Out and about, searching for the perfect beer joint


LIFE IS TOO short, Ken Wells says, to drink dull beer.

"It is a big, happy world out there, with a lot of pale ales and lagers. I really encourage people to become more experimental," Wells said.

This belief that a fellow should drink around is one of the insights Wells came up with after he traveled around the United States sipping suds and thinking about beer. The result of his efforts is Travels With Barley (Wall Street Journal Books, 2004, $25), a look at American beer culture. After reading this book, I called up the author to talk with him some more about our mutual interest, beer.

Unlike a lot of beer books, Travels With Barley does not get bogged down in detailed discussion of IBUs (International Bittering Units), nor does it fall victim to the sloppy sentimentality that can wash over the authors of beer travelogues. Instead it is a compelling, sprightly sociological description of what Wells dubs the "River of Beer" that runs through American commerce and the river folk who work and frolic in it.

Wells, a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who grew up in Louisiana and now works in New York, traveled along towns hugging the Mississippi River looking for the perfect beer joint.

Along the way in these joints he encountered several "beer goddesses," which he described as "the waitress who at 34 still looks good in blue jeans, has an easygoing manner and makes every guy in the place feel like she was flirting with him."

He also took several detours from the heartland, making a side trip to Milton, Del., to visit Sam Calagione, who brews the "extreme beers" of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, to Boston for a meeting of the "the beer suits," the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and to "Beervana" - Portland Ore., a town so in love with beer, that even the waitress in a strip club has an opinion about the best local beer.

His search for the perfect beer joint took time. "As a man on an expense account, it occurred to me that I did not want to succeed too quickly," he wrote. It led him to the Flora-Bama Lounge, a roadhouse near the Florida-Alabama border, where crowds of 4,000 gather on summer evenings to toss back beers and engage in a fish-throwing competition known as the mullet toss.

"The Bama" is, Wells wrote, an "example of the Great American Beer Machine ... a case study in how fortunes can be made along the River of Beer by those who divine the mysteries of mixing location, live music and regionally tinged dinner fare with a studiously cultured iconoclasm." It doesn't hurt, he added, to have a beach nearby and attractive beer-chugging women in bikinis.

Yet, ultimately, the perfect beer joint is a community, Wells said. It is a place like the TV pub Cheers where everybody knows your name. Wells recalled what he called a "Perfect Beer Joint Moment" in Dubuque, Iowa, with Jim Massey, a lifelong Dubuque resident, who had worked at the local John Deere manufacturing plant before the bulk of its 16,000 jobs had been shifted to plants overseas.

Wells was taken on a tour of the town pubs by Massey, who at every stop was greeted warmly and served a beer before he had time to ask for one.

"The world was changing around them, the farm economy was retrenching," Wells said. "Yet the bar was a constant ... an anchor."

That night in Dubuque, Wells drank Old Style beer, one of the so-called "relic beers" whose original breweries have been shuttered but whose labels are kept in circulation by contract brewers. During his journey down the River of Beer, Wells also drank plenty of Miller, Coors and Budweiser, the beers that dominate the American market.

While some beer snobs sneer at these pale lagers, Wells admires the business acumen of these brewers, especially Budweiser. "Bud, like Coca-Cola, has found a seam into mass tastes - among its qualities is that it is inarguably inoffensive to most palates - and has expertly exploited that seam," he said.

To explain why these pale lagers sell better than complicated craft brews, Wells quotes Fritz Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco, a pillar of the craft-brewing movement in America. "Look, the truth is, most people don't like hoppy, malty beer," Maytag told Wells. Most people, Maytag continued, "want a light, refreshing drink" such as Bud.

This puts America in something of a beer paradox, Wells said. The simple pale lagers of Bud, Miller and Coors dominate the landscape, and yet a small but feisty collection of craft brewers continues to make complicated, interesting beers. These persistent, creative efforts of American craft brewers have made the United States a hotbed of new beers, he said.

Wells told me that his journey along the River of Beer had changed his tastes in brews. After growing up in a family that was partial to Falstaff and drinking a lot of cheap lagers - 99-cent six-packs of Buckhorn - in graduate school, he now has become much more experimental in his beer selections.

"I am always on the prowl for the next hoppy beer, a new IPA," Wells told me. Then, with a little prodding on my part, he went on to recommend that beer drinkers should broaden their minds, and try a new brew the next time they go shopping.

There are drawbacks, he admitted, to going the experimental brew route. "My wife complains that she can't drink any of the beers I bring home," Wells said. "They are too hoppy for her."

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