One of the great things I learned while living in England particularly is the appreciation of the small things, the minute pleasures that, when accumulated, add up to a world of happiness. I think the British have a good handle on this, more so than we North Americans who are, in general, always thinking about the next thing. Perhaps this is why something like a grain-derived beverage like beer does so well there, without all of the other “lifestyle” associations it has in Canada, and in the United States too. Simplicity can be found in a pint glass. Perhaps, it can be argued too that complications can arise after many pint glasses, but that is another story.
“What would you like to drink?”
My relationship with beer is a long and patchy one. I think my first encounter with it was a rather innocent, and one might say instinctive one. It was in Barbados, 1973, when I was four years old. My mum and Dad, plus a number of my relatives were relaxing by the beach, along with a number of others who had settled in for a bottle of… not quite sure. It was a brown, stubby bottle, and not of the sort I myself had ever had a drink from. On the label, there was something that looked like a pine cone, or a pineapple; upon reflection, it was a tall ship which was another alien thing to me as I had never really seen one. I realise now that it was a bottle of Molson Export, in the classic stubby bottle that has since gone the way of the dodo. Someone asked, “What would you like to drink, Robbie?”. The answer, to me was obvious. I wanted to taste whatever was in that strange bottle; I wanted to know what flavour went with the exotic images, the colours, the shape of that bottle. I chose. They laughed. All of this seemed strange to me, since they were all drinking this mysterious brew. Why not me. It was never explained.
Many years later, I had embraced a strain of Christianity that looked down its nose at the intake of alcohol – and some might argue, down its nose at those doing the intaking too, but (again) that’s another story. It was 1984, and a friend of mine and I had been invited to a party thrown by one of his friends, a laid-back free sprited girl with an older boyfriend. When we arrived, I suppose we felt a little out of place, a little nervous. We were both clinging, I think, to the childhood hem of the garment. I think we still felt a certain safety at not yet really having to face growing up. Alcohol, by about the eighth grade or so, had come to be associated with a certain independence, a right of passage. This was, in effect, the real legal drinking age, the one enforced to a certain degree, by your friends. In any case, I saw that everyone was drinking but us, and I said : “It looks like it’s Miller Time.” I think I was trying to be flip, trying to deal with feeling so out of place. By now, I’d just finished ninth grade, well passed the cultural “legal drinking age” if not the one enforced by the province. I suppose it was these forces which inspired our host to thrust two bottles of American beer into our fists. We looked at each other, unsure, the twin forces of peer pressure (which we had heard all about, thanks to school officials and after school specials) and our recent conversion to Christian temperance. Eventually, the latter won out, leaving us as two islands in a sea of laid back raised wrists and suds. The party of course, for us anyway, was a bust. Not because we had become alienated by our peer group, blah blah blah, but because sitting around watching people drink isn’t much fun. Simplicity, which I would later associate with beer, would never again be as complicated. Beer was still a demon with horns.
Don’t be afraid of the dark
University in the early to mid 1990’s was a turning point, not just because I had by then shaken off the shackles of my “no booze” subculture, but because I had begun to shake off many other assumptions about beer as well. The most important one, of course, is that beer is not a rite of passage, unless you believe it is – which is true of anything. While sometimes, seeing things as a rite of passage can be personally empowering, sometimes it can take away from the surface level of pleasure which can be gratifying in its own way. Beer is a very good drink. More than that; it is the mark of true innovation. Simple grains, a bit of water, some basic biology and WHAM! Flavour of the sort that cannot be equalled, and can indeed come in so many forms.
University is where I discovered the wonders of stout – the most popular brand of which is Guiness, which has become a synonym for stout. When I first tried it, it was like jumping into the deep end – I couldn’t believe, at first, that anyone could drink such a thing on purpose! The thickess, the bitterness, the way it made you feel like you’d swallowed an anvil, all made me think that the term “acquired taste” was an absolutely necessary invention once stout began to become popular. But then, something happened. I underwent conversion again – a dark conversion, a flavourful road to Damascus. I discovered all of the flavours under the surface of the dark bitterness, which were often revealed after the second pint, or with the right meal. It became so that I came to feel that if there was anything such as a “comfort drink” than surely stout was it. Where once I recoiled, I now welcomed that deep, dark, thickly wonderful brew, and I smile when others shake their heads.
There was a little club in Toronto called Broadway Bob’s (close to where Berlin is, near Yonge and Eg, for you locals) which had jam nights on Sundays. One Sunday in particular happened to fall on St. Patty’s, and the beer was flowing. This little club introduced me to a red lager called Rickard’s Red, a beer brewed in BC but popular all over. It has since been bought out by Molson, and has perhaps lost some of its indie cred, but it holds a place in my heart for being the flavour of that time. That night, one of the musicians shared an Irish saying which was appropriate for the occasion. It was: “Jaysus, o’ime doy’n. I musta drank a t’ousand beers.” Where not quite a “t’ousand” had been had, that night was one I knew I really would remember as one which marked an era – the era between university concerns and the big, bad Future, the dreaded thing for which all of my schooling was to prepare me. I had my doubts. But at that time, the red lager, the music, and the company of friends was enough.
Lost (And Found) in a Supermarket
Culture shock can lead someone to a place of either discomfort at not being able to decode the information given in a new context, or joy at not having to be contrained by an old one. British supermarkets, for me, represented (for the most part) the latter. I am speaking of course of the beer aisle. No such animal exists in the Supermarkets in Canada, and when I was confronted with one I felt a certain boyish rush of joy that will never be repeated again in the same way. In some ways it was a lot like the Molson Export experience when I was four – so many names, colours, images. So much to be discovered – John Smith’s, Stella Artois, Boddingtons – all lined up like gleeful little soldiers, or like puppys waiting to be taken home by a loving family. It was a very important moment; it was one of the times when I stopped asking myself “Why did I leave Canada to come and live here? What the hell am I doing?” It was a moment when I knew that there were possibilities, and great advantages living where I was living.
I make a point these days of trying to appreciate a good glass, or bottle, or pint, of beer and each one in its own way, just as a thing that tastes good. Nutritionists say, and they’re probably right, that beer is one of the highest sources of carbohydrates, and therefore waist expanded potential, there is. I suppose they’ve been saying that for years. But it’s only now, in my mid-30s, that I must confront it. I suppose lessons learned about simple pleasures have really helped – I believe that all of my social awakenings sparked by the intake, or refusal, of beer have come and gone. It really is just a nice drink now to me, despite half-serious statements about how much I can’t live without it. It still is a “comfort drink”, a familiar sensation, like the presence of an old friend. I wonder a lot about alcohol abuse and drug abuse in teens, and I wonder too about my own children. I wonder what I will tell them about how I approached the flaming hoops of social pressure to drink. The only thing I can think of is to be as honest as I can, and to not be too judgemental when they stagger in after a night out with their friends, hoping that they too will come to see a beer as something to be enjoyed for itself, and not as a badge of honour. I hope too, to find myself in a pub one day with my children, my wife, with glasses, laughter and stories of checkered youth, with a sense of comfort that can only be had when such experiences are shared with family.