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You Can't Go Home Again - Part II

I was never very good at math, but some numbers added up for me: The colder the beer was kept, the less taste it would have, and the more I could drink of it. My mission in life became cooler maintenance, to take the cheapest styrofoam cooler I could find, nurture it, protect it from harm, and most importantly, to keep it filled with ice. If I could keep the bottom from falling out and find a safe place to stash it, we could save a buck or two the following weekend.

This helped. However, summertime meant that I had problems finishing the beers before they began to get warm. This led to embarrassment on more than one occasion. I would be jammed into the back seat of a late model junker, without the female companionship that the backseat imagery of rock 'n' roll demands, but with an ice-cold can of beer straight from the cooler, gamely making it through the first frozen gulps, then suffering the dismaying recognition that it still was Sterling, Pabst, and Falls City, and realizing that it tasted too bad to finish.

After a sufficient interval had passed, and I determined that I was supposed to have finished the now warmed and thoroughly vile beer, I would throw the "empty" out the window -- but in the still of a humid summer evening's drive in the countryside, I sometimes misjudged the distance from the open window of the moving car to the stationary, muffled cushion of a grassy roadside. The ignominy was instant and damning: A loud "thump" as the half-full can hit the unrelenting pavement, and the abuse that followed, not all good-natured, because after all, we drove all the way to Louisville for that beer and spent every last dime we had on it, so how the hell can you waste it like that!

It was in this manner, slumped shamefully in the back seat of my friend's car trying to choke down a warm Sterling, that I resolved to become a better beer drinker than all of them. I was an athlete then, and contrary to legend, I never drank during basketball season (although beer and baseball went together like, well, beer and baseball), so my beer drinking practice sessions had to be squeezed in during summer and off-seasons. Others began to plan their careers in physics, cosmetology, and insurance sales; meanwhile, I conspired to be the best at beer. Gradually, over time, things began to fall into place.

I found a beer that I really liked: Schlitz in the 16-oz "tall boy" cans. Next, there was a craze for Little Millers and Little Kings; at only 7 oz each, they could be consumed before they got warm, and in multiple doses that gave good story: "Yeah, we each had 12 beers on the way over here." I learned that malt liquor packed a punch, especially when clad in those bright silvery blue cans of the Bull.

Finally, America's beer barons came through with the ultimate solution for the problem of teenage drinkers who wanted to drink beer, but couldn't cope with the rough pungency of the full-flavored beers of the post WWII era: Light, low-calorie lagers, of which Miller's Lite was the first widely distributed example, although there were others, like Anheuser-Busch's Natural Light.

The advent of light beer was a revolution, albeit a regressive one, and after a quarter century of light beer, it's almost impossible to remember the time before it became as much a part of the fabric of American life as white sandwich bread baked from the paste that your elementary teacher used to warn you against eating.

What she didn't tell you is that if you add water and ferment the paste, it becomes light beer, with all the character you would expect from such a concoction, which is none; this was the point then, and it remains the point now, and it's easy to see why light beer became such a phenomenon.

When I became a bit older and began visiting bars -- not before 1979, when I was 19, and gaining in frequency to the present day -- most of the old men were drinking traditional manly beers like Pabst, Sterling and Miller High Life. At some point shortly thereafter, I became aware that almost all of them had switched to Lite, Bud Light and even Old Milwaukee Light. Price seemingly wasn't the issue; if anything, they'd traded up and were paying more to cover the cost of Miller's television ads.

After long consideration, I concluded that a lifetime of Sterling and City finally had gotten to them, and when they realized that light beer was socially acceptable to their peers, under the rationalization that it was less filling, thus enabling them to drink even more beer than before, they fled their traditional brands as fast as their terminally damaged taste buds would carry them. Better the nothingness of wet air than something terminally foul, and you could hear the sighs of relief in air-conditioned lounges and softball fields all across the nation.

The advent of light beer, the castrato of the world of beer, had the same effect on me, at least initially. Less flavor in a beer really was desirable when compared with the odiousness of full flavor at the time, and in the absence of any other standard of comparison that might define full flavor in a positive fashion. In an odd sort of way, and one that might have been avoided if other stylistic choices were readily available as they are today, light beer became a step-ladder for me. I was able to drink enough of it, and sufficiently often, to finally develop a taste for the generic entity of "beer flavor," which I would define as those qualities helping to differentiate between beer, cola and orange juice, and which light beers do possess, albeit it in a substantially diluted form.

The olfactory convenience of light beer bought me some time, and in sheer bulk it helped to satisfy some of the frantically hormonal cravings of my college days. It wasn't drinking, it was swallowing; it was affordable, and this suited me at the time.

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 3312 Plaza Drive
 New Albany, IN 47150
 (812) 949-2804
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