Skål

I was the editor of Marketplace Magazine for 10 years. If I had to point to one thing that demonstrated improved quality of life when I moved to Northeast Wisconsin in 1994, it would be …

… the growth of breweries and  wineries in Northeast Wisconsin.

The former of those two facts makes sense, given our heritage as a brewing state. The latter is less self-evident, since no one thinks of Wisconsin as having a good grape-growing climate. Some snobs claim that apple or cherry wines aren’t really wines at all. But one of the great facets of free enterprise is the opportunity to make your own choice of what food and drink to drink. (At least for now, though some wish to restrict our food and drink choices.)

Wisconsin’s historically predominant ethnic group (and our family’s) is German. Our German ancestors did unfortunately bring large government and high taxes with them, but they also brought beer. Europeans brought wine with them, since they came from countries with poor-quality drinking water. Within 50 years of a wave of mid-19th-century German immigration, brewing had become the fifth largest industry in the U.S., according to Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.

Beer and wine have been more durable than government, having survived “progressive” and anti-alcohol efforts to wipe it out during Prohibition. (One anti-alcohol type wrapped temperance and World War I anti-German sentiment by proclaiming, “The worst of all our German enemies are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.”) Beer and wine are also more durable than newspapers, specifically the 2008 Gannett efforts to shame all of us into stopping drinking.

One of the more interesting classes I took at the University of Wisconsin was a class in UW’s Botany department, “Plants and Man.” Besides being one of the first users of multimedia presentations (he used two slide projectors during lectures), the professorTim Allen, talked about, of all things, brewing and winemaking:

“You learn about biological processes, you learn about infections, you learn about being careful, being clean—all things that are crucial to science,” says Allen. “As well as learning a useful skill. Brewing is legal and a wholesome activity.”

One thing he said that stuck in my mind during the adult-beverage lectures was to look for quality over quantity — that two bottles of a really good beer are preferable to a six-pack of lesser beer. (That’s also the reason I don’t drink light beer.) I meet no one’s definition of a beer or wine snob, but I avoid the more common beer labels (i.e. Miller Genuine Draft over Miller Lite, and Michelob over anything with “Bud” in its name), particularly Old Style beer (the most common contents of the college party quarter-barrels I attended), of which I drank enough to resolve to never drink it again after graduation. (I also vastly prefer bottles to cans.)

Old Style, of course, was brewed by the late G. Heileman Brewing Co. of La Crosse, which also brewed my first favorite beer, Special Export. (Both Old Style and Special Export are now brewed by Miller for Pabst, the labels’ owner. Pabst also owns BlatzColt 45 Malt LiquorLone StarOld MilwaukeeOlympiaPearlRainier, Schaefer, Schlitz and Stroh’s.) Special Export was the beer of choice at home when I reached legal drinking age, so I drank it until the formula changed sometime around 1990.

(Interesting side fact: Several beer Web sites actually “card” users — if you’re not 21, you can’t get into their Web site, I suppose because of the national 21-year-old drinking age. At 18, you can vote, marry, sign legally binding contracts and die for your country, but until you’re 21 you can neither drink nor access beer Web sites.)

I come from a long line of brandy drinkers, which shouldn’t be a surprise in Wisconsin. My grandfather drank brandy and cola. My father drinks brandy and seltzer. My Polish Minnesota relatives were shot-and-a-beer types, although the shot was brandy and not whiskey. I drink the official mixed drink of Wisconsin, the brandy old fashioned made with sweet vermouth. (Except during my in-laws’ large Christmas celebration, where the order of the day is their brandy slush. Since I wandered into that tradition, we now have our own separate brandy slush recipe.) The black sheep of the family are my aunt and uncle, who make the world’s greatest Bloody Marys.

My alcohol choices are influenced heavily by my sweet tooth. (Call me a philistine, but my wine preferences lean toward sweet whites.) Soon, I will be looking for Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, beer with a lemonade taste. I also like wheat beers, red beers, and even dark beers when I’m feeling, well, brilliant. I was going to replace the Summer Shandy with Leinie’s Apple Spice until Leinie’s discontinued Apple Spice and replaced it with Fireside Nut Brown. I have yet to delve into the world of home brewing, because I have enough to do in my life as it is. (More power to those who brew at home.)

There was great irony in the purchase of Anheuser–Busch, this nation’s largest brewer, by InBev of Belgium in the late 2000s. Some argue that Budweiser helped wipe out dozens of regional brands; others argue that Budweiser helped wipe out dozens of regional brands that were almost indistinguishable from Budweiser. Ogle (who has a beer blog) points out that, after Prohibition, per capita beer consumption didn’t reach pre-Prohibition levels until the mid-1970s. Edward McClelland wrote on Salon.com that, while in 1960 this country had 175 traditional (not micro) breweries, within 45 years (45 years of beer on the wall?) there were just 21 breweries.

Anyone 10 years or older than I am can regale you with interesting stories as the answer to this question: What is the worst beer you’ve ever had? McClelland points out that Anheuser–Busch’s attaching itself to television and sports took it from number four to number one among U.S. breweries, wiping out smaller competition in the process. An honest appraisal, though, might make one think that the survivors were those who didn’t just have more financial, distribution or marketing horsepower, but made a better, or at least more consistent, product than many smaller labels. (You walk into any McDonald’s restaurant in the U.S., and you will get the same Quarter Pounder as at the next McDonald’s, or a McDonald’s 1,000 miles away.) A good tipoff is when a beer is known not for its quality, but its lack thereof.

The trend in the reduction of traditional breweries has been countered by the rise of the microbrewery, or “craft brewery,” including, in Northeast Wisconsin, Fratellos and Fox River Brewing Co.HinterlandStone CellarTitletown and others. (McClelland notes that the U.S. had eight microbreweries in 1980; 25 years later, the number had jumped to more than 1,300.) The parallel trend is the rise of the small winery, including, in Northeast Wisconsin, Captain’s WalkDoor PeninsulaKerrigan Brothers, LedgeStone, Orchard CountryParallel 44Red OakSimon CreekStone’s ThrowTrout Springsvon StiehlWoodland Trail and others. (The winery list, incidentally, has doubled since I did a story about Northeast Wisconsin’s wineries in June 2001.)

At this point, those readers who don’t drink (and you are perfectly within your rights to abstain) might look at this as an exercise justifying drinking, as if those of us who enjoy the taste of alcoholic beverages or enjoy the stress-relieving effects of adult beverages are less moral or less pure of heart. That belies the reality that stress-relieving activities, of which drinking is one, have existed as long as stress has existed.

Washington Post columnist George Will, not a writer noted for humor, wrote perhaps the second funniest thing he has ever written (the first was his suggestion that football combines the two worst features of American culture — violence and committee meetings) when commenting on Investors Business Daily’s report on InBev’s purchase of Anheuser–Busch:

The story asserted: “The [alcoholic beverage] industry’s continued growth, however slight, has been a surprise to those who figured that when the economy turned south, consumers would cut back on nonessential items like beer.” “Non what”? Do not try to peddle that proposition in the bleachers or at the beaches in July. It is closer to the truth to say: No beer, no civilization.

That’s not columnist hyperbole. Will refers to Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, about a cholera epidemic traced to the drinking water in a particular London neighborhood:

“The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself. As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial population bottleneck. For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol.”

Often the most pure fluid available was alcohol — in beer and, later, wine — which has antibacterial properties. Sure, alcohol has its hazards, but as Johnson breezily observes, “Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties.” Besides, alcohol, although it is a poison, and an addictive one, became, especially in beer, a driver of a species-strengthening selection process.

Johnson notes that historians interested in genetics believe that the roughly simultaneous emergence of urban living and the manufacturing of alcohol set the stage for a survival-of-the-fittest sorting-out among the people who abandoned the hunter–gatherer lifestyle and, literally and figuratively speaking, went to town.

To avoid dangerous water, people had to drink large quantities of, say, beer. But to digest that beer, individuals needed a genetic advantage that not everyone had — what Johnson describes as the body’s ability to respond to the intake of alcohol by increasing the production of particular enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases. This ability is controlled by certain genes on chromosome four in human DNA, genes not evenly distributed to everyone. Those who lacked this trait could not, as the saying goes, “hold their liquor.” So, many died early and childless, either of alcohol’s toxicity or from waterborne diseases.

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. “Most of the world’s population today,” Johnson writes, “is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.”

So the next time you order beer, just tell your companions that nature wants you to drink beer. (I drink gin — always Tanqueray — and tonics in the summer due to my fear of scurvy and malaria. A bartender once told me that Tanqueray doesn’t cause hangovers, and so far, he’s been right.) Or repeat this quote attributed to John Ciardi: “Fermentation and civilization are inseparable.”

There is something viscerally satisfying about a good wine accompanying a good meal, or a bottle of beer in the company of friends. Taverns, after all, were where much of the business of the beginnings of this nation were conducted. And if you’re a parent, it is absolutely essential that your children see you and your spouse enjoying adult beverages responsibly.

Benjamin Franklin has been quoted as approving of both beer and wine as “proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” The actual quote is: “We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Then again, he certainly enjoyed ale from time to time.

Another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, pointed out, “Beer, if drank in moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit, and promotes health.”

Cheers. (Or perhaps, for our German ancestors, “prost.”)

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