Returning briefly to our contemporary era from distant 1988, we find a calendar page has turned. It is 2023, and as oft times before, my reach has exceeded my grasp. Specifically, this ongoing account of one man’s career in beer is nowhere close to completion.
That’s on me. Documenting my past has been slow going, primarily because the present—including jobs at Pints&union, Common Haus Hall and Food & Dining Magazine—is keeping me busy. This is good, and I’m very grateful to be working when so many of my friends are nearing retirement.
Just as importantly, a few months back it finally occurred to me that what I’m doing with these sporadic “career in beer” essays is writing a book, albeit a little at a time. I’m a realist, and it’s a book unlikely to be published, and yet this realization hasn’t discouraged me from trying.
I’ve always wanted to write a book, and in order to do so, thousands of words are needed. I’m compiling them. Have I the discipline to finish the task? We’ll see, I suppose.
Those unexamined archives awaiting loving scrutiny in their dusty basement banker’s boxes, which begin collecting in earnest around 1990, have grown in importance concurrent with my heightened autobiographical ambitions. If I’m to conjure an actual book, I want to get it right, which suggests a strategy of “vague outline + concrete evidence = coherent narrative.”
Henceforth strictly speaking it’s “41 Years in Beer,” although for the sake of continuity the title will remain the same. I’ll continue to sketch the outline as I prepare for an exploratory descent into the subterranean depths. As such, the tale resumes.
Jim Koch’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager, for decades the only decent beer to be found in the nation’s swill-choked airports, dates to 1984. I can’t remember exactly when this beer first became available in Indiana, or when Scoreboard Liquors started stocking it.
However, for a brief time we could get New Amsterdam from New York, maybe a couple of cases in all. I probably drank all the bottles myself.
And what of Sierra Nevada?
It was a brewery somewhere in California, and as far as I knew in 1988 it would remain there, forever out of reach, just like Anchor Steam (from a San Francisco brewery rescued by appliance heir Fritz Maytag in 1965), similar to the way that Coors Banquet always stayed west of the Mississippi River, unless someone thought to fill their trunk with cases of cans to bring back home after vacationing at Rocky Mountain National Park, to subsequently mistake fond memories of nature’s glorious ambiance for this otherwise purely pedestrian liquid.
Gradually there came a dim yet perceptible awareness that imported beers might soon be joined by better beer brewed right here in America. The term “microbreweries” seems to have been coined in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, passing to America a decade later when these novel entities began appearing stateside, located mostly on the West Coast, in Colorado and in New England.
Ironically, during the travel year of 1987 I’d been so focused on European affairs that a noteworthy item of regional brewing significance completely eluded me: the debut of Oldenberg Brewing Company, which opened in September in Ft. Mitchell, a 90-minute drive up I-71 in Northern Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. Later we had issues. At the start, Oldenberg was okay by me.
Hitherto, microbreweries had been a phenomenon meant for other places. How long would it take for the trend to come to laggardly Louisville?
Annoyingly, neither George H.W. Bush nor Michael Dukakis had anything to say about the beer revolution during the presidential election campaign of 1988. I had a better year than Dukakis. It was seismic, with all sorts of changes suggesting a state of existence approximating adulthood.
My new residence was half of a duplex in the hamlet of Floyds Knobs, shared with two of my friends. It wasn’t far from Georgetown, where I’d always lived, but no longer could there be a quick and stealthy commute by deserted country lanes to the K&H Café in Lanesville. In consequence, I gradually became a former regular.
Geographically, Floyds Knobs was oriented toward New Albany, where my new local was Sportstime Pizza. A great many of my post-collegiate buddies had moved or gotten married, and at Sportstime I began making many new friends, including a recently arrived Czech émigré named Jiří Hrabčák.
Introductions were made by Rich O’Connell, owner of Sportstime Pizza, who agreed to stock Pilsner Urquell in 11.2-ounce bottles (in the beginning, for a whopping tariff of $1.75). Later he explained that while only three patrons drank Urquell (that’d be Baylor, Ottersbach and Hrabčák), they consumed plenty enough to keep the imported lager moving.
George (the Anglicized version of his Czech given name) quickly became a pal. He had departed Czechoslovakia without permission, making him a defector in the eyes of the communist regime. How George came to land in New Albany is a story for his book, although it can suffice to say that the Cold War was real, right up until it wasn’t, a year and a half later.
As of February 1988 my new job was in downtown Louisville at UMI/Data Courier, then a detached remnant of the Bingham media empire (Courier-Journal newspaper, WHAS radio and television, et al), which was being sold off by the clan’s aging patriarch Barry Sr. in an effort to find a few moments of peace from his squabbling children.
At Data Courier my department created short abstracts of magazine articles for an embryonic CD-ROM data base, one vended primarily to libraries to serve as the new-fangled digital competition for the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature (founded in 1901), which filled countless shelves with bulky bound volumes. It was my first experience with computers in any form.
We abstracted a handful of British magazines, including The Economist (to which I’ve subscribed ever since), The Spectator, Punch and New Statesman. For some reason my co-workers did not favor the British form of written expression, presumably because it was too difficult to spot the topic sentence (the anchor of the abstract).
Specialization in topics was discouraged, but I saw a niche, regularly grabbed the Brit publications, and gloated to all and sundry that I was being paid to read about the subjects that interested me most.
It was my first and (to date) only regular job in Louisville. A Cincinnati-style chili parlor was on one adjacent corner, and a strip club reposed down the block. It was possible to commute from Floyds Knobs to downtown Louisville by TARC bus (Transit Authority of River City), using one of the few lines servicing Indiana. I only needed to drive three miles to an apartment complex parking lot, where I could board using insanely inexpensive tickets subsidized by my employer.
All this made me feel bizarrely cosmopolitan. The job paid twice as much combined as my longstanding substitute teaching and package store gigs. I kept my evening and weekend Scoreboard Liquors shifts, which paid the bills, leaving a slush fund for future travel.
Meanwhile Scoreboard had an entirely new location. A bank purchased the ugliest building in downtown New Albany and informed the package store and Cadillac Lanes (by this time the only tenants) that their leases would not be renewed. Zero hour was slated for July, 1988.
The store manager Duck promptly chose to retire to Florida, and I never saw him again. His replacement was a retired military lifer named Paul, reliably gruff on the exterior, and slightly more mellow and philosophical once you got to know him.
Unfortunately the new Scoreboard location was chosen primarily because the building, a former convenience store two miles across town right on the county line, was cheap.
More than three decades later, I’m prepared to divulge one of the reasons why. A succession of property owners secretively agreed to ignore that fact that the underground fuel tanks hadn’t been remediated according to federal mandate. I imagine they’re still there.
The new Scoreboard Liquors was roomier, and there was an ample traffic count past it, but the street was too fast and mostly unregulated apart from periodic speed traps. It wasn’t easy to turn in and out, and an existing liquor store was just three blocks away.
The stated hope was that a more extensive surrounding residential neighborhood would bring a different kind of customer, and while this was true to an extent, in the end we moved only physically, not with the times. So it was that Scoreboard Liquors surrendered downtown to Bottles Unlimited, its perennial rival, and evacuated the city center. In August I took vacation days to help move the store, and it was a bittersweet interlude.
Once I’d caught my breath, it was time to begin planning my longest and most complex European excursion to occur in 1989. In truth, there were periods when I reconsidered the lifestyle options afforded by a healthy savings account, and came close to postponing Mach III until 1990 or even later.
However, as much as I liked the extra money at Data-Courier, corporate culture was just as alien to my core values as I’d always guessed it would be. What’s more, given the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost in the USSR, and their trickledown to the Warsaw Pact, 1989 seemed the best opportunity ever to experience these countries in depth, affordably.
Obviously there was no way of knowing the prescience of my choice, given the approaching and surprising end of the communist system in Europe.
The projected 1989 itinerary steadily came together. I’d depart in late May, fly into West Berlin, and head straight for Czechoslovakia, where George arranged stays with family members in Prague and Ostrava.
A month into the trip, there’d be a rail trip to Moscow for a three-week Russian language program under the auspices of an organization called Volunteers for Peace (VFP), followed by the entire month of August in East Berlin for a volunteer work program, also coordinated by VFP.
From East Berlin I’d travel to Copenhagen to greet the month of September with my Danish friends before shifting to West Germany for Oktoberfest in Munich. At this point an unexpected variable intervened with respect to the 1989 travel itinerary, as well as the arc of my very existence.
Having a girlfriend was an unexpected plot twist, and the travel plan was edited to accommodate the presence of my future (first) wife and prospective business partner Amy, who would be coming to join me in Copenhagen.
We plotted a post-Oktoberfest swing through selected cities (Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Rome, Paris, Galway and Dublin), and then she’d fly home in early November.
After her departure from Dublin I’d proceed to Spain and Portugal before a dip back into Italy and then Athens for Christmas, finishing in London in early 1992. It was an ambitious eight-month spectacle, and not a single bit of it unspooled as scheduled from the time I arrived in Madrid.
As it turned out, I flew home from Copenhagen at the end of November, having spent an uproarious week with the Three Danes of the Apocalypse debating whether we should board a train for East Berlin and dive into the coming-down celebration at the Berlin Wall (we didn’t).