I love beer. I love its flavor, its texture, its ease and its ability to complement all types of food. I love stouts, I love sours, I love IPAs. I love drinking beer at home and I love drinking beer at bars. I love discovering exciting new beers and I love relaxing over cherished old favorites.
I didn't always feel this way. Just a few years ago, I hated beer. My ardor is the ardor of the convert. This is my conversion story.
Beer fascinated me when I was a child. I knew that beer was forbidden to me, which surely added to its allure, but I didn't understand why; I had no concept of intoxication. It was the foam that intrigued me. It looked so fluffy, so delicious, so unusual. (This was before the age of molecular gastronomy.) When I went to out to dinner with my parents, and my dad would order beer, I would beg him for a sip of the foam. He would refuse, of course. I would try to argue with him, saying, with utter conviction, that the foam was mostly air, and so couldn't possibly be dangerous. To the best of my recollection, he did allow me to try it one time, and I found it underwhelming: its texture was less substantial than I'd imagined.
About a decade later -- I can't remember exactly when or where, but it must have been at some high school party -- I got my first taste of the liquid beneath the foam. This time, I wasn't underwhelmed: I was disgusted. To me, beer tasted bitter, muddy, even rancid. In hindsight, this may have been because whatever beer it was that I tried actually did taste bitter, muddy and rancid. Natty Light, after all, was the beer of choice at my high school.
For a while after that, I gave beer a chance. I figured it was an acquired taste, and that I would soon acquire it. But I didn't, not even when I tried beers several rungs above Natty Light pilfered from my parents' fridge. I was convinced I would never enjoy beer. This was not a popular opinion in high school, so friends or acquaintances would sometimes badger me about it, which only made me defensive. I tried to turn my distaste for beer into a charming idiosyncrasy, like a penchant for wacky cardigans.
This is not to say I disliked alcohol: I liked it all too much. Beer was closed to me, though, and I found that red wine gave me horrible migraines. So I became an amateur mixologist. At first, I would bring Poland Spring bottles full of vodka and orange juice to parties if I thought they would only be serving beer. But as I got older, my drinks became more and more sophisticated. In college, I gained a reputation for making delicious drinks. People knew that if they came to a party at my off-campus apartment, they could expect to be served finely crafted sidecars, gimlets or Jack Roses. The gambit worked. My hatred of beer had become an asset.
Yet my commitment to the cause slowly started to wane. It was a matter of exposure. I was in college, after all. Beer was everywhere. And when I went to a party -- at a fraternity, say -- where beer was the only option, I would sometimes drink it. Not happily. But it gradually ceased to offend me as much as it once had.
So when, a few months before graduation, I got dinner at a restaurant in New Haven that specialized in beer, with a group of friends who loved it, I agreed to have some. I told the sommelier that I didn't like most beers. He asked what about beer I disliked the most, and I said it was the bitterness, so he recommended I try Fin Du Monde, a Belgian-style ale from Quebec. I took a sip -- and was shocked to find myself enjoying its caramel-like sweetness and citrusy aroma. This wasn't beer as I knew it then.
I suspected that Fin Du Monde was unique in this regard and sought it out wherever I could. But a few times, I asked a liquor store owner or sommelier if they had Fin Du Monde, and they would say that they didn't, but that they did have something similar. I reluctantly tried their suggestions. I didn't like all of them, and Fin Du Monde remained my favorite, but a few stuck. Mostly Belgian ales and wheat beers.
I still didn't think of myself as a beer fan and would always order a cocktail, or perhaps white wine, if given the choice. One night after work, though, I visited Jimmy's No. 43, an East Village bar that serves only beer. I didn't recognize any of the beers on their list, so I asked the bartender for advice, telling him I was looking for something like Fin Du Monde. He pointed me toward what he said was his favorite beer on the entire list, Victory's Moonglow Weizenbock. It astounded me. The style wasn't so different from the Fin Du Monde I loved so much, but it was higher in alcohol and had an aroma and flavor that was far more complex.
Moonglow Weizenbock was (and is) exceedingly hard to find, but that pint showed me that beer could be more than just a decent way to get drunk. It could be revelatory. More nuanced, in its way, than any cocktail, and less finicky than wine.
By this point, too, I was a professional food writer, and my aversion to beer had begun to feel like a handicap. I challenged myself to learn how to understand and appreciate beer. I started looking for beer recommendations in blogs and books and trying out what I read were exemplary versions of all sorts of beers -- first other ales, but then saisons, pilsners, porters and eventually, the bitterest of double IPAs and the darkest of imperial stouts. It was at once a kind of exposure therapy, like one that you might use to overcome a phobia, and an obsessive, Pokemon-like quest to catch 'em all.
My journey led me, one afternoon in the spring of 2013, to a small bar in San Francisco called the Monk's Kettle. I'd heard that they served Russian River's double IPA Pliny the Elder, which is routinely cited as one of the best beers in the world and is nigh-impossible to find outside California. (It's hard enough to find in California.) I had an hour to kill before meeting a friend, so I went in alone and ordered a pint. It was as good as I'd read it would be. But more importantly, I understood why it was good. Its basic flavor profile struck an ideal balance between sweetness and bitterness. And as I rolled it around my mouth, I could pick out each of the distinct aromatic tones imparted by the hops: metal, grapefruit, pine, flowers, fresh-cut grass. I knew that I was finally a beer lover.
If there's a lesson to take away from this narrative, then, other than that I think too much about alcohol, it's this: If you don't like beer, that's fine. But don't be so sure you never will. Maybe you just need to find your Fin Du Monde.
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