Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On beer

Beer is not a drink. It's a social institution. Think about it. You don't get together with friends. You get together and have a beer. Backyard barbecues and summer parties are incomplete (in most people's minds) without large doses of the amber liquid. Even the president of our fine country apparently invites people over for a beer to make up for (real or imagined) political gaffes. Beer is not just a drink; it is practically a social currency.

All of this makes things difficult when you can't swallow the stuff. You are not refusing a beverage; you are refusing a gesture of goodwill. Even if the person offering it attempts to understand, it's still the equivalent of refusing a handshake in many situations. Despite this fact, neither Branden nor I have ever been able to feign a love for fermented wheat juice. We managed to fake our way into liking wine. It took a while, but eventually we even came to like the stuff.

Not so with beer.

Even in Seattle, land of microbreweries, we did not find a beer that we could drink without a grimace. (Smirnoffs and Mike's Hard Lemonade do not count...they are candy masquerading as alcohol.)

It was with some trepidation, then, that we entered into the social scene in Germany, where beer is even more of a national pastime than it is in the US. Americans drink beer. Germans live on it.

Just to give you some sense of the importance of beer in Germany, every type and brand has its own glass. You will never be served a Guinness in a Pils glass. That would be sacrilege. Every household owns a set of the glasses that correspond to their preferred brand(s) of beer, and you will be served in those glasses and no other, so they must have enough of each glass to serve guests also. This makes for very large glass cupboards. Every glass has a calibrated fill line to tell you exactly how much space to leave for the head, and exactly how much is in your glass when it arrives. It's like a graduated cylinder for beer, which amuses me to no end.

Even paper cups come with fill lines and volume markings. You will never again wonder if your friend got more than you, or if the waitress should have filled your glass a little more, because it says right there, on the glass itself. Nothing like precision.

It can actually cost more to get a glass of tap water in a restaurant than to get a liter of beer. And after dinner, everyone sits around and drinks a few more beers. And, unlike the US, nursing a drink for an entire evening isn't really an option. I've seen half a liter downed in a single swallow after the toast. Here, you drink your beer.

Of course, we had to try it. German beer is different than American beer, and you can't say you don't like it until you've tried it.* So we did. And, shockingly, it is palatable. I can't claim ownership of the idea that a cold beer is the ultimate, perfect end to a day, but we can actually drink (and enjoy) German beer. We even bought some in the supermarket on our own, without prompting. Will wonders never cease.

Of course, being able to drink German beer is not equivalent to being able to drink beer like a German. I think you have to train to be able to drink this stuff and keep your legs (which might have something to do with us buying it in the supermarket). It's not a shock that a half a liter does me in. I'm a lightweight. Always have been, probably always will be. But when Branden can feel it after a liter, that's some strong stuff.

Of course, if our newfound liking for beer does become an actual fondness for the stuff, we might be in trouble. Just about every German we've met (and probably some that we haven't) has told us that you can't get beer like this in the US, and that even German beers exported to the US are not as good as they are in Germany. There are even some stories about beers being shipped after their German expiration date, because Americans will drink anything.

I don't know how true that is (it has a whiff of urban legend to me), but I do have to agree that American beer and German beer are different. And, while we do like German beer, perhaps we should be careful not to fall in love.

*This is The Rule, though I freely admit that I do make exceptions in some cases. Blood pudding, sweet meat, and Haggis come to mind as reasonable exceptions to this rule. Good thing we're not in Scotland.

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