Sunday, February 13, 2005

Jim Koch Trilogy 1: Ol’ Case Never Met a Liteweight He Liked.

(Part 1 of 3 - written in 2003)

What was that?

Oh, I see.

Answer just a few questions?

Sure - what’s on your mind?

Uh-huh. You want to follow in our footsteps, have your own place, preside over a specialty beer bar just like this one, formulate an ambitious beer-vending agenda in the metropolitan Louisville area, rake in the big bucks hand over fist … cool. I’m for it. But there are a few things you should know …

It’s not just a job – it’s an adventure.

The good news is that the pleasures deriving from living and working the life of beer far outweigh the pains associated with the lifestyle (my liver begs to disagree, but who ever listens to body parts, anyway?) Most of the time the gratification is immediate, the vibe genuine, and the personalities a marvelous tapestry that yields a different perspective each time one looks at it.

The bad news? Money, time, toilets, frozen pipes, endless solicitations, garbage in the parking lot, and keeping the dishwasher happy and reasonably sober on a busy Friday night after his girlfriend calls to say that while she’s pregnant, at least the baby isn’t his.

Good beer in Louisville? We have proven that it can be done, and for this, I am proud, grateful and thankful.

At the same time, one must interpret success in a niche market within the context of the larger majority. Truly, the majority defines the niche. Most consumers of beer have been weaned on a lifetime of vapid swill. They cannot be successfully taught to experience the true flavor of beer until an aggressive intervention strategy of deprogramming has been undertaken and completed.

As we have become more popular, it has become more difficult to educate the newcomers. The physical requirements of serving swarms of people attracted by newspaper reviews, for whom a basic understanding of what we’re trying to do in terms of beer is lacking, unfortunately make it almost impossible to explain the nature of the mission.

Thus, the oft-repeated spectacle that goes something like this: “We saw your review, and wasn’t it great about all these beers you serve, the list is so incredible, and all those drafts – now, I don’t like anything dark or heavy or bitter, and my wife, well, she doesn’t like beer at all so just give her a white zinfandel … Heineken’s fine for me … unless you have something, well, something a bit less sharp … and did I say I like my beer cold?”

Those muffled screams you hear are ours. We cherish the opportunity to meet new people, and are frustrated when we don’t have the chance to at least try to exorcise their adherence to the lowest common denominator in beer. All things being equal, and with time, we can save some of them. Others are beyond our help, primarily because their everyday existence is a narrow one that revolves around rabid fear of the unknown.

Certain obstacles to the pursuit of enlightenment.

Setting aside the irony of 250+ million fellow countrymen who are firmly convinced of their individuality even as they unquestioningly obey the directives of television advertisements and fundamentalist preachers, there are other behavioral patterns that stand firmly in the path of beer flavor appreciation.

Here’s an obvious example: It simply isn’t possible to experience beer flavor when tobacco in any form is involved in the equation. How do know this? I smoke cigars, but never when I want to actually “taste” a beer. After a few pints, when I’ve experienced new beers or old favorites, and the olfactory perceptions have been dimmed … that’s when I light ‘em up. Arguably, a cigar can taste good with certain stronger beers, yet it must be conceded that in such a pairing, tobacco is the dominant partner, one that detracts from the optimum beer flavor experience.

I have witnessed bizarre, surreal occasions marked by earnest discussions about beer flavor undertaken by beer drinkers who dipped smokeless wintergreen tobacco throughout the session, washing it down with expensive imported specialties. It’s very hard to imagine any beer capable of overcoming Skoal, but there it is.

Wrap your lips around this long neck.

Crowding behind door #2, we have those who readily identify themselves as “bottle babies.” For the bottle baby, it is gospel that the pinnacle of any beer drinking experience is reached by being able to lift a bottle of beer to his or her lips, while at the same time proudly and loudly refusing the assistance of a proper glass.

Once I saw a self-identified bottle baby purchase and consume a 750-ml Chimay Grand Reserve straight from the bottle, and this action constituted a profound moral dilemma for me. Should I call 9-1-1, or simply smash the empty bottle over the offending, fluffily soft head? The point here goes far beyond Miss Manners: Much of taste is derived from your sense of smell, and you cannot smell beer when it is consumed straight from the bottle.

It’s certainly no coincidence that mainstream swill is tailor-made for the “bottle babblies” of the world. It’s usually served cold enough to deaden any taste buds that may have managed to survive previous assaults, and if the liquid is slugged straight from the long-necked bottle (anyone for phallic interpretations here?), then there’s no chance of sensory simulation. This in turn permits a free, unimpeded flow of easily digestible alcohol straight to the stomach, the brain and the pool cue being wrapped around a fellow drinker’s neck.

Besides that, have you ever noticed that “bottle bubblies” never manage to finish their beer? There’s always an ounce of liquid left in the end. Isn’t that wasteful?

On the other hand, is it logically possible to “waste” swill?


The congestion is easing, and the Curmudgeon’s inhibitions are starting to melt away.

Praise the Lord and pass the mute.

Yet another aspect of the human condition that stands in the way of aesthetic appreciation, whatever the topic, is the local custom of screaming like a banshee to people seated, say, fourteen inches away from the speaker.

I’d have thought that the NASCAR generation would grasp the wisdom of the old admonition to “put your brain in gear before you put your mouth in motion,” but this seldom is the case. Instead, barroom discussions of philosophy, geography, history and the pristine amateurism of college basketball generally take place at deafening volumes that remind passers-by of airport tarmacs, rock concerts, civil defense sirens and machine gun shoots.

So why is Jim Koch stepping all over my buzz?

It feels ever so nice to vent, but my ulterior motive for listing these irritants is to establish a handful of “ideals” for the appreciation of better beer.

Ideally, the beer is in good condition and is served properly at somewhat the right temperature, and in an appropriate glass.

Ideally, the drinker doesn’t chew mango-flavored bubble gum, much less chewing tobacco; nor does he suffocate within range of a half-dozen varying colognes and perfumes.

Ideally, the venue is conducive to the experience, and the person seated at the next table isn’t a lout, a boor, or a serial obscenity spouter.

It is my belief that those of us in the business of serving better beer must at least aspire to these ideals, while of course acknowledging that perfection is elusive for human beings. Those in the better beer business who sabotage these ideals consequently are deserving of the Curmudgeon’s wrath; thus – the envelope please – the winner of my first-ever “Self Inflicted Oxy-MORON of the Year” award goes to … Jim Koch of Boston Beer/Samuel Adams!

Congratulations, Jim, for watering down your (and America’s) “world-class” beer to meet the lower expectations of the Liteweight lobby, then compounding the outrage by dumbing down your company’s advertising to exalt the very excesses of idiocy that I try to alleviate in my clientele on a daily basis.

The designer water in question.

Most readers are aware that our supermarket and airport lounge “choices” now include Samuel Adams Light, an American low-calorie “light” lager brewed by the fellow (Koch) who said he’d never brew such a beer, and promoted on the tube with advertisements that features a young pretty-something male drinker orgasmically shrieking like a titillated banshee as he praises the flavor of Samuel Adams Light, which he is swallowing straight from the bottle.

I don’t have to visit Sam Adams’s web site to know that somewhere within, located on the curb of a cyber-space cul-de-sac, there are instructions on how properly to enjoy craft beer – something about the glass to use, the way to pour the beer, how to taste the product of so much slow-brewed care.

Accordingly, my long-held proposition remains valid: Light beer leads inexorably to brain death.

Yes, I’ve tasted the beer.

Neither screaming nor the spontaneous reading of poetry ensued. My groin remained unperturbed. Samuel Adams Light is harmless, odorless, and largely flavorless. Trying desperately to make sense of it all, I have a question for Mr. Koch: Who’ll buy it?

There’s far too much flavor for the Liteweights, for whom mortal terror of olfactory stimulation is a defining point of all existence. There’s not enough flavor for the more discerning beer drinkers who have learned to think with their big heads and not the little one that operates the remote.

This leaves only the clueless, trendy urban younguns, whose ephemeral fidelity is likely to be tested by the first malternative beverage to come sauntering by dressed only in a high-priced, hip hop-laced ad campaign.

If drinking Sam Adams Light means they’ll be coming into my establishment, yelling and carrying on and pounding light beer straight from the bottle -- well, then, Jimmy boy, we’ll not be selling Sam Adams Light. I haven’t spent ten years attempting to educate my clientele to suddenly throw it all away for Koch’s folly.

As Casey Stengel once remarked to the hapless New York Mets of 1962: “Does anybody here know how to play this game?”

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