40 Years in Beer, Part Nine: The point of know return


Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Eight: The origins of a European travel (and beer) obsession.

I went to Europe for three months in 1985 thinking it might be the only chance I’d ever have to do it. But during the flight back to Chicago in August, notes already were being scribbled furiously in anticipation of a sequel, which came in 1987.

(“Shout” by Tears for Fears, above, was the Number One song in America upon my return. The year’s box office smash as measured by theatrical gross was “Back to the Future, below, released on July 3 while I was staying in Munich. To this day, I haven’t watched it.)

I’m a very fortunate man, because there have since been 40 such follow-ups, with another on the way in September 2022 that will bring me to Athens for the first time since the inaugural.

For those readers interested in the 1985 travel narrative, I’m spinning if off as a separate feature, beginning here: European Grand Tour 1985, Part 1: Three months that shook my world.

Meanwhile, my “40 Years in Beer” series purports to be an account of my largely accidental career in the drinks business, corresponding with the axiom “do what you love, and the money will trickle down inconsequentially.”

The crux of it: In 1985, all the paths of my personal interests began coalescing into what became a worldview (the Germans refer to it as a Weltanschauung), including beer, travel, history, geography, music, reading and politics. These strands crossed paths and became inextricably intertwined. I couldn’t separate them now if I tried.

The following previously published (and lightly edited) summary of the 1985 journey serves well enough to explain its significance.

It was late in the evening on August 8, 1985. In fact, it may have been past midnight, making it the 9th, not the 8th, but no matter. I was back home again in Indiana, after three glorious months in Europe.

Now what?

Luxembourg City had disappeared far too quickly into the Icelandair jet’s vapor trail. The European continent receded into cloud-blanketed expanses of ocean. After subsequent trips abroad, I’d always allow myself a moment’s melancholy at each departure, though not this first time.

There was far too much to think about.

Many hours later, allowing for the obligatory Reykjavik shopping layover, I stumbled somewhat groggily from a customs checkpoint into the arrival hall at Chicago O’Hare. My friends were waiting there to meet me. They were troopers, following through just as we’d agreed back in May. As a bonus, they were holding a cheesy hand-lettered cardboard sign: BAYLOR TAXI.

In this primitive rotary dial era, it had not occurred to any of us to prepare contingency plans in case of problems – a flight delay or cancellation on my part, or a flat tire on theirs. I hadn’t phoned home even once. European pay phones were old-school mystifying and overly expensive. Only a handful of post cards were dropped into letter boxes.

That’s because the entire point of my going to Europe was to get away from the United States, and this is exactly what I’d done. I went away, broke away and kept it that way. Hurdles real and imagined were cleared, and the first pilgrimage was completed.

To repeat: now what?

At times, clichés are all we really have, so I can attest that even then, passing through customs, I definitely knew things weren’t going to be the same for me, ever.

Once wasn’t going to be enough. There’d have be another, and if so, how would I arrange my life for what might be two long years or more, until my accumulated funds enabled the next escape from our stifling Reaganite compound?

I didn’t know the details, only the imperative.

In terms of pop culture, the summer of 1985 might be most often remembered for the Live Aid concert in London on July 13. I watched much of it in Ireland at a pub.

We traveled five hours straight home from Chicago, stopping only to devour sliders at a White Castle along the way. This reversion to indigenous form was the first broad hint that in spite of my best efforts to be a new European man, bad American habits surely would worm their way back into my world.

They most assuredly did.

Within days of returning home, I was filling shifts at Scoreboard Liquors. Soon school was back in session; teachers immediately started taking off work, and substitute teaching began anew. Money trickled in, and the budget again could be written in black ink.

After a few weeks, there was sufficient revenue to develop those rolls of slide film still hidden in the lead-lined pouch, and at last I could see where I’d visited. Bills were paid, bar tabs settled, and a faint dribble of cash was stashed under the mattress.

Sadly, fiscal restraint suggested a return to inexpensive mass-market beer, except perhaps predictably, American swill no longer tasted very good. Eventually it would occur to me to drink less and drink better, but not just yet. Too many hormones required sedation.

Choking down the cheap beer, I grinned, rationalized, and accepted these cost-cutter hardships, keeping two eyes fixed very firmly on 1987, and the expected sequel. Providentially, I worked at a package store. When all was said and done, Bass Ale and St. Pauli Girl tasted surprisingly good when the employee discount enabled a fix.

Thirty pounds had disappeared from my frame during three months across the pond. The medical experts probably would say it was too much, too fast, and accordingly, unlikely to last. They’d be absolutely right, and by the end of 1985, I’d found each and every of those lost pounds, and added a few more for good measure.

It all came down to exercise, or the lack of it. When the daily formula is to work two jobs, drink, sleep, rinse and repeat, physical self-care isn’t much of a consideration.

Rather, it was entirely psychological. Back to Europe, or bust.

Far more than high school and college graduation dates, the year 1985 marks the first great dividing line in my life. There is what came before the European journey, and what happened after it.

Later there would be numerous other narrative junctures involving the usual suspects: Byways, thru-ways, dead ends, lovers, haters, wins and losses; all the things that go to make up a life. There’d also be many more trips to Europe than I would have had any reason to imagine at the beginning.

What did it all mean, way back then? 37 years later, it’s a question I’m still trying to properly assess, and in many ways the available answers are uniformly less the flattering, bordering on embarrassing.

Yes, I can see more clearly now than before that in spite of the many qualifications and evasions available for argumentation, the mere fact of making a trip to Europe in 1985 speaks to privilege, not privation. It speaks to how lazy and formless I’d been up to that point.

In 1942, my 17-year-old father ran away from home to fight in a world war, and I was spared this tough choice. We didn’t always agree, but my parents worked hard and sent me to university—for a philosophy degree. I didn’t go to work in a sweat shop at age 12, didn’t endure domestic violence, and didn’t have many hard decisions to make.

In short, I was damned lucky. It was easy muddling through my youth, such that there was ample time for me in my early twenties to decide at long last to get my act together and set off on a quest, purely self-serving and elective, to “find” myself. Most humans on the planet don’t have this luxury.

And yet, this life is the only one I’ve ever had, and all I can do is live it. Consequently Europe in 1985 is where and when I grew up, insofar as I’ve ever grown up, which is debatable. Metaphorically Europe was the exact opposite of my plodding undergraduate experience, and far more of an advanced educational seminar than a non-stop party.

Europe is where things began making sense to me, and honestly, I was as surprised as anyone that it actually happened. Somewhere inside me were the genes I needed to plan ahead, work hard, save money, and challenge myself.

This is the ultimate point, because at first, I got it all backward.

I kept thinking that a tenure in Europe was required to gain the experience necessary for growth and self-knowledge, and of course being there proved to be a huge part of the equation, and yet what changed me the most, more than those inaugural three months in Europe, was the two-year period preceding the trip.

Europe changed my life. What I didn’t notice at the time was my life changing in order to get to Europe. Finally, I cared about something, and finally, out of nowhere, emerged a work ethic. Who’d have guessed it?

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power prior to my departure, and in November, he met with President Ronald Reagan for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland.

From the vantage point of perspective, I can identify three principal legacies of Euro ’85.

Food, cooking … and of course beer.

Moussaka, clam sauce, stuffed tomatoes, blood sausage, Wiener (veal) schnitzel, pickled herring, borscht and tartare (pork!) are just a few of the culinary high points. I’d never experienced foods like these at home, and the fact that even a tightly-budgeted tourist might still be able to taste them was exciting.

Coming from a background of largely flavorless meat and potatoes, this exposure was revelatory, but since few of these meals were readily available where I lived, it was time to take cooking seriously. The only way I’d be able to get the dishes I wanted was to cook them myself, and while much has changed since then, cooking remains a rewarding pursuit.

Meanwhile, beer as a career wasn’t yet apparent to me, and my first European trip wasn’t about compiling conquests or rating brands and styles. My beer understanding remained decidedly imperfect long afterward.

However, it was a start. Experiencing first-hand the prevailing beer culture in places like Germany, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway was absolutely invaluable, and it obviously informed not only my subsequent liquor store tenure, but what eventually became the Public House.

In 1985, I started thinking about how one might incorporate European beer culture into the life and times of my hometown. I’ve been doing it ever since.


In 1985, I’d been exposed to almost as many languages as countries, but the problem with constant movement was a reduced opportunity to make sense of any in detail. Upon return, I vowed to learn a European language, and began stockpiling books, instructional cassettes and videos.

Alas, it came to very little in the end, and I still lack proficiency in a second language. However, I know a few words in two dozen languages, and by 1987, I’d managed to teach myself the Cyrillic alphabet, which at least made Moscow’s subways navigable.

Eventually, “beer” itself became a second language. I’ve still got that going for me.

The lure of urbanism.

I grew up in the woods and fields of the Southern Indiana countryside, then went to Europe for the first time and spent nearly all of the trip exploring cities. I’ll grant that it took a while for these urban lessons to be absorbed, but the conversion was genuine. Foghat’s lyrics ring true: I’m a fool for the city. Nature’s fine, so long as there’s a bar nearby.

These days, it seems I inhabit a neighborhood (New Albany) of a larger city (Louisville), albeit it without the amenities in infrastructure that made European city life what it was, and remains.

Shouldn’t I be able to board a bus, switch to the subway, and be in downtown Louisville in minutes without once considering the use of my car? Why our endless sprawl? Can’t we fill in those tragic empty spaces where the downtown buildings used to be?

Two decades after my initial exposure to European urbanism, I decided to dive into these questions on a more regular basis, with decidedly mixed results. The verdict? American exceptionalism is real, and not at all to my liking.

The older I get, the more entirely normal my European interlude in 1985 appears to have been. It’s the long trip since then back in America that has been so very strange.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Ten: When friends actually did let friends drive drunk.

The cover photo was taken in Leningrad USSR (now St. Petersburg). Next time: Theory begins meeting practice.


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