A few thoughts on beer

The only reason I’d ever leave home for a day of fishing without it is because I intended to buy it enroute
hamm's beer sign
Photo: W.A. Blair

For a number of years Andy Cook and I had a running debate about which tastes better: an ice-cold Kalik after a day of bonefishing in the Bahamas or an ice-cold Labatt’s Blue after an evening of bugging for smallmouth in Ontario. Actually, “debate” probably isn’t the right word; it wasn’t so much that we held opposing views on the subject as that we simply sought to clarify it.

If you’ve been around Andy and me much you know that we’re always searching for a “clarifier,” whether we’re waving a fly rod, toting a shotgun, studying a map, or pondering a gin rummy hand. It’s just the way we roll.

What we finally decided is that each beverage is perfect and unimprovable in its particular setting, and that therefore the notion that one or another might be “better” is logically invalid. Or moot. Or something like that.

Anyway, to paraphrase the great Tom T. Hall, we like beer. Sometimes it’s celebratory, sometimes it’s restorative, sometimes it just tastes good—and the only reason I’d ever leave home for a day of fishing without it is because I intended to buy it enroute. Even when my fishing partners insist that they’ll bring the beer, it’s possible they’ll forget, or that they’ll show up with something undrinkable. And those are risks I’m not prepared to take.

This is where personal taste enters the discussion. Whenever I float the Menominee River for smallmouth, my first priority upon meeting my guide is to find the cooler and put a six-pack of Tecate on ice, and also a lime in a zip-lock bag. Then, with my mind at ease, I can assemble and string my rod. It’s a long way from Mexico to the border of Wisconsin and the U.P. but when the sun’s hammering down, the glare’s ferocious, and you’re double-hauling big bugs the brew in the red-and-silver can is hard to beat.

Now, my frequent partner on these floats, Winston Ostrow, thinks that Tecate tastes as if it were strained through iron filings. Which is fine with me, because it means I don’t have to share. As for my opinion of the stuff he shows up with, well, it’s correspondingly low. I mean, what the hell is a “Belgian Sour,” anyway?

I’m also of the opinion that beer shouldn’t have to be chewed, although at the other end of the spectrum I think it should still be identifiable as the product it’s advertised to be. This reminds me of the joke about the guy who wins a slogan contest for a new “lite” beer with the line “Smooth as making love in a canoe.” Asked what inspired him, he replies “Because it’s f-----g near water.”

Then there was the friend of my dad’s, a famous punster, who was once given a glass of less-than-stellar suds at a party. He took a sip, smacked his lips appraisingly, held the glass up to the light, and said to his host, “You know, I think your horse is gonna live.”

I guess the bottom line is that I want my beer to taste like, well, beer, meaning the straight-ahead golden lagers I grew up drinking in Iowa in the ‘70s: Schlitz, Storz, Hamm’s, Grain Belt, the occasional and much-relished Coors—you get the gist. These days my go-to beers are a couple of eminent Wisconsin brews, Leinenkugel’s (the original, I mean) and Point Special Lager, although I’m also partial to Spotted Cow, a yeasty craft ale from the much-honored New Glarus Brewing Co. on the edge of the Driftless.

As I told someone just the other day, my taste in women runs to brunettes, but my taste in beer runs to blondes. Not surprisingly, my favorite beer-related memory includes both.

It was mid-afternoon, a sun-splashed high summer day on Lynx Lake in northern Wisconsin, a warm breeze pushing cotton-candy clouds across a bright blue sky. I suppose you could say I was fishing—I had a rod and a couple boxes of flies in the boat—but that would be to credit me with more ambition than I deserved.

Mostly I was just drifting, pushed by that same warm, pine-scented breeze, catching nothing except a few rays. Of course I was undoubtedly thinking deep, weighty thoughts—so deep and weighty that they must have broken off and sunk to the bottom, because for the life of me I can’t remember a one of them.

At some point as I bobbed along, lulled into semi-drowsiness by the waves’ softly thumping caress, I noticed that another vessel appeared to be heading in my direction. Soon it became clear that it was, indeed, bearing down on me, and as it drew closer I could see that its hull was the color of fire, that it bore a fearsome insignia on its billowing sail, and that its captain was clad in black. Some terrible fate, it seemed, was about to befall me on the bounding main.

Okay, so the boat was an orange Sunfish, and the captain was my wife, Joan, wearing a black swimming suit.

“Ahoy, matey,” she called as she manuevered alongside. “Going my way?”

“That depends,” I said. “What are your intentions?”

“Honorable, I assure you,” she laughed. “Actually, I just thought you could use a snack.”

With that, reaching into the cockpit of the Sunfish as if it were a magician’s hat, she produced a plate of nachos and an ice-cold bottle of Corona—an act that left me speechless with delight. Having beer and nachos delivered to you by a
beautiful woman, on a beautiful lake, on a beautiful summer afternoon in the Great Northwoods… If you think life gets better than that, think again. It doesn’t.

No caviar and champagne aboard a yacht in St. Tropez ever tasted better than that beer, and those nachos, aboard a rowboat on Lynx Lake in northern Wisconsin.