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Authors: Ken Wells

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I told Andy about my Perfect Beer Joint quest. He thought about it a minute and concluded that the Gasthaus should certainly be in the running.

Mike, the bartender, overhearing us, had a few of his own notions.

“It's got to be workingman's bar,” he said, “a place where you're welcomed, no matter what you do. But no BS. You don't want to have to be looking over your shoulder. Oh, and no peanut shells on the floor. And a guy can light up a cigar if he wants to.”

He paused and then went on: “And it can't be politically correct. You should be able to tell a Michael Jackson joke and get away with it.” (He meant the pop star, not the beer writer.) He had one last thought: “And, oh, yeah, there should be no Big Blues.”

This term stopped me and I asked Mike what he meant. At the
Wall Street Journal
where I work, Big Blue is the corporate nickname for IBM, the computer giant.

He explained that this was a kind of German-American beer hall insider slang. Big Blues are bartenders or cocktail waitresses who wear blue lederhosen or dirndls; they have the uniform “and know how to sling gin and pour beer but they're either pompous or have no personality,” Mike said.

I told Mike I'd never met a Big Blue but if I ever did, I'd ask for another bartender.

Andy drained his beer and bid us goodbye, lugging home a carton of Gasthaus homemade ice cream for his daughter, and Mike handed me a food menu. I'd studied German for three semesters in college and, as I said earlier, traveled in and around Heidelberg for about a week once, but I had no memory of any of these dishes outside of Wiener schnitzel. Some of the choices, like the fried bread dumplings and the five separate herring appetizers with various cream sauces, seemed a little rich. And I didn't know what to make of
jagerschnitzel
, described as “two breaded pork cutlets in mushroom sauce with potato dumplings and cabbage.” Jagerschnitzel portended a massive meal. So the Wiener schnitzel it was. It, too, came as a gargantuan heap of food—it could have fed a six-pack of small people, easily. It was tasty but I could only get through about a third of it.

Around 9:00
P.M.
, as the bar started to thin out, I walked out onto the veranda. It was a gorgeous, mild night, summer stars painting a dark, rustic sky. I got invited to sit with the Baumann brothers, Ian and Joel, friendly young locals who hung drywall by day and hunted for good beer at night. Anyone who's ever hung drywall understands that it's a tedious, hot, dusty job and thus excellent preparation for beer drinking. We were later joined by Mike, the bartender (whose last name I learned was Seggelke), and Jade Harris, Ian's girlfriend and a waitress at the Gasthaus. Jade told me that the bar was such a pleasant place to work that her four years there made her the junior person on the staff. One waitress named Billy Jean was a twenty-year veteran.

I was interested in the Baumanns' opinion of the place because the Gasthaus crowd I'd seen so far was pretty middle-aged. Ian turned out to be thirty and Joel twenty-seven. Ian said that when he was in the mood just to drink beer and talk, this was his favorite place.

“It's very easygoing out here,” he said. “It's a very civilized notion of beer. It's not a bunch of young kids just turning twenty-one and seeing how many beers they can pound down.”

The Baumanns were of the demographic profile that the big beer companies love—males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-four who statistically account for about 60 percent of all beer consumed in beer joints, and who drink 59 percent of all light beer. But they were decidedly
not
in the light beer camp, and decidedly
not
America's typical Bud/Miller/Coors drinkers.

“Bud uses rice in its beer,” Ian told me. “That's a crime. How can you make beer from rice?” (Well, the Bud people say that because the American malt they use is a bit stronger than European malt, using rice helps mellow the beer's flavor. Of course, some beer purists scoff at this.) On the other hand, the Baumanns conceded that their uncle by marriage, a Bud drinker, was always telling them that they were being far too picky. “My uncle has a saying that any beer is better than no beer,” Ian said. He laughed and then added, “Well, he's only been my uncle for a year.”

The Baumanns said that when they didn't drink here, they sought out places in and around Stillwater that served a burgeoning number of craft beers that had been popping up in the Midwest. They particularly liked Summit, brewed by a small Twin Cities brewer, and were shocked that I hadn't tried one yet. They let me off the hook when I said I'd just blown into town but made me pledge we'd go find one before the night was over. (Beer people everywhere, I came to learn, were zealously missionary about their local favorites.)

“Oh, man, that place rules,” said Ian. “I love their beer. When I die, just put me in a keg at Summit.”

“Kinda like our friend Kevin,” said Joel.

Kevin, I learned, was an old friend of theirs whose family history has been marked by early death; he is the last one standing. Kevin is convinced that, though only fifty, he will die early, too. “That's why he drinks hard,” said Ian. “And whenever he gets on the subject, he says, I'm gonna miss you man. But when I die, just come bring a beer to my grave and have a beer with me.'”

Ian stopped to sip his beer, then smiled. “I dunno—I think that's pretty cool.”

Jade laughed. She said, “What are we supposed to do? Pour it on his grave?”

While beer and death is an intriguing subject, we moved on, mostly to beer talk and then to small talk. Beer joints are great places to pick up on local peculiarities. The Baumanns spent some time describing the difference between Minnesota and the neighboring Wisconsin when it comes to drunk driving laws. For example, they told me people have been arrested in Wisconsin for drunk driving while operating their riding lawnmowers (but not, to their knowledge, in Minnesota).

A while later, we heard a whistle blow. Mike, the bartender, said it was a dinner train full of tourists that made a run from Stillwater and was probably returning to town. He suggested we all march up to the nearby tracks, line up, and moon the passengers.

This got about six seconds of gleeful consideration but the prospects of being arrested for public lewdness didn't seem a good way to begin my beer quest. And anyway, the Baumanns and Jade were anxious to take me on a Summit run. So I followed them into Stillwater, leaving the train and its tourists un-mooned. I sipped a very nice Summit Porter—roasty and smooth!—at a place called the Mad Capper. But music crunching from the bar's sound system was so loud that it soon pounded me out the door, and I bid the Baumanns and Jade good night, and headed back to Minneapolis.

Back at my hotel, I took out my road map and stabbed a finger at Wisconsin. It landed close enough to La Crosse for me to figure that was my next destination.

Beer, if drunk with moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit and promotes health.

—T
HOMAS
J
EFFERSON

CHAPTER
3
A Diversion to Consider the Beer Cure

New York, N.Y.
—A couple of months before I began my trip down the Mississippi, an odd invitation came in the mail from the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), the powerful trade group representing the nation's 2,300 beer wholesalers. “Intellectual Brew,” the invite proclaimed, but the subtext was more scientific than intellectual. People were coming to speak at this event from places like Harvard, and the topic was “beer and health.”

If this sounded like an oxymoron, I was assured it wasn't. In fact, based on a little pre-reporting, I found out that people were apparently coming to say: Beer is good for you!

“Eat right, exercise and drink a beer a day may be the way to keep the doctor away,” an NBWA press release exclaimed.

Red wine, I knew about. But beer?

Yes, beer. The thesis was that beer was slowly bubbling to the top as a beverage that not only lifts spirits but coincidentally delivers statistically relevant protection against heart attack, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and dementia. As someone facing long months of beer research, the dementia angle particularly interested me.

And perchance anyone might worry that the event would be one of those droning recitations of statistically significant data, the NBWA, no slouch in the PR department, had organized a fun component as an inducement. We would all show up at Manhattan's elegant Tribeca Grand Hotel where the hotel's executive chef, John DeLucie, and Daniel Bradford, a certified beer expert, were to run through pairings of ten elegant dishes, all cooked with beer, and the proper beers to sip while dining on these delicacies. Bradford is a founder and one-time director of the Great American Beer Festival held annually in Denver, and is currently president of the Brewers' Association of America (BAA), a group largely composed of the nation's craft and microbrewers. I'd never met Daniel but I'd spoken with him on the phone numerous times and knew him to be not just a fount of beer knowledge but temperamentally of a type I would increasingly run across on the River of Beer: a total Beer Guy, magnificently obsessed by beer and everything about it. Bradford, in fact, has a beer marriage; his wife, Julie, is editor of
All About Beer
, a beer drinkers magazine with about 25,000 subscribers that she and Daniel bought about ten years ago.

The newsy health angle aside, such an event also seemed a good way to get a ringside seat to the craft beer phenomenon, or what seemed to me could be called the Uptown Beer Movement. The folks in Bradford's organization prefer other terms: the Real Beer Movement is one, the New Brewing Movement another. These designations, I came to learn, were essentially the result of the microbrew crowd, a quarter of a century into their effort to remake beer, seeking a better description of what they were about.

The technical definition of a microbrewery is one that brews 15,000 barrels of beer or less annually. (Bud, by comparison, brews more than 100
million
barrels a year.) But size alone seemed an odd barometer of quality and it didn't necessarily describe the kind of beer being brewed. Plus, it didn't fit onetime microbreweries, such as Sierra Nevada, that have grown too large to fit the definition, or well-thought-of regional breweries, such as Yuengling, a family-owned enterprise in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, that make some beer styles interesting enough to fit into the craft beer mold.

The pairing-beer-with-food wrinkle was new to me—it was clear that this was not about washing down pizza with beer. In fact, I'd learned that craft brewers like Garrett Oliver at New York's Brooklyn Brewery were these days seeking to align themselves with the Slow Food Movement, a kind of confederacy of high chefs, restaurateurs, and wine makers organized in Italy in 1986 that styles itself as the anti-McDonald's. Adherents advocate a return to a kind of old-world quality and craftsmanship in the preparation and consumption of food and drink, with an emphasis on using ingredients made by local or regional artisans—the mom-and-pop cheese and bread makers, the free range chicken grower, the organic olive farmer, and the like.

Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery's brewmaster and one of the few high-ranking African-Americans on the U.S. beer scene, had dedicated much of a recent book he'd written,
The Brewmaster's Table
, to the notion that craft beer belonged in this company, arguing that well-made beer can be as rich, flavorful, and interesting as fine wine, and thus an able companion to food. Indeed, I'd heard him and other craft beer people make the argument that because beer has more ingredients than wine—malted barley, hops, yeast, and water compared with grapes, yeast, and water—it potentially offers more complexity of flavor.

Now, this view—indeed, the very notion of haute beer—may strike the Bud crowd or even more neutral observers as more than a bit overblown. But I'd chatted with Oliver one evening at a craft beer bar in Manhattan called the Blind Tiger where he'd come to flog his book. His main point was, “real beer is to mass market beer like a loaf of fresh-baked bread is to store-bought Wonder Bread. My feeling is that both wine and beer reach their best expression with food, but that beer is by far the most versatile partner.”

The seeds of all this got planted (where else) in California in the 1970s. First came Fritz Maytag's revitalized bottling in 1971 of Anchor Steam ales at the Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco; then, an ex-navy man named Jack McAuliffe, longing for the English-styled ales he'd enjoyed during a tour of duty in Scotland but couldn't find in America, opened the nation's first microbrewery, called New Albion, in Sonoma in 1976. Maytag, scion of the washing machine fortune whose operation has always been too large to be considered a true microbrewery, is still doing great business producing what were, when they were first introduced, positively countercultural ales. McAuliffe's venture was short-lived. Nonetheless both men are credited with jump-starting the craft/microbrew phenomenon at a point when the number of breweries in America was heading for an all-time low. The U.S. entered World War II with about 750 breweries; by 1983, there were only eighty left, consolidated into about fifty owners. The Big Beer juggernaut, led by Bud and followed by Miller and Coors, had among them 92 percent of the market. Craft brewing has had its own ups and downs but the movement has since put about 1,500 new breweries and brewpubs into operation, creating a renaissance that has made America “the best place in the world
ever
to drink beer,” Jim Koch at Boston Beer told me. (Much more about this later.)

At any rate, I'd been to formal wine tastings before but never to a formal beer tasting. I was curious to see what it would be like.

I arrived a bit early and got a chance to schmooze with David Rehr, the NBWA's congenially pugnacious president, whom I'd met earlier at his Alexandria, Virginia, offices on an early fact-finding and source-scouting mission. Rehr is a stocky man with a quick smile who carries himself with the bearing of a prizefighter. He is nothing if not plainspoken—well, actually, outspoken—and the NBWA reflects his cheerfully combative attitude. It takes a certain kind of personality to stand toe-to-toe with, for example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the organization that has successfully pushed for stringent drunk driving laws in America, and to argue that lowering the drunk driving threshold from an alcohol blood level of .10 to .08, as MADD has pushed for, is wrongheaded because it diverts attention from the fact that it's the .10 and above offenders who are chief culprits in
fatal
accidents. But Rehr (pronounced Rare) does this kind of thing matter-of-factly, mostly because he is positively missionary in his belief that beer, consumed responsibly, is good for the body, soul, and spirit, not to mention good for the economy and thus good for the country. The main function of the NBWA, along with the Beer Institute, the lobby arm of the big beer makers, is to keep a keen and protective eye on Washington and the statehouses for Big Beer.

Outwardly, in fact, this event seemed an odd pairing since Rehr and Bradford essentially represent the opposite ends of the industry: Rehr, Big Beer; Bradford, Little Beer. I was starting to learn that tensions between the camps are real and sometimes palpable. They try not to squabble publicly because that's considered bad for beer as a whole, though public squabbles happen. In a nutshell, Little Beer chafes at Big Beer's power over the channels of beer distribution (most beer wholesalers in America make their money off of Bud, Miller, and Coors), not to mention Big Beer's gorilla-sized marketing muscle. Big Beer gets tired of what it sees as Little Beer's constant self-adulation, and its chronic insinuation that Big Beer makes mass market swill that Americans drink only because they're suckers for glib advertising. (It's actually more complicated than this, but more about the NBWA and beer politics later.)

However, this was exactly the kind of event—good news about beer—that Beer People of all stripes like to rally around. Beyond that, beer makers themselves are constrained from directly touting any health benefits on labels or in advertising, thus it's up to trade groups like the NBWA and BAA to spread the word on their behalf.

About fifty people showed up for this, most of them fashion, spirits, or food journalists who had come for the beer and food. But we all had to take our medicine first (a shrewd move when dealing with the notorious eat-and-run press). We sat through about an hour of presentations by Dr. Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's School of Public Health, and Dr. Norman Kaplan, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

If it seemed odd at first that two such learned men had come to talk about beer, it soon became clear that their beer research was an adjunct of much more serious matters. Dr. Rimm had spent much of his professional life studying associations between diet and lifestyle in relation to the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Likewise, Dr. Kaplan had wandered into the beer-and-health frontier as part of forty years of research on the causes and prevention of hypertension, which, as a leading factor in strokes, is one of the nation's biggest killers. Given that as many as 120 million people in the U.S. drink some form of alcohol and collectively consume more than seven billion gallons of it annually, the effects of alcohol on health—bad and good—is a monumental public health issue.

And both researchers told me later that their findings on beer were really a refinement of the knowledge that began trickling to light more than twenty years ago when credible medical research began to hint at the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. The most famous report on that subject appeared in the mid-1990s, when news burst on to the scene that red wine was thought to have special properties that made it essentially
the
healthy alcoholic beverage. At the time, researchers reported the phenomenon as the “French paradox”—the fact that, though the French eat a diet even more fat-rich than do Americans, they have lower coronary disease rates. Looking for an explanation, researchers settled on the red wine that is a staple in the French diet. Red wine contains goodly amounts of chemical compounds called flavonoids—antioxidants that appear to help lower cholesterol levels and hence help prevent the arterial clogging that is a major component of heart disease.

But a fresh look at that research, plus a raft of new findings, has led scientists to conclude that the original study oversold red wine's singular advantage. For one thing, the French are thought to underreport coronary deaths and heart disease. And most researchers, Dr. Rimm included, say the original French study didn't take lifestyle biases into account. “Wine drinkers tend to be people who eat better and exercise more” than the drinkers of beer or spirits, Dr. Rimm told me. “If you don't factor that in, it makes wine look better.” Dr. Kaplan was a little more blunt. “The wine people have done a major snow job” in peddling the notion of red wine's position as the only healthful alcoholic beverage.

The upshot of their presentation was that there have now been so many validated studies on the health benefits of moderate drinking—moderate being the pivotal word—that Dr. Kaplan could proclaim the evidence in alcohol's favor “is now incontrovertible.” Dr. Rimm added: “My opinion is that regardless of what you die from, it's better to die as a moderate drinker.”

And beer, according to Dr. Rimm, absolutely belongs on the list of alcoholic beverages with sanguine effects, though he was reluctant to characterize it as more efficacious than, say, red wine or any other comestible spirit for that matter. Dr. Rimm thinks much of the health-and-alcohol research is pointing toward alcohol's key component, ethanol, as the chief palliative, though no one quite knows why. One theory is that it acts much like aspirin, helping to thin blood and reduce clotting and arterial plaque, thus helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Dr. Kaplan, though, was willing to go out on something of a limb for beer. As for beer's specific virtues, he cited two recent large-scale studies: in one, a look at 70,000 female nurses showed that those who drank moderate amounts of beer had less hypertension than did nurses who drank either wine or spirits. He also pointed to a survey of 128,934 adults in the Kaiser Permanente managed care system. It showed that male beer drinkers among the group were at a statistically significant lower risk of coronary artery disease than were men who drank red wine, white wine, or spirits.

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