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You Can't Go Home Again - Part III

It didn't suit me for long. Light beer may have been a utilitarian means to an end, and a temporary release (not unlike masturbation), but to me it never was an end itself, even when I was drinking it. When I reached the magical, mystical age of 21, the legally mandated pressures of adolescence were suddenly gone (although the self-imposed cultural ones remained), and finally I could examine the wares at Cut Rate Liquors in Jeffersonville at my leisure. There were many imported beers, a few of which were British ales, and many more international lagers. Money was a problem, so sampling these beers meant splurging, but at least they were different, and they hinted at broader horizons.

Fortunately for me, two good friends intervened at this juncture and were able to provide personal testimony for two of the mysterious beers on Cut Rate's import shelf, and the impact of tasting these two previously unknown beverages would have a profound effect on my way of thinking about beer. Larry went away to college and returned with Guinness Extra Stout, and Dave did the same, introducing me to Pilsner Urquell, then sold in four-pack cartons for a lofty $3.99 plus sales tax.

I was intrigued. I'd had Molson, Labatts and Beck's, but what was the spicy flavor in the Pilsner Urquell, that piquant bitterness cutting through creamy grain flavor, and something that I didn't remember experiencing before? Dave wasn't sure, but he thought it was the hops. Whatever it was, I liked it, and the Guinness, black like coffee, dry and heavy, macho in some way that I was not able to put into words, was unlike any "dark" beer I'd ever had.

You mean there were different sorts of dark beers, too? Dark beers were not new to me, although I hadn't the first idea why they were dark, or how they were made, or how they differed from the massive blackness of Guinness that cut a swath through my soul. Early on, in '78 or thereabouts, there had been a dark beer from a long-defunct Chicago brewery called Peter Hand (it also made an extra light beer of some sort), and it was followed onto Cut Rate's shelves by Augsburger Dark. Occasionally we had purchased Lowenbrau Dark, having accepted without question Miller's advertising strategy of "tonight, let it be Lowenbrau," and saving the Americanized version of a German dunkel for special times.

There had been other sightings of dark, but none like Guinness. Don Da Leon's, a deli and imported foods store located in the Quadrangle in Jeff, was far ahead of its time (I had a bottle of Kirin there in 1978) and put Schlitz Dark on draft some time around 1981, but even before that, Mario's Pizza on Charlestown Road in New Albany had a dark beer, the brand now forgotten, on draft.

Just after having Guinness for the first time, I saw Stroh's Bock and tried it. What was bock? It was what was left over at the bottom of the vats after spring cleaning each year, or so I was told, with serene and authoritative confidence, by an old man at Steinert's who said he wouldn't touch the dark stuff for fear of its 20% alcohol content. Later, when I learned that the tales of spring scrubbing and heightened potency were utter nonsense, I was embarrassed for having been so stupid.

At first, we mixed the Guinness with lager beers; on more than one occasion, we took a six-pack into the K & H Café in Lanesville and made black and tans with draft Budweiser. The Gods saw fit not to punish me for this transgression, and soon I graduated to straight Guinness � and I've been there ever since. As Mark Francis once noted, the perfect Black and Tan isn't halves of stout and pale ale mixed in a glass, it's a pint of each, mixed in your stomach.

Unfortunately, there were many years of practice and refinement yet to come, because merely being introduced to good beers like Guinness and Pilsner Urquell did not automatically transport me to a state of pure bliss and enlightenment. Progress was painstaking and incremental, with old, tested temptations and new, unexplored domains vying for hegemony over my mind, my palate and my wallet.

By 1983, I was working part-time at the old Scoreboard Liquors in New Albany and seeking to stock one door of the walk-in cooler with imports (remember, micros were still several years away), and I continued to do this right up until 1992, when I went into the business at Rich O's. Beginning around 1984, I would no longer drink light, low-calorie beer. In 1985, I traveled to Europe for the first time, and this was followed by journeys in 1987, 1989 and 1991, and others since. After each trip, it was harder than the one before to go back to my old haunts and to drink cans of Strohs or draft Budweiser, but I must confess that I did go back and do precisely that, at least until 1992. Even the inception of FOSSILS home brew club in 1990 did not entirely divert my attention away from the swill that had ruled my youth, although I can truthfully say that Budweiser has not touched my lips several years now.

I don't know why it took so long for these obvious lessons to take root. For ten years, between my first Guinness and my last can of atrocious Budweiser aboard an Amtrak train bound to Chicago for a job interview and a visit to Goose Island, around four lengthy trips to Europe and submersion in the continent's still vibrant beer culture, and right up through the first year and a half of FOSSILS, swill remained a part of my life. I can say that swill's hold over me steadily diminished during this time, but this does little to absolve me.

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 Rich O's Public House
 3312 Plaza Drive
 New Albany, IN 47150
 (812) 949-2804
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