Friday, April 16, 2010

On the Art of Gulping

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Summit County, Barberton, Ohio is generally not at the top of the list in those tourism books they hand out at the AAA.  The pundits speak of cities that exploded in "rust-belt decline".  Once the smoke clears, the archetype you would expect to see is very much what Barberton looks like.  Similar to many communities that surround Akron, Barberton fell into disrepair once the rubber industry and other businesses fled.  But even with its decaying neighborhoods and diminished industry, there are a number of  merchants in the "Magic City" trying to make a go of it.  There are a couple of decent restaurants downtown, along with businesses that have managed to weather the storm, including a butcher who also sells some of the best pierogies this side of Pittsburgh.  Believe it or not, Barberton also has a winery.  And tonight, I'm supposed to go to it. 

Generally, I like wine.  I've tried to educate myself a bit about it.  Usually my budget gets in the way, though.  Like golf, it can be an expensive habit.  But once I've sampled the soft tannins of an Oregon cabernet sauvignon or the buttery smoothness of a Napa chardonnay for awhile, my taste for fermented grapes is usually quenched.  You see, when it comes right down to it, I'm just a beer-guy.

I've always had a unique interest in spirits.  While I was teaching, I supplemented my pathetic income with a job as a bartender.  I went to "mixology school" (if there is such a thing) and worked in several restaurants in the evenings and on weekends.  In addition to learning a bit about wine, I also became a fan of single-malt scotch and Irish whiskey.  I also learned early on, though, that I tend to lean towards being a "gulper" rather than  a "sipper".  Not gulping as in "chugging", but more of a fill-up-the-mouth-then-swallow-then-ruminate-on-the-joyous-afterglow technique.  And when the micro-beer surge occurred in northeast Ohio, I realized that although I enjoyed varied spirits, beer would always be my first love.

I'm not a prodigious drinker.  Sure, I did my best to try to keep up with the rest of the guys during high school graduation week as we rode around in a car passing around cans of Genesee Cream Ale.  But I knew there was a huge world of beer out there, and I wanted to settle on "taste" rather than "quantity".  During college, I would stumble over to the Geisen Haus in Canton.  They had this program called "Beers of the World Club".  They would give you a card with numbers on it.  These numbers corresponded to the numbers next to the various offerings on their huge beer menu.  There were beers from everywhere in the world, so it seemed.  As you tried each beer, they would punch the number on your card.  Once your card was complete, you had gone "Round the World".  Then Hans Huber, the Stein-Maker, (yes, there was really this guy on-site in lederhosen cooped up in a little booth putting personalized lettering on his hand-made ceramic steins!) would fashion you the stein of your choice.  It was marvelous!  There was Bitburger from Germany.  Bass Ale from England.  Even Steinlager from New Zealand!  Number 37 was Guinness Stout.  I had never consumed motor oil before.  The person next to me said, "You'll hate it.  Just fill up your mouth as much as you can, close your eyes, swallow fast, and do it again till it's empty.  Punch that number and get it outta the way!"  But I liked it.  It tasted dense and chalky, unlike anything I had ever tasted.  McEwan's Scotch Ale looked exactly like it.  After visiting beers from Denmark, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. (yes, they made you drink a Budweiser), I finally had my ceramic mug.  I had "The Professor" put on it.

It was in the early 90's, after getting back a hefty tax-refund, that we planned a trip.  We didn't quite know where we wanted to go.  We had a globe in the basement so we brought it upstairs.  Donna said, "Let's spin it and wherever it lands that's where we'll go".  It landed on Seattle, Washington.  That excursion to the Pacific Northwest would be the beer satori that would take me to the next level.  While in bars in both Seattle and Portland, I would never again encounter so many different varieties of beers!  Multiple tap-handles dotted the bar, with strange names like "Full Sail" and "Red Hook".  My questions about these beers would elicit sample after sample from the bartenders, each saying "You'll like this. Try it".  And the taste.  I had never experienced  such explosive flavors before!  It was as if I had tasted hops and malt for the first time.  I didn't quite know the difference between an "American pale ale" and an "India pale ale", but I was more than willing to learn.          

My twin brother really enjoyed different beers, too.  But his craft-beer journey ended when he was diagnosed as a Celiac.  There are more brewers making gluten-free beers, but the options are pretty limited.  My other brothers are "quantity" over "quality" drinkers.  I'm not sure Anheuser-Busch makes enough beer when Mike and Pat get together.  I've tried, though, to get them to see the error of their ways by introducing an occasional Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold or even a Victory Prima Pils, but eventually they shake their heads and reach for a can of Busch Lite.  Donna is not a beer-drinker, though over the years she's indulged my fetish by accompanying me to all sorts of brewpubs, more than likely against her will.

I have a few requirements when I drink beer.  I rarely drink beer during the day.  Even one beer usually makes me sluggish.  And even though there is more and more written about the pairing of beer and food, I almost never combine the two.  I like to enjoy my libations, and then turn to my fork.  Once I've eaten, it's difficult for me to drink beer, unless some time passes.  Then, it might be more of a "sipping" beer, like a barleywine.  But I'm normally done, and then usually opt for water.  Sure, I enjoy the glowing after-affects of a couple of Tommyknocker Butt Head dopplebocks.  It's part of the magic when yeasts does it's crazy, whimsical dance with malted barley.  (The experience is even better when it happens while the Indians are coming back from a three-run deficit in the 8th inning!)  But because beer is a beautiful sesnory experience for me,  I stop drinking when my ability to taste and smell the nuances of a beer starts to wane.  Then, I know I've had enough. 

I was asked earlier this month to write an article for Heart of Ohio magazine about beer.  They asked me to approach it from the angle of trying to educate someone who's never had a craft-beer experience.  That was tough.  I tried to talk a little about the history of beer and of the craft-beer movement in America.  I interviewed several brewers and industry professionals about their experiences with beer, and their advice to newbies.  I offered some of my favorite "starter-beers", especially as it relates to products available in Ohio.  But I didn't have a chance to tell them what a delightful experience it is to reach your seat at an Akron Aeros game on a picture-perfect summer evening and take that first drink of a Dogfish Head "60 Minute IPA", or how cool it is to meet up with my Nashville friend Jeff in Cincinnati and talk baseball while watching the Reds over a Bell's Oberon.  I didn't quite know how to put it into words the beauty of sitting outside in front of the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis late on a fall afternoon after a Navy football game watching the people mingle with the Midshipman while drinking a Fordham Brewing Oyster Stout.  And I wished they'd granted me the space to pontificate about the sublime event it is when you walk into a brewpub, greeted head-on by the smell of boiling wort, being able to taste that first gulp of a beer you've been reading about, and have the results turn out to be even better than you had anticipated.

But tonight I'll have to settle for wine.  Ohio wine.  In Barberton, of all places.  Are Ohio wines good?  Not really.  I suppose their on-par with wines made in Pennsylvania, or Indiana, or any of the states that you would normally not consider when you think of world-class wines.  Oh, sure, you'll run into a few reds that will occasionally make you want to take a bottle home with you.  But most of them are average at-best, but plentiful if you enjoy wines made with elderberries, strawberries, or Niagara grapes.  True, the winery experience is supposed to be about the enjoyment of being with friends you love, and the folks we're meeting tonight are dear friends.  But as I'm sipping my dry red with the name "Redemption" or "Nouveau" or whatever, I'll be thinking of that copper-colored ale with the creamy white head and all that malty goodness.  After all, I'm a gulper.


Image: Simon Howden /

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