Sunday, May 4, 2014

On drinking alone

Growing up on a farm in Iowa during the 70s and 80s, neighbors would help neighbors with large jobs like baling hay, a job I enjoyed. One nondescript summer in high school, we were helping Juniormy Uncle Gerrit put up hay in his barn. I don't remember how the subject came up in, but Junior said that my dad "probably had two or three beers with dinner."  I responded that I had never seen my father drink in the house alone. An awkward pause later, we went back to work.

Don't misunderstand. My father was a good ol' boy who spent much of my childhood in a bar. In fact, I spent much of my childhood in a bar. We'd drive by Alley 7 to see who's truck was parked out back or I could be found doing my homework on the bar at the VFW after football practice. As of result of my father's fondness of beer (mostly Miller Light), and not being home except on Sunday and my mom's bowling night, my family and community thought he was an alcoholic. It didn't help that dad threw his empty 'one for the road' Miller Lite cans in the bed of his truck (in the days before open container laws) until I recycled them for extra cash. In the days before the ubiquity of soda, this beer was a thirst quencher to cut the field dust. My dad drank during the nadir of beer choice, so drinking alone could only be for one reason.  I understand and don't blame my uncle and others at all for their assumptions, my dad was not an alcoholic like his two brothers.

My father was the definitive social drinker. I would sit in a bar and watch him milk a beer or a Black Velvet and Coke at half or a third the pace of others. He never drank alone at home, but I can still hear his voice tell me to "Get  three beers, kid" when a pick up would pull up on our yard. My dad loved people and beer was the lubricant that brought them together.

Because of my family history, I didn't drink through high school or college, except for a few unfortunate episodes that seems to be mandatory in youth. In fact, beer as a hobby and blogging came from the strict rules I place on myself. When I started drinking beer on a regular basis a few years after graduating from Purdue, my reasoning was to have one good beer instead of three crap beers. I would pick up an over-sized bottle of Rolling Rock and a Tombstone pepperoni pizza on the way home from a speech tournament when I coached in Los Angeles. When younger, the demons of my family were so strong, I refused to keep any beer in the house except the one bottle I would pour that night.

Twenty years later is a different story. Today my demon is a hoppy burn. Or, whatever is new or unique. While the exquisite joy of drinking with friends—old and newly made has provided many a high point, the solo pursuit of beer can be just as sweet. Intensified since I started blogging, I seem to relish drinking and writing alone in a brewpub, savoring the first samples and crafting my impressions. Along with a sublime solitary brew is blended the guilt and shame of drinking alone, an presumption born from the whispers that swirled around dad.

My attitude about drinking at home alone didn't change overnight. My first step to drinking alone was during a Sunday football games; I found that sipping on a barleywine through an entire Vikings game, pouring the remainder of a chilled bottle at half time allowed the glass to warm slowly, creating a rise and fall in the taste throughout an afternoon. Then, in my first visit to the Toronado in San Francisco in 2004, drinking the likes of Ommegang Three Philosophers, the epiphany washed over me that a good slice of pizza and great beer are sufficient.

And here is my confession: I like drinking alone.

I smile at the sight of a freshly poured rack of samples at a new brewpub, and then, without distraction, I sip each in solitude and write. I look forward to focusing on a special bottle by myself sans world to imbibe the artistic glory of hop and barley. While beer writers praise the inherent sociability of beer, I, in opposition to my father, drink the drink alone for the sake of the drink. With the creation of the craft beer world since my father's time, we need to bury the stereotype of drinking alone. Beer is good with or without friends, and drinking alone should not carry the stigma of old.

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