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April 29, 2003

Breaking Balls

Beer with a Ballgame

by Derek Zumsteg

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"Derek," people sometimes ask me, "you drink a lot of beer. And I by that I mean a frightening amount of beer. What should I, the casual beer drinker, enjoy while I sit at home and watch my Rangers get their ass handed to them game after game?"

So at great personal expense which, my accountant tells me, I will unlikely be able to deduct as a cost of business, I took the time to drink a lot during baseball games so that I could offer this report to you in the hopes that it enhances your enjoyment of this season.

Nationally Available Crap Beers

The big choices available to everyone are Bud and Bud Light. Even though Bud's recently hiked their prices, you can still blunder into a 24-pack cube of cans for $12 or so at the local convenience store eager to get you in the door, where they hope you'll buy something off their aisle o' pornography (I'm not joking, there's a store just down the street from me that does this). Bud is clearly the choice between these. It's 5% alcohol by volume, Bud Light is 4.2% or so. Bud Light is almost not there, it's so wispy. It's like soda water cut with Bud, maybe. There's almost no malt flavor, there's no hop flavor, there's nothing. Now, Bud...Bud's got a straw color, a head that runs off the field faster than Eckstein, and a sweet, ricey taste, no hops. There's a reason Bud's America's best-selling beer: You can drink 10, 20 of these things and not think twice until you go to get up for the bathroom and topple over the coffee table, putting your head into the TV, shattering the tube into your skull, resulting in a trip to the ER where they'll refuse to anesthetize you because your blood-alcohol level's already too high and instead hold you down while they pick the shards of glass out of your drunk skull as your friends laugh at you (you weren't drinking alone, were you?).

Here's a joke: Go into a bar and ask for this lager you've heard of, and pronounce it as if it's German: boood-vie-sehr. Tell them you've heard it's excellent. Will get you smiles in good bars (if I haven't already worn their good humor out of them), or baffled looks in not-so-good bars. "Budweiser? I've never heard of it," they'll say, furrowing their cigarette-smoke-caked brows as they scratch their cheek.

Bud tends to make me sleepy, which makes it a bad choice when I'm trying to watch a 'stretch' game on Mondays, say, when the only game on is the fierce Brewers-Mets rivalry.

Other big contenders: Coors, like Bud but not as sweet, trading that for a bit more taste, which isn't saying a lot. Coors Light, which, well, Bud:Bud Light::Coors:Coors Light. MGD is just like those beers, sweet but mostly tasteless, but for some reason I like it a little better.

It's a pick 'em in this category: I suspect that this is like the Duff Brewery, where behind the scenes all major macro brews come from the same giant pipe. Buy whatever's on sale, or whatever you have a slight preference for, and then serve them in an ice-cold mug. Seriously, a cup and a huge drop in the temperature makes a huge difference in your ability to tolerate really thin, tasteless beers. Helps the beer a lot, and maybe numbs your mouth. If you can get one of those awesome mugs with the interior liquid layer that actually freezes, that's gold--you want to see ice crystals forming in your macro brew, if you can manage it.

Regional Crap Beers

Even in Texas, there are local beers that are way cheap and way bad, but have some kind of character, or history, or something, and they sit down at the far end of the aisle with Keystone (Coors!), Natural Ice ("Natty," by Anheuser-Busch, and a beer I used to shotgun while doing Fortran programming years back), Schmidt's, Schlitz, the High Life, and so forth. If you've got a decent regional crap beer that's available on the cheap, and it's actually locally produced, I'd like to encourage you to support your local brewery and pick them for your crap beer needs.

Regionally Available Decent Beers

Out in my corner of the country, this is Henry Weinhard's, brewed by Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co., and they've got a standard drinking beer, Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve (which, shockingly, is not actually his private reserve, but a mass-produced beer), along with an ale, a nice blackberry wheat, and a Hefeweisen I really don't like at all. On sale at $8-$9 for 12 bottles, you get a huge return in enjoyment for upgrading from Budweiser. Hopefully your area has some reasonable facsimile for Henry's, and if they do, and it's on sale, that's your beer.

Nationally Available Decent Beers

Foster's is imported Bud, essentially, with a little more taste and character. Dos Equis is pretty good. Heineken's expensive usually but a fine, easy-drinking beer. Problem with Heineken is that the green bottles too often result in the beer skunking, and since it's naturally a little bitter, it's become the object of mockery in Keystone ads, for instance. If you can find Heineken on tap though, hook up the IV drip. Before the microbrew uprising, it was probably the best brew you could find across the country. Now...not so much.

Fake Microbrews

Oh, beware my friends. There are a number of supposed microbrews that are not, in fact, microbrews at all. Coors brews Blue Mountain Belgian White, for instance. Anheuser-Busch brews Bareknuckle Stout in the same kettles that produce Bud and King Cobra Premium Malt Liquor. These guys aren't the book-waving, barricade-charging microbrew revolutionaries, they're the guys who put the revolution on their T-shirts and claim they were down all along. Do not buy their products.

Actual Microbrews

OK, I'm in Seattle, where my cup runs over. We've got the awesome Redhook Brewery in town, their inferior cousin Pyramid's here, and there are a hundred tiny brewers like Elysian and Hale's, all serving beers that are nutty-good as long as you're willing to pony up the extra money. As much as I like my beer, the fact that a top-quality micro runs over two times as much per beer as your Bud/Coors/etc. makes it harder to choose quality consistently. Regional decent beers are the happy medium for the budget-conscious, but if you've got the money, this is the other end of the price/quality spectrum.

There's a problem with these tasty microbrews though. It's summer, and you don't want a heavy beer you could eat with knife-and-fork. It's lagers-and-ales time, and we're looking for what are called "session beers," something you can sit and drink three or four, or 12 over the course of an evening. This narrows the field considerably: I think even IPAs and hefeweisens drop out, and stouts, porters, no way. So I drink Redhook Rye, which is an amazingly good beer if you can find it, or their ESB or Blonde Ale, which is a little citrusy.

How to Use Your Beers

You want to set yourself up with a nice mug (cold, preferably), and backup cold mugs in the freezer. Something to put your feet up on--if you've got an expensive coffee table, go to Ikea and buy a $15 table you can scuff up. Check your stock of beer, to ensure that you won't have to drive out to the store if the game goes into extra innings. Get something reasonably healthy to snack on. If you're not willing to go with baby carrots or even some other veggie you can drown in dip to mitigate its healthiness, at least go with peanuts or sunflower seeds, rather than sour cream burritos with extra guacamole.

Pace yourself drinking. Even only one game is likely to run three hours, more if it's televised (ESPN game, long breaks between half-innings, home team loses in nine, that's 17 breaks and about an hour of commercial content packed into your consumer maw until you vomit with excitement over the prospect of buying a Passat). You're probably naturally going to dig into that first beer, and that's understandable. Take it easy: The object is not to get roaring lit, or pass out and miss the finish, it's to be comfortable and enjoy the game in the company of friends. (Drinking by yourself is considered a warning sign of alcoholism, be sure to get your kids involved, local youth if you do not have kids yourself, even your dog will do in a pinch). Try to avoid drinking more when the game's exciting, or out of boredom if it's dragging. Just be cool, know your limits, pace yourself, and it'll work out fine.

Drink water, or something non-alcoholic, once in a while. Alcohol dehydrates, and you'll remain in better spirits and come out of the game ready for more baseball if you do a little water sipping while you're at it. So have a Sprite, or brew some iced tea, as you go. If you're not already doing it, you'll find hydration greatly enhances extended drinking sessions and allows you to do things afterwards like normal people, rather than popping aspirin and lying down for an extended nap.

Having some nice chilled mugs, a good refrigerator full of beer, the right setup and snacks will greatly enhance your game-watching experience at home and may even mellow you out enough that you stop yelling at the color commentators. And I'll see you on the beer aisle.

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