“Life is too short to drink bad beer.”
Back in 1981, I spent 10 months and my father’s house in Fort Lee in between living at my childhood home and my first apartment. I affectionately called it “the bachelors pad”. My father, his cousin Anthony and I were roommates and unmarried at that time. If we were a sitcom, it would be ‘The Odd Couple Plus One”.
Unlike my father and cousin Anthony, I wasn’t divorced – in fact, I wasn’t even married yet. I was dating Dawn, and she worked at her uncle’s bar and grill in Wallington named Castagnola’s. She was an undergrad at Seton Hall University and worked at the bar to make extra money for school.
One of the things that Dawn’s Uncle ‘Cass’ used to take pride in what is the quality of the beer that flowed from his taps. The Heineken that he served on tap was the freshest, cleanest tasting draft beer I ever tasted.
Being one who always marched to his own drum, Cass would introduce some new and different things to his menu. One day, Dawn told me that he had a new beer called Amstel. She called it ‘Heineken light’ since it was from Holland and imported by the same company as Heineken.
The first time that I tasted Amstel, I thought that was pretty good even though it was a light beer. I had tried others like Miller Lite, but they were mostly pretty lousy beers, in my opinion. Amstel had a rich flavor and tasted much like it’s Dutch cousin Heineken but had less calories.
After tasting Amstel at the bar, I looked for it at my local liquor store. Because it was brand-new, it was pretty easy to find. I bought a six-pack and proceeded to bring it home.
When I walked in the door, I was surprised to see my uncle George – who is my father’s brother. Uncle George always had a certain air about him. He was a taller, fuller man who had this presence whenever he spoke. You could always tell that my uncle was around just by his voice.
What is apparent is that he was the oldest in the family and was quite the authority figure. He used to work for the United States information agency and retired young. He took his booming presence to the stage and was an actor in a couple of the local theater groups. I was used to love to watch him perform because he was quite a character.
Uncle George used to live next-door in the duplex apartment of our house. In the mid-70s, he and my Aunt Margaret got divorced. He bought a place down in Naples, Florida, hopped in his VW convertible and drove off.
Uncle George asked what I had in the bag as I walked over to the refrigerator. I told him that it was a new beer called Amstel. He was quite a beer aficionado, as long as the beer was Budweiser, or at the very least, domestic. As I remember, he never quite fancied imported beers. Maybe it’s because of the cost and he was a hearty consumer of beer. In fact, as he walked my cousin Laura down the aisle at her wedding, the men in our family were making ‘pfft’ sounds as if they were opening tall-boys in honor.
Uncle George asked me more about the beer. When I told him that it was a light beer, there was this look of disgust that came across his face. I tried to reassure him that it was really a good beer. I opened up a bottle and poured it into the Stein and handed it over to him. With one long pull, over half the beer was gone.
I distinctly remember him saying: “Michael, that’s pretty good beer.”
Knowing Uncle George, that was like getting a top Zagat rating.
When I told him that a six-pack cost about four bucks, he thought it was pretty expensive but probably worth it. Uncle George was always full of handy advice and would pontificate often with ease. He then gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten:
“Life is too short to drink bad beer.”
Whether he knew it or not, that may have been the deepest thing he ever said to me.
I don’t know if he ever passed that on to his brother. For my entire life, dad was a committed PBR man. My grandfather was a Ballantine (beer, not ale) drinker, especially when there was a Yankee game on Channel 11.
In the last 35 years, I can’t say that I always drink the best beer but for some reason, my uncle’s words echo in my head and I wind up choosing a decent beer when I’m out at a bar or restaurant. There’s nothing like having an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day or robust ale when the days are cooler.
For me back then, it was a right of passage. Today, it seems a little bit more like a way of life. Wine and liquor have their place and time but it’s beer that brings folks together – to watch a game, to enjoy at a picnic or barbecue or just casually hang out among friends.
And to my Uncle George, who recently turned 90, salute!