My Life in Suds
Evanston, my hometown, is generally considered these days to be a socially liberal, NPR kind of place. But when I was growing up there in the ’70s, it was one of the last redoubts of Prohibition. The ghost of Frances Willard, longtime president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had hovered over the town for a century. Bob Hamm, my longtime father, thus needed to go elsewhere to buy his beer.
Fortunately for my dad, we lived not far from Howard Street, the Chicago border. I say this not because he was a heavy drinker (which he wasn’t), but really because he was a true creature of habit, a man who liked routines and took pride in running errands. A drive across Howard Street to buy beer was thus a fixture in his weekly schedule. And on his way, he’d stop for gas. These were the days before self-serve, so he’d always politely ask the attendant for “$5 worth.”
Bob, a research librarian at World Book Encyclopedia, was so set in his ways that it took a few (rather inflationary) decades for him to bump up his refills to $10 worth. As that pattern suggests, he was also a penny-pincher. His father, Alton, was a bookkeeper for a candy company near York, PA. He and Ida, my grandma, were pretty damn tight—at least until 3 or so in the afternoon, when they started slurping down tall boys of National Bohemian. For the rest of the day, they would talk smack about Democrats, the neighbors, their relatives, and my mother.
Beer was thus a staple element in Bob’s upbringing, as was fiscal prudence. He inherited his taste for suds from my grandparents, but no doubt in reaction to their excesses, my dad controlled his consumption. He drank two 12-ouncers each night—nothing more, nothing less, for at least a half-century (he lived until age 76). Yes, that’s at least 36,500 cans or bottles of beer. Was he, like his parents, resolutely loyal to one brand? Not especially. Bob usually chose whatever was on sale.
This meant that my dad returned from his errands across Howard Street with a panoply of cheap brews. They were mostly from nearby Wisconsin. There was Schlitz, “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous;” Old Milwaukee, which traded on the Schlitz legacy; Blatz, which had the best name of the bunch; PBR, then far from hip; and, of course, Old Style, the Chicago staple. When Bob wanted to get exotic, he opted for Stroh’s, from Michigan, or Falstaff, a Shakespearean concoction from St. Louis.
In 1975, six-packs of these (somewhat less than) hearty malts went for a whopping $1.50 or so when on sale, which, in today’s prices, would register around $6.50. I distinctly recall my dad’s preference for 12-packs, though. I’m sure that whichever one retailed for $2.50 or $2.75 was his choice of beverage for the next six days. Alton may have questioned his son’s lack of brand loyalty, but surely he approved of Bob’s budgeting.
The only break in my dad’s routine occurred when I started collecting beer cans. To satisfy my demand for the latest special edition, Bob went far afield, including back to his home state. Pittsburgh Brewing sought to cash in on the beer can collecting craze of the 70s, putting out collectibles of Iron City with the Steelers in their glory days. And the brewery targeted juvenile collectors like me with Olde Frothingslosh, a series featuring “Fatima Yechburgh,” a conspicuously blubbery broad in a bikini.
My dad balked at paying the extra dollar or two for these and other gimmick brews, but I’m certain there were times he appreciated my beer can purism. As a budding pro collector, I insisted that he open the specialty cans from the bottom, then pour the contents into his freezer-chilled Baltimore Orioles mug. (The cans were worth more with the pull-tops intact.) This meant that Bob didn’t have to spend too much time with a can of Frothingslosh, so I was doing him a favor. Fatima was an acquired taste.
My dad’s sensibilities seem hopelessly antiquated in the era of craft beer. Though he passed away only a few years ago, I’m certain that he never tasted an IPA, nor desired blueberries or pumpkin in his brews. That one pint cost of the nouveau stuff cost as much as a six-pack deeply perturbed him.
I thought of my dad the other day while in a Brooklyn bodega. A local brew caught my eye, but the prices were not marked (which is never a good sign). Though the actual brewery—i.e. not just the tasting room—was located less than six blocks away, the woman behind the counter informed me that the six-pack of 12-ounce cans was…$15.79! Summoning my dad’s spirit, I recoiled in shock, and opted for something brewed a few thousand miles away that cost a few dollars less.
My son Ellis is only three, so by the time he’s of drinking age, the $20 six-pack will likely be the norm. As for how much he’ll be spending on gas (or related fuel), I’m not really sure. I no longer have a car because the parking in my neighborhood sucks.
Theodore Hamm was the editor of The Brooklyn Rail (from 2000-2013) and despite his name, he bears no relation to the original brewmaster of Hamm’s Beer. He lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.