Most every Christmas, we get together with my wife’s family in Central Florida. Typically, we have a grab game where we go around either stealing someone’s gift (yes, it’s Christmas time but it was the friendly variety of stealing) or picking from the remaining unclaimed gifts. This last Christmas I was blessed with a heavy long cardboard tube. My confusion dissipated when I noticed two beer cans inside. The beer is called Fernetic (Birra Botantico) by Forbidden Root, and is a dark ale brewed with herbs, roots, spices and natural flavorings.
Being the guarded type, I waited a month or so before arriving home in Illinois before I tried the first can. Engaged in self-talk what can go wrong with this taste test of a beer I had never seen before? Ignoring all labels (which are among many of my bad habits), I opened the can to have a taste. Besides the carbonation, the two sips did not make my day. It tasted like a mixture of strange herbs, coffee, licorice, and stale beer. Call me soft but I couldn’t finish the beer.
Perhaps before this event, I could have bragged that I always finish my beer. Should I have this put on my gravestone? Or at least something about frugality, if you crack open a beer, it’s yours to consume. Full disclosure, there was one incident years ago when I didn’t finish that ‘cold one.’ One summer day, and many days past my twelve birthday, I grabbed a Hamm’s beer from our fridge and ran towards the street while consuming as much as possible as my dad was running after me. Bad news on two fronts, first, my actions precipitated my father watching me closely when it came to his liquor cabinet and consumption habits. Two, my dad didn’t allow a twelve-year-old to even finish his first beer even though I was less than 6 years away from the legal drinking age!
I’ve had several discussions over the last few years with two of my brothers about my parent’s beer preference in the late sixties and early seventies. Four brands came to mind and chances are, only someone over 55 or so may recognize. Their four go-to- beers included Hamm’s, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, and Blatz. I believe all four of these brands were the easiest on the pocketbook. Hamm’s was originally brewed in Minnesota and their motto, “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters’ which meant they used the best water for brewing. I also remember the slogan for Schlitz, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.”
Getting back to the enjoyment of these beers, my aunts and uncles would sometimes come over sometimes for cards and polish off at least a few. It’s funny to think back to that period where impaired driving was not a priority in the public’s mind. I never remember my parents or aunts and uncles drinking an expensive beer or even one that came from Europe. With so many mouths to feed and many adults working two or more jobs, few had time to experiment. Growing up in Southeastern Wisconsin, these beers were brewed in Beertown, no more than 25 miles away.
Again, economics came into play (even though they wouldn’t call it that) so to extend money as much as possible, an inexpensive case of Schlitz or Old Milwaukee would be on hand to help entertain company. Call me too nostalgic but I long for those days when the buyer would have to place a deposit on a case of bottles. In terms of deposit, a 75 cent fee for the case and 24 bottles and to be eventually returned when my parents were ready to start this cycle all over again. I believe a case of beer in 1970 would cost between $4 - 6. That converts to roughly 16 cents per 12 ounces and Eco-friendly too.
Getting back to Fernetic, I quickly washed my mouth with water to rid my palate of this unusual and unpleasant taste. As my family will attest, I do not have a finicky palate with liquids or solids but this new beer was too much. About a week later, I conjured up enough courage to try the second beer, thinking the first beer was part of a really bad batch. Anyway, a second beer created the same results so I was finished with this beer. Wait, I should say that I finished the beer by pouring it down the drain.
My first exposure to legally consuming mediocre beer occurred in my freshman year at Stevens Point in ’76 (UWSP), a small college town in central Wisconsin. Even though Point beer has a more polished brand today, 40 years prior it was just considered ok by non-beer connoisseurs and only available within 10 miles of the brewery which was located in central Stevens Point. Anyway, I developed a relationship with Point for that year, I would love and patronize it and Point beer would ease my apathy and anxiousness. Also, Point beer helped me withstand the bitterly cold winter of 1976-77 and dealt with the fact this campus produced a lack of suitable coeds.
For readers not familiar with UWSP, the major study focused on forestry and environmental management. Need I say more?
Meditation also helped with my doldrums and often occurred after returning from dinner -- I’d turn off the lights in my dorm room and listen to hard rock music on my headphones. Marijuana was not common in my dormitory so people drank Point beer often for fun and a good time. Hard liquor was also available but the price point was much steeper than just draft beer -- especially draft beer brewed less than two miles away. Some students drank old fashions made from brandy but I hadn’t yet developed a taste for that. Old fashions were quite common years ago, especially at those supper clubs in Central and Northern Wisconsin.
Getting back to beer, most taverns or bars had regular happy hours so any college kid, 17 or above had no issues scoring a pitcher of Point beer for $1. The other promotion at taverns would advertise 7 ounce Point beer for 10 cents. So for a Washington, I could consume 70 ounces of beer which suited me well.
One must realize that many years ago, Point had no national following; it was just a local brewery and only served the thirst needs of the immediate community. I remember an expression that Pointers would say, “When you’re out of Point, you’re out of town.” Certainly, this expression may have been apropos years ago although marketing by beer distributors and brewers have made Point beer available nationally if not internationally.
Was Point beer that bad? Look, this beer required a little getting used to, it was palatable but cheap but as beer connoisseurs know, there were other costs involved. Without a substantial amount of food before bed, most Point beer drinkers could be in a world of hurt the next day. Often, your head would be pounding which prevents you from doing anything until the head is fixed. Anyway, some friends had to learn the hard way over and over again. Also, for too many consumers, this beer did a number on one’s digestive system. It was inevitable that the beer drunk the night before would be manifested differently by different beer drinkers the following morning or afternoon. I’ll stop before divulging too much information.
I moved to Eau Claire in ‘77 and my new college town brewed a beer called Walter’s. I don’t remember where it was exactly brewed in town but beer signs and billboards were ubiquitous in Eau Claire as to not allow residents to forget that Walter’s reigned supreme in Eau Claire, at least among the young and poor college kids. If someone thinks of a name that might become have been a brewmaster 50 years ago, wouldn’t ‘Walter’s’ be a good pick?
So I must talk about how Walter’s tasted. Did it remind me of Point beer? Was it a sophisticated version of Point beer? Hardly. The best thing I can say about it is the beer didn’t take a chunk out of someone’s pocketbook, much like Point. Another similarity to Point was that the brew did not travel far from where it was brewed. I read one time that Guinness brewed in Dublin doesn’t taste as good if you transport the kegs beyond 2 miles of the brewery. I’m not foolish to compare Walter’s to Guinness in terms of flavor except to say it tasted as well as it could have as we drank it in taverns close to where it was brewed.
My friend and I would sometimes frequent a local hangout near downtown, far away from campus. Especially on weekends, many patrons would sit at the bar and drink Walter’s all day while smoking heaters. Not knowing a tavern would engage in peer pressure, but there were times we deviated from the norm and ordered a different beer (local pride in Eau Claire at the time was fierce). The stink eye from the locals was forthcoming. Also, ordering a bottle beer of Miller was a dead giveaway that we weren’t from around there. We eventually got the message that we were not going to receive an invitation anytime soon to join the common people.
As your beer taste buds mature and you have a few more greenbacks in your wallet, your desire to experiment with more expensive beer was forthcoming. So we sometimes gravitated to Leinenkugel’s – a little more expensive with a little more flavor. Before someone gets the impression that we were branching out to taste beer that wasn’t brewed locally, Leinenkugel’s was brewed in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, a 15-minute drive north on highway 53. One needs to realize that this was over 40 years ago but few of us had the hint that eventually this beer would make it to the main stage.
I sometimes think that I have many more stories to tell as I lived frugally during this time. You were forced to be creative and innovative to make your remaining shekels last as long as possible. This situation reminds me of the year I spent traveling and working in Europe for one year on a $10 budget. It’s hard to do but then again, your choices are limited but the stories and experiences may last a lifetime.
After obtaining a BA in December of 1980 in Criminology/Sociology, I remained in Eau Claire for two years trying to determine how I was going to leverage my education. I worked second shift at a residential treatment center during that time trying to determine if social work was my calling. During that time, we’d head for a pub called ‘The Joynt’ on Water Street an hour or so before midnight. An eclectic group typically kept the bar warm and many patrons loved the atmosphere and dark beer on tap. I believe the dark beer served at the time was Berghoff, which calmed the nerves after working with emotionally disturbed adolescents. Anyway, this experience helped pave the way for my experience with dunkles bier (dark beer) in Central Europe.
I quickly realized that social work was not my calling so I procrastinated and spent the second half of ’82 and the first half of ’83 touring and sometimes working in Europe. Beer was omnipresent, even at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (Train Station) hours before noon. Of course, my taste buds matured and adapted, not sure what occurred more but needless to say, I took full advantage.
I remember several afternoons at the Hofbräuhaus (Village Brew House) in Munich drinking locally brewed beers from a glass stein and enjoying the Bavarian folk music and tasty beer. Some may argue today that it’s a tourist trap which is more typical today than 40 years ago but regardless, it’s a sight to behold. One must also mention that beer has been brewed in parts of southern Germany for over 500 years. Anyway, I remember thinking back at my early college years where I accepted Point and Walter’s as my go-to beer. I also remember back to my childhood where my parents drank Hamm’s, Old Milwaukee and Schlitz. However, once you taste Maibock, Weissbier, or Oktoberfest lager, you quickly realize there is no going back to inferior college beer.
Written by Kevin Schwarm