I had my first craft beer at about the age of eight. OK, so it was just a sip of my dad’s Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but I already knew that there was more out there than cheap lagers even at a young age. As much crap as I give him abut beer these days, (he gets especially annoyed by neurotic I am about glassware and serving temperature) I really am grateful that I didn’t grow up in a Bud or Miller household. I was born with a silver-rimmed pint glass in my mouth, so to speak.
Fast forward to high school, and my first real beer drinking experience, emphasis on the drinking, not the beer. It involved way too much warm Coors Light and maybe a beer bong or two. Lets just say that the idea of drinking a beer was not even remotely appetizing for over a year after that. I dabbled in hard alcohol as many high school students do, but I was never much into drinking, and beer wasn’t even on my radar.
Going to college was a formative progression in my appreciation of beer, as I imagine it is for many. My chosen institution of higher learning? The University of California Santa Barbara; a school notorious for its parties, beaches, and yes, even its academics. To be perfectly honest, I chose the place because I was mad about surfing and there are four decent surf breaks actually ON campus. I could check Campus Point from the window of my dorm hall. I was in heaven.
Between surfing almost every day and getting my ass kicked in chemistry classes, there were the parties. Isla Vista is UCSB’s neighboring student slum, (if you can really call multimillion dollar houses on the beach a true slum) with a very high concentration of students and seemingly as many liquor stores. Almost any night of the week, parties could be found along the famous Del Playa Drive that runs from campus, through Isla Vista along the cliffs over the beach, and to the West Campus that boxes in the other side of the neighborhood. The UCSB students drink of choice? Natural Light, or “Natty” as we affectionately (sometimes) called it. If the party really sucked, they might have Milwaukee’s Best Light, although sometimes Keystone Light, which I preferred for some reason. Bud light and Coors Light seemed like splurges, though I don’t know if I really thought they tasted better. They were more expensive so they had to be better, right?
OK, so you get the picture, we drank cheap beer. I was still coming out of my junior year of high school, Coors Light induced hatred for the beverage, and would maybe force down a Natty in between shots of Smirnoff or Captain Morgan. We were freshmen living in the dorms, so drinking was a hush-hush affair enabled by an older friend out in Isla Vista who would do the humanitarian deed of schlepping a couple thirty packs and a handle of hard a back from the store for us. I had never even been in one of the liquor stores, so actually picking out a new beer was almost out of the question.
Some time around the middle of freshmen year, my buddy Chad got all excited because he got invited to a house party that was having a keg of Newcastle Brown Ale. I was a little shocked that someone was so excited about a beer, so I thought it must be worth a shot. It was dark. And bitter. I couldn’t finish my red cup. But for some reason, everyone at the party was pretty psyched on it. I figured it had to be worth another shot, so I was eager to try a bottle when Chad got a twelve pack not long after. I was actually able to finish it. Not long after that, I found myself wanting it enough to make a special trip to IV to get someone to buy my roommate and I a twelve-pack of it. That was it; I actually liked a beer for the first time in my life.
Sophomore year was spent gradually expanding my beer horizons. I still drank plenty of Natty at parties and we even invested in a keg shell and tap from a questionable source, but I now had a desire for something better. Every weekend when we tried to buy beer (I lived in a duplex in IV with three other underage guys) I would always lobby for a pack of something “good” in addition to the required thirty-pack for beer pong and flip cup. Whether it was Widmer Hefeweizen with a lemon wedge (my new favorite, though Newcastle was still up there) or even Dos Equis Amber or the Sam Adams Holiday Pack, I knew that I would never enjoy drinking mass-produced pale lagers. By the end of the year, I was even drinking Guinness, Wittekerke (don’t try to sake bomb with it), and Full Sail Pale Ale.
It was a time of innocence and bliss. Ok, now I’m just being silly, but I really had no idea what I was in for that coming fall. You see, I had signed up to study abroad in the great frozen north of Sweden, land of Vikings, meatballs, and Volvos. Lucky for me, Sweden’s drinking age is only twenty. As a twenty-year-old American just starting to get into beer, this was to be a land of vast riches. This post is getting way to long, so I’ll save the rest for another day, but lets just say that once I got on that plane above the Atlantic, things would never be the same.