40 Years in Beer, Part One: Fun in Hi Skule

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1979 road trip to Purdue University. Left to right: JC Asher, Doug Linton, David Roark, Roger, and Byron Foster.

Editor’s note: As of 27 March 2023, this post has been completely rewritten to better inaugurate the chronology. All links have been checked (I think), so one part leads to the next. 

In those prehistoric cave-dwelling times otherwise known as the 1970s, my gang started getting our driver’s licenses.

Two plus two still equaled four, and accordingly the bountiful paradise of Louisville’s west end beckoned to us, located just beyond the provincial confines of New Albany, as accessed by driving down Vincennes Street to the K & I toll bridge and then passing over the creepy steel grates across the Ohio River into Portland, a working class neighborhood chock full of beautiful liquor stores.

In large measure Portland’s beer vendors benevolently overlooked rampant consumer acne so long as the cash in one’s hands was colored green, and yet owing to my sadistically youthful appearance, I wasn’t often the one chosen to go inside Liken’s, the Corner Store or Angelo’s to try getting served. As such, in spite of investing without complaint into the money pool, I was often left to the mercy of my companions’ tastes in beer.

This was when my frustrating struggle began in earnest. Trying to find a brand of beer that did not totally disgust me proved challenging, as my youthful palate judged beer to be an acquired taste. At this early stage of the game, beer “flavor” was little more than an unpleasant impediment to ingesting beverage alcohol, requiring thespian-grade efforts to look cool while in the act of grimacing

Still, something about beer intrigued me. I wanted to like it, sensed a certain symmetry, and kept plugging away. In the meantime, my friends liked Sterling and Pabst; I emphatically did not, but they were the ones doing the heavy lifting, and being in no position to argue, there was no choice except adaptation.

I quickly learned that the more frigid cheap beer could be rendered, the less flavor it would have, and hence the greater quantity I could consume. My zealous mission in life became Zen via the art of cooler maintenance, to take the least expensive Styrofoam cooler I could find, nurture it, protect it from harm, and most importantly, to keep it filled with ice. If I could keep the bottom from falling out and find a safe place to stash it, we could save a buck or two the following weekend.

Arctic temperatures helped, although during extremes of summertime heat I’d have a tough time finishing my beers before they began to get warm, leading to embarrassment on more than one occasion.

There I’d be, jammed into the back seat of a late model junk pile, absent the female companionship that rock and roll’s backseat imagery demanded (so unfairly in my utterly deprived adolescent estimation), plucking a providentially ice-cold bottle or can of beer straight from the cooler, succeeding in making it through the first few frozen gulps, then suffering the dismaying recognition that underneath the chill, it was still just as Sterling, Pabst, or Falls City as before.

Noting that underage drinkers motoring aimlessly through the countryside eschewed environmental consciousness in favor of ridding themselves of the evidence, my determination that a beer had become too foul to finish suggested stealth, first allowing for a sufficient interval to maintain credibility, then tossing the “empty” out the window.

Glass bottles were heavier and seldom betrayed me, but cans were slightly less manageable in terms of airworthiness. I still recall the horrifying time when, in the dead stillness of a humid summer’s evening, I misjudged the distance from the open window of our moving car to the stationary, muffled cushion of an unkempt, grassy roadside.

There was a loud, sickening “thump” of ignominy as the half-full can hit unrelenting pavement, with the ensuing torrent of abuse not entirely good-natured; after all, we’d driven all the way to Louisville for that beer and spent every last dime we had to buy it, all the while eluding excise officers, policemen and various other prying do-gooder eyes, so HOW THE HELL COULD ANYONE WASTE BEER THIS WAY?

My future ambition categorically dates to this moment, circa 1976, slumped shamefully in the back seat of my friend’s car, doing my level best to ingest Sterling, and resolving that someday I’d be a better beer drinker than all of rest of them, even if I had absolutely no clue what this implied.

Beer drinking practice sessions had to be squeezed in during summertime and the off-season, as I was an athlete of sorts then, and dutifully refrained from drink during basketball season, although beer and baseball went together like, well, beer and baseball always has. So be it. I worked on my beer drinking game far more diligently than free throws and shagging flies.

While others began planning their futures in physics, cosmetology, law or insurance sales, I conspired to be the best at beer. Gradually, over time, things began to fall into place, and while “the best” is crazily far-fetched and as assertions go, beer has been one hell of a ride ever since.

At some point in the summer of 2022 it occurred me that I’d soon be celebrating my 40th anniversary year in beer—if the words “in beer” are taken to imply remunerative employment in the business of beer, however sparse the payback.

At the same time I’m not blowing Rauchbier up your Spundapparat when I say that beer never seemed like a career to me. Even when it was, it wasn’t. Beer eventually came to be an appropriate natural extension of who I am, part and parcel of what interests me in other areas of the human experience. Wine is fun, spirits have their place (I permit myself Ouzo, Scotch and Mezcal only sparingly), and yet nothing appeals to me in quite the same way as beer, consumed around people, in convivial settings.

That first beer-related position came in early winter of 1982 at Scoreboard Liquors in downtown New Albany, which led to stocking a handful of cooler shelves with then-exotic imported beers. There have been only a few years since 1982 when I wasn’t working in some capacity as a beer guy.

The chronology, often overlapping, is roughly as follows:

1982 – 1992 Scoreboard Liquors
Job description: Package liquor store clerk
Achievements of note: Creator of the Import Door

1982 – 1992 New Albany-Floyd County Schools
Job description: Substitute teacher
Achievements of note: Nothing whatever to do with beer, but the job was quite helpful when it came to recognizing under-aged aspirants at my Scoreboard Liquors gig

1983 – 1984 K & H Cafe
Job description: Bartender at a small town tavern in Lanesville, Indiana
Achievements of note: I observed a genuine family business and received a master class in human nature

1988 – 1989 UMI/Data-Courier
Job description: Abstract writer (periodicals)
Achievements of note: Again, no direct connection to beer; however, I read a lot about the planet, and salted away sufficient funds to make a pivotal trip to Europe in 1989

1989 – 2018 Sportstime Pizza/Rich O‘s Public House/New Albanian Brewing Company
Job description: Beer director, co-owner (1994 – 2018)
Achievements of note: Establishing an award-winning “better” beer bar in a place where everyone, including many friends, said it couldn’t be done

2009 – 2018 New Albanian Bank Street Brew House
Job description: “Craft” brewery manager (2009 – 2015), co-owner (until 2018)
Achievements of note: Expanded NABC’s original brewhouse (2002) into a second location a few miles away; winning big artistically and losing just as big financially (insert “shrugging” emoji)

2018 – 2023 (present) Pints&union
Job description: Beer director
Achievements of note: Proved that beer’s greatest hits from the 1500s through the 2000s can still form the basis of a principled, old-school beer list that stays mostly the same on a daily basis.

2022 – 2023 Common Haus Hall
Job description: Beer director (German-themed)
Achievement of note: It was short-lived, but we demonstrated that there’s a demand for German food and beer if vended at an appropriate economy of scale, which we didn’t achieve

For me, beer and Europhilia have become inextricably linked.

Since 1985, a dogged pursuit of the perfect pint has taken me to Europe 42 times to 36 countries, including at least three that no longer exist, as well as 30 American states. If Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” is accurate, I’m golden, as well as a tad pickled. The perfect pint still eludes me, which is the whole point of the exercise.

And, there’s writing. The first time I ever wrote expressly about beer probably was around 1984, when I put together a “special order cases” imported beer catalog for Scoreboard Liquors. From 1990 through 2000, I wrote and edited Walking the Dog, the official newsletter of the FOSSILS homebrewing club. It became digital via e-mail (the Not Dog) until my retirement from the club, circa 2004, by which time I’d started writing quarterly beer columns for Food & Dining Magazine.

Since 2019 my job as digital editor of F&D has included weekly beer columns. As of 2023, I’m still doing it. Other writing opportunities include stints as a columnist for LEO Weekly and the New Albany Tribune, as well as submissions to The Aggregate and a handful of other short-lived local and regional publications. From 2004 through 2020, the NA Confidential (2004 – 2020) and Potable Curmudgeon (2005 – 2018) blogs boasted a great deal of my beer writing, which has been carried over to this very web site since 2021.

The past decade has witnessed an ongoing transition from relative comfort to uncertainty. In 2015 I began the process of stepping away from the New Albanian Brewing Company. Selling my ownership share to my two business partners proved to be an occasionally bumpy two-and-a-half-year process, yielding a few farthings and a pot of magic beans. However our house was released from bank-mandated collateral bondage, and I scored free pizza for life (actually 15 years).

It’s the little things.

Truthfully, most human endeavors tend to run their course, and I don’t regret moving on. At the same time it’s also true that in 2017, after my mother died, future prospects were unclear. Serendipity intervened, and my friend and former employee Joe Phillips offered me a chance to “beer” again at Pints&union, which is still going strong in 2023 even though Common Haus in Jeffersonville didn’t survive. I’ve won more often than lost, and that’s all anyone can ask for.

I’ve tended to oversimplify my career in beer by referring to it as unplanned, suggesting that I’ve never had a clear idea of what I’m going to do when I grow up. This is true enough, although it’s also misleading, seeing as my high school resolution to become a better beer drinker occurred 47 years ago.

It just never occurred to me that someone would pay me to do it, and viewed in this fashion, beer has been very, very good to me.

Next in the series: 40 Years in Beer, Part Two: Brontosaurus Stomp, or the time before time began.

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