Time in a Bottle: Beer Traveling in 1979
In 1979, the year All About Beer Magazine debuted, I was working as a researcher at the University of Michigan. For a budding beer traveler, it was the perfect job: It offered plenty of vacation time; and my assignments took me to out-of-the-way towns like Altoona, Beloit and Sauk Centre, where the evening’s entertainment consisted of conversation, bar food and beer.
“Beer” meant American-style lager. Some brands tasted so awful the standing joke claimed that the brewing process included a horse. But the local stuff was cheap, and there was an offbeat charm about finding beer that wasn’t available back home. Brands like Point Special, whose cans Wisconsinites called “blue bullets”; Schmidt, a Minnesota beer with wildlife-themed labels; and P.O.C., which, depending on who you talked to, stood for either “Pride of Cleveland” or something less printable. Like thousands of other American males, I started collecting the cans, then later decided they were taking up too much room and threw them out.
Back then, most bars were refuges for the guys. Some were so dark and decrepit that few women dared enter. Frankly, it’s a wonder that the health department hadn’t shut some of them down. The menu was simple—burgers, with condiments brought out in six-pack holders; bratwurst and sausages; chili, which was often quite good; and microwaved pizza, which wasn’t. The beer selection was, in a word, limited. In some crossroads taverns, proper etiquette demanded that you ask for “a beer.” If there was a choice, it was between a glass schooner of the local brand or a longneck bottle of a macrobrew—or vice versa.
Electronic entertainment had yet to invade most bars. Few places could afford the novelty of video games. Besides, the state of the art hadn’t progressed much. “Asteroids” had just been invented, and “Pac-Man” was still on a drawing board somewhere in Japan. You were more likely to find puck bowling and shuffleboard, and maybe a pinball machine or a pool table or two. Then, as now, people fed the jukebox until closing time. In many places, the old joke from “The Blues Brothers”—“we’ve got country and western”—had a ring of truth.
Living in Big Ten country, football season was an excuse to hit the road and party. I’ve managed to see a game in every stadium in the conference, along with some in other parts of the country. If you think today’s tailgaters are hard core, you wouldn’t have believed what went on in the parking lots during the seventies. People fired up the grill and tapped the kegs at the crack of dawn, and many partied on until well after darkness fell. Inside the stadium, security was rather lax. At an Ohio State-Michigan game, I saw four seniors lug a quarter barrel of beer into the stadium, unchallenged by police or security guards.
Traveling in Style
Speaking of football, I kicked off 1979 in grand style, driving a new Cadillac from a Detroit-area dealership to Pasadena. On that epic road trip, I lived on sandwiches and Christmas cookies; and on my first night west of the Mississippi, I slaked my thirst for Coors. Cadillacs weren’t exactly fuel efficient, but they handled well in the wind and snow. Good thing, too; I barely dodged a Rocky Mountain blizzard that could have trapped me in Wyoming until Easter. The Caddy also had a trunk roomy enough to hold several cases of Stroh’s, which I bartered for steaks and barbecued chicken outside the Rose Bowl. Fortunately, I had a couple left to soothe my soul after the game. My Wolverines lost, thanks to a touchdown that should have been ruled a fumble.
In 1979, Stroh’s was still being “fire-brewed” at the brewery on Detroit’s east side, and members of the Stroh family were still in charge. Like many breweries, it offered tours. It wasn’t uncommon to turn a day off into a Motor City trifecta: Beer tasting at the Strohaus, followed by a ballgame at Tiger Stadium and drinks at the Lindell A.C.
The Lindell was a sports bar before that phrase officially entered the English language. Its walls were covered with rows of autographed photos of local athletes, along with more dubious memorabilia like the jockstrap worn by ex-Detroit Lions linebacker Wayne Walker. On a given night, anyone from the local TV weather guy to the umpires who worked that night’s Tiger game were liable to drop in.
Closer to home, my favorite haunt was Fraser’s Pub where, as a student, I was introduced to Molson Golden. Fraser’s was also a sports bar, one of the first in town to get a wide-screen television. It was—and still is—a place where they always know your name, even on a busy football Saturday.
Sometimes on weekends, I indulged in international beer traveling, in the form of a 30-mile run to Windsor, Ontario, where both beer and gas were cheaper and the American dollar traded at a premium. Before it died of rust poisoning, my Chevy knew the way to the Brewers Retail store near the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. It was there that I bought then-exotic brews like Molson Stock Ale (in stubby bottles like Red Stripe), Brador, and John Labatt’s Extra Stock. I never figured out the legalities of bringing Canadian beer across the border. I know it wasn’t contraband, like Cuban cigars, because the Customs officers waved me and my beer through. Maybe the import duty was so small it wasn’t worth bothering to collect.
Trips to Canada weren’t my only exposure to heartier styles of beer. During my student days, I spent summer vacations with my family in New Jersey. We lived 15 miles from Manhattan, close enough that I could see the World Trade Center towers outside my bedroom window. The surrounding area was rich in Irish bars. My favorite was Morley & McGovern’s, where I caught up with high school buddies, listened to Celtic music, and discovered the magic of Guinness.
In 1979, I did most of my beer traveling by car; most destinations were off the beaten track, and airfares were steep. Thinking back, I wondered if it was more fun to hit the road back then. The answer is yes and no. Highways were in better shape, there was less road rage, and the country wasn’t as homogenized by strip malls, big-box retailers, and chain restaurants. On the other hand, cars weren’t as reliable or comfortable, and drivers had to contend with the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit, which the police enforced zealously—especially on out-of-staters. And liquor laws tested the traveler’s patience. Some states made it impossible to buy a drink on Sunday; in others, even finding a cold six-pack was a challenge.
I didn’t realize it then, but big changes were on the horizon. Congress had just deregulated airfares, a move that would make it cheaper for Americans to fly to Europe and discover a world of different beer styles. Industry consolidation was killing off the nation’s smaller breweries. One by one, they would shut their doors, leaving a niche to be filled. Last but not least, President Carter had just signed a bill legalizing homebrewing. A new generation was about to revive craft brewing, creating hundreds of new destinations for beer travelers.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor, and researcher, who travels as much as his budget permits, visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.