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.