The man who would have been my grandfather on my mother’s side died of drink before I was born. My mother was therefore nervous of alcohol, and rarely consumed it except at times of celebration, and then in unfestively small quantities. She pursued no religious observances, but was culturally a Christian and a Protestant in the way that English people often are. My father was, again more by birth and culture than observance, Jewish.
“Speak to the boy!” she once demanded, when as a teenager I came home somewhat drunk. He was a kindly man, who believed in rational argument. I could see his mind wrestling with the problem. Finally, he was ready to make a pronouncement: “I cannot understand why you drink. It is such a waste. You pay good money for beer, then piss it all away. Why does an intelligent Jewish boy behave like this? Now, if you gambled your money, I could understand that…”
My mother, who had winced at the vulgarity of the word “piss,” exhaled a hiss of frustration and began to sob.
Minor League Hustler
My father’s ambition was to be a minor league hustler. Only minor league? Well, he wasn’t very ambitious. He soon knuckled under when my mother demanded he get a respectable job. He became a short-haul trucker, and wore his union badge with pride.
When I was eight or nine years old, my school holidays were largely spent riding in his truck. He even somehow got a union badge for me. I doubt that truckers are normally given tips on either side of the Atlantic, but my dad had a magnetic charm (which he took with him when he departed this earth. Thanks, Dad; I could have used that). If he had to wrestle a heavy crate containing, say, a casting for machinery, the recipient would press the equivalent of a dollar into his hand, saying, “Have a drink.”
A small boy in short pants (me) would hand over the delivery note for signing, wondering all the while why my dad was apparently thought to be constantly thirsty. I didn’t realise that to be British is to be embarrassed about money. “Have a drink” meant a pint of beer. It was a euphemism for “Here’s a dollar tip.”
Most of the time, he stopped the truck at the next off-track betting office and lost the dollar on a horse. The only times I heard talk of his drinking beer was when he was meeting his friend Sid, who maintained an informal office in the saloon bar of Ye Olde Hat. Sid would accept the odd pilfered carton of cigarettes in exchange for sure-fire racing tips. Those horses lost, too.
Truckers, Miners and Steel Workers
Can any of us escape from our formative years? My dad tried to graduate from criminal class (minor league) to blue collar, but he failed in the beer department. Not that truckers are (in my first-hand, but limited, experience) big beer-drinkers (there may be good reasons for this). Again in my experience, but merely as close observer, coal-miners and steel-workers do drink a lot of beer (good reasons again).
“I designed this beer to get the coal dust out of miners’ throats,” a legendary English brewer once told me. That was Alan Hay, now retired from Timothy Taylor’s, in the county of Yorkshire, where I was raised. He was speaking of a bitter called Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. I never quite got an answer when I asked why this beer was unusually effective in respect of coal dust. Perhaps it was the cleansing fruitiness of the principal hop, Styrian Goldings.
Another local brewery, long gone, made a special beer for the steel city of Middlesbrough, Yorkshire. The beer was reputed to be stronger than the regular bitter (in those days, British brewers were secretive about the alcohol content of their beers).
Yorkshire’s other steel city, Sheffield, recently lost the lovely old Ward’s brewery, where I once put in a mash. When steelmen are laid off and become male strippers, they no longer drink Ward’s Mild. I know too few strippers of either gender (or combination of the above) to pronounce upon their tastes in drink.
Class and Glass
By pondering these questions, perhaps I am reinforcing the idea that the British are snobbishly preoccupied with social class. There is, of course, no snobbism in the United States. Nor are there any classes.
Except, perhaps, the Underclass (Saul Bellow). Oh, yes, and there is White Trash. Is this different from Trailer Trash? I think so. How can you tell who is which? White Trash drink Schlitz; Trailer Trash prefer the cheapest Bourbon they can find.
Then there are those who wear blue collars and those who have (by birth, privilege, education or luck) been chosen to be white around the neck (and, statistically, in most other places). All of those classifications exist long before we get to movers and shakers, holders of black Amex cards, drivers of Suburbans, Boston brahmins, families like Clintons and Bushes, etc.
In Britain, working-class people sometimes wear their blue collars (or their fathers’) with defiant pride. I am of that disposition: hereditary blue collar. This happens less often in the United States, though I suppose Bruce Springsteen is an example, and columnists like Jimmy Breslin and the late Mike Royko.
Speaking of Springsteen, I was recently in New Jersey. I visited a town where, traditionally, tomatoes were grown: Vineland, in the south of the states. There, I met Steve Heck (an upholsterer); John Bonato (a cabinet-maker) and Richard Falasco (a plumber).
Laying their own floors and drains (not much call for upholstery until they have a grander office), they established a seven-barrel micro-brewery less than two years ago. They produce, among other beers, a toasty, nutty Irish red; a toffeeish Vienna-style lager; a spicy Scotch ale; and a resiny, hoppy pale ale. The beautifully rounded Coal Porter gives a clue to the social class with which they have chosen to identify. Based on their day jobs, they call their enterprise Blue Collar Brewing.
“A name with which most people can identify,” suggested Steve Heck.
“Nostalgically, perhaps?” I replied. Surely one problem is that, pride aside, most blue collar people would prefer to be identified as middle-class. Many would also prefer to be seen drinking Miller Lite. When they begin to climb the social ladder, they often switch to very similar beers from Europe: Heineken, Becks, etc.
Steve had more immediate concerns: “Our name makes people expect blue-collar prices.”
This was a troubling conversation. Neither of us wished to sound patronising, but we did. It turned me to this brief exploration of the social ladder, which has reached no conclusions.
Was either of us really blue collar? I tried a test. “Are any of you guys still in a labor union?” I asked. None of them was.
In my teens, I lost the badge my dad gave me, but I still carry the card of my trade union. He would be proud. What about those guys at Blue Collar Brewing? You can hardly be a scab when you employ yourself…and those are some pretty muscular beers.