Texas is a great place to visit in the fall; especially if you live here in Oregon, where the air gets nippy and signs of winter creep in. Not so Houston, because in late October that fair city has everything we rain-enriched folks could want. The temperature is somewhere around 75 to 80 degrees, and the sun shines, but not all that diligently (October sunshine is an oxymoron in Oregon).
I have been going to Houston every fall since 1987. Free. Well, actually I go there for my free T-shirt. One with my picture on the front. I have a full set of these T-shirts. The occasion is the Dixie Cup―since 1983, the nation’s second largest homebrew competition and one of the oldest. The competition draws something over 700 entries each year from across the country.
Of course, the Dixie Cup is far more than a mere homebrew contest. It is a mini-conference with world-class brewing luminaries. Over the years, we’ve had Fritz Maytag (with a slide show!), Pierre Celis, George Fix, Dave Miller, and Ray Daniels, just to name a few. There are always two, and sometimes three, pub crawls, AND the homebrew judging. My job is to hang around and babble about this or that, answer questions on esoteric topics, have my image on the official T-shirt, and, as I noted on these pages in the December issue, conduct the annual Beer and WHAT! tasting.
Houston’s Free-Form Cuckoo’s Nest
The Dixie Cup is the brainchild of Scott Birdwell, Houston’s impetuous impresario of beer, and his wacky crew of homebrewers. In truth, one never knows what to expect at the Dixie Cup, because this competition has been held under some very strange circumstances, not least of which were the three times the opening reception was held in the “Orange Show.”
Houston’s Orange Show is an outdoor arena just off the Gulf (I-45) Freeway, and right down the street from the beer can house. The Orange Show is truly bizarro mondo and virtually impossible to describe. There are flags, metal fixtures, doodads, wheels and more wheels, whirligigs, weather vanes, dozens of tractor seats to sit on, all surrounded by white walls and orange walls. There are tiles and signs embedded in the walls: “We care about You.” “World’s first Orange Show―Jeff McKissack Production―1976.”
This is a convoluted, many faceted apparition, with stairs leading nowhere and secret rooms you stumble into. It’s about steam, too, with an “(almost) operational farm steam buggy,” and an epitaph on oranges and steam by the founder: “(Oranges and steam) both…produce energy… (T)he most beautiful show on earth.” It’s also a good place to drink beer.
The Houston Chronicle called it “Houston’s wacky example of Native Art.” Others said it was a “(h)ighly imaginative free-form Cuckoo’s Nest. An exuberant orchestration of old wagon wheels, bird cut-outs…wooden Indians, notices extolling oranges, good health, and the virtues of Texas.”
The Orange Show was built by Jeff McKissock, a former Georgia orange salesman, US mailman, and a strong believer in oranges. He built the thing by himself over a number of years and died in 1980, at 77. His son continues to manage it. The very first Dixie Cup was held there and, periodically, zany Scott Birdwell returns.
The beer judging was often overshadowed by the real competition―the Tastelessness Championship. In the first 10 Dixie Cups, there was no doubt about which group was the most tasteless. That title was clearly uncontested and absolutely owned, lock, stock and barrel, by the New Orleans Crescent City Homebrewers, a.k.a. Kings of Flatulence and Tasteless Music.
All that changed when the Boston homebrew Wort Processors showed up in 1994 with anatomically correct inflatable sheep. A whole new era was born! The Flatulents were astounded and vowed revenge. What would the southern lads do to defend themselves against this vicious Yankee invasion? We waited anxiously, all year, to see what would happen.
In 1995, Boston arrived, right on time, and loaded with an expanded herd of anatomically correct inflatable livestock, thus adding insult to injury. It was to be a contest between obscenity and flatulence―everyone held his breath. The New Orleans group went about their business and nothing was mentioned, while our multitude fretted at the ominous silence. We waited in vain―the Flatulents never did drop the other shoe. Had they really relinquished their coveted “Tasteless” title to the Yankee inflatables, or was there to be another chapter to this fetid story?
By 1996, when the Flatulents arrived back in Houston, they were confidently proclaiming themselves Masters of Tastelessness. Sure enough, come Saturday night, they suddenly appeared on the floor for the awards, decked out in waist-aprons, each of which was fronted with a small bar towel. As they lifted the towels, the assembly gasped. That this was a breathtaking display of tastelessness could not be denied, but its nature was such that there is no way we can describe it in this family publication. Suffice it to say, tastelessness had plunged to new depths. As the multitude strained to recover its composure, one little girl of about six rushed up to her father demanding to know, “what’s so funny about a big ugly⁄?” Her father barely managed to get his hand over her mouth, and just in time, too.
Maturity at 18
Such shenanigans seem to have disappeared, and you’d have to say that, at 18, the Dixie Cup has definitely come of age. But, of course, 18-year-olds aren’t allowed to drink, are they? However, we should take note that this year’s crop of 18-year-olds will head for college, the work force, or in the light of current events, perhaps the military. They’re ready, but are we?
They all have computers. They have scarcely any recollection of the Reagan years, and little of the Gulf War, when they were in the first grade. AIDS has been a fact of life for them all their lives. They’ve always had answering machines, and most have their own cell phones. Most are likely to be a bit overweight. Some are obese. They eat, on average, more than three hamburgers and four orders of French fries every week (Schlosser).
But I digress, and it is more important here to note another fact: Most have never even heard of a time when American beer was so pitiful that when a Chicago columnist said it tasted like it was filtered through a horse, no one argued the point. They’ve heard of craft beer, perhaps even tasted it, but seem to prefer the Bud-Millers group, with a less aggressive taste profile, as a satisfying alternative.
They drink an average of at least three caffeine laced, teeth attacking soft drinks every day, each with as much of that drug as is found in a good cup of coffee, and yielding something like 9 percent of their total caloric intake (Schlosser).
These days, Scott Birdwell leaves the Dixie Cup work to the two Houston homebrew clubs, the Houston Foam Rangers and the KGB (Kuykendahl Gran Brewers). They work very well together sharing the duties of judging 713 beers and meads.
Actually, this year’s Dixie Cup was a rather mundane affair. Tastelessness seems to have gone the way of vinyl recordings. The Crescent City guys are content to rest on their tasteless laurels. The results were exemplary. Bev Blackwood’s Belgian Strong Golden Ale won Best of Show Beer (660 entries); Guy Munster, Bay Area Mashtronauts, won Best of Show Mead (53 entries). The Gulf Coast Homebrewer of the Year was Russ Bee of the North Texas Homebrewers Association, and the Foam Rangers walked off with the Dixie Cup itself.
My contribution was the Mexican food and beer tasting, where we found Lone Star Beer actually could dampen the fire of pickled jalapeños. The T-shirt featured me ’n’ Pancho Villa!
Author’s Note: References are from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2001.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Oregon and drinks beer there, in Texas, and in any other venue where good beer abounds.