If America were to name a national beverage, Iet’s face it, the forerunner in that competition would be soda pop–a mop bucket-sized serving of soda pop. But if we were to remove soft drinks from consideration the runaway winner would be, of course, beer.
America is not unique in that respect. Off the top of your head, I’m sure, you can think of other countries famed for their deep affection for the stuff: Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Australia, etc. But what strikes me as an American curiosity is the extreme devotion to that variety of intoxicant even to the near exclusion of others. Certainly, in recent years, the craft-cocktail craze and the emergence of regional artisanal spirits have gained market share with higher-octane grains, and over the last couple of decades wine has been moderately democratized. But, it wasn’t that long ago that it was regarded as the drink of the elite and the effete. It was almost a synonym for “snob,” or, worse, European.
It was only several years ago, in fact, that I–an admitted wino in my preference of adult beverage–went with professional friends to an informal after-work function at a local brew pub and was chided for ordering a Cabernet: “Oh, you’re that guy?” So, it’s an interesting dichotomy: Beer is still the drink of the Everyday Joe even while there is an undeniable and growing body of nuanced expertise in the booming beer-nerd culture, not to mention the sophistication and subtlety of the brewing craft, itself.
I have drinking pals who dither and deliberate over the beer menu with the focused detail-orientation of the judges at the Westminster Dog Show. The scrupulousness with which they discuss grain and hop types, body and finish versus alcohol content, etc., is every bit as finicky, to my observation, as the gel-haired and be-blazered prick in an ’80s movie sniffing a cork.
Mind you, I’ve got nothing against beer. Though I don’t often drink it, I’ve got some craft, micro, or otherwise fancypants favorites. Generally, I’m happy at any movement to improve the quality of mass-marketed food and drink. Life’s nasty, brutish and short, after all. Why suffer crap catering of such an already trying experience? That being said, I have some perverse nostalgia for terrible beer.
I remember being a young man at a LarkFest in the mid-’80s, pooling change with my then-girlfriend for a couple of forties–Midnight Dragon was our go-to around that time. It was strong and nasty and perfect for a couple of Salvation Army-clad service-economy intellectuals parading around a street fair with friends like we owned the place. It just wouldn’t have been the same, I feel now, with a six pack of Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter.
In honor, I guess, of that former self, I undertook a personal mission for this brewery issue: to identify and consume the single cheapest beer to be found within walking distance of my suburban home.
There are, it turns out, four outlets within that range: two a half mile away and directly across the street from one another; the other two, each about a mile and half away, though in opposite directions. This would be more exercise than beer runs entailed in my Center Square residency, but it seemed appropriate to hoof it in tribute to my public-transportation days.
As it happens the two most distant, a small family-owned marketplace and a chain grocery store, were surprisingly fancy in their selections. The former had a nicely curated selection of craft beers and ciders but they were well beyond my lowbrow, low-budget criteria; the latter did offer the lowest unit price for beer that I saw all day–a 30-pack of Genny cans for an astonishingly paltry sale price of $14.99, but I was looking for, literally, a single beer. And, besides, this place also had a Chimay Trappist ale for $15.99. Probably delicious, but really not in the spirit of the thing.
The two closer options, a gas station with a convenience store and a Stewart’s were, I thought, more promising. Entering the gas station, though, I saw a display rack with beers from the Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown and I knew I was on the wrong track. A glance to the right at the separate and sizable walk-in beer cooler confirmed it: too ritzy for this mission. I put all my hopes in Stewart’s. There, I found an embarrassment of not riches.
Stewart’s seems to vary the high end of its individual stores’ beer selections by neighborhood. In this neck of the lawn, that meant Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a couple types of Samuel Adams and the like. The most expensive six-pack was Adirondack Bear Naked ale at $10.79. But I was looking lower on the shelves. There, I was faced with a kind of dilemma: The shelf signage advertised a two-for-$2.50 deal on 24-oz. cans of Milwaukee’s Best Ice; presuming the shop would give me a single can for $1.25, that was the day’s per-ounce cheapest single can (though, obviously, if bulk purchasing, you just can’t beat that disgusting Genny deal.) But Stewart’s also offers something called Mountain Brew Ice, at 99 cents for a 16-oz. can – and Mountain Brew Ice called to me.
I’d seen the beer in the shops before, though in an earlier iteration of its graphic design – which was originally comically bad. The new branding is moderately more professional looking though bland, but they did keep an element from the old look. Along the bottom of the can are a series of Walk-Don’t Walk-style figures engaged in various sports-ish activities: bowling, volleyball, fishing . . . uh, dancing? pointing? It was the pointing guy that got me, honestly.
So, after a couple of hours and an approximately five mile walk, I cracked open my nostalgic 99-cent Mountain Brew Ice.
It was perfect.
It was terrible.