It's summertime and the livin' is easy. At least it is when there's frosty bottle of suds sittin' pretty in your sweaty paws.
That's exactly why your hop-happy friends at the Weekender will be telling you where you can get the best beer buzz, how to brew a batch at home, and some chuggarific ways to be a real snob about it.
WEEKENDER'S CHEAP-ASS BEER TEST
Ah, memories of our college days.
That was foremost on the minds of Weekender Weird Science Club members as we sampled one cheap-ass beer after another, at Sioux City's Blue Ribbon Tap.
After all, that was the last time many of us had a reason to indulge in the watery swill that got us through college-level Calculus.
Since we were then living on a student budget, the cheaper the beer the better.
But were they actually any good?
Back then, it didn't matter. Nowadays, with our (theoretically) more sophisticated palettes, we are ready to remove our beer goggles and return to the crap that got us through our University years.
Here are the cheap beers that made the Dean's List as well as the ones that were sent back to summer school.
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BEER: Miller High Life
OUR TAKE: It's fizzy and bitter like the "Champagne of Beer" should be. And, um, it's in a nice bottle. In fact, it has everything going for it ... except the beer, which was pretty nondescript.
WEEKENDER GRADE: C+
BEER: Old Milwaukee
OUR TAKE: Passable way to get plastered but left a weird after taste.
WEEKENDER GRADE: C
BEER: Grain Belt
OUR TAKE: Now, we're on familiar ground. But when did our favorite beer from "The Land of 10,000 Lakes" get so watered down?
WEEKENDER GRADE: B-
OUR TAKE: Now, here's an old school beer. It's actually something our parents drank when they were in college but we still remember the TV commercials. While it got us in a nostalgic frame of mind, one WSCC member that the beer tasted like a Northern Pike took a piss in the "Land of the Sky-Blue Water."
WEEKENDER GRADE: C+
BEER: Pabst Blue Ribbon
OUR TAKE: Well, who doesn't like a reliable PBR every once in a while. This one had more bite and a bigger beer taste than some of the other beers. It isn't a beer to savor. Instead, you gulp it down.
WEEKENDER GRADE: B
BEER: Natural Light
OUR TAKE: One of our taste tester suggested a sliding scale of cheap beer. There's such a thing as "classy cheap" (i.e. PBR) and "fratty cheap." "Natty Light" clearly fell into the latter category. Yup, this stuff is as bad as we remembered it being.
WEEKENDER GRADE: D-
OUR TAKE: Bland, green, and too boring for words. Well, except one tester detected a slight bubble gummy aftertaste. Huh, weird.
WEEKENDER GRADE: C
BEER: Milwaukee's Best Beer
OUR TAKE: Inoffensive enough but certainly not close to being the Wisconsin's city's best. Not terrible but will do in a pinch.
WEEKENDER GRADE: B-
OUR TAKE: Average, run-of-the-mill stuff. Nothing exciting. Sorta like sixth period Psych class.
WEEKENDER GRADE: C
OUR TAKE: Surprisingly fresh and flavorful. We may not appreciate the company's right wing politics but they brew a good, cheap-ass beer.
WEEKENDER GRADE: B
HOME IS WHERE THE HOOCH IS
A basement full of test tubes? Check. A sundry of secret ingredients sitting in clear plastic sacks? Uh-huh. A funky and mysterious crawl space located in a secret side wall?
Even though Pete Vander Meer looks a little like "Breaking Bad"'s Walter White, he's actually a master of making stuff that's entirely legal, right inside his cellar-turned-beer-laboratory.
In fact, the 78-year-old Le Mars man has been experimenting with home-made hooch for nearly 50 years.
"Years ago, I remember buying a do-it-yourself kit with hop-flavored malt and added water, sugar and wheat yeast," Vander Meer recalled. "The resulting beer was pretty lousy, actually."
The former owner of Vander Meer Bakery didn't get seriously about brewing at home until after he retired in 1996.
"I started making beer since I already knew how to make wine," Vander Meer said inside his basement brewery. "Wine is easier to make than beer but there's more room for error. I've made bad wine before but I've never made a bad batch of beer."
Vander Meer's merely being modest. He's a two-time Grand Champion at the annual Schleswig Bier contest, held every October in Crawford County, Iowa.
Plus his annual Spruce beer is the stuff of legend to his RASCAL beer club buddies.
An acronym for "Rowdy Articulate Sioux City Ale and Lager Society," Vander Meer has been a dedicated member of the group for years.
"I like talking beer with folks who know a lot about beer," he said simply.
And in it's most basic form, beer consists of water, malt, yeasts and hops.
In the baking biz since he was a kid, Vander Meer was already a pro when it came to malts and yeasts. As a gardening fanatic, he actually grows some of his own hops in his backyard.
With a grinder (to grind malted barley), packets of flavoring and huge jug to help ferment beer, he said it may take up to 3 months for a beer to go from the drawing board and into one's gullet.
But, before that, beer must rest a while in a very dark place (that's where his basement crawl space comes in handy).
Still, Vander Meer said it's definitely worth the wait.
"If you buy a kit and follow the directions, you'll end up with beer you can drink," he noted. "If you learn the basics, you'll be able to experiment with all types of ingredients."
This is the fun part for Vander Meer, who said he still gets a kick out of his homemade brews.
"Making good beer is always a challenge but it's also a lot of fun," he said. "Once you learn how to do it, the sky's the limit."
ATTORNEY BY DAY, BEER FANATIC BY NIGHT
During the day, attorney John Gray can be found espousing law in a courtroom or inside his Historic Fourth Street law office.
But at night, the Sioux Cityan's expertise takes on a much sudsier side.
You see, Gray is a beer connoisseur with an encyclopedic "Brew's Who" knowledge of liquids that fizz as well as foam.
A collector of beer cans as a kid, he's taken a scholarly interest in beer with buzz.
This is why the Weekender has been peppering Grey with questions about the ubiquitous potent potable.
WEEKENDER: Is beer as big now as it was in the past?
JOHN GRAY: Well, beer consumption from the big domestic companies is down but the emergence of microbreweries and smaller, local breweries has been fascinating to watch.
W: How do you explain that?
JG: There's a big movement to 'Go Local.' That's true of local produce, local wines and, yes, local beers. Back in 1980, there may have been 40 breweries in the entire United States. Today, there are approximately 40 breweries in the state of Iowa.
W: With more companies making more different kinds of beers means there's a greater variety of beers to try. Which brings up our next question. What's the worst beer you've ever had?
JG: There's no doubt about it. It was a Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale. It's hard to mess up a maple doughnut, bacon and beer but this just missed the mark.
W: Yet price and pedigree shouldn't be a deciding factor when it comes to beer, right?
JG: Absolutely not. Sure, you can get a 27 proof Samuel Adams Utopia for $250 if you're in the mood for it but most beer is pretty economically priced. Don't be afraid to experiment because there's plenty of great beers to chose.
Kortney Barbee isn't just Master Class mixologist but the Soho Kitchen & Bar supervisor may also be considered a mind reader.
"When customers want to try a new beer, I'll ask about their usual beer," she confides. "That way, I'll make my recommendation based upon their flavor profile."
This certainly comes in handy since Soho has four domestic beers as well as 36 seasonally rotating craft beers on tap.
Yup, you heard right. That's 40 brews constantly on tap.
Currently, Soho has several special "fruity and sweet" summertime beers on tap. Soon, the Historic Fourth Street restaurant will be unveiling its Autumn brews, a particular favorite of Barbee's.
"I tend to like heavier, fuller-bodied beers," Barbee notes, adding she has a fondness for Snow Day Belgium Ale.
In addition to a regular pint o' suds, diners garb a "growler" to go.
A "growler" is a 64-ounce resealable glass jug container to carry your favorite beer home.
If you don't wanna turn your average weekend into a "Lost Weekend," Barbee suggests taking a beer flight, instead.
A beer flight consists of four mini-pints, so you and your friends can sample new beers without the commitment of buying the whole thing.
"This is a great option to try something entirely new," Barbee said. "Everybody likes choices and we want to make beer selection as easy as possible."
COMING TO A GROCERY SHELF NEAR YOU
Inside Marketplace Hy-Vee's Wine & Spirits department, beer lovers can find plenty of Bud, Coors and Miller in stock.
Yet, they can also see less familiar brands bearing names like Voodoo, Pandora's Bock and Moose Drool taking their place along the grocery's shelves.
The latter brands are called microbrews from microbreweries that make a limited amount of beer.
This is a growing trend in the beer world, according to Marketplace Hy-Vee Wine & Spirits manager Vince Thompson.
"Microbrews have just exploded in popularity," Thompson explained, adding that such products make up almost a quarter of his beer sales. "Consumer's palettes are changing and that's reflected in the beer they're drinking."
Among the more popular microbrews are local ones, such as Millstream, a brewing company based in Amana, Iowa.
Other trends include specially flavored beers like Leinenkugel's Summer Shanty, which mixes traditional lemonade with beer or, even a Bud Light Lime-A-Rita, which uses a splash of lime.
Sounds pretty healthy, right? Well, a continuing trend has been to offer beers with lower calories, such as Miller Genuine Draft 64 or a Budweiser Select.
"These beers appeal to women or the health conscience beer drinker," Thompson said.
But, what about the folks who spend time outdoors in the summertime?
According to Thompson, many beer companies are replacing glass containers with cans for easier transport.
"Glass bottles aren't easy to lug around outside," he suggested, "Aluminum cans just make life easier."
Which is a philosophy Thompson takes to heart when offering beer recommendations.
"As much as people like variety, they're sometimes uncertain about craft beers," he said. "That's understandable since they tend to be hoppier than the domestics."
That's why Thompson suggests craft beers brewed by the Chippewa Falls, Wisc.-based Leinenkugel's as a way to ease into the world of craft beers.
"Their Summer Shanty and Sunset Wheat are a good place to start if you're looking for something different this summer," he said.