My dad’s quest for the perfect beer

My father has to make his opinions known, especially to strangers who do not have the time, interest, or authority to address these opinions.

In the grocery store he sees a woman putting Triscuit crackers in her cart.

Dad: “Do you really want to buy those crackers?”

Woman: “Excuse me?”

Dad: “Those crackers are made by Nabisco. Surely you don’t want to buy a Nabisco product?”

Woman: “I don’t?”

Dad: “Well I just got to tell you that Nabisco closed a perfectly good plant in Pittsburgh and put 350 people out of work and the only possible reason was union suppression. Furthermore, Nabisco is a subsidiary of a massive corporation that seems to be impervious to antitrust laws. It baffles me how anyone in their right mind would buy a Nabisco product…”

The woman winces in deliberation—not over the moral implications of her cracker purchase, but over how to escape with the crackers still in her cart. He made some good points, but on the other hand, Triscuits are delicious.

SONY DSC

Another example: I was doing college tours in summer of 2003—otherwise known as the year when Dad was incensed over how a realignment of NCAA sports conferences ruined the University of Pittsburgh’s Big East Conference. He felt that the University of Virginia was particularly treacherous and culpable for the deterioration of the Big East.  And we took a tour of UVA.

Our perky sun-kissed tour guide was walking backwards, reciting facts and tales about her beloved UVA. She is a communications major and philanthropy chair of her sorority.

Guide: “And all students at University of Virginia are held to the Honor System, which simply states that students will not lie, cheat, or steal. Any student found guilty of these offenses is expelled…”

My dad emerges from the mass of humans constituting our tour group. His pointer finger is raised in objection.

Dad: “I just got to tell you that I find it laughable that the University expects students not to lie, cheat, and steal when clearly the administration lied and cheated, having secret negotiations to stab Pitt in the back and ruin the Big East.”

Guide: “Ah, okay… And if you follow me up these stairs we’ll come to the freshman dining hall!”

I pretended not to know my father during college tours.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 25: Thomas Jefferson in front of Rotunda of the University he founded, University Of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia (Photo by Stephen St. John/National Geographic/Getty Images)

Dad’s soapboxes invariably start with the phrase, “I just got to tell you.” And he does. He feels a moral imperative to inform the uninformed on a multitude of social, political, and moral issues.

But the issue that concerns him most is what beers people are drinking.

We’re at a restaurant in Cambridge, MA. It’s a pretentious French-ish place where the menu is always changing, because they “really just let the farmers decide.” I’ve never heard of over 50% of the ingredients on the menu, which is how I know it’s fancy. I’m considering getting the Triticale garganelli with traviso, boletes, and pine nuts (because I’ve only heard of pine nuts) or perhaps the Lamb shank with harissa, za’atar, and half sour pickles (because what the f— is a half sour pickle).

scallops

Unfortunately this kind of fairy-la-la farm-to-table place tends to have a poor beer selection.

As my father reads the draught list, our waitress stands at attention, straining to maintain a disposition of eager patience—eager to serve us efficiently, but patient to oblige our questions, requests, and chit-chat.

My father sighs and shakes his head, stricken with wearied disappointment that is edging towards disillusionment. He is a man who has taught the same lesson over and over to a world that never learns.

Dad: “I just got to tell you, you don’t have any drinkable beers here.”

Waitress: “Well what kind of beer are you looking for?”

Dad: “I’m a big fan of IPAs.”

Waitress: “We do have the Harpoon IPA in a bottle. Would you like to try that?”

Dad: “I’ve had it. It’s no good. It calls itself an IPA, but it barely has a taste. You really should suggest to the owners that they rethink their beer selection…”

On cue, my mother intervenes, relieving the waitress.

Mom: “Don’t listen to him. Be quiet Howie.”

My father again shakes his head and slouches back in capitulation. He is resigned to imbibing mediocrity.

Dad: “Alright. Bring me the Harpoon.”

He says this like a martyr accepting his torture. My mother and I exchange eye rolls and sighs. We’re used to this scene.

The waitress departs and my father begins his usual defense. “You know, I’m on a quest for the perfect beer.”

My dad has been saying this for years. He’s on a quest for the perfect beer. We have a policy to ignore his jabbering about this quest, but finally that night at the French-ish restaurant, with apologies to my mother, I ask him to expound.

Me: “Alright dad, what’s the deal with this quest? When did it start? Will it ever end?”

He rises from his pouting. His eyes brighten. He had been waiting years for someone to ask.

Dad: “The quest began about 15 years ago at the time when microbreweries emerged in the United States.”

Whenever my dad is explaining something—anything from tax code to the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the neat things about Catalina Island—he slips into his didactic orator mode. He’s energized, but carefully holding back points, to release them in a well-structured and paced exposition. Like an orchestra conductor, his hand gestures are integral to serving the argument. Palms open and wide when providing background information. One hand slices forward when emphasizing a point.

I know. I talk the same way.

Dad: “You see, good and interesting beers were not always available in America. All beers tasted the same. There were only bland, mass produced lagers.”

That’s right kids, once upon a time not so long ago, there was no such thing as good beer in America. You could not pick up a six-pack of a hoppy ale with a Cape Cod-looking dog on the label. You could not get a flight of oatmeal stout, rye IPA, Belgian tripel, and farmhouse saison (ordered from darkest to lightest to satisfy your OCD tendencies). Beer lists did not include descriptions like, “sensual blend of complex hops, grains, & malts with a punchy finish” or “smooth and reticent session with notes of honey and elderflower.”

Beer lists said Budweiser or BudLight, Coors or CoorsLight, Keystone or Keystone Light. For something fancy you could have a Yuengling. I know it sounds like an alternate reality in which we lost the Cold War and are governed by conglomerates. But it was, in fact, the state of our nation’s beer affairs less than two decades ago.

IMG_0359 You couldn’t get samplers like this 20 years ago.

IMG_1030My refrigerator could not look like this 20 years ago. And by the way I do have food: banana peppers, top right.

Dad: “The first time I had a beer with any taste in America was at a wedding in 1998. They served Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—which now I consider an average beer—but at the time it was something different, something with flavor.”

Me: “So that was the first time you had a good beer?”

Dad: “No, no. I had many good beers before that during trips to Europe—but I’ve got to warn you, not every country in Europe has good beer. France, Spain. Nice countries for art and architecture, but they don’t know anything about beer. You got to go to Germany, Belgium—the Belgium monks have been at it for centuries. Ireland of course has Guinness and other excellent stouts. Every town in the Czech Republic has a brewery and they make very good pilsners. But not in Slovakia, go figure.”

Me: “So why do you think so many Americans have bad taste in beer?”

He pauses for a moment, looking into the distance, then nods when he finds the answer.

Dad: “I think Americans are very susceptible to mass advertising. And in college price is the determining factor.”

Me: “So what are the best beers you’ve tried?”

Dad: “Well people have different tastes. I’m partial to IPAs, but your mother thinks they’re virtually poison, some of the beers I like. I’ve been impressed by Victory Hopdevil, Stone, Green Flash, Bells Two Hearted Ale. Those are some that come to mind.”

My mother huffs. Her patience has expired. I need to wrap it up.

Me: “So will you ever find the perfect beer?”

Dad: “No. And in fact there is no perfect beer. It’s a quixotic quest that I never want to achieve. It’s exciting to try new beers and I want to keep trying them, keeping trying to find the perfect one that doesn’t exist.”

Mom: “So you’re going to keep causing scenes in restaurants until the end of time!”

Dad: “No, no. Just until the day I die.”

Mom: “So the day I kill you. Heavens to Betsy. Be quiet Howie.”

The waitress brings his Harpoon IPA in a bottle.

Dad to the waitress: “I’ll need a glass. And I prefer a small glass.”

Dad to me: “I prefer small glasses so the beer can breathe.”

The waitress returns with a small glass. He pours the beer and scowls at it.

Dad: “When it doesn’t have a nice head, you got to wonder if it’s stale.”

He takes a sip and makes an ‘I told you so’ face. We’ll never come to this restaurant again, no matter how good the food is. Unless they take his suggestion under advisement, which no restaurant ever has.

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