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Authors: Ken Wells

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Joe Gilchrist was doing his part. Later, out on the Bama's boardwalk, I spied him in a captain's hat, surrounded by a number of young, bikini-wearing admirers and a Bama employee. At first, he seemed in parade captain mode, but then I heard him in animated discussion about trying to speed up business at a beer stand over to one side of the boardwalk; people didn't seem to know it was there.

The employee suggested the stand could put up a sign offering a special: say, a free fourth beer after a customer had purchased three.

Gilchrist smiled and shook his head. He said, “Well, actually, I'm more interested in selling twenty for the price of twenty-four.”

A couple of weeks after the Toss, I e-mailed the Bama hoping to get an exact count of how many beers or equivalents (since a pitcher holds seven 12-ounce glasses) got drunk that weekend. But nobody had that kind of figure (or at least they weren't giving it out). I did, however, get an estimate of Bud products from David Bear, a principal in the Lewis Bear distributorship.

“It was about 2,000 case equivalents,” Bear told me on the phone. And with Bud making up about half of all Bama beer sales, the extrapolation is about 4,000 cases altogether.

That's 96,000 beers—if they were bottles laid end to end, a pipeline of beer nine miles long.

I later had lunch with Paige Lightsey when she visited New York on a work assignment. I wondered how she would assess this Toss compared to others she'd attended. She laughed and said, “I can't remember.” Then she got serious and said, “I'm very comfortable at the Bama. I work in a very pretentious business and the Bama is a place where I can decompress and be unpretentious. I'll be back next year.”

As for her annual Mullet Toss beer consumption, well, a lady never tells. But Paige did allow that another reason she had such a soft spot for the Bama is that, “I don't have to buy a lot of my own beer.”

The only other thing I wondered about the Mullet Toss is what became of the mullet.

The answer is that, after the last mullet is tossed, they are fed to the seagulls.

Author's note: Mickey Newbury and Mike Fincher have both passed away since the reporting of this event.

A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity.

—D
R.
S
AMUEL
J
OHNSON

CHAPTER
2
 · THE QUEST BEGINS
A Pilgrim on the River of Beer, Stillwater, Minnesota

On a fair Saturday in September of 2002, I bumped down through the late summer thermals aboard a Northwestern Airlines 727 and landed in Minneapolis after a two-hour flight from New York. I claimed a rental car, checked into the industrial park hotel I'd booked as part of a last-minute special on Orbitz, and set about plotting my itinerary. I pulled out the Yellow Pages from my bedside table and started looking up bars.

I was going to spend the next two weeks driving the length of the Mississippi River from north to south, in search of the Perfect Beer Joint. The Flora-Bama, and its beach-bar/dive-bar niche, was certainly one model but I was interested in exploring others.

Though I'd already been researching this book for a few months, I dove into this quest with little preparation. First of all, I didn't want to taint my research with anybody else's prepackaged notions of the Perfect Beer Joint. Second, if my basic thesis was true—that beer is a ubiquitous, even saturated fact of American culture—then little research should be necessary. In principle a person ought to be able to alight in almost any place in America, save the nation's 320 or so dry counties, and find if not a Perfect Beer Joint at least a good one. And surely, in the 2,500-odd miles that the Mississippi chugs from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, the odds were good of stumbling upon some place approaching mythical Perfect Beer Joint status.

Of course, I had my reasons for choosing the Mississippi. For starters, it is a storied river, full of lore and color, known to the Old World since 1540 when Hernando De Soto came upon it, though there is no record of him drinking beer along its shores. Mark Twain, a man who
was
known to like his beer, wrote an entire book about his life on the river and most certainly drank beer along its shores. For all I knew, the Perfect Beer Joint might reside in Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. (Preview: It didn't.)

By contrast, an east-west alternative, following, say, Interstate 80 from Manhattan to San Francisco, didn't seem as interesting. I have a theory about latitudinal homogenization, believing the predilections, tastes, and biases of the urban coasts travel all too easily along the great east-west hyper-corridors, spreading a kind of sameness that wouldn't serve my quest. It's probably occurred to you that you could get in a car in, say, Paramus, New Jersey, and drive coast to coast, stopping at the unavoidable shopping malls that crop up every three or four hours. You could visit a Gap or a T.G.I. Friday's in every mall and you could see the same kind of people that you'd left behind … and you could arrive at the Pacific Ocean 3,000 miles later with no feeling that you'd gone anywhere at all. (I'm actually planning to try this one day. But it didn't seem right for my beer quest.)

On the other hand, the vast longitude of the Mississippi, meandering its way through ten states, seemed a lot more prospective. Scenic highways, small towns, a vast range in terrain, demographics, and climate. About 12 million people live in the 125 counties and parishes that border the river. I would begin in Minnesota among folk who, geographically speaking, are practically Canadians and by reputation descended from good beer-drinking Swedes and Germans. I would slide down soon enough into the Great Beer Belly of America, for, by lore at least, Midwesterners are presumed to be the mightiest of U.S. beer drinkers. I would travel through the heartland and land upon the shores of the King of Beers in St. Louis, for though the Budweiser people had shown only wary interest up to this point in talking to me about this book, I could at least visit the huge Anheuser-Busch brewery there as a tourist.

What, I wondered, went on at the beer joint closest to the Bud plant? Would they serve Miller Lite?

Then, I would push on down South, where two of my favorite cities, Memphis and New Orleans, beckoned. I was intrigued by the possibility of an Elvis-and-beer connection in Memphis, since a fair amount of beer drinking (among other things) was said to have gone on at Graceland, though there seems to be an enduring mystery about whether Elvis himself was fond of brew. Maybe Graceland would hold some clues.

And I knew, by dint of having grown up near there, that New Orleans harbored perhaps the oldest continuously operating beer joint in the nation. And even if I didn't find the Perfect Beer Joint (and as a man on an expense account, it occurred to me that I shouldn't want to succeed too quickly), what better way to cut to the heart of beer passion and get an intense look at what Beer People were thinking (and drinking)?

Beyond that, the beer joint as an institution, with its vaunted place in beer's sociopolitical and commercial history, surely warranted further exploration. Clearly a New World derivative of the British public house or pub (and in some parts of the country, the German beer hall), the first licensed one opened in 1634 in colonial Boston. By the time the colonies had worked themselves up into the lather of revolution 140 or so years later, the taverns of the would-be nation were bubbling with sentiment for independence. Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams (the patriot and brewer for whom Jim Koch at Boston Beer named his brew), James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were big fans of the early American beer joint; indeed, Jefferson is said to have written some of the Declaration of Independence over pints of ale in Philadelphia's Indian Queen Tavern. Around the same time, in the very same city, military folk plotted how to best structure and equip an outfit to be called the Continental Marines as they drank pints in the Tun Tavern. The organization grew into the U.S. Marine Corps. I've never met a marine, active or retired (including my father), who wasn't universally proud that the Corps was born in a beer joint.

The beer joint also has historically been the main commercial lifeline of America's brewers. Until the concept of mass merchandising, chain supermarkets, and convenience stores swept America after World War II, the beer joint and other on-premise sellers probably accounted for 95 percent of all beer sales. In fact, before the thirteen-year dry spell (1920-1933) known as Prohibition decimated America's brewing industry, the nation's brewers owned or controlled, through often dubious contractual agreements, perhaps 85 percent of the nation's taverns. Many historians have argued that the abuses that grew out of these anticompetitive relationships—free lunches, for example, to entice working men to spend their lunch hour (and pay) at the local beer joint—provided a good deal of the Prohibitionist fodder.

Little more than twenty years ago, beer joints and their brethren (including that newfangled invention, the brewpub, which first cropped up in 1982) were still moving about 75 percent of America's beer. Then, the states all began to stiffen drunk driving laws; this and demographic shifts such as the aging of the population bulge known as the baby boom set off an astonishing sea change in beer consumption habits. These days, only about 25 percent of all beer is bought and consumed in bars or other on-premise locations while 75 percent is sold and consumed off premises. Convenience stores, supermarkets, and package liquor stores account for almost 60 percent of off-premise sales, with drugstores and super-centers like Wal-Mart accounting for most of the rest.

That said, the beer joint remains vital to the beer industry because on-premise retailers still represent the single-largest
category
of beer sales, moving about 51.2 million barrels of beer in 2002—about four million barrels more than its nearest category rival, the convenience store. Moreover, the beer joint is still the industry's great cash cow; it and its allies may account for only 25 percent of all beer by volume, but by dollar amount they rack up almost half of all annual retail beer sales.

Why? Because beer joints usually charge more for beer than do retail stores, the gross profit margin for the average beer joint is a whopping 82 percent. That worked out to a tidy $29.4 billion worth of gross profits in 2002. By comparison, gross profit margins for convenience stores and their ilk average a mere 22 percent.

Now, as to what might constitute the Perfect Beer Joint, I admit this is a highly subjective and possibly even controversial matter. Purists will argue that the Perfect Beer Joint fundamentally has to be about the beer, followed by an ambience conducive to the pleasurable drinking thereof.

This was certainly the answer I got from a newly minted Internet pal by the name of Jimmy Paige. I'd found Jimmy on the Web as I researched the vast universe of homebrew clubs—like-minded people who get together socially to talk about and sample beer they often brew in isolation, with great secrecy and competitive zeal. Jimmy was head of one of the bigger of such clubs, a Houston outfit called the Foam Rangers.

Well, head isn't exactly what Jimmy was. His official title was
Grand Wazoo
of the Foam Rangers and, once his term was over, he would become forever the
Wuz Waz
. It therefore seemed mandatory, before launching my quest to find the Perfect Beer Joint, to get the opinion of the Grand Wazoo as a kind of benchmark to use along the way.

I was halfway expecting a smart-ass answer to my e-mail but the Grand Wazoo delivered a thoughtful reply: “You may find this definition changes as you encounter different people,” he wrote. “Younger crowds will tell you it is the place that has the best drink specials, older, more mature crowds will indicate the ambience. For me it would be the pub where I would always want to go back to for the hardest-to-find beers.” He closed with this sober admonition, which I planned to flourish if the accounting department ever got after me for my beer expenses: “If you are like most homebrewers, never be content in saying your quest has been satisfied. We are forever on the prowl, looking for that one perfect place.”

“Forever on the prowl …”

I liked that. I liked it a lot.

Michael Jackson, the internationally known British Beer Hunter, seemed the perfect person to whom to pose the Perfect Beer Joint question. When I ran into him during an East Coast brewery tour, he offered a counterintuitive observation. While
his
idea of the Perfect Beer Joint was certainly about the beer, he noted that in his experience, “the more macho the bar, the wimpier the beer.” He once made the mistake of postulating this in Australia, which, like America, loves its middle-of-the-road lagers, and was almost run out of the country. But, assuming you accept the premise that middle-of-the-road lager is wimpy beer (and some people don't—recall those Miller Lite ads arguing the merits of “great taste/less filling!”), Jackson makes an interesting point. Go, as I have, to any of those big line-dancing, country-music beer joints out in Texas where every vehicle in the parking lot is a jacked-up Ford 4x4 pickup with a gun rack. Odds are good that about half the guys riding the mechanical bull will be drinking Miller Lite.

Sentiment also can't be overlooked in the configuration of what makes the Perfect Beer Joint. Paige Lightsey, after I met her at the Flora-Bama, went on become Paige Buckner. She and her new husband carried on a meaningful part of their courtship at the Bama. Though he is a Californian with a farm and vineyard up in Mendocino County, he agreed to buy her a waterfront house about a mile from the Bama as part of the deal because, she told me, “I couldn't live without the beach or the Bama.” The Bama is her version of the nearly perfect TV beer joint, Cheers.

I admit to a couple of sentimental favorites myself. The place I grew up, Bayou Black, Louisiana, had a sole beer joint, Elmo's Bar and Grocery, which sat in a large clamshell-paved parking lot next door to the bayou Catholic Church. (It opened, not coincidentally, on Sunday right after Mass.) These were the days before almost all beer came from Milwaukee or St. Louis, so Elmo's mainly served regional beers long gone such as Regal and Jax (and Dixie, which survives).

Bayou Black was a Cajun enclave and most Cajuns are Catholic, which meant back then that they didn't eat meat on Fridays. So Elmo's marketing strategy was to induce bayou residents to his beer joint on Friday nights by offering free seafood—usually boiled crabs or crawfish that he or some relative had plucked themselves from the nearby bayous or swamps. All you were required to do was buy beer (a quarter a can or bottle) and put quarters in the jukebox (six selections per quarter), which featured mostly Cajun music or its first cousin, swamp pop. (Think the Fats Domino song “Walkin' to New Orleans.”) Friday nights were always packed.

My singular memory of Elmo's, though, was the time rumors spread up and down the bayou that Elmo was going to be cooking turtle
sauce piquant
for his next Friday night feast.
Sauce piquant
is essentially a spicy stew of tomato sauce, celery, onion, and cayenne pepper with chicken, rabbit, or turtle at its core. It would take a lot of turtle to feed the hordes that showed up each Friday. But word came that Elmo had caught a 110-pound alligator snapping turtle—a turtle with a head the size of a cantaloupe, jaws as powerful as a great white shark, and a spiky shell that made it look prehistoric—and was planning to sacrifice it to the common pot. But anyone who wanted to see the turtle before it became supper was welcome to go view it.

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