Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to drink bad beer.
Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, telling a story between songs to a live audience, made an aside in which he said, “Man, I haven’t had a Schlitz Beer since elementary school.” The crowd laughed, most likely because the image of an elementary kid drinking Schlitz is absurd, or should be. I, on the other hand, laughed because I, too, can say I haven’t had Schlitz beer since elementary school. And that may be a good thing at more than a few levels.
One of the kids I ran around with had a family farm in Brenahm, Texas, which is home to my favorite ice cream, Blue Bell, and thus added to the mystique in my young imagination. Trips to the Mitchell Farm were a grand escape from the concrete and steel heat of Houston. I have no idea how big the farm was since everything seems big when you are small. But once off the highway, I know you would drive down about a mile or two of dirt roads, through cow pastures, to get to the farmhouse. This clapboard and screen door residence was surrounded by a moat of grass, enclosed by a fence just strong enough to keep a bull out. To get to the house, you crossed a long, deep cattle guard, transitioning from mesquite, cactus, goat heads, and envious cows and bulls, to soft, lush shaded grass that was cool on the feet. Pecan trees surrounded and covered the home like giant sentinels.
The farm was the kind of place that is hard for a boy to come by now in our overly protective and litigious culture. Once arrived at the house we got our bags unpacked on one of the springy, ancient beds, and then were set free with only mealtimes to mark the time of day. The remainder was spent sloughing around the pastures trying to get bulls to chase us, or building forts and fishing down by the creek, careful to mind the rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Sometimes we spent the whole of the day building castles in the hay barn, walking home at sunset, itchy and sneezing. Unregulated boys in an open land with the occasional horse ride or gun-shooting session is now talked about either with nostalgia by men’s Wildmen movements or disdain by protective mothers everywhere. It was a childhood unmanufactured and one that only increased my thirsts for more outdoor adventures well into adulthood. It is likely where the seeds first cracked that eventually grew me into a mountaineering guide for 12 years.
Every year, for one weekend, the slow quiet of the farm was tossed aside for country music, lawn chairs, bbq smokers and a pasture-turned-parking lot as the Mitchell’s hosted their annual farm party. City friends and local, nobly-nosed hard-working ranchers made their way up the dirt road and into an aluminum folding chair to spend a Saturday drinking beer and telling stories. The beer choices were limited to Schlitz, Lone Star, and Pearl. Most people outside of Texas or born after 1980 would hardly know these three beers exist… and for good reason. In our now prolific craft brew world of the 21st century, these lagers would be found in the hands of Hipsters playing their retro-irony into a new level of bad taste. Schlitz was actually bought out by Pabst in the mid-80s, which only accentuates its Hipster-ness.
Beer was staged around the inner-moat of grass in kegs enmeshed in ice, buried in garbage cans. The space between each keg was just long enough to work a drunk man but not so far that the stiff, glacial moving farmers felt winded. Thus, one of us boys running by would feel the grab of an arm or heard the bellow of our name summoning us to refill a plastic cup from one of the taps nearby.
Early in the day, I was having too much fun for beer to entice me. Refilling a cup was a courtesy, as normal as saying “sir” or “ma’am” when talking to adults, and I would return to play once duty was served. As the day turned to afternoon and boredom set in with the breezeless heat,my thirst and curiosity grew. By then, the adults were still asking for refills but far enough gone to not pay any mind to us kids.
So, I poured myself a half-cup of Schlitz with the other half boiling over with foam. I looked around to see if anyone was watching and then I sipped the barely cool, pissy-tasting drink, marked by a foam mustache. While the coolness was refreshing, the taste was somewhat a mystery. Why would anyone find this flavor appealing?
After a few more sneak drinks from the Pearl or Lone Star taps, I could feel the buzz, but it didn’t make up for the foul taste. I was faking the buzz more than feeling it, imitating the adults’ loud fumbles and only entertaining myself.
As I grew older, I would continue to mimic the adults around me, using drinks to make it through all the awkwardness of high school. Sometimes it was for fun, but many other times it was to hide. I knew what alcoholism looked like and tickled the dragon enough to get burned. And burned just enough to know when a casual habit became a problem.
It wasn’t until I moved to Colorado and experienced the world of micro-brews that I came to appreciate beer that had flavors worth savoring. These are beers that you drink slowly over long conversations. While one can get just as drunk off a good, hoppy ale, it would waste the experience. Contrary to the norm, college is where I learned to drink with appreciation and responsibility. Of course, once I had spent my wad on lesser beers, it wasn’t hard to trade it all in for something worth drinking.
Image credit: Frank Heinz IV/Flickr