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Authors: Ken Wells

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I was nineteen then and had gotten my first journalism job, a part-time position writing obituaries and cop briefs for the weekly paper in Houma, about five miles east of where I'd grown up on Bayou Black. When I mentioned this turtle to my editor, I was immediately dispatched with a camera to go take a picture of the beast—monster turtle pictures, I was admonished, were potentially front-page material. I got there and, sure enough, the turtle was hunkered down atop the bar, a crowd of beer drinkers around it. Its massive head was partly retracted but when Elmo offered it a can of beer—well, prodded the turtle with a can—out came the head and,
ker-chunk!
—it bit the can in half, sending beer everywhere.

Elmo's may not have been the Perfect Beer Joint. But as beer joint moments go, you have to admit that one is pretty special.

Another of my favorite all-time beer joints was the bar tucked into Japan Town Bowl in San Francisco. I worked as a reporter for the
Journal
's bureau there in the ‘80s and some of my colleagues and I joined a bowling league because everybody in San Francisco was into fitness back then, and we knew bowling to be on the fun side of the aerobics spectrum. In 1988, I'd even written a page one feature for the paper about how bowling had made it into the Olympics as a demonstration sport that year, so this gave our theory great credibility. (Point of fact: Olympic scientists told me that it takes more pure athletic ability to be a 200 average bowler than it does to become an 80 percent free throw shooter in basketball.)

The most important thing about bowling, other than aerobics and getting to wear bowling shoes, is coming up with a good name for your team. Since most of us on the team were journalists and thus professional wordsmiths, we arrived at the
Pinheads
, which of course is wonderfully wry, clever, and full of subtext on several different levels. We were quite proud of our name.

Now, as part of our bowling aerobics ritual we would arrive at the alley about a half-hour before our match started and head for the bar to limber up. As bars go, it wasn't much to look at. It was small and dark, the tables crowded together, and the decor was heavy on the Formica and vinyl side, though I recall something vaguely Tiki about the whole thing. It did have cold beer and a jukebox that had both Patsy Cline's “Crazy” and Frank Sinatra's “New York, New York” on it. Given that on most nights, bowling is either raging triumph or utter tragedy, the management of the bar had figured out that those were the only two songs the jukebox really needed. The bar had a convivial waitstaff—well, it had Brenda, a friendly and effervescent thirtysomething Southerner who understood the indisputably direct connection between cold bottles of Budweiser, tips, and the length of her denim miniskirts. Our team, being better than average customers, became great friends with Brenda later on, whereupon it was revealed that she had several advanced college degrees and was qualified to do both psychoanalysis
and
landscape architecture. But she
liked
working at the bar at Japan Town Bowl, which totally deepened our esteem for the place. The bar also had gloriously greasy cheeseburgers—another plus among the bowlingentsia.

Anyway, you see what I'm getting at. Outsiders might say: Oh, just another dumpy, dark, bowling alley bar. But for me at the time it had a lot of Perfect Beer Joint qualities.

Perhaps best of all, it was a social mixing zone, for the league that bowled just ahead of us was the Gay Bowling League and the fellows would often come into the bar to do post-match assessments while we were limbering up. They were a good-natured crew and what I really liked about them is that all of them drank Budweiser, even though the bar did stock some unadvertised Heineken and Kirin way at the back of its cooler. As anybody who has bowled knows, it's really bad form to drink anything but Bud or maybe Miller Lite at a bowling alley (or, okay, maybe if you live in Pennsylvania and bowl, you can drink the local favorites, Yuengling or Rolling Rock). But remember: this was San Francisco, where everything is precious or, if it's not yet, soon will be. So I liked the fact that even the relentless pressure of San Francisco preciousness couldn't bully gay bowlers into drinking imported beer.

There was one sour note in our otherwise convivial relationship with our gay bowling brethren: names. As you know, we were quite proud of our choice of the Pinheads, so imagine our surprise when members of the Gay Bowling League started showing up in their bowling shirts with their team names embroidered on the backs and we realized that, slam-dunk, we had been badly outnamed! I'll leave it to you to judge but it seems impossible to argue that Oh, Spare Me!, Bowling for Husbands, and, my favorite of all time, the Meet Balls were not all superior to the Pinheads.

However, what really sealed the bar at Japan Town Bowl in my beer joint memory was the improbable night that we, the Pinheads, found ourselves in the league
championship
match against our archnemesis, a team with a name so boring that I have long forgotten it. Unforgettable, though, was their anchor bowler, a man who physically resembled Pavarotti but who bowled monstrously well; he bowled with grace and style and had an average around 200. He moved like a ballerina with a bowling ball in his hands.

A bowling match is three games, with a fourth game awarded for the team that racks up the most total pins in the three games. We won the first two games, and went into the final game leading by about 80 pins—a comfortable margin, we figured. We could lose the game but still win the match and the championship so long as they didn't beat us by more than 80 pins. Alas, in the final game, after two opening spares, Pavarotti got hot and started bowling strike after strike after strike. Around the seventh frame it was clear he was on fire and I recall one of my
Wall Street Journal
colleagues crying out: “Oh, no. He's gonna bowl his weight!”

Well, he didn't quite make it. He only bowled a 279, but that was enough to erase our 80-pin advantage and crush us. We accepted the exquisitely faux-gilded, three-foot-high second-place trophy, being denied the even more exquisitely faux-gilded, six-foot-high first-place trophy.

Though battered and demoralized, we retreated to the bar and were saved from what well might have been our fate—going home and getting a good night's sleep. Instead, we sat at the bar, nursing Budweisers and our wounds and playing “Crazy” over and over again until, feeling better, we switched to “New York, New York” over and over again until people started screaming at us never to play either of those songs again. Sometime later, a man with a broom, the same man who had finally unplugged the jukebox, came and kicked us out, whereupon we discovered all mass transit had stopped running.

Well after I left San Francisco, they tore down Japan Town Bowl and the bar with it and are planning, no doubt, to put up something precious in its place. But the bar lingers forever in my beer joint memory.

It was a benchmark to keep in mind as I headed down the Mississippi.

My idea to not overly plan my trip didn't seem quite as clever when, sitting in my hotel in Minneapolis, I realized I would have to first head
up
the Mississippi River if I truly wanted to begin at its headwaters at Itasca State Park. In fact, MapQuest told me I faced at least a four-hour drive north by northwest. Beyond that, I knew that the river is but a mere stream at its headwaters, and little resembles the Mighty Mississip' till it clears the Twin Cities. So I decided I would cop out and start on or near the real river.

As for beer joints, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Yellow Pages weren't yielding much more than clutter and confusion when fate seemed to intervene. Rummaging through my downloaded Orbitz travel documents, I stumbled upon a “Things to Do” printout and there was a prospect: Schone's Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter. “Expect big sausages, large steins of beer, and rowdy polkas at this authentic German beer garden in the charming river town of Stillwater,” the promo said. “If you're lucky, you'll stop on polka night.”

Given the dominance of German-styled lager and the role of German beer barons such as the Busches, Pabsts, Schlitzes, and Millers in shaping—actually, conquering—the American beer market (a matter I deal with in depth later), this seemed an appropriate place to start a quest for the Perfect Beer Joint. When I phoned to get directions, I learned the bar was about a forty-five minute drive east of the Twin Cities. And, alas, this being Saturday, I had missed Polka night by one night.

Stillwater was as charming as advertised. It sits on the St. Croix River, a tributary to the Mississippi so handsome that it forms part of America's Wild and Scenic Rivers system. I arrived with the sun sinking behind me in the soft light of dusk and found a low-rise, turn-of-the-century downtown with quaint limestone and brick-front buildings. I later learned that in its nineteenth-century heyday, Still-water, population 16,000, had been a thriving lumber town with obscenely rich lumber barons living in mansions on the bluffs above the river. These days, it is mainly a tourist day-trip destination, with people driving in to take river cruises on period paddle wheelers or to poke around in the town's sweet shops, rare books and antique stores, and plentiful bars and eateries. The only people who probably aren't so keen on Stillwater, in fact, are those spending time in its regional state prison.

The Gasthaus Bavarian, however, wasn't in Stillwater proper; it lay in splendid isolation, surrounded by cornfields, a goodly ways outside of town. I did notice, as I pulled into its spacious parking lot that seemed about two-thirds full, a sign that warned not to park horses beyond a certain point. I looked around but nary a horse was in sight.

From the outside, the Gasthaus Bavarian looked like it could be any other Midwestern supper club. Up a broad set of broad wooden steps sat a wide veranda with outdoor seating where a few people sat clustered around tables drinking mugs of beer. Inside, though, the place was bustling and it was like being abruptly tossed into a beer garden in, say, Heidelberg, the place where as a traveler right out of college I was first introduced to robust German lagers. As part of the Gasthaus's bid for authenticity, the waitstaff all wore traditional Germanic garb, dirndls for the women, lederhosen for the men. The costumes didn't slow anybody down, though; they were either pouring big mugs of beer from ornate German taps or lugging unbelievably big platters of food to tables that were already crowded with beer and food. And whoever wrote the Orbitz promo wasn't kidding about the size of the sausages: I saw a platter go by with sausages lolling atop the red cabbage like pythons on a riverbank. Clearly, a lot of beer would be required to soak those things up. The place altogether seemed noisily happy.

I settled at the end of the bar and was greeted cheerfully by a bartender whose nametag read Mike. The Gasthaus had an impressive array of authentic German beers—and not a single concession to the latter-day American version of German lagers. In fact, Mike later told me that not only were Bud and its American competitors verboten but the clientele had risen up in protest when the bar put in a tap for Beck's. “Everybody bitched and bitched,” said Mike. “They said, ‘Beck's? That's an
American
beer!' We had to get rid of it.” (Well, actually, Beck's is a German lager brewed in Bremen since 1533 under the
Reinheitsgebot
, the German Purity Law of 1516 that prescribes how German beer must be made. Its status as the most popular German import in the U.S. perhaps explains why the picky Gasthaus crowd shunned it.)

When I seemed befuddled by the beer choices, Mike suggested a Hacker-Pschorr, made by a Munich brewery in business since 1417. He poured it expertly and set it before me. I took a sip and it was smooth as a moonstruck night. One thing you can say about lagers: the good ones don't make you work very hard to like them.

Mike got busy so I struck up a conversation with my nearest bar mate, an affable workingman named Andy Holdorph who lived just a couple of miles away. Andy described himself as a regular who came in for the authentic German beer and the conversation. He said the Gasthaus was really just a neighborhood joint, even if the neighborhood was mostly cornfields and cow pastures, and that it had a very clear idea of its clientele. “I know a lot of people think Minnesota is full of Swedes but it's actually full of us Germans,” Andy told me. He then wanted to know if I were planning to come to the Gasthaus Oktoberfest next week. Since it was September 7, I was a bit surprised that Oktoberfest was falling so early. Andy rolled his eyes; it became obvious to him that he was dealing with an Oktoberfest ignoramus.

Yes, he told me, the German beer festival got its start in October 1810 as a public wedding reception for Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and his bride Princess Therese. “But the weather was lousy in Bavaria in October so they moved it to September. The Germans are practical people, you know,” Andy said. American Oktoberfests generally follow this later calendar. I eventually learned that Oktoberfest in the fatherland had mutated into an annual beer blowout in Munich at which literally five million liters of beer—about 85,200 standard U.S. kegs—are drunk over a sixteen-day period.

Andy said the Gasthaus did pretty well for a place out in the sticks. “They'll be 2,000 people here next weekend,” he said. “There's deer stew on the menu.”

Deer stew and beer didn't sound half bad but I had a big river, and many other beer joints, to explore.

BOOK: Travels with Barley
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