The Session #118: Who’s Coming to My Ultimate Fantasy Beer Dinner?

This month’s Session topic from Stan Hieronymus is a fiendishly clever idea to get us to think about how beer relates to our personal lives through the simple question:

If you could invite four people dead or live to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?

Which four people would I invite to spend the evening over a beer dinner? Well, I could invite four very talented, accomplished brewers, but a couple hours into a wonkish evening devoted to the fine details brewing techniques, I’d start looking at my watch. Talking endlessly into the night with a bunch of beer writers and historians would be an evening well spent, but I could think of better ways. The four people who I’d  want to spend the evening mean a lot to me in some way, and all undeniably understood the power of beer. So without further ado, let me roll out the guest and beer list for my ultimate fantasy beer dinner.

Mike Royko
(AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)

1) Mike Royko, Writer (1932-1997)
Every morning growing up in suburban Chicago, I’d start my day reading Mike Royko’s column on page 2 of the newspaper. Sadly, writers like Royko no longer exist. His crusty, hard-boiled prose covered politics, sports, food, culture, music, and whatever else might be on his mind, an unthinkable breadth in today’s modern hyper-segmented media. Some of his best columns captured the hopeful futility of Cubs fans, and with all the retrospective Cubs lore surrounding their run to capture their first World Series in 108 years, surprisingly Royko has been left out of that conversation.

What few realize what that Royko was one of the earliest American crusaders for better beer. Writing for the Chicago Daily News in 1973, Royko declared “America’s beer tastes as if it were brewed through a horse”. Backing up his assertion, he organized what was quite possibly the first blind beer tasting competition in the United States between twenty-two National brands, imports, and a smattering of small Midwestern regional breweries that existed at the time. Despite taking a lot of heat for slamming America’s national breweries, the results supported Royko, as no national brewery finished in the top five. The winner was an imported West German Pilsner followed by England’s Bass Ale. The leading American beer was Point Special from Point Brewery, a small brewery in nearby Steven’s Point Wisconsin which you can still purchase today.

Royko never lived to see his beloved Cubs win the World Series and American brewing hadn’t yet shifted into overdrive when he passed away in 1997. I can only imagine what he’d think about Cubs finally winning the World Series or how America’s brewers have transformed beer. I suspect he might not a fan of uber-hoppy IPA’s and he’d have plenty of snarky and deadly accurate things to say about craft beer’s hipsters and pretentiousness. It’s too bad we’ll never get to read them.

The Beer: 2016 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.  The antithesis of beers Royko railed against, yet old school enough to warrant his approval.

2) My wife
No one has shaped my appreciation for beer greater than my wife. People talk about their personal craft beer epiphany. My wife had a big hand in mine. We had only been dating a few months when we took a trek to California’s Mendocino County. I was already familiar with a few small breweries, but it wasn’t until we stopped at Anderson Valley Brewing and North Coast Brewing that I began to really appreciate the real possibilities and dimensions of beer. She also introduced me to some fine wines in Anderson Valley, but I don’t hold that against her.

Together we’ve shared and discussed the contents of so many 22 ounce bottles. She’s not only been a great reality check on my taste buds (“Are you tasting apricot?”), but picks up certain characters from a brews that I didn’t quite get the first time around. While we’ve had our share of passionate arguments over stuff other than beer, sharing a good beer is often the best way to diffuse our stresses at the end of a difficult day.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to her than being my best drinking buddy. She helped me turn around my life ten years ago when it nearly went off the rails, restored a sense of family with my kids I lost with my first wife, still laughs at jokes I’ve told over a thousand times, and does an unbelievable job of putting up with my crap. I love her.

The Beer: Her favorite beers are Belgian Ales and IPA’s, so a good Belgian IPA like Stone’s Cali-Belgique is the choice.

Ken Grossman (photo credit)

3) Ken Grossman, Founder and CEO of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
When new brewers these days call themselves pioneers, I just have to laugh. While there’s nothing simple about building a brewery, today’s brewers can order ready made equipment from any number of suppliers. Grossman had no such luxury back in the day. He literally built his first brewery from discarded junk. New brewers talk about educating themselves to understand the nuances of how beer pairs with food, or how to use new hop varietals. Grossman took welding classes just so he could build a functioning brewery.

Fast forward from those meager scratch beginnings to today and there’s simply no one more experienced or knowledgeable about all thing brewing in America, period.  Whether building a brewery, understanding the business of beer, using barley and hops, or finding more environmentally sustainable ways to brew, Grossman’s the expert. He also knows a lot about pairing beer with stuff like fois gras and using fancy schmancy hops varietals. Oh yeah, he’s also a self-made billionaire.

What I find most impressive about Grossman is that he’s handled his transformation from a humble brewer to a brewing mogul with far great humility and grace than many of his contemporaries. Jim Koch’s still irrationally clings to struggling Sam Adam’s Boston Lager as the savior to his Boston Beer Company, while the company he built pointlessly churns out a steady stream of alcopops. Greg Koch’s edgy aggression deteriorated into clumsy corporate punk posing once Stone Brewing became an international brand. Lagunitas’s Tony Magee has become just like the corporate bullies he’s long railed against. Yet Grossman has remained Grossman: smart, industrious, generous, and knowledgeable. Just like his flagship Pale Ale, even though he hails from craft beers dark ages, Grossman’s arguably more relevant than ever. He’s still ahead of everyone else on the marketing curve with things like Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp. There’s always a seat at my house for Grossman anytime he wants to talk about all things beer.

The Beer: What else? Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

4) Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
If you’ve studied how our nation’s Presidents related to beer over the past 100 years, and I have, it’s clear no President has come anywhere close to Barack Obama at elevating the status of beer in our country. Beer was brewed for the first time in the White House under his Presidency. But home brewing in the White House is pretty minor compared to Obama’s Beer Summit, where beer was used for its power as a social lubricant to ease racial tensions. Obama’s done a great job serving two terms as our President and it would be my privilege to buy him a beer as a thank you for everything he’s done for our country.

Yes, I’m one of those damn liberals and I do my best to avoid politics on my blog, but in these turbulent times as we contemplate a Trump Presidency, I’m finding that difficult. Of the many wonderful things about beer, it’s a welcome escape from the critical economic, social, and environmental challenges we face. I’d rather have a hobby writing about something as inconsequential as beer than the stuff that really matters. But given the deep divisions the recent election exposed in our country, often along racial lines, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on beer. They say “Politics divides, beer unites”. For that reason alone, we need “beer” more than ever.

The Beer: I would be honored to brew an all grain version of Ale to the Chief  Honey Brown Ale or Porter to serve our outgoing President.

President Barack Obama using the power of beer to heal racial divisions in the Beer Summit


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ramblingsofabeerrunner

Writing about beer from the California's Silicon Valley.

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