Where To Find Real Beer (Hint: Not At A Frat Party)

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I clearly remember my first beer experience: I was a freshman, and after listening to the orientation guide’s solemn assertions that beer was superfluous, evil, overrated, boring, gross, and uncool, I decided I had to try it.

Unsurprisingly, opportunity came quickly, in the form of a large silver bathtub containing a keg suspended in a hearty stew of cigarette butts and melting ice cubes. The beer was the color of that Lifesaver no one wants to eat, and it had about as much head as a Capri Sun. It tasted like water faintly scented with old gym socks. I left the party—and the beer—behind, and didn’t look back.

Then, during my junior year, I decided to study abroad in Wales. All my relatives had the same thing to say about Wales (after I explained to them where it was): “In the UK? You know, they drink a lot of beer over there.” How, I wondered, could such a sophisticated society have such an affinity for this stuff? As I prepared for my trip, I developed a state of Acute Beer Anxiety, imagining hordes of tall, turtle-necked aesthetes with long black cigarette holders, brandishing red plastic cups and laughing at me.

The anxiety still hadn’t abated by the time I arrived in my first Welsh pub. Like a condemned felon ascending the executioner’s platform, I tiptoed into the hazy room, grabbed a table in the back, and waited for my fellow travelers to get back from the bar. Much to my surprise, they returned not with the carbonated urine sample I expected, but with huge glasses of what looked like motor oil filtered through a cappuccino maker. This wasn’t beer. It didn’t even smell like beer. In fact, I didn’t know what it smelled like. Bracing myself for the fire and brimstone I was sure would follow, I asked if I could try a sip.

If you’ve never had real beer, how do you describe what it tastes like?

It was so delicious that I knew I would need my own glass to fully understand its complex flavor. So I went up to the bar, plunked down my weird little coins, and bought my first beer—coincidentally, on the day of my 21st birthday.

Real beer is not just about flavor; it’s also about context. It's best when accompanied by games of cards, where the loser buys the next round. It provides occasion for storytelling, not because it commemorates a holiday or lowers inhibitions, but just because it brings together people who like telling stories. Real beer anchors a community.

The next morning, of course, I learned that beer isn’t all wonderful. But it was all right, at least after a cold shower and some hot tea.

As I got to know my foreign drinking buddies more intimately, I realized how far they were from my images of suave, “ultra-chic” Europeans. They were just normal people, and they had their beer foibles just like my friends back home. But what was different about our drinking rituals abroad was the tone. Rather than some seedy, underground rite of passage, beer drinking was just something to do, one thing in a continuum of possible things to do. Some nights we didn’t even have beer--we drank  Ribena juice (which I never liked) or wine coolers (which I did) in our rooms, while playing Egyptian Ratscrew or 500 Rummy and watching Real Footballers’ Wives on the BBC.

It wasn’t easy at first, coming back to the land of Michelob and Coors. My friends still don’t understand why I spend $15 for a case of imported cask ale when I can get much drunker for much less money on American brew. But I buy it anyway.

Now, when all of us go to bed warm-headed (but not stumbling), I often imagine myself back in Wales, listening to old men with dated guitars and bodhrans singing, while the local hotbloods impatiently wait their turn at the billiards table and wives discreetly stop in for a shot of Snakebite and a pull on the lottery machine. I imagine that I'm back in the culture of beer.


Posted on 8/12/2009 by

William Hardy

William Hardy

As now a student (17 years old) caught up in the whole "party life" that you expressed in your story I would have to agree that drinking in the United States has become a "seedy right of passage". After being raised in London for the first 10 years of my life, I can see the difference in the social aspect of drinking here in the United States as well as drinking in Europe. Most Americans have the view of drinking to get drunk. However the Europeans (not all of them) have the view of, as you said, drinking as something to do (not drinking to get drunk). It's something that I think separates our two countries dramatically and think that your story hit the nail on the head with the obliviousness of your friends (and most all Americans) when you returned. Drinking is not just something that should be done in a quick and easy way to accomplish the euphoric feel of being drunk. It should be enjoyed as I assume you found. Thanks for the great story!!

Posted on 10/07/2009 by

Débora Biasutti

Débora Biasutti

Did you try the Belgium beers? Oh, they are my favorites!

Posted on 6/10/2010 by

Molly Yurick

Molly Yurick

When I first traveled to Europe in college I visited the beer-famous nations of Germany, England and Belgium, and had a similar reaction to the deliciousness of "real" beer. When I got back home to Minnesota, expensive imported six-packs also became a part of my life and have been ever since. But I am surprised to read that you claim that "...there are no real beers in America." Upon my arrival home it didn't take too long for me to notice that I didn't have to drop $15 on a six-pack from Belgium because there are tons of American breweries that make delicious, "real" beer that go for around $8 or $9 a pack. I suggest you now explore the "real" American beer market-- I believe you will be pleasantly surprised!

Posted on 9/04/2010 by

Sophia Kwong

Sophia Kwong

I thought your article was a fantastic, entertaining read, but I do agree with Molly that America has some solid beers as well. You may have to do some searching for them, but for those willing to branch beyond Bud and Miller, there are some fantastic domestics (although I do enjoy my imports). I take issue mainly with William Hardy's comment. "Most Americans have the view of drinking to get drunk. However the Europeans (not all of them) have the view of, as you said, drinking as something to do (not drinking to get drunk)." It's a generalization that I think has more to do with age than any country. Most of us grow out of the "getting smashed for the sake of getting smashed" phase once we turn 21. Once it becomes legal, it loses a lot of its forbidden mystique. Now, I know that my friends and I enjoy going to bars and pubs in the US to catch up, watch a football game, play trivia etc. Not to mention that beer just goes very well with pizza and bbq. I also know that I've hung out with Europeans with the express intention, to borrow a term, of "getting pissed." Which admittedly, is also a valuable cultural experience. =)

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