Incredible as it seems to me now, I didn’t always like beer. I mean, when I was a kid. Once I got into my early teens it wasn’t for lack of trying, and—while a certain amount of discretion is advisable in this era of hyper-correctness—I may as well observe that the landscape of American beer in the early seventies was about as complicated as the one inhabited by Krazy Kat. I remember the fizzy-bitter taste of a purloined Hamm’s, the rapidly flattening mouthfeel of brandless, warm, draft beer at a college kegger, the animal cans of Schmidt.
When I was a senior in high school, I spent a semester in Germany. On my first day there, out for lunch, I exercised my legal right as a sixteen-year-old and ordered a beer. It was a half-liter of Trierer Lowenbrau Edelpils, and while I soldiered through it with my brats or my schnitzel, I really didn’t enjoy it. Not that Rheinland-Pfalz is by anyone’s estimation the cradle of German brewing civilization, but I know the beer was at least decent (I’ve drunk it since, though the brewery, alas, has been closed since 1994). You’ll notice I don’t remember the food.
Still, I was determined. In the weeks that followed I tried other beers available in Trier: Konigsbacher, Karlsberg, Caspary, all German pilsners, and on a trip to Cologne I was unwittingly introduced to Kölsch. The latter I found softer and easier to drink, especially as it was served in those cool little cylindrical glasses, but I still wasn’t there as far as true enjoyment was concerned.
My awakening began with a combination called a “schuss,” which was recommended to me by other students in the group my dad (a German professor) was shepherding, and which consisted of a shot of sweeter dark beer added to the more bitter pils. With my schuss, I was able to keep up, the pen-marks on my coaster marking the gradations that transformed my earlier grimace to a contented (perhaps, possibly, maybe slightly tipsy) smile. No one would have accused me of particular discernment—I drank any schuss going—but compared with the German gymnasium students I occasionally hung around with, who drank their pils mixed with Coca-cola or lemon soda, I was a connoisseur.
Partway through this time, a friend and I made a trip south to Switzerland by way of Freiburg, where we visited an old camp counselor. One of the days we were there, we took a very long walk through the Black Forest, so long, in fact, that we realized at some point that to finish the whole thing on foot would cause us to miss a concert we had tickets for that night (does anybody but me remember Rory Gallagher?).
We emerged from the woods and hitched a ride with an American serviceman, getting back to town with just enough time to have a beer and get a bite to eat. We went to a little café in Freiburg’s main square, right near the Munster, and ordered a beer. Whether it was the thirst engendered by a long day’s physical exertion or the bitter baseline of anxiety about missing the show, something made me order an unadulterated pils, this time a Rothaus Tannenzapfel. It remains one of the best beers I’ve had in my life. It was thirst-quenching and sustaining, simultaneously calming and exhilarating. I was finally able to appreciate the many facets of a wonderful beer; my palate had put aside childish things.
There are those among us who would claim that such moments are what make us brewers. I think this is too convenient, a single-thread narrative as unsophisticated as the “schusses” that helped me to my figurative feet. Still, it’s one among many—the Gouden Carolus at the Snuffle Sleep-in in Bruges, the “Happy Day” in Ullapool, the Sierra Nevada Stout atop Mt. Si—that anchor me in beer culture and its connoisseurship. Literally speaking, the rest is history.
Dick Cantwell is head brewer and a co-founder of Elysian Brewing Co. in Seattle. He wrote the Barley Wine stylebook (with Fal Allen) and has written for various beer publications. He has been awarded Brewmaster of the Year awards three times at GABF and was the 2004 recipient of the Russell Schehrer award for achievement and innovation in brewing.