be easy to find a Shiner Blonde or a Red Hook ESB in a grocery store, now the ongoing cycle of look-what’s-new prevails. I’ll go ahead and get it to over with, too, and say: I don’t like IPAs. And it pisses me off when I pay a handsome sum for what looks like a good six-pack only to find out on first sip that it’s hoppy to the point of undrinkable. When I drink a beer, I don’t want to pucker my face, shiver like an old lady’s chihuahua, and struggle to stomach something I bought to enjoy. But don’t get me wrong, the hoppy-hoppies aren’t the only highly celebrated stinkers out there. Among the tidal wave of new brews, it’s pretty clear that, for some operations, the most skilled person in the process is the graphic designer who makes the labels. Which is why I don’t get too excited about what “just came in this week.”
While the trendies have managed to lift this working-class treat into higher echelons of social being, they have also made something complicated that shouldn’t be. Just as any drink whose name has more than two syllables isn’t coffee – a double-half-caff frapalapalatteccino, for example – it might not be beer, or even beer-esque, if it can’t be named in two syllables or less. Ales, stouts, porters, lagers, pilsners, sours, dubbels, trippels— those are beers. And while I respect that newer brewers are trying to stand out with radical additions to their creations, I would suggest that, if you need a gimmick, you probably need a better product. (One exception is Duclaw’s Sweet Baby Jesus! Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter, which is delicious. Whatever the GABF bronze medal is, they deserved it, I’m sure.)
I’m a beer guy in the way that Clint Eastwood was when he popped open his Olympia tallboy, in the way that the McKenzie Brothers were in Strange Brew, more cultured than a ballpark dad in a PFG shirt holding a styro full of gas-station light beer but less effete than a hipster with a mustache and skinny jeans sipping his triple IPA. A beer should drink like Sam Elliott talks. If a beer were a song, it should either be “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones or “I Might Be Crazy” by Waylon Jennings. Neither make-up, hairspray, nor jewelry will make it sexier. Its brother is the whiskey shot, and its redheaded step-cousin who moved away and never comes back for family holidays is the fruity hard soda. Golden beers are best ice-cold after cutting grass on a hot day. Darker beers are best when football is on the TV. I’m a beer guy because I know these things.
About ten years ago, I interviewed a guy named Stuart Carter, who was then the president of Alabama’s Free the Hops group, which successfully lobbied to change beer laws in the state. Prior to their efforts, maximum ABV for beer was 5% (though malt liquors hovered just above that), which severely limited the beers that could be sold in-state. I met Carter at The J. Clyde in Birmingham, of course, where we talked beer and such, and as I asked questions, one of his answers has stuck with me for a long time. I asked why, of all the problems in Alabama, such a hard-working and well-organized group would focus their efforts on an issue like beer. He replied that, after working all week, being responsible people who had families, and taking care of business, in the free hours that remained they wanted to spend time on what they valued and enjoyed— and what they valued and enjoyed was beer.
There are a lot of us like that. I value and enjoy beer, and I’m thankful for many of the choices that I have. But I also know that we’ve reached a saturation point, so that variety, which is good, has overgrown into a glut, which is not. Looking on the Brewers Association website at the upsurge in the number of breweries, we don’t need any more new brewers. We need the good ones to survive and grow sustainably—meaning that we need the weak ones to crash to clear some space. I’m thankful that the craze has brought the craft-beer industry so much economic success in the last two decades, but that success has clearly enticed too many folks to hop on the bandwagon. Now, it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff . . . by using our mouths, not our senses of style, not our vulnerability to imagery, not our desire to impress our friends, to determine which is which. Our taste buds should be a greater force in deciding what to drink than the influence of some bearded, snapback-hat-wearing version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Cut out the glitzy marketing and the nouveau chicanery— the whole situation would be better if we just drink good beer with other people who like to drink good beer. Then, I do believe, the whole situation would work itself out.