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Authors: Ken Wells

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But Pabst no longer brews beer; it closed its last actual brewery in 2001 and has contracted out all of its brewing operations to SABMiller. Headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, and run by Brian Kovalchuk, formerly an executive with Italian fashion-maker Benetton, Pabst's strategy is to spend almost no money on advertising but instead depend on consumer recognition and nostalgia for these relic labels to sell enough of the beer to turn a profit.

The ultimate success of this is still to be measured, though Kovalchuk, in a later interview, told me he was optimistic. Pabst has been relegated to a minor player in the lager world: its sales have slipped sharply from more than $1 billion in 1999 to about $575 million in 2002, making it about one-sixth the size of third-ranked Coors. But one curious outcome is that its flagship Pabst label has enjoyed surprising growth in an unanticipated niche—among young, urban countercultural types, represented by the bike messenger and anti-globalization crowd, who have swarmed to it as an antidote to mass-market lager. (Never mind that it is mass-contract-brewed by mass-market lager-maker SABMiller.) The beer has slipped into
The Hipster Handbook
The Official Preppy Handbook
, but for the young urban crowd). And in Portland, Oregon, the epicenter of American craft brew market, Pabst Blue Ribbon outsells Miller Lite in supermarkets and is the beer of choice at the city's one anarchist bar.

I decided not to order a Pabst, having had one fairly recently, but I did briefly consider ordering a Falstaff in homage to my father (and wondering if I would recognize the taste). But, being in Wisconsin, I wanted to try a Wisconsin beer. And there on the menu was a name I recognized: New Glarus, the Wisconsin brewer that had made the fruit brew I'd had at Daniel Bradford's health-and-beer tasting. The beer was called Spotted Cow and it was a cask-conditioned ale.

I wondered if Bradford would recommend pairing it with red beans and rice? Probably not, but I went for it anyway. It was a bit on the fruity side, I thought, but I liked it nonetheless.

My red beans and rice came, too, and here was the shocker: they were terrific—pretty close to what my friends in Louisiana would call N'awlins cookin'. I asked the waiter if the chef had a Louisiana connection. He said he'd ask and came back to report that the answer was no.

The Buzzard was a little too cute and put together to qualify as the Perfect Beer Joint but I left a nice tip and struck out for beer joints unknown. Ninety minutes later, I'd covered most of the ones within walking distance, including a decent brewpub called Doc Powell's. It served an ale in the British brown ale tradition called Downtown Brown that was quite good—smooth, malty and fruity. However, the place had a sparse Monday night crowd and, beyond that, I was beginning to realize that what I admired about brewpubs was the creative beer, not necessarily the ambience. Most brewpubs always struck me as being essentially Applebee's or Bennigan's or T.G.I. Friday's with indigenous, exotic beer. Now, to be fair, I would meet many people on the River of Beer, including certified Beer Geeks, who loved certain brewpubs and had adopted them as their local beer joint the same way some people adopt the slightly dilapidated beer joints down at the corner of their streets. But I guess I like my beer joints with at least just a hint of grit and, well, maybe even a touch of sleaze.

I was about to give up on downtown, thinking I might have to flag a cab to another part of the city, when rounding a corner of a darkened street I spied a neon sign in the distance. It said, unless my eyes were deceiving me, “Lousy Service.” After the relentless cheerfulness of the previous places, maybe I was ready for a little abuse. I headed that way.

The joint was called the Casino and from the outside it had dive bar written all over it. Inside, it was a time warp—an art deco cocktail lounge that looked like it could have been uprooted from Vegas in, say, 1957, and moved here by large flatbed truck, lock, stock, green rotary telephone, jukebox, beer taps, and all. It was deliciously dark and as soon as my eyes adjusted I saw an arched entryway, snug, leatherette booths curving against a wall, and a longish bar lined with stools. There wasn't much of a crowd—maybe a dozen people scattered about. I made for the bar and wondered about the icicle lights hanging from the ceiling. Maybe it was always Christmas in here.

I was greeted by a blond, stout, amiable young woman named Tracy who presented me with an astonishing beer menu—more than 300 beers in bottles alone, never mind the stuff on tap. I looked around wondering where they kept it all and, anticipating my question, Tracy told me the bar had a beer cellar where it locked away a lot of the good stuff. I noticed a Belgian ale on the menu priced at $25 a bottle—my first encounter with twenty-five-buck beer. What the hell: I ordered it. And, well, just my luck—Tracy rummaged through several coolers and even disappeared into the cellar but the prize was not to be found.

While I pondered other choices, I told Tracy of my mission. She laughed and said she could easily describe the Perfect Beer Joint. “It would be a place where I could go in and get a beer for free. And I wouldn't really care what kind of beer it would be. In fact, it would be a bar that would give you
for free—free pizza, too!”

Tracy then proceeded to reveal herself as a fountain of beer knowledge—a Beer Geek (though catholic in her tastes), not to mention a certified mixologist who had attended formal bartending school. This was a refreshing turn of events on the River of Beer, which, for better or worse, I was finding to be a very male-dominated place. All the Beer Geeks I'd met so far had been men. But, then again, about 86 percent of all beer drinkers are male and there are only a handful of female brewmasters or brewery owners in the business.

Tracy was a twenty-something Milwaukee native who'd moved here a few years back because “it was a pretty town.” She worked at the Casino for the past year to earn money—and drink quality beer—while attending the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She used to play saxophone in the college marching band but a bad back had put an end to that. “Now, I'm into playing the jukebox,' she said.

She went on: “I'm a beer drinker and this is a good drinking town. With three colleges here, the bar ratio is insane. I pretty much drink everything and when I'm broke I'll drink what's cheap—Bud Light or Busch Light. But working here, my hardest problem is deciding what beer to try next.”

She then wanted to know if I'd yet seen the World's Largest Six-Pack.

I said I hadn't—in fact, I hadn't even heard of it.

“When I was moving here, my dad told me it was the first thing I should see,” Tracy said.

She explained: the G. Heileman Brewing Co. had operated a large brewery in La Crosse for almost a hundred years, making a popular regional lager called Old Style. Heileman's giant beer storage tanks sat on the outside of the brewery next to the street—six of them lined up just like a six-pack of beer. Until Heileman went under a few years back (yet another victim of consolidation), the tanks had been painted like cans of Old Style—hence the moniker, “the World's Largest Six-Pack.”

Tracy said the brewery was now called City Brewery and was trying to come back to life, in part by brewing its own beer, in part by contract-brewing so-called malternatives or alco-pops—beverages such as Smirnoff Ice, malt-based alcoholic concoctions whose taste profile is closer to soda pop than to beer. About all I knew about them was that they seemed to be largely pitched at women drinkers as a beer alternative, and that they were roundly despised by the Beer Geeks.

In the meantime, Tracy told me, the Old Style tanks had been painted white and now looked like a six-pack of some generic beer you might find at a discount warehouse outlet.

I told Tracy I would check the tanks out on my way out of town.

As for the Casino, it had been operating since 1934, for the past twenty-five years under the ownership of Don. He was a seventy-eight-year-old World War II marine who lived in an apartment above the place and conducted most of the bar's business by phone, usually appearing just once a day. Tracy said Don's joy had been to “go beer drinking all over the world—Europe and Russia—and all over the U.S.—Iowa, out West, or wherever, visiting pubs and breweries.” In the glory days of Heileman, he had actually been a Heileman beer taster; the bar was his effort to bring world-class beer to La Crosse.

Tracy stopped and said, “Somewhere around here I have a little tidbit I could show you about Don's philosophy.”

She went rummaging around on a shelf behind the bar and came up with a sheet of paper. It was Don's beer manifesto:

“At the Casino La Crosse, we will not become prostitutes to profit. We will serve only brews we will not be ashamed of from the best available around the world. Life is too short to drink cheap brews… . We serve no headache beers from national brewers. Nor will you find Canadian beers here—they are not import quality. Enjoy the best in world-class ales and beers in moderation at the Casino.”

Don added a parting shot: “Please don't ask for Bud… . Remember, what Don drinks today is brewed downriver in St. Louis next week.”

I told Tracy I'd like to meet Don. She phoned upstairs but after a brief conversation reported that Don wasn't coming down tonight.

Just then, I saw a man get up from a booth against a wall and dart for the door.

Tracy called out, “Hey, how ya doin', Tom?” but Tom disappeared without saying a word.

I found this odd, and before I could inquire about Tom, Tracy went over to wait on a new customer. But a guy sitting two bar stools away from me, noticing my puzzlement, explained Tom's abrupt departure. “I guess you could call Tom a regular. He's a homeless guy who likes to sleep in here sometimes. Nobody minds.”

The speaker was a twenty-something, lanky, dark-haired guy who introduced himself as Clay Holman. He said, “I overheard you telling Tracy about your book on beer culture. That's my area.”

“Oh, how so?” I said.

Clay smiled. He said, “I've invested more years than I probably should have exploring beer culture. And I mean that with wisdom. I was just thinking about how much money I've pissed away on beer.”

Clay then explained that he was a regular here, too, and, well, a regular in lots of other La Crosse beer joints. And my stumbling in here was propitious, he told me, because, “I'm a serious beer drinker and, for this town, this is absolutely the place.”

I got up off my stool and filled in the one next to Clay so I could hear him over the jukebox, which in my short stay thus far had played pieces by Dean Martin, the Band, Frank Sinatra, contemporary jazz diva Diana Krall, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and the godfather of smooth soul himself, the Reverend Al Green. The music was clearly as eclectic as the beer. I could feel my Perfect Beer Joint detector start ticking like a Geiger counter.

Clay then proceeded to fill me in on the La Crosse drinking scene. On the plus side, “the drink prices here have to be the best you can get in the States.” On the downside, “Oktoberfest here is your quintessential drunken powwow … Actually, when I think about it, the per capita number of bars here is deeply troubling.”

Of course, the silver lining to this, Clay said, is that La Crosse seemed to offer something for everyone. There was a hippie bar “with all kinds of trippy stuff in the back” and a bar serving 25-cent shots during something called “power hour” where “all the hard-core alcoholics go.” There was the requisite cowboy bar and a “heavy metal bar, but I don't go in there because the music's too loud.” And of course, a brewpub or two and a few other “classier kinds of joints.” But of all those choices, Clay told me, “I come here because it's a place for brainy people. It's where you have your little extended family when you go out drinking. I like filtering out run-of-the-mill people and this place doesn't get many.”

I realized, of course, that Clay was basically describing Cheers with an edge. Well, actually, I couldn't imagine Woody or Sam or the Coach—and certainly not Carla—letting Tom, the homeless man, sleep in a booth at night.

As if to prove his point about no run-of-the-mill people, Clay said: “On Saturday night, there was an Amish guy in here. You gotta know that when an Amish guy comes into a bar, he's gonna be a bit bent.”

“Get out!” I said.

“I'm serious,” Clay replied. “One of the regulars was talking to him.”

I had two questions: did he have a horse and buggy outside, and what was he drinking?

Clay shrugged off the horse question. “And I didn't really notice what he was drinking. I was having a bad night. I really didn't care.”

We slipped into a brief silence and I thought we were done with the Amish but Clay said that same night, he'd heard a story that he thought perhaps could explain why an Amish man would come to a bar in the first place. “Somebody told me that somebody had introduced crack into the Amish community around here. The guy who told me said he'd heard it from a TV reporter.”

I burst out laughing at this and even Clay smiled. (I made a note to delve into this later, and a search of the
Wall Street Journal
's extensive electronic database covering hundreds of newspapers and other publications turned up nary an Amish crack connection in and around La Crosse.)

BOOK: Travels with Barley
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