Our relationship is marked by beer. Like a long line of bottles in varying shades of brown, green, and amber, the seasons of our love correspond with the tastes and textures and names of beers.
Together, over 14 years, my husband Doug and I have run the gamut—from obscure, handcrafted beers to expensive English delicacies to gourmet homebrew to cheap domestics, and now, finally, to our favorites—the comfort beers we’ve settled on, the brands and varieties we always know we can bring home and the other person will appreciate.
At first, there was barley wine. Intoxicating, rich with perfume, it was a new taste for me, one I hadn’t even known I was ready for. On our first date, at the very outset of what would be a steady, satisfying, several-years-long courtship, Doug and I sat on stools in a restaurant called The Meeting Place and chose from a menu of hundreds of beers.
I scanned the long lists of bottles and drafts, imports and domestics, and felt nearly overwhelmed by all the choices in front of me. Would I pick correctly? Would I, first of all, enjoy what I chose? Would I impress Doug with my selection, or would I feel stupid and regret this?
Flustered, I went for what sounded both quaint and exotic: barley wine. Two small, potent bottles later, I was weak in the knees. (Photo: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Olde School Barley Wine)
We moved on, together, to double bock, the perfect tonic for the stirrings of early spring lust. The rest, as they say, can be left to the imagination.
That first spring and summer, our love blossomed like lilacs, refreshingly sweet, and we spent every weekend together. I’d take the train out from New York City to meet him in what now seemed to be the country—suburban New Jersey—where Doug lived and worked as a carpenter.
Friday night always began with a careful selection of beer. If we were going out for Mexican food, the choice was obvious: Dos Equis with fresh-cut wedges of lime. Otherwise, I left it up to Doug. He knew his beers.
Having just moved back east from the Pacific Northwest, he introduced me first to all his Seattle and Portland-area favorites: Red Hook ESB, a sweetish, yet astringent amber; and the Rogue Ales—especially Dead Guy Ale, a German-style Maibock, malty and rich.
From there, we moved down the coast to Northern California, finding a new favorite: Red Seal, a copper-red pale ale, generously hopped. (Pint glass here filled with–you guessed it–Red Seal Ale)
We discovered wheat beers together, which to me are especially delicious with their light-as-air foam, their fruity (yet buttery) tingle on the tongue. I developed a special fondness for the delicate, coriander-tinged flavor of Texas’ Celis White (it is, sadly, no longer brewed).
Dinners out in the city usually meant Indian food and—for me—a nice bottle of Belgian raspberry lambic bought at the little bodega on the corner of First Avenue and East Sixth Street.
Doug gamely tried the lambic, but he prefers bitter brews with bite and soon dismissed my newfound confection as “a girl drink,” or “champagne.” He opted, instead, to go native, drinking Indian beer such as Kingfishers with Indian food; and Sing Ha with Thai dishes; or else he stuck with his perennial favorite: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
A trip to Colorado meant an opportunity to eat and drink at the distinctive Boulder breweries—the Walnut Brewery and Oasis, among them. We sampled the goods everywhere we went, trying little glasses of perhaps 10 different beers, and we left the brewpubs carrying 12-packs of our favorites, seasonal specialties such as apricot ale, things we couldn’t buy at home. We drank some of the beer while camping in the Tetons and lugged the rest back East with us on the plane.
The next step in our relationship was living together, and as soon as we’d found an apartment with huge windows, glossy wood floors and an adequate kitchen, we bought a homebrew kit.
Doug and I started out nervously, like new parents, carefully sterilizing everything, conscientiously stirring a bubbling cauldron that contained the makings of a batch of honey-colored, wheaty lager.
We bought new bottles for this baby—lavishly thick, 22-ounce green ones with hip, metal swing tops. In our eagerness to sample our creation, however, we didn’t leave this beer to age quite long enough.
Our first homebrew we declared a disaster—too sweet and flat. We forgot about a case of it, and moved on to something more ambitious (my idea, I admit): a double-chocolate porter.
This beer we did not touch for required months of fermentation. When we did taste it, the beer was rich and thick, bittersweet, and it poured with an impressive head.
We (dumbly) shared the porter with our friends and our stock was soon depleted. Oh, well, we thought. We still had the corner store on Indian Row, and our local beer emporium, which was finding new beers all the time—continually challenging our tastes—to sustain us.
At this beer emporium, Doug discovered an English beer—available only around the holidays—called Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. It comes in large, clear pint bottles, the copper-brown ale just beckoning to be quaffed. (Photo: the big, bad WW–not sure what year this bottle is from.)
The taste of Winter Welcome is both rich and clean, nutty-sweet yet dry. Doug also likes the labels; each year the painted illustration changes (think goose or chalet, horse-drawn carriage and so on), giving him good enough reason to not recycle the bottles. Winter Welcome is Doug’s favorite beer of all. He told his best friend, Mike, about it, sharing a bottle to explain its magical taste.
This could have been a mistake. Now Mike buys out the beer store’s supply of Winter Welcome each Christmas, and the only way Doug can even get any of his favorite beer is to stop by Mike’s house.
As the years went by, our relationship strengthened, and the beer drinking picked up speed, as well. I bought Doug books on beer. He read them carefully, dog-earing pages, scribbling notes in the margins, determined to seek out the few gourmet beers he hadn’t yet tasted (ones from small craft breweries housed in defunct Midwestern fire stations, or remote corners of Alsace-Lorraine).
But then, suddenly (the change shocked me), Doug was no longer very interested in microbrews. He wanted reliability, he said—and a more palatable price tag. At this point, we were engaged and living out in the wilds of Eastern Long Island, in a small cottage near the beach.
We were far from a decent grocery store, let alone one with any impressive selection of beer. Doug reverted to drinking Rolling Rock and Bud, and occasionally (when he felt like splurging) his old standby: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
When I asked him what was going on, Doug said it was simply a new phase of his life: he was settling down. At first I worried, but then I came to see his point. Doug had played the field and now he knew what he liked, so what was the point of continuing the game?
Doug and I got married and took a very long honeymoon in Belize. While there, we savored the crisp, new taste of Belize’s own beer: Belikin. This is a beer we still haven’t been able to find in the states (though I think it may be available somewhere in Texas).
A by-product of our honeymoon, we soon discovered, was a baby. I, of course, drank no more beer as soon as I realized I was pregnant. We packed up house and moved to Iowa so I could attend grad school after the baby’s birth.
Away from family and friends and plowing through our savings to furnish our apartment and stock up for our child, Doug stuck to drinking inexpensive, domestic beers. When the time came for our daughter’s birth, I reminded Doug to pack a special bottle of champagne that my cousin’s husband—a wine dealer—had given us. He did so, and for his own nerves, tucked into a cooler two cans of beer.
I was appalled to find, the next day in the hospital, two (untouched) cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Why on earth had Doug chosen such a pedestrian beer?
He said he didn’t know why, or it was simply a strange combination of desperation, flightiness, and worry. Doug had reportedly reached for the first beer he saw in the supermarket. He was very nervous about becoming a father, and he hesitated to celebrate just in case (he’s a pessimist) something should go terribly wrong.
But everything had gone fine. We had a beautiful, nine-pound daughter.
Doug toasted her with Pabst (I am still appalled), and promised we’d drink the champagne at home.
All these years later, we still, of course, find ourselves going through phases of life, as well as phases of beer. We appreciate beer, and just as people enjoy different music on different occasions, so it goes with beer.
We need to get another beer-making kit and try that again (now that our kids are big enough to keep themselves occupied for a few hours). This past Christmas, I intended to brew beer as gifts, but I just got too busy.
Think we’ll try it again this year, though. Boiling up a batch of beer during what is sure to be a hot summer will nevertheless be worth it in the winter. (Especially since walking down to the basement for more beer is much easier than visiting the annoying Pennsylvania state liquor stores…the beer drinking lately has waned just because it’s such a pain to buy beer where we live now. You can’t even leave a PA store with three six-packs. No, you have to leave the third and come back for it separately…. I can’t even imagine the purpose of such an insipid law.)
The hardest part of homebrewing this time will be agreeing on what type of beer to make. We’ve done it all, had them all. But we still recall the taste of that forgotten first batch of homebrew—the one we opened too early, dismissed too quickly.
When Doug and I stumbled upon some dusty, untouched bottles a couple of years later, we ventured to try that first beer again. Its taste was now mellow, delicious—redolent, somehow, of fresh-mown hay and clover.
Like our love, it had only grown richer with age.