good beer

Long Live Henry Weinhard

Henry Weinhard is no more.

Pour one out.

So long, Henry, we hardly knew ya!

Except for me. I knew Henry very, very well.

For those who don’t know, Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve is a beer. If you aren’t familiar with their beer, you might recognize their sodas and root beers. It’s the good shit way down at the end of the soda aisle. None of that A&W bullshit. Six-packs only, bottles only.

Ironic, considering the beer was at the other end of the beer aisle. Hack, a six-pack of their root beer might cost the same as a twelve-pack of their beer.

Private Reserve got me through most of my twenties. While not my only go-to beer, it was part of the regular rotation. True, twentysomethings aren’t generally known to be concerned with the quality of beer. Bang for the buck was my maxim, so a steady supply of the Bud Lights and MGDs of the world were on order. And that was the good stuff. 

Never was a fan of Coors, which totally cuts against my west coast bias. Then again, I started drinking after they had nationwide distribution. Hard to believe it was a forbidden fruit, the In n’ Out of its day. If they remade Smokey and the Bandit today, he’d be smuggling double doubles.

Scratch that. The dumbass voters in my state passed a proposition to make bacon as difficult to come by in California as Coors was in 1970s Georgia. If that isn’t call for a reboot, I don’t know what is. They’re hungry in Fontana and there’s grease in Texarkana.

I also drank quality beer when I could get it on sale. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager. Microbrews, too. Nothing like a liter of Marzen from the local German-themed sausage restaurant, half-price on Thirsty Thursday or College Night or whatever the fuck night it was. 

Speaking of which, I recently looked up the Oktoberfest numbers in Munich, as it’s one of my dream destinations. In 2019, they had 6.3 million visitors and sold 7.3 million liters of beer. Am I the only one thinking there’s a lot of people not carrying their weight? That’s less than 1.2 per person. At a festival that pretty much exists only for drinking beer. 

Regardless, even if I drank my fair share of PBR, I knew what beer was supposed to taste like. 

Enter Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve. Flavor-wise, it was closer to Sierra Nevada, while price-wise, it was a Budweiser. Even in my twenties, I knew a perfect combination when I saw it.

You know those trendline graphs with individual plot points scattered around the average line? For instance, they’ll have percent of a state’s 2020 vote for Biden on the y-axis and COVID vaccination rate on the x-axis with an upward diagonal showing the average. We’d expect a state that voted 70-30 for Biden should have a 90% vaccination rate. But then there are the outliers, like New Hampshire, where Biden only took 52% of the vote but they’re, like, the most vaccinated state.

If you were to plot beers with price and quality on the axes, you’d see a similar trend. The higher the price, the better it tastes. Henry Weinhard’s would be the New Hampshire in that example. Priced down by PBR, quality up by Sam Adams.

Yes, I had these conversations while drunk in my twenties. I also once, while drunk in the red light district, opined that whatever the prostitutes were charging, it was above the quilibrium price for a Tuesday night in Sydney, because damn if there wasn’t a surplus of hookers on that strip of land. 

Some of y’all get drunk and get in fights. I sing karaoke and discuss social sciences. 

I don’t remember outgrowing Weinhard’s. There was never a time I proclaimed it no longer a go-to, but I certainly bought it less. Maybe I didn’t find myself strolling down that end of the aisle as often opting for craft six-packs instead of piss-water thirty-packs. But every once in a while, I’d see a Weinhard’s and have fond memories. If there was room in the fridge, maybe I’d buy a twelver as a palate cleanser. And every time I’d say, “Yeah, that’s still solid.” Then I’d forget about it for another eighteen months.

Not so with my other twenties go-to beer, Rolling Rock. I remember it being cheap and crisp. Then they were bought out by Anheuser-Busch, which promptly raised the price to be more in line with the craft brews. And I swear they changed the flavor, too. Maybe it’s psychosomatic and the $9.99 six-back doesn’t taste as good as it did at $5.99.

But man, over the past decade, every time I’ve tried a Rolling Rock, I’m flabbergasted I ever liked it. It barely even tastes like beer. It’s like bitter seltzer water. Whether that can be blamed on aging taste buds or Budweiser, I don’t know. Probably both. I also might have been duped by fun commercials, a distinctive bottle, and their fascination with the number 33.

Earlier this summer, while preparing libations for Camptathalon, I passed by the Henry’s and I equivocated. I didn’t want to be the asshole who brought lousy beer camping. One of the other guys busts out Miller High Life once every few years. It would be one thing if he sat in the proverbial corner and kept it to himself, but instead he always throws down with a “You know you want to see if it holds up.” To which I want to reply that Miller High Life never held any elevated position to which it might still “hold up” to. If he’d brought an MGD, maybe we could talk.

Incidentally, we all have fond memories of MGD. We have looked for it. It doesn’t exist anymore.

As for the High Life he brought camping. We all agreed it sucked and he had to finish the case by himself.

So I was gambling with the twelve-pack of Weinhard’s. If it was lousy, the most I’d be able to pawn off is one per person. 

The other campers’ reaction started the same as with Miller High Life: “Whoa, you brought Henry Weinhard’s?” But instead of segueing to “What the fuck were you thinking?”, the next line was along the lines of “Where the fuck did you find Weinhard’s?” As we talked about drinking it in our younger days, almost to a man, their reaction was the same as mine. The perfect intersection of price and quality. Everybody grabbed one. Willingly, unlike the High Life.

The verdict? It holds up. Bright, crisp, a little bit malty. Not “good” beer, but nothing you have to chase with an entire bottle of whiskey. Beforehand. If I had to choose between a Weinhard’s and a Sam Adams, I’d go Boston all the way. But up against every beer in its own price range, give me a Henry’s.

Although not anymore. Of course, right after I rediscover this gem of a cheap beer, they yank it from me. Did I mention it was bought out by Coors before being shut down? I can think of at least two other beers that Coors could stop producing instead of Weinhard’s. One is the champagne of beers and the other is the silver bullet. 

One Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve remained when I returned from Camptathalon. Now I’m faced with a dilemma. Like a Death Row inmate ordering his last meal, I know that the next time I drink a Weinhard’s will be the last time I drink a Weinhard’s. I ought to wait for a special occasion, a solemn occurrence.

But I shouldn’t wait too long.

After all, it’s a cheap beer. Those don’t tend to age well. 

BEER! (Part III)

Okay, so I’ve just spent two posts about the beers I don’t like. So what, you may ask, DO I like in my beer? Well, I’m glad ya asked.

Truthfully, my flavor profile has changed a few times in my life, and are in a bit of a flux right now, too. Perhaps this is why I don’t understand the continuance of the decades-old trends discussed in the previous posts. Then again, I’ve always tended to be along a somewhat tight variance. Browns and reds and pales. Somewhere in the middle of the hoppy vs. malty spectrum. I love me some balance.

Of course, in a begrudging nod to the IPA-philes, over the past few years, my preferred beer has gone farther up the bitterness scale. For a while, I was all about the Amber and Scotch Ales. Alaskan Amber, Kilt Lifter, Nutty Brewnette, Old Chub. Even Newcastle was an occasional go-to in a pinch. The benefit of Newcastle is its ubiquity. Even a bar that only carried the standards is likely to have Newcastle.

Fat Tire was my favorite beer for five years or more. And clearly I wasn’t the only one, because it’s the beer that put New Belgium on the map. The brand barely existed at the turn of the century, but as of now, it’s ranked #11 by volume, just behind powerhouse no-longer-microbreweries Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. And yeah, I know they’re really pushing their Voodoo Daddy IPA these days, but all of that is on the strength of their flagship.

I’ll still drink Fat Tire. Sometimes I have no choice. When I’m visiting family, it’s the only one they can remember that I drink, as they try desperately to avoid saying “Flat Tire.” I don’t know why it’s such a difficult pronunciation. I know a flat tire is a thing, but it’s not like Fat is some obscure word. Yet every baby boomer I encounter asks me if I want one of those “Fla.. uh.. Fe-ua… Feat Tires?”

But Fat Tire tastes a bit too sweet for me these days. The nutty and caramely and malty beers that I drank for the majority of my thirties just aren’t doing it for me these days. I never liked stouts and porters, because they’re too sweet, and something clicked in me in the past year, making most browns exhibit the same syrupy consistency. Maybe it’s just a hundred degrees in summer kind of thing, or maybe my brain is subconsciously telling my tongue that hops are here to stay, so I’d better get used to it. Now a Fat Tire tastes like a Frappuccino to me. Or an iced coffee when they put all that syrupy crap into it. No, Starbucks barista, I don’t want fucking “room” in my iced coffee. Just black coffee and ice. Someone ordering an actual coffee at your coffee business shouldn’t make you so damned twitchy. 

One fun brew I found many moons ago was Innis and Gunn. On my second trip to Scotland, we asked for a local beer. The waiter described something that we couldn’t understand, because he was speaking Scottish, which bears absolutely no resemblance to English. We nodded our approval and received one of the most wonderful concoctions ever invented. It’s aged in Scotch barrels. But there’s more to it than that, because after tasting Innis and Gunn, I tried a number of other beers that claim such a distinction and none of them have the smooth toffee flavor of Innis and Gunn. I’ve even, since then, tried some other Innis and Gunn flavors, including their rum-aged and Irish whickey-aged. None of them have that je ne sais pas of the original.

When we got back to America, we looked everywhere for Innis and Gunn. At the time, New York was the only place in the United States that carried it, and that seemed a bit far of a drive. But who said we had to purchase it in the United States? Vancouver’s only a fifteen-hour drive! My friend hit the Great North the following summer and brought back a case. Two summers later, I made the trek. The employee at the state-owned liquor store looked at me strangely when I wanted 30 bottles of something they usually sell by the single. But when I flashed the real-live, legitimate, international-standard American dollars, they were willing to do just what I said.

Just kidding. I think I paid with credit card. And I probably insulted the guy when I asked what it cost in “real money.” The guy selling joints in Nelson Park, however, was happy enough to take American cash.

We continued to check the Innis and Gunn website, plotting their progress on a map like they were the Allied army advancing against the Kaiser. First they were spotted in Washington, then Oregon. We went to the city walls waiting to cheer the liberating army as it came within sight. When my wife texted me a picture from the local Total Wine, I knew that life would never be the same.

Then again, at $14 for a 4-pack, the I&G is still going to be reserved for special occasions.

My IBU preference has been creeping up recently. The forties taste fine to me now. Although I suppose that’s where I started. The first beer I was actually able to get through being a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Then I avoided it fro a while, but it’s back in my favored wheelhouse. I can even tolerate beers into the sixties. When I was in Denver recently, I drank quite a few Dale’s Pale Ales, with an IBU of 65. It was fine. But I might’ve been suffering from altitude sickness.

But my favorites of late seem to be reds. Reds tend to add a bit of hoppiness to the typical maltiness of a brown. You know, like what hops were originally meant to do. There’s one here in Northern California called Heretic Evil Twin. The “evil twin” comes from the combination of the two flavors. If you’re a malt fan, the hop is the evil twin; if you’re a hop fan, it’s the malt. And they’re both in there. It’s a solid brew, with an IBU of 45, right in “the middle,” so to speak. But I think it’s ainly available in Northern California, so sorry if I got your hopes up. If you read on, you’ll see I’m right there with you on the torture. .

Let’s talk about Karl Strauss Red Trolley. It’s available everywhere, right? Its crispy nuance makes it my current favorite beer. It’s not that you can taste all the flavors, like in Heretic, but it’s also not all one flavor. Somehow it has an IBU below Fat Tire, which I consider bullshit because it’s definitely not as sweet. Of course now, after a decade of indoctrinating us that IBU is the be-all and end-all of a beer flavorness quotient, they’re saying it’s an incomplete measure. Now they try to distinguish between hazy and juicy and, I don’t know, fluffy IPAs? And New England IPAs, which are basically the same as West Coast Pale Ales. There are also Northwest Pales. It gets really confusing when you need an eight-directional compass just to figure out what the hell you’re drinking.

Or grapefruit. Don’t get me started on grapefruit. How very fitting that Ballast Point would be bought out by Coors.

Although the Grapefruit Sculpin works as a good transition into my most recent beer find. While in San Diego, my hotel bar had a local beer called Coconut Contender. This intrigued me, because I like coconut. Have I mentioned that I like coconut before? And that I worry they are on the cusp of jumping the palm tree shark? I think I have.

Coconut in beer isn’t a new thing. Coconut porters have existed for a while. I’ve had a few of them, and they’re okay in extremely limited quantities. Porters are sweet, coconut is sweet, so what you’re left with is the equivalent of adding caramel syrup to a white chocolate mocha, which is something I’m surprised Starbucks hasn’t done yet. Hell, I had some sort of Iced Vanilla Bean drink there a couple weeks ago, and I can still feel the granules of sugar coursing through my body. Dammit, Barista, I ordered a coffee frappuccino, not a caramel frappuccino. Repeat after me, barista!  Coffee! What the fuck is wrong with just serving me the goddamn product you’re supposed to be known for! Y

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, the Coconut Contender. What intrigued me about this particular beer was that it was not listed as a coconut porter, but a coconut IPA. So instead of using the sweetness of the coconut to augment the sweetness of a porter, they’re going to counteract the bitterness of the… hmmm…. Why, that sounds brilliant!

Of course, they’ve done this with other flavors. That grapefruit crap is the most famous, but I’ve seen orange and tangerine and raspberry IPAs. But most of those others are tart more than sweet. Plus, did I mention that I like coconut? So I asked for a pint. The bartender asked if I wanted a taste of it first. Maybe he’s had customers that were hoping for a coconut porter and were disappointed by a beer with nuance. I was ninety percent sure I didn’t need a taster of it, that I would drink the whole damn thing. But if I’m about to order sixteen ounces and I can get the seventeenth ounce for free, I’m taking that bargain.

Even better when I discovered it was 21 ounces for the price of 20.

Verdict? It was as sublime as I expected. The coconut was in the background, as was the hoppiness. I didn’t wince from the sweet or chew the bitter. No need to drink five gulps of water to remoisten my palate. (Remoisten my palatte sounds like a dirty book that might be written by the OTHER Tony Kelly, the one who forces Amazon searches for my book to a second page. Go ahead and check, I won’t hold it against you).

I could definitely see myself drinking more of those Coconut Contenders. For instance, I saw myself drinking it again the next night. And the night after that. After all, I was at the hotel for a week-long conference. Unfortunately, the rat bastard behind the bar must have recognized me the rest of the week, because he never gave me that free taster again. Then again, he did “accidentally” pour the wrong drink once, and then gave me the correct pour in a take-home cup. Tip your waitstaff, people!

So of course, the first thing I did when i got home was to hit the local liquor stores to get me some Coconut Contender at home.

BevMo? Nope. Total Wine? Nada.

Dammit, this Coconut IPA is not to be found anywhere in the Sacramento area. Or at least anywhere in the whopping TWO liquor stores I looked in. So I decided to google Coconut IPA. I found that the one I had in San Diego wasn’t the only one. There are at least three  currently being brewed. And Total Wine stocked precisely zero of them. Didn’t double-check back at BevMo for the other two, but I’m not holding my breath.

According to one beer review, it’s the “New taste of summer.” I totally, totally agree. But at participating locations, only.

Oh Life, why must you mock me so?

BEER! (Part II)

Welcome back to Part Two. In Part One, I talked about Coors Light and the rest of its ilk, remnants of an older time that somehow persist in a world of much better options.

Today, I’ll talk about one of those better options that I don’t necessarily feel is a better option. Watch out, hipsters.

If you’ll recall what started this retrospective, I was visiting a new person’s house and he offered me a Coors Light. I declined. Except that Coors Light wasn’t the only thing he had available. He also offered me an IPA. Ugh.

And hey, hipsters? The fact that someone would have only two options of beer, one of which is an IPA and the other of which is Coors Light, should tell you all you need to know about how fancy your brillo-pad of a beer really is.

Now here’s where I know I part from true beer snobs. At their best, India Pale Ales are tolerable. At their worst? Pass me the Coors Light. Or better yet, I’ll just take some water.

Fortunately, in this particular case, it was Lagunitas, which is one of the most tolerable IPAs. In fact, their original IPA wouldn’t even be considered an IPA by today’s standards. It would be like Ronald Reagan in the modern GOP, or JFK trying to make it past two primaries in the 2020 Democratic party. It only has an IBU in the mid-40s. Nowadays if your IPA doesn’t have an IBU above 60, you might as well call it a lager.

For those who don’t know, IBU stands for International Bittering Unit. It measures the amount of hops in the flavor. Hops are those things that smell like really nasty marijuana. When they’re put in the beer, they help offset the sweet, caramelly flavor that comes from the malted barley. So a stout, which has the same bitterness as a bold chocolate milk, will have an IBU below 10. Ambers and browns usually range in the 20s, although some of the “nuttier” ones will be as low as ten. Twenty years ago, when Lagunitas was one of the few IPAs out there, a red or a pale ale was in the thirties and above forty was reserved for an India Pale. These days, if you’re not flirting with triple-digits, the millennials will only roll their pierced eyebrow at you.

India Pale Ales are supposed to have more bitterness because, historically, hops were used as a preservative, so the extra hops would keep the beer from spoiling on those long cruises from England to India. Note it was for preservation, not taste. Because, and me out here, hops taste like crap. They do. I know you there in the back, currently scraping a filmy layer of skin off the top of your arid mouth can’t admit it without worrying you’d have to shave your beard as penance, but it is not at all refreshing. It tastes like you’re drinking cotton. It’s dry, it’s scratchy. And last time I checked, you’re not supposed to consume cotton. Especially cotton that smells like dank weed that’s been left in the bong for a fortnight.

Hey, I think that might be the first combination of “bong” and “fortnight” in the same sentence in the history of the English language. Unless you’re talking about the video game.

On the West Coast, Lagunitas was one of the forebears of the IPA craze. As if on a dare, they started proudicing Double and Triple and Imperial IPAs, pushing that IBU up into the triple digits, just waiting for someone to have the balls to say it tasted crappy, but groupthink’s a hell of a drug. Just ask the Nazis. It’s ironic that Labunitas once had the balssiest IPA, and now their IPA is so tame. It barely even registers as a straight Pale these days. For comparison, Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues (a fun Colorado brewery that comes up with names like Old Chub and Mama’s Yellow Pilsner) has an IBU of 65. Their IPA has a bittering factor of 70, almost double that of Lagunitas.

New Belgium’s IPAs range from 50 to 70. They also have Hemp IPAs. Did I mention dank weed?

And IPAs are just the start. Now breweries have Imperial IPAs, Double IPAs, Triple IPAs, and, I don’t know, a-vine-of-hops-shoved-directly-up-your-ass ale. IBUs of 80 or 90, even triple digits, are starting to become the norm. Colorado and California breweries are now coming out with hemp IPAs. Hell, if it’s gonna taste like headache-inspiring weed, they might as well go to the source. I can only imagine that straight-up marijuana IPAs are on the horizon out here.

And I know I’m in the minority here. The reason I know this is because every brewery or taphouse I go to has a shit-ton of IPAs and their ilk. You’ll have maybe one red or one amber, but not both, one pilsner, and then seventeen beers with IBUs ranging from 65 to 120. Hey, this one has notes of citrus and that one has a whiffs of cotton-swabbed asshole. Oh, and Coors Light is tap #20.

Clearly the market has decided something that is not my cup of Indian tea. A friend of a friend started a brewery. He has a similar taste profile to mine, and was tired of seeing the same varietals at every brewery. He wanted to show what could be done with some of the forgotten flavors. A nutty brown versus a hoppy brown. A light or a dark lager.

But the substantial majority of the customers who came in had one request: more varieties of IPA. So now when I go in there, I’m relegated to my one option, but at least I can commiserate with the brewer.

And I cancross my fingers and hope that more brewers are like he and I. We’re all just waiting for this trend to end. Putting a whole bunch of recipes on the shelf, ready for the moment when hipsters and millennials grow enough balls to admit that the IPA trend has gone too far. Every culinary movement has a backlash at the end, right?

But dammit, I’ve been waiting for this particular pendulum to swing back for a decade now. And my liver ain’t getting any younger.

I know, I know. I don’t like mass-produced beers and I don’t like IPAs. What the hell do I like? Check back on Monday to find out.