Sunday, August 01, 2004

A Blatz from the Past

It was the summer of 1995, I believe, when I spotted my first bottle of Blatz. A couple 40-ounce bottles were sitting on the ground next to grill. I was strolling through a park when I noticed somebody grilling bratwurst. The secret ingredient appeared to be boiling the brats in Blatz beer. I asked the gentleman why he chose to cook his wurst in Blatz.

"That's about all it's good for," he replied.

I would disagree, but not until years later, when I had my first Blatz draft. I was with my wife and we had just finished hiking along the I&M Canal in Lemont, Ill., when I noticed a very old neon sign in front of a tavern proclaiming, "Blatz on Tap." I turned to my wife, Carol, and asked, "Do you think...". "Do I think what," she replied. I pointed to the sign. "Do you think they still have Blatz on tap? I haven't seen it years!"

We walked up the street, went through the old wooden screen door adorned with an old tin sign advertising 7-UP, and seemed to step back through time. The tavern, Tom's Place, sported a black and white checkered tile floor and a green tin ceiling. My eyes focused on the right side of the room, and at great old wooden bar, I spotted it: a Blatz tapper. We perched ourselves on top of a couple bar stools and asked the bartender for two glasses of Blatz. The bartender poured our Blatz drafts into typical old-fashioned 10-ounce pilsner glasses. The beer poured with just a little bit of foam that quickly dissipated. It tasted light, but it didn't taste like the more common light beers of today. It had just a touch of body and a surprisingly creamy smoothness. The finish was slightly sweet, but crisp, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this historic beer. Perhaps it was the heat, but I think it was history.

Blatz has been around for well over a century. Your father or grandfather might remember the 1950s TV commercials, singing the praises of Blatz with the line, "I'm from Milwaukee and I ought to know." I have a VHS tape of old beer commercials and they're quite entertaining. I watch them as a "background video" to whatever music I'm listening to or when I'm in a cheap beer drinking mood and want to sing along to old jingles.

Valentine Blatz opened the brewery in 1851. According to the Cheap Beer Server, Blatz was actually the first Milwaukee brewer to go national, but it was forced to close in 1959, and the label was sold to Pabst. Heileman purchased it in 1969 after Pabst's anti-trust problems, then Pabst got it back when they bought Stroh's. Among the big Milwaukee brewers all that's remaining in town is Miller. There's a ton of brewery history in Milwaukee, and for the most part, it's being treated with great respect. Some of the Cream City's breweries are being reused as retail and residential space. The beers once produced by Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz are now made in Texas by Pabst Brewing Co.

Meanwhile, back at Tom's Place, I'm watching the Cubs lose, and enjoying my Blatz beer in a saloon that seems to not have changed much since Blatz was sold to Pabst. A mural, mostly covered with old Blatz advertising, decorates part of the wall behind the bar at Tom's. One of the wall decorations is fairly cheeky, if you know what I mean, and brings new meaning to the phrase, " bottoms up." It seems that one of the amenities at Tom's is that you can get your booze to go, with bottles of liquor priced and stocked in cabinets at one end of the bar. There's no grill at Tom's, as one patron found out, but you can get a boneless chicken for 50 cents -- just don't expect a filet -- because what you'll get is a hard boiled egg from a little wire carousel behind the bar. Other snacks can be had, too, such as chips and pretzels. The only modern touches are the color TVs, the electronic dart board and the obligatory Golden Tee video game. Aside from the modern entertainment, Tom's Place showcases it's history, which is alive well -- just like Blatz draft.

We finish our beers and let the bartender know we're ready to settle up.

"That'll be $2.50," she says.

"Naw, it's priceless," I reply.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Special Ex

Growing up in an Old Style house, I thought beer was supposed to taste like, well, beer. Grainy but also corny, with a great slick of nothing in the middle. Beer also tasted like a Saturday afternoon while watching Richie Zisk and the White Sox play between Plochman's Mustard commercials. By the time I could order beer on my own, rather than just have a sip of my dad's, I wanted new-world beer. To a twenty-something with a 9-to-5 job and her own Marshall Field's card, Old Style was aptly named and wholly shunned. Old Style tasted like sucking the plastic on a couch in the living room of a brick bungalow. Give me a Miller Lite, please.

For kicks on a trip to the Mall of America (and to get out of the car for awhile) my mom and I stopped at the old G. Heileman brewery in La Crosse, Wisconsin (now the home of City Brewery, makers of City Lager). We were not really interested in the brewery tour but were still allowed a few free beers. The choices were Old Style and Special Export. Still believing that my dad's beer was too musty for me, I flipped the tap handle and took half a plastic tumbler of Special Export.

Now at that time my palate was not the refined hop detection device it is now. And today, Special Export’s hoppiness is overshadowed by that of many American microbrews not even trying to be especially hoppy (and the green bottle brew’s hop character is absolutely pulverized into oblivion by contenders like Three Floyd’s Dreadnaught). But for a regional macrobrew, Special Export is pretty hoppy and I knew this even while sampling it at the home of the large six-pack. Its a beer with a sparkly bite that knows its role and doesn’t bother you for more, like a pal you watch baseball with but would never invite over for dinner.

Lately, I’ve been drinking the Ex a lot because of my husband’s gall bladder. He’s off alcohol until the diseased bile warehouse can be removed. In solidarity, I have given up Sierra Nevada, Red Seal and even my husband’s Tripel, which rivals some Belgian brands. It’s Special Export for me because it’s not one of my husband’s favorites. But it’s one of mine, and proof that cheap beer doesn’t have to be bullied into ickiness by adjuncts.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Gettin' Krazy at Kenwood

So what is cheap beer? Is it mass marketed brew? Is it something typically priced under Bud, Miller and Coors products? Or can it be just what's on sale?

I think cheap beer can be all these things. I recently made a stop at one of my favorite places for cheep beer: Kenwood Liquors at 10750 S. Cicero Ave., in Oak Lawn, IL. If your in the area it's a great place for super-cheap southside beer -- you've got the likes of Bud, Miller and Coors (for quite cheap) as well as your other second-tier cheap beers such as Old Milwaukee, Milwaukee's Best, Keystone, etc. Kenwood is one of the few places left you can find Ballantine Ale. It's only available in 40-ounce bottles and only at certain times of the year. The last time I was at Kenwood I didn't see it, but when it's available, it can be had for a little more than $2 for a 40. Not bad at all.

Ballantine is cheap, but it's a beer with a long history that is well documented by John Smallshaw. He provides a pretty thorough history of Ballantine's one of the last surving historical American ales. The beer has lost some character through the years, but I believe it stil has an edge over other beers at the same price. It's also a great introduction to ales if you mostly drink macro-brewed lagers.
If you're at Kenwood and if you like better beer and don't spend that much you're in luck. There are usually a few microbrews to be found cheaper than you'd ever think possible. I recently found Ruedrich's Red Seal for quite cheap at $5.62 a six-pack. I normally see this beer for between $7-$8 a six. If you're interested in better beer, such as microbrews and imports, check out the Marcobrau Beer Pages. Meanwhile, I'll be looking for some Ballantine's.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Your Father's Beer

Last night I was in search of a cheap brew. I had $3 in my pocket and I wanted some beer.

After perusing the aisles and coolers at the nearest liquor store I decided I was in the mood for Old Style beer. Yup. Old Style. The beer that your father drank when you were growing up in the Midwest, especially in Chicago. I was also inspired by an old article on the history of Old Style beer that originally appeared in the Barfly newspaper here in Chicago. To be honest, I usually drink fancier microbrews or imports, but my budget is getting the best of me these days. Of course, there's more to drinking cheap beer than just penny pinching. Yes, there is, really! Even before the economy started to head south and my beer budget dried up, I started to look fondly at cheap beer. Sure, there were memories of college days, but more importantly it awakened a sense of history. There are a lot of brands of beer that in years gone by threatened to take a lot of business away from Budweiser and Miller. Some of these brands of beer still exist today.

In many cases, these brands are perceived by the public to be cheap products that are inferior to the likes of Budweiser and Miller or Coors. Well, I'm here to say that just because a beer is cheap doesn't mean it's going to be foul tasting. Of course, there are some brands of cheap beer out there that are pretty nasty, but the brand that is our topic today -- Old Style -- is actually a pretty fine beer. Generations of Chicagoans have grown up with Old Style beer. It is a simple beer brewed with barley, malt, hops and corn, (LOTS of corn) and of course water. Despite being cheap, it is not a light beer, it is actually fairly full-bodied for an American mainstream lager. When fresh, I think Old Style rivals Budweiser, but it has to be fresh. Such as the 40-oz bottle I picked up yesterday at the corner store. Full-bodied, light golden in color with a big head and grainy/corny aroma. A bit sweet for my tastes but very refreshing and smooth -- maybe it's that old-fashioned krausening that the marketing department at G. Heileman used to tell us about.

Now the Old Style brand is owned by Pabst and you never know when Pabst might decide to stop producing it. So, savor this beer while you can, before it truly becomes history.