I’ve always been fascinated by what draws people to liking beer, I think in part because I really didn’t enjoy beer until I was well over the U.S. legal drinking age. There’s as many stories as there are beer enthusiasts, and part of me wants to document them all. Starting here. In this one, my friend Shafiqah Hudson reminds us that freshness matters. And that’s just in the first paragraph.
My entrance into the world of craft beer began, interestingly enough, with a REALLY good bottle of Heineken. Not my first Heinie, but the best, ever AND since. I mean, it was really, reeeeeeally fucking good, and maybe partly because I wasn’t expecting it to be.
Some extensive background: once upon a time ago, I didn’t drink beer. I didn’t like the taste, and positively loathed the smell. My freshman year of undergrad, I didn’t drink, at all. There were lots of reasons, not the least of which was the crushing guilt I felt about the growing distance between myself and my birth faith (Islam). Sure, I wasn’t fasting or praying anymore, but booze, drugs and sex were still the road to hell (probably? maybe?), so staying away from those things seemed sensible and pious. Besides, my first taste of beer – PBR out of a giant red plastic cup at some party off campus, distinctly reminiscent of carbonated piss – left me unimpressed. If I was gonna risk provoking God’s wrath, it wasn’t gonna be with that shit.
My first serious drink, consumed the following year on winter break at the tender age of 19, and purchased for me by a seasoned drinker/possible sadist, was a kamikaze. A sweet, smooth, and delicious kamikaze, that turned into three more kamikazes. Then I was oversinging the live band onstage from the bathroom an hour later, one thing lead to another and the night ended spectacularly with me throwing up everything I’d ever eaten in my life. I’m pretty sure, like everyone, I swore I’d never drink again. And, like everyone who has ever said that, I proved myself to be more a liar than a quitter.
A few weeks later at my 20th birthday party, I drank again – this time, homemade strawberry-mango daiquiris, and a single round of rum shots. I got drunk and silly, not sick and ridiculous. I liked it. Drinking to drunkenness (and no further) was fun! My friends had a lot more experience with it than I did, so I adopted my friends’ binge drinking rules. No booze on an empty stomach, among others (there was a list, of course). I was rarely hungover, and my fun – which included weekend-long booze-filled jaunts to Niagara Falls, Toronto, and NYC – didn’t interfere with my studies or my fiftyleven on-campus jobs.
It was around this time that I noticed there were genuine cultural differences to be found within the microcosm of my campus. My friends were mostly people of color. We didn’t get “wasted” – we got nice. That meant we got a pleasant buzz going, but kept our balance and our clothes on. Parties organized by my friends meant music, and dancing, and somebody was cooking. Top-shelf liquor available for imbibing would be accompanied by every kind of mixer on earth, alongside huge pans of roasted meats, rice and peas, and…lots of baked ziti. (It was the Nineties.) Meanwhile, a party with alcohol thrown/attended by the White kids meant a fuckton of overdressed and rhythmless people, five or six kegs, Jaegermeister and Everclear, bad music, worse dancing, and maybe some pizza. MAYBE. By sophomore year, my White friends had figured out that our parties were funner, safer, and generally less gross, as public vomiting wasn’t excused at student of color parties. Because students of color got expelled for smaller infractions than over-drinking, and also because drinking wasn’t supposed to, like, kill you. “White Boy Wasted” – and the lifetime of privileged, reckless consequencelessness that permitted it – was not an option for us. And those five or six (or more) kegs per party meant I had come to associate liking beer with those attitudes (and vomit).
Beer, then, was for white folks. For getting stupid.
Going abroad my junior year to West Africa shifted my view. Senegal, a Muslim country, was and is still home to a sizeable Christian minority, and a popular European tourist destination. Which meant that there were better-than-decent bars in the capital city, Dakar. Every quartier had a decent bar, always highlighted by garish neon signs and year-round Christmas lights, and easy to find. What you couldn’t find, unfortunately, were better-than-decent bartenders. Most restaurant staff, unlike the owners, were Muslim, and didn’t drink. My drink of choice became the Cuba Libre, because anything more complicated than “un whiskey” was gonna be iffy. Beer, on the other hand, was consistent and always available to drink cold. One blazing hundred degree afternoon, I decided to pair my fiery hot lunch shawarma with a Red Stripe. And with that overly malty but ice cold li’l bottle of wonderful, my mind opened. Beer still sucked, of course. But, some beers sucked less than others, and on a searingly hot day, some brands were better-than-drinkable.
Which brings us back to that Heineken, consumed after a hearty dinner prepared for myself and my traveling companion/bestie on our first night in The Hague. Our study abroad term had concluded. Reluctant to return to the States, we had decided to spend our abbreviated spring break and little bit of shared money in Europe. My first sip of beer was absent-minded, drunk straight from the bottle during a pause in warmly engaged conversation with our gorgeous, charming Dutch host family. The explosion of flavor in my mouth that followed – bitter, lemony, grassy – caused me to gasp, pulling the bottle away from my mouth, eyes wide with shock.
“What beer is this?” I whispered. “Oh, it’s Heineken,” my host father said. “Do you have Heineken?”
“No,” I had replied, still amazed. “I mean, we have this beer, but why is ours terrible?” Which set off a round of hearty laughter (as the terribleness of American beer is a long-running joke) and also encouragement to go to the Heineken factory in Amsterdam if we had the time. We didn’t, but my quest for good beer in America had unofficially begun.
Post-graduation, I landed in New York City, where I was to spend the Aughts. My first year living and working in the city were stressful, and lonely. Dating was tough, and making new friends was pretty much impossible. A lifetime of being a weirdo introvert had prepared me a little for this new, sad phase. My closest friends were either still in school or out of the country; I had to find ways to cope with this new hole in my life. Forging a new facet of my adult identity and trying things out to see what I liked, I revisited Corona, Stella Artois, Guinness, and the whole Sam Adams calendar range. Armed with a ferocious curiosity, I forged ahead, and in the process I learned what appealed to me (complex tastes but smooth texture, bitter clarity of IPAs) and what I wanted to punch in the face (Budweiser – should pretty much only be used as deep-fry batter). I started going to restaurants alone, and by the time I turned 23 I had become an accomplished solo diner. As my palate’s sophistication evolved, I sought out flavors. I asked questions. What did people drink everywhere else? The chef at my favorite sushi spot swore by dry import-only Asahi with vegetarian rolls. The German owner of a tiny but well-stocked wine shop near my building in Washington Heights, tickled by my curiosity, introduced me to Schorschbrau. and gifted me a bottle of chocolate doppelbock. The hostess at my favorite cafe in Inwood, a beer enthusiast, once paired my croque monsieur with a glass of Houblon Chouffe instead of the Reisling I had ordered; I’ve been unquestioningly drinking out of bottles with gnomes on them ever since.
America’s craft beer nascence has made fancy, tasty beer more accessible than ever, and exploring what’s around is far easier than it was when I started. There’s also broader acknowledgment of the diversity of producers, and consumers. And, because life is nothing if not painfully ironic, now that beer is everywhere, I can’t afford it. The longing and the love persist.
Shafiqah Hudson is an East Coast based freelance writer. She loves her work and thinks you might like it, too.“