Monday, February 15, 2016

The PC: Swill in youthful times of penury and need.

The PC: Swill in youthful times of penury and need.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

The last time I drank a Little Kings Cream Ale, it tasted awful.

The exact year escapes me, but it was during the period when the ill-fated entity known as Snyder International owned and brewed Little Kings in Frederick, Maryland, having reduced it and other beer brands, both old and new, to lowly chattel, suitable only for manipulation by enriched computer geeks wearing mittens, posturing at chess with only half the pieces on their playing board.

Who did this temporary zillionaire think he was, Carlos Brito?

In the year 2000 or thereabouts, Little Kings tasted nothing like I remembered, back in high school, when those slim 7-oz bottles in eight-count containers were a highly valued weekend anesthetic, preferably ice-cold, a merciful two swallows and gone, with the empties destined for tossing at road signs and mailboxes.

Yes, of course our behavior was regrettable, and yet when you’re drinking and driving three or more years before legal age, often in a car not registered in your own name, environmental responsibility ranks fairly low in the pecking order. Green wasn’t a social imperative, at least yet. Rather, it was the color of the bottles being drained.

Accordingly, to me they were “greenies,” having merged this term from two separate sources: Jim Bouton’s baseball expose Ball Four, where it referred to rampant amphetamines, and also the way Jimmy Buffet described his doses of Caribbean-inspired Heineken, without once mentioning trash disposal by boat.

A few years later, drinking my way through coursework at IU Southeast, Little Kings made a strong comeback. We needed draft beer priced right for keggers, and Jeffersonville’s late and lamented Nachand Beverage was there, standing by, with the right answer from a wholesaler that genuinely cared. I miss them.

Little Kings on draft was effective, though it didn’t taste the same as in bottles. Perhaps the barrels weren’t cold enough.

It seems that Little Kings has now returned to Cincinnati as part of the revived Christian Moerlein/Hudepohl/Schoenling brewing effort. Maybe the beer has gotten better again, because I’d like to believe the web site’s claim that the same recipe has been used since the 1950s.

Snyder’s version left a bad taste in my mouth. For that matter, so did Snyder.


These repressed memories came bubbling effervescently to the surface recently when I came back from a meeting in Indianapolis lugging a four-pack of Sun King Sunlight Cream Ale in cans. I find it a fine example of craft brewing as yoked to the imperative of everyday drinking, clean with only a hint of corn, and boasting a comfy 5% abv.

But every time I drink one of them, I’m reminded how different it tastes from what I remember of Little Kings, which I actually liked at the time, as opposed to merely tolerated in route to the goal of inebriation, and as a wrecking ball to social barriers.

It may surprise you to learn that there were others. Indeed, wretched swill was wretched swill, but some swill came perilously close to being drinkable.

During my sophomore and junior years of high school, I actually thought Schlitz tasted good, and this was of inestimable importance, because at first, I didn’t like the taste of beer at all.

Until the decade of the 1960s, Schlitz was a bona fide American classic brand, and an immigrant’s success story. What happened next is a cautionary tale second to none.

Under pressure to keep pace with the emerging multinational behemoths, Schlitz took every available shortcut to cheapen ingredients, step up the corn sugar, industrialize the process – you name the adulteration, and it was enthusiastically embraced.

Welcome to global capitalism: You can eviscerate yourself, or let the friendly shark do it for you.

Schlitz’s missteps culminated with the infamous New Improved Formula marketing debacle, otherwise known as “saving a few bucks has made our beer taste so different that we’ll try to make a virtue out of its degradation,” followed shortly thereafter by another disaster, the recall of a few million bottles of Schlitz compromised because the artificial foam stabilizer had an allergic chemical reaction to another extraneous additive.

At any rate, Schlitz came to taste worse, and anyway, something better had come along: Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull. It numbed the teeth considerably faster.

However, the Bull was no match for Mickey’s Malt Liquor in the wide-mouthed bottles, and to this day, I have no plausible explanation for this fact.

Mickey’s came from whomever was contract brewing Sterling that particular week, and was stupidly inexpensive. Oddly, I never liked Sterling, but Mickey’s didn’t taste like Sterling, though even Sterling itself tasted better in wide-mouthed bottles – when very, very cold.

Notice a trend emerging?

Once in the late 1980s, I told a friend – an import snob like me – about a lovely new beer in town, and went to the kitchen to pour him a glass of it. It was love at first drink, and his guesses of origin ranged from Czechoslovakia to Alsace-Lorraine. The correct answer was Evansville.

He didn’t speak to me for a month afterward.


Then there was Schaefer, a beer dating back to before the war – the American Civil War.

Schaefer was a New York City brewer with a plan to roll-out nationally during the 1970s, building a new brewery in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and quintupling its production to 5,000,000 barrels per year – and still Schaefer lost market share to the Buds and Millers, so in 1981, the towel at last landed, and it was purchased by Stroh’s.

This was the pretext for Stroh’s to make its own great national leap forward, which eventually failed just as spectacularly as Schaefer’s and Old Style’s similar efforts, though in the interim, during the mid-1980s, Schaefer was recalibrated as one of Stroh’s budget brands.

This coincided with my tenure at Scoreboard Liquors, where we sold Schaefer 30-packs for something like $9.00 – cheap, but the necessary bag of ice cost a buck extra.

Perhaps it made sense that Schaefer would appeal to me on price point, since by the mid- to late-1980s, Stroh’s was my “premium” beer of choice. By then the white can had become blue. I didn’t like Stroh’s very much until after returning from my first trip to Europe in 1985, when it seemed that something vague and indefinable about Stroh’s still connected with the continent.

Back home from the journey, and once again employed at the liquor store, one reasonably priced regional beer topped them all: Christian Moerlein, or Hudepohl-Schoenling’s answer to Michelob.

It, too, has returned – and that’s a story for another day.

When the Euro '85 series returns: Leningrad USSR. 


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