This month’s Session, is about a special place, and the beer or brewery that connects you to that place. Here’s my contribution.
I know exactly what my first beer was, I just don’t remember drinking it. My first beer was Rolling Rock, and I was just a few years old, growing up in the small college town of Bowling Green, Ohio during the 70’s when my dad gave me a carefully administered sip of it. Dad rarely drank anything besides Rolling Rock, and back then when there were far fewer breweries in the US, this was supporting your local brewer, even if the Rolling Rock brewery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh, was about 300 miles away. Dad didn’t drink beer too often, but on Saturday afternoons, a glass of Rolling Rock was one of his small treats and he’d let my sister and I try some. Like most kids at elementary school age, we were curious how beer tasted, but didn’t particularly like it once we tried it. Dad later told me these tastings were his way of trying to demystify beer to prevent us from abusing it later in life. Dad taught us that beer was not some forbidden fruit, but something to be savored and carefully enjoyed. These days, we call that respecting beer.
I still remember Dad’s excitement when Rolling Rock’s spring seasonal Bock showed up at the State Liquor Store each spring. Seasonal beers in the United States were rare back then. Spring was basically when the snow melted and there were only a couple months of school left. But it was also the time Dad started drinking Rolling Rock Bock instead of their usual lager and telling me all about the spring tradition of Bock Beer, which barely interested me at the time.
As the 70’s ended, our family moved from the small Ohio town to the big city of Chicago, but so many small things from that time in Ohio remain etched into my brain. The lessons of supporting your local brewer, respecting beer, and a connection to seasonality of beer styles are all a part of my childhood experience growing up in a small Ohio town. I didn’t think much of any of this at that time, but I carry these memories with me to this day.
Nine years later, I came back to Ohio to attend graduate school at The Ohio State University. And while that meant a lot of late nights studying, struggling through nearly impossible problems, and long hours in the lab, it also meant late night poker games and going out to seeing quirky bands at clubs with friends. And the beer of choice when we cut loose from the hard work was Rolling Rock.
It was the early 90’s, and beers like Sam Adams starting showing up on grocery store shelves, Ohio having rid itself of the prohibition relic of State Liquor Stores. And while I started trying the new craft beers showing up in grocery stores, Rolling Rock was still the “local” brewer in Columbus. The tap list at most bars was limited to something like Bud, Bud Light, Coors, and Rolling Rock. And yes, for some reason, Rolling Rock just tasted better than those other lagers that simply weren’t a part of my home. Rolling Rock had an identity with the eastern edge of the Midwest, and Coors, Miller, and Budweiser seemed foreign, even if there was a Budweiser factory in Columbus.
Now 20 years later, I live 2,000 miles away from Ohio in Northern California. My curiosity in craft beers has turned into a full blown hobby, and my local brewers are all the great Northern California breweries. Mega brewing conglomerate Anheuser-Busch bought Rolling Rock in 2006 and almost immediately closed the Latrobe brewery and moved production to Newark, New Jersey. I recently tried Rolling Rock, and found it to be totally undrinkable, nothing like I remembered it back when I drank it back in Ohio.
Maybe Rolling Rock just was never very good. Maybe I simply look back on the beer during those idyllic days of my childhood and graduate school with misplaced nostalgia, rather than a realistic understanding of what the beer was really like. But I can’t help being troubled that the beer that created my first, lasting impressions of what beer embodies, a beer that identifies me with Ohio, and in a small but highly significant way, the beer central to experiences that will last me to the end of my life was kidnapped from its home in the Midwest and is now pimped from the streets of Newark with the awkward come on “Born Small Town”. Few are buying this ridiculous line, and sales of Rolling Rock are declining, with little chance this beer will ever find its way back to its true home. A part of me is lost forever.