An Ode to Dad Beer
As my family and friends know all too well, my soul is pretty firmly anchored within 20 miles of the George Washington Bridge: born in Manhattan, raised in Yorkville and suburban Jersey, then back to live in Manhattan and, briefly, Brooklyn and Queens. Now, though, I’m in the Pacific Northwest, and have come to appreciate some things about it, particularly Douglas firs, humidity-free summers, excellent coffee, and ridiculously good beer — hoppy IPAs and imperial IPAs a specialty. Until recently, I partook of the latter regularly, keeping the fridge stocked with 22-ounce bottles of local standouts, each of which clocked in at a cool $4 or $5. Now, though, being a relatively new dad, and carrying the first mortgage of my life, and it being year two of the Great Recession and all, I find myself reliving a bit of my childhood — or, more accurately, reliving a bit of my father’s experiences during my childhood.
That is, I find myself drinking cheap beer out of cans.
I’m talking old-school here: Thin, pale brews that, until the craft brew revolution of the last couple decades, were really the only kind of beers you could get in America. They’re the kind I grew up with, gifted with the occasional single sip from my father’s can while watching Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, and The Jeffersons in our New Jersey living room. They’re so different from the robust Northwest ales I’ve grown used to that they’re almost a different species, but they do cost under $5 a six-pack — and with my personal climate having undergone such radical change, I can’t argue with those economics.
In truth, though, I’m sort of enjoying it, primarily from the nostalgia angle. I’ve been thinking about the many brands of cheap beer I remember my father drinking back in that ’70s Jersey living room — and in the yard, and at our relatives’ homes in Long Island, and floating after work in an inner-tube in the above-ground pool we had for a few summers, bought from a friend who (if memory serves) had moved up/down to an in-ground model.
Here then, is my tribute to Cheap Dad Beer, circa 1967–1980 in the New Jersey ’burbs. It may have been thin, it may have lacked mojo, but it was cheap, and it was cold, and it did the trick.
Schmidt’s: In memory, this is the one with the most personal resonance, in that my family is part Schmidt. Like all the other beers here, it came (to our house at least) in pop-top cans — not the kind we have now, where the top levers cleanly into the can, but the kind where you can rip off the little tabs and make chains out of them. I also remember a lot of those Schmidt’s specialty cans that featured hunting and sporting scenes, but this might’ve been less to do with Dad and more to do with my beer-can-collecting phase, circa 1977–79 or so. Oh, yes, I was very ’70s in the ’70s.
Carling Black Label: Somehow this one always seemed dangerous to me — like it had an edgy urban menace. Where did I get that idea? Dunno, but now I’m surprised to learn (via heymabelblacklabel.com) that the beer has its roots in Canada, which is hardly a place I associate with urban menace. Go figure.
Schaefer: No particular memories associated with this one, only that it’s the one beer to have when you’re having more than one — and that in 1973 they did a TV spot where some guy named Edd Kalehoff played the Schaefer jingle on a Moog synthesizer (view here). I don’t think this was a very frequent visitor to our fridge, but it’s in my memory anyhow. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3QBcrliFNk
P&B: This is my personal favorite, nostalgically speaking — not because I remember the individual tastes of any of these beers, but because it’s the most “My New Jersey” of the bunch. Sure, it was brewed by Horlacher Brewing Co. in Allentown, PA, but they were brewing it as a store brand for Packard-Bamberger, a food and general merchandise retailer in Hackensack, New Jersey. Dad used to get it at a liquor store at our local strip mall, which leads me to believe that that store might’ve been a little PB itself, or at least related. Years later, I lived in Hackensack for about 18 months and would buy my food at a big old Packard-Bamberger grocery that had a century-old wooden-slat floor and wooden produce bins. I kick myself that I didn’t look to see if they still sold PB Beer — because, y’know, as the label said, “The Taste Tells the Story.”
Blatz: Blatz resonates most in my memory of all the beers I’ve discussed here, primarily because of one incident. I believe it was summer, and Dad had bought a six-pack of Blatz in bottles rather than cans, which was fairly rare but, as it turned out, fortuitous. We were sitting at the dinner table, and he’d just popped the top off a bottle and was raising it to his lips, when I yelled “STOP!!!!!” Because there, floating in the foam at the top of the bottle, I’d spotted AN ENORMOUS DEAD MOTH!!!! No kidding: There was a huge dead moth in the bottle, and that’s not the kind of thing you forget. Of course, I also remember Blatz fondly because it was called “Blatz,” and that’s the kind of name a kid just loves. Coincidentally, I found a Blatz beer tray in my grandfather’s basement when I was helping him clean it out in the late ’70s, and I still have that tray. It lives in my office closet, in a canvas bag with a bunch of spare drum heads. Why, I don’t know. I put it in there years ago, and that’s where it still is. Maybe I’ll take it out and display it, and remember that long-dead moth.
Those are the major labels I remember from childhood, though I’m sure there were others. I have a vague memory of Stroh’s, though that might have been vacation-related, or possibly from a family party — it feels foreign and unusual in my recollection. I also feel pretty confident there was the occasional Pabst Blue Ribbon and Reingold around.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my father was a man without dreams. He knew there were better beers out there, and he longed for them. Anchor Steam Beer was a kind of totem — a beer brewed way out in San Francisco, using a special alchemical method. I remember him buying some once, and really, truly savoring it. But that was a rarity: To put food on the table, gas in the tank, and me and my brother through school, Dad drank the cheap stuff.
These days, perhaps inspired by the two-week trip we took to Ireland in 2003, Dad drinks Harp, whose Dundalk brewery I toured in 1984 while doing a semester abroad in Dublin. He’s also enjoyed some Pacific Northwest greats while visiting us out here in Portland — because even though I’m drinking the cheap stuff now at home, Dad deserves the best when he comes to visit, and by the best I mean brews like Laurelwood’s Workhorse IPA, Lompoc’s C-Note, Bridgeport’s Hop Czar, Ninkasi’s Total Domination IPA, Columbia River Brewing’s War Elephant, and Hopworks’ Ace of Spades. Yum-yum, every one.
For myself, my current cheap beer of choice is Old German Premium Lager, brewed apparently by Iron City Brewing Co. in Pittsburg, PA. It’s a beer that at least one other Portland beer-lover and I have agreed “really doesn’t suck, and you can’t argue with the price”: $4.49 for a six-pack of 16-ounce cans! My friend Dan, a Pennsylvania resident, tells me that out there it’s sold in “little barrel bottles,” which is something I’ll have to seek out next time I visit — though actually, if I’m on the East Coast, I suspect I’ll want to seek out instead an old cheap favorite that I just can’t get here: Ballantine XXX Ale. Back in the early ’90s, when I was just starting to make my way in the world and didn’t have two nickels to rub together, I’d sometimes dig in my backpack and seat cushions to find a few of those nickels, then walk to the bodega around the corner for a nice 40-ounce bottle of Ballantine, which I believe cost $2.25. Wikipedia tells me that Ballantine is one of the oldest beer brands in the U.S. New York radio host John Schaefer also informs me, via his article in William Duckworth’s excellent Sound and Light anthology (Bucknell Review, 1996), that Ballantine India Pale Ale was the longtime favorite of my musical idol and onetime teacher, La Monte Young. Ballantine no longer brews that IPA, which I feel as a real, true, and personal loss.
Anyway, that’s about it for my trip down the refrigerated aisle of memory lane — a trip prompted in part by nostalgia, in part by my abiding wish to be a paid beer writer (someday . . .), and in part by my Dad’s birthday, which was yesterday. I’d hoped to finish this note in time so I could send it to him with his present, but the baby was teething — which, I’m sure, is something I did too. And when I did, and kept him and Mom up late, and made them both exhausted, I’m sure Dad sometimes slouched to the fridge and dug out a can of Blatz, P&B, Schmidt’s, or Carling, and sipped a sip of cold, inexpensive relaxation — a thing to which I can now say, “I can relate.”