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November 14, 2014 | Food & Drink

Personal History of Beer

Josip Novakovich

Personal History of Beer photo

My first taste of beer, like of coffee, was so disgusting that I never imagined that I would actually like it later on. When I was 12, my mother worked in the garden on a hot summer day, and asked me to help her. We were both sweating, and she said, Son, there’s only one thing that works to cool you off on a day like this. Beer. Go to the corner store and buy two half liter beers. I was a bit surprised as my mother was a strict Baptist, but I guess beer didn’t count as alcohol. After all, 95% of it was not alcohol. And when I had a taste of it, I said, This is awful, so bitter. Maybe, she said, but have a couple more sips, and you will cool off. So it’s medicinal?

After that, I contemptuously watched the elderly drunks, both fat and thin, who sat all over the town of Daruvar and drank beer all day long. Until then, I was kind of intrigued, thinking there must be something good in beer, but now, I looked at them with astonishment. So, this is what they live for, to drink that bitter shit?

I swore I would never drink it again. Anyhow, ten years later, at the age of 22, I had just arrived in Eindhoven, after flying from JFK to Amsterdam, from where I would hitchhike to Stuttgart, where my sister lived. When I walked into a supermarket in Eindhoven, I laughed at 3 young men who had filled their cart with Grolsches. You are getting nothing else but just beer? I asked. What else do we need? Bier ist Nahrung, said one guy, a tall German. This is a complete set of groceries for the night, said an Englishmen. Anyway, you are welcome to join us. I was impressed by the patented bottles which opened with a pop, and somehow, because I was hungry and thirsty, the beer immediately tasted good, scratching my throat amiably. And so we drank Grolsches all night, and covered the history of Europe since Franco-Prussian wars, and when the German was completely drunk, he wept because it was so damned embarrassing to be German.

In the morning, not feeling all that great, I hitchhiked to Koeln, and there, hopped on a train to Stuttgart, traveling without a fare, mostly in bathrooms, because, fuck you Germans, I owe you nothing. I was caught in Mannheim and kicked off the train. Anyway, in Stuttgart I got further education in beer drinking--my brother-in-law introduced me to Heffeweizen, wheat beer--and continued to be educated in the Czech republic, where I went to the pub where Bohumil Hrabal usually drank, in a corner. He wasn’t there, but his beer was, and I understood how he would spend every evening drinking that shit. It was bitter and good! The education continued in Croatia, in my hometown, which had a large brewery, Starocesko pivo, Old Czech beer, more or less the same thing which I so hated as a 12 year old, but enjoyed now. My sister-in-law became the chief accountant of the brewery, and the Baptist church deacon, as a Czech patriot, bought shares in the company. Usually he fought against alcoholism in the church, but beer was something else, not all that bad, and yes, it was Czech, some old formula.

The best beer around that time I had two years later in a monastery in Ziegelhausen, Benediktinerabtei, north of Heidelberg, overlooking river Neckar. I stayed in the monastery for a month to read the entire Bible in the Luther translation in German. My reward was that every evening, I would get a pint of ale that the monks made right there, and it came from large rotting oak barrels, which enhanced the flavor. After Gregorian chants, prayers, and then a couple of halb-liter, the monks were pretty close to God.

After European beers, it was hard to adjust to Budweiser and some other watery American beers. In Germany, I had become a beer snob. Now and then, I needed to go back to Europe, as a beer exile from North America. But then, upon moving to NYC, I had New Amsterdam, which proved to be an excellent beer, made in small quantities. It was expensive. And pretty soon, the microwbrews sprung all over. I think the first one I visited was in Berkeley, California, in 1991. It was amazing—strong, with substance, body, texture, fresh yeast, hoppy. It was better than the English ales I had in pubs. I read somewhere that now in the States, one micro-brewery per day is the rate of new breweries opening up.

Montreal. When I moved here, I had friends who liked to meet at Copa (a bar named after Copocabana) and they drank local beer, Boreal, produced in large enough quantities not to be considered a micro-brew. But then I discovered a micro-brew pub, Dieu du Ciel, on Laurier. It’s a small brew pub, with a dozen micro brews on the menu every day. Alcohol content varies between 4 percent to 10. After a couple of pints at 7 percent, many people become drunk, and the place is extremely loud. I don’t know why it is that people who drink become louder and louder. Anyhow, the beer here, I realized, tastes much better than the English ales I recently had in London, but perhaps that has partly to do with the alcohol content. Some of the ales had 3.5 alcohol content, basically like American Budweiser. Sure, they taste good but not sharp and strong. At a Lancaster beer pub I was impressed at the pricing. Regardless of the quality or fame of the ale, the price was a mathematical forumula of alcohol percentage. The more alcohol, the more you pay for the brew. Basically, they treat beer as an indifferent medium through which the essential thing, alcohol, is delivered. The rest is packaging. That struck me as both rational and crude.

The advantage of weak beer is that you can’t get drunk quickly and easily, and so a friend of mine, John, when he’s sick of hangovers, drinks only beer and he claims he is on the wagon. “I learnt that from Paul Newman,” he says. “After drinking a lot of bourbon as a young man, Newman quit, and for 40 years, he had a six-pack of beer every night. He considered that he was practically a tee-totaller.”

Yes, it seems like a nice principle, but with the new micro-brews it might not keep you out of trouble. In my neighborhood, Vices and Versa, on St. Laurent, near the arches of Little Italy, usually sells around 30 different beers. I go for the bitter ones. The best combination is a high octane IPA. At 9% alcohol content, it’s as strong as some of the German Rieslings, and the notion that it’s only beer can be perilous.

Anyway, I am pleased with my neighborhood just north of Bernard because it has Italians who make the best coffee in the Province of Quebec (macchiato as good as in Milan), and I’ll admit it: because of the fantastic microbrewery, Helm, on Bernard. Now I understand Hegel—not so much his philosophy as his life-style. When looking for a university position, he deemed whether it was worthwhile to accept it based on the quality of the local brew as he had to have his halb-liter (or two) every afternoon.

 

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