Thursday, July 05, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Beer, lawn and sheep.

ON THE AVENUES: Beer, lawn and sheep.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime.
--Isaac Asimov

When these overheated denizens of Asimov’s nostalgic borough took their beers out of the fridge and onto their stoops, what were they drinking?

Probably Schaefer or Rheingold, two locally-brewed golden lagers in New York City that survived Prohibition, or maybe Ballantine Ale, a throwback top-fermented style far rarer back then. Like Fehr’s and Falls City in Louisville, the original incarnations of these brands didn’t last into contemporary times.

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence to suggest that newspaper beer columnists during Asimov’s youth were recommending Belgian Wit or Bavarian Hefe-Weizen as seasonal beers ideal for warm weather quaffing, although there may have been immigrants residing in Brooklyn who recalled such Old World styles from childhoods spent abroad.

In 2012, enough of us are sufficiently aware of vastly expanded beer choice that I needn’t explain terminology in the preceding paragraphs to any great degree. As with wine, the rudiments of craft beer are understood more widely than ever before, and you catch my drift even if the details are elusive.

Of course, considerable numbers of beer drinkers in America (“Land of the Free, Home of the Mass Market”) remain depressingly brand-loyal, mechanically opting for the same flavorless golden lager beer they’ve always consumed -- rain or shine, heat or cold, indoor or outdoor. It saddens me.

I noticed quite a few of them at New Albany’s Independence Celebration on Tuesday. Docile to the end, they willingly stood in a long line to drink Bud Light, when craft beer service was faster, and many of them looked at the NABC kiosk as though we were little green men in space suits … or even an African-American president. Some of them looked confused, while frankly, others appeared absolutely terrified.

It was entertaining and instructive phenomenon, but to be honest, I felt sorrow and empathy for the truly frightened ones, stuck on hamster treadmills of bland, confining habit. We sold four kegs of craft beer, anyway, so I must think in positive terms. Like the French who saved our bacon in the Revolutionary War are apt to say, “Viva la difference.”


The ubiquity of air conditioning leaves me to question whether the term “lawnmower beer” still matters. It is an umbrella, implying brews suitable (read: wholly insubstantial) for the higher temperature extremes of summer. They are lighter in body, milder in flavor, lower in alcohol, and make for faster swallowing overall.

Lawnmower beer is a creative, descriptive term, one never intended as a subliminal suggestion to drink gallons of it while operating machinery in the act of cutting grass, even if one’s padded seat atop whirling blades of vegetation decapitation comes equipped with a handy cup holder and dorm fridge in the sidecar.

Whether air-conditioned or open-air, when it comes to lawnmower beer, the styles I prefer more closely resemble the higher octane of liquid poured into the fuel tank, as diametrically opposed to analogies with dainty, refreshing splashes from the garden hose in the wading pool.

However, there is a case to be made for user-friendly seasonal beer styles with integrity, so long as the fruit wedges are reserved for rum drinks, this being because fruit as a garnish on a beer glass is always wrong, period.


Apart from a few higher-gravity specialties, the use of wheat in the brewing process almost axiomatically declares lawnmower beer status. When the cute little girl on “Despicable Me” finally comes of age, my guess is that she’ll gravitate toward ales made with wheat.

After all, they’re so “fluffy.”

If based on the Belgian brewing tradition, wheat ale will be light-bodied, cloudy golden, and spiced with coriander and orange peel. Not unexpectedly, these ingredients yield a citrusy, consummately refreshing character. A common local example is Upland Wheat, brewed in Bloomington, Indiana.

Both Blue Moon and Shock Top are cynical variants of the Belgian wheat brewing ethos, but because they are the products of multi-national brewing conglomerates in pressing need of anti-trust dismemberment, I do not recommend them.

German-style wheat ales are cousins to the Belgian, yet very different; generally unfiltered (“Hefe-”), golden but sometimes brown (“Dunkel”), and redolent with distinctive flavors of clove and fruit that derive entirely from the strain of yeast used to ferment them. The best examples are Bavarian: Franziskaner, Weihenstephaner, Erdinger, Tucher, and the best of all, Schneider.

Closer to home, if microbrewed wheat ale is not otherwise tagged as Belgian or German, chances are it is what we now refer to as “American-style” wheat, fermented with ordinary ale yeast not specifically cultured for the nuances that identify continental variants. These wheat ales come to your glass to be light, inoffensive, effervescent and poundable. A familiar regional example is Bell’s Oberon, and most brewpubs produce one in summer.


To me, the supreme oddity of lawnmower beers is this: Not once in my life can I recall my consuming beer while actually engaged in the act of mowing the lawn.

It took a long time before I developed a taste for beer as a thirst quencher, and the connection remains somewhat tenuous. Just plain and unfermented water always sufficed for sporting pursuits, putting up hay and trimming the hedges. Beer of any sort just seemed superfluous while working, and better reserved for the cooling reward time after work was through.

However, lately I’ve taken to deploying hop-forward Pilsners and American Pale Ales as thirst quenchers at selected summertime intervals. For me, wheat ales lack heft, and it’s the bitter hop contrast (not a relentlessly sweet character like that of soda pop) that satisfies.

On Tuesday, more than one NABC customer was heard to say: “Shorter lines, better beer, and only a dollar more than Bud Light … what’s not to like?”

Summer or winter, I resemble that remark.

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