It was customary among Chicago Irish Catholics in the 1950s to use children as beer caddies. Take my wife, Bernadette: when her grandfather’s love for storytelling left his throat dry, he sent her out for more beer. She’d step out her back door, walk down an alleyway to the local tavern, and show the bartender a note from her grandfather. That Bernadette was an eleven-year-old with pigtails didn’t faze anyone in the slightest―the bartender simply handed her a couple of quarts of beer as if it was milk and sent her on her way.
Running out of beer was never a problem at my house―the fridge was always stocked with cans of Budweiser. “Run along, Bobby,” my own grandfather would shout from his favorite chair, “and fetch me a beer.”
“Bobby” wasn’t the result of too much afternoon drinking―it was actually what people called me through most of my childhood. I was born George Robert Wendt III, which meant my father got to be the George in the family. I’d almost completely forgotten that my name was George until I heard a teacher calling it out on my first day of kindergarten. “I guess that’s me,” I finally replied. I like to think this kind of flexibility prepared me for later in life, when complete strangers started calling me “Norm.”
After I’d retrieved the beer for my grandfather―and opened the can with a church key―I got my reward: a taste. I’ll never forget the first time he let me try his beer, when I was maybe eight years old. Since then I’ve tossed back plenty of brews that are supposed to be better than Bud, but nothing’s ever going to match that first sip. For some people, beer’s an acquired taste. Not me. Right off the bat I thought I was drinking a little bit of heaven―no mystery as to how the church key got its name.
Nowadays our grandparents would probably be accused of enabling alcoholism. But I’ve always suspected that babies are born loving beer. Bernadette’s grandfather taught her twin brothers to walk by holding out a beer can. Maybe it’s a regional thing: French babies might love wine, while Russian rug rats enter the world with a taste for vodka. I wouldn’t know―in Chicago, beer is pretty much synonymous with mother’s milk.
I am a simple man. Life, on the other hand, gets complicated, and beer, for its many virtues, sometimes adds to the complexity. Drinking unleashes the reins in ways that can be unpredictable, both good and bad.
But all in all, beer’s been a boon companion on my life’s journey. It’s helped to bring me closer to my family, from grandparents to kids to in-laws. I’ve met new friends and learned to better appreciate the old ones. As I’ve changed―dare I say evolved?―beer has always kept pace: what began (for me) as a pale American lager has matured into a rich pastiche of unexpected flavors, colors and aromas.
The adventure’s not over yet. There are more brewers than ever combining the age-old methods, developed over thousands of years of human history, with all kinds of modern innovations. The California coastline is dotted with craft breweries I haven’t yet visited. I want to do my own version of the movie Sideways, starting in San Diego with Alesmith or the Stone Brewing Co., working my way north to Beervana―Portland, OR―the city with the highest concentration of breweries in the world. Or how about a boat ride up the river Scheldt, searching out Belgian monasteries that have had hundreds of years to tinker with a recipe that was already pretty close to perfection? I can imagine myself turning into a sort of boozy Colonel Kurtz, lost not in a heart of darkness but in a haze of great brews.
I want to have a beer in outer space, sipping a cold one with an astronaut’s view of the planet Earth, content with the knowledge that no matter how advanced technology becomes, people are still going to be brewing beer in a way that an ancient Mesopotamian would have recognized. Whatever unforeseen future marvels and disasters await the human race, we’re always going to have beer to help us make sense of them.
Thank you, beer. Damn glad to have met you.
Actor George Wendt is best known for playing the wisecracking barfly Norm Peterson on Cheers. He is the author of Drinking With George, which documents a life-long love of beer and great beer bars.