Wretched Excess?

By Patrick F. Cannon

When I was a young lad in the Pittsburgh area, my choice of beers seemed more than adequate. The main brands were Duquesne, Iron City and Fort Pitt. McKeesport, where I lived from 1950-56, had its own brand, Tube City (McKeesport was the home of the National Tube Company, part of US Steel). If you had a few extra pennies, and wanted to show your sophistication, you could order Rolling Rock from distant Latrobe, PA. The country and private club nabobs may have quaffed national brands like Budweiser or Schlitz after their golf or tennis, but not we mere mortals.

            In those days, bars had to close on Sundays. Wily and thirsty Pennsylvanians would leave their favorite tavern at midnight on Saturday and meander (or stagger) over to their nearest private club, which were exempt. As it happened, the Sons of Italy, the Greek American Protective Association or the Ancient Order of Hibernians, didn’t care much about your ancestry as long as you paid your membership dues.

            While I drink beer only rarely now, my local liquor store – Binnys, a major Chicago-area chain – probably has at least a hundred brands to choose from (actually more like 700. I checked). In addition to the traditional national brands (Bud, Coors, Millers, etc.), there will be a bewildering array of imports and “craft” beers. I’m sure Pittsburgh has a similar culture of beer lovers thinking they have come up with a new way to make beer. They go into (and out of) business on almost a daily basis. Some succeed in a big way. In Chicago, Goose Island was such a notable success that it was bought by the folks who own Budweiser.

            I rarely drink beer myself anymore, but I do keep some on hand for guests. At the moment, I have some Stella Artois from Belgium, Bernard Bohemian Lager from the Czech Republic, and Two Brothers Domaine Dupage Ale from Warrenville, IL (which happens to be in DuPage County). Lurking in the back of the fridge is one 16 ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s there in case my daughter Beth wants a Radler, which is beer mixed with 7-Up or something similar. She feels using expensive beer is a waste for this German-invented thirst quencher.

            Just think about this embarrassment of riches! What a great country! Instead of choosing from maybe 10 brands of beer, Capitalist entrepreneurship has given you 700! (Actually more, but that’s all my Binnys has space for.) There are lagers and pilsners, ales and stouts. Some are now aged in used bourbon barrels, or flavored with rare fruits and spices. You can find the palest of pale ales, and the blackest of stouts. Like dry? Like sweet? Like hoppy? Or malty? Some brewer is ready to please.

            Don’t like beer? The craft spirit folks are ready to oblige. Just take Bourbon for example. Binnys has 277 kinds available, priced from $10.99 to $399.99 for 750 ml (you can actually pay up to almost $3,000 for the rarest of elixirs).  If you prefer Rye whiskey, don’t despair (although you have only about 100  brands to choose from).

            I won’t even start on wine. The point is that it’s a Golden Age for the drinker. As long as people are willing to risk their money, talent and passion to come up with a better brew or spirit, they’ll have a receptive audience. It’s like building a better mousetrap.

            But I wonder what they’re drinking in Havana and Pyongyang tonight? 

Copyright 2023, Patrick F. Cannon

6 thoughts on “Wretched Excess?

  1. Ours is a remarkable country for choice and variety. We even have a beer for transvestites! It has added a political identity to brand loyalty. What a crazy carnival our society has become.

    I remember when Binny’s took over the previous liquor store on North Avenue. As I was browsing the aisles, a store clerk proudly took me over to their new beer selection, which as you note is extensive. I told him I wouldn’t even know where to start, and if I did, there wasn’t enough time in this life to actually drink all of it. And even if there were, why would I?

    As majestic as Binny’s selection might be, it’s dwarfed by a funky little place in Louisville called Sergio’s World Beers. Sergio, a Brazilian if I recall, has amassed over a thousand different beers from everywhere. It’s a local neighborhood place in an old shotgun style house consisting of a series of dark rooms lined with shelves and coolers that extend to the back. It also has about 20 beers on tap and a small kitchen that serves fairly bad food. The service is glacial and it’s cash only, but worth a visit if only for the wretched excess of the thing. If you have a taste for a Huma Lupa Liscious, Sergio’s is the place.

    I think the wine world is simpler. It’s divided into basic categories – red, white, rose, sparkling, dessert. Varietals, residual sugar and price point rather than brands seem to dominate customer preference. Here we see a lot of cabernet, pinot noir and grigio, zinfandel, malbec, chardonnay, sauv blanc, and merlot (now vanishing), with some syrah, large and small and a few others like grenache and moscato thrown in for diversity. In contrast, Italy makes wine from some 400 grape varietals (seriously), many of which are regional. If invited for dinner, I like to bring something the hosts have never heard of, an Etna Rosso or a Grechetto or a mellifluous Falanghina. California is starting to grow some of these types of grapes. I recently saw a Teroldego Rotiliano from a California winery.
    But ours is a primarily a grain, not a grape, culture, and I wouldn’t expect to see the same market diversification as we do with beer and bourbon.


      1. They likely do. I’m particular toward the Etna, Rosso (nerello mascalese mostly) and Bianco (carricante), which is grown on the sides of the volcano and present a touch of ash on the finish. Benny’s probably also carries Arneis, Lugana, Gavi, Cortese, Soave, Vermentino, Verdicchio, Trebbiano, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Fiano, Greco di Tufo, Grignolino, Freisa, Cortina Veronese, Grillo, Pecorino, Sagrantino, among others, and maybe even the melodious Susumaniello, in addition to the usual Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco. Have fun!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Falanghina for linguine with clams! I rarely get French wine, the better stuff is too expensive. California makes too much cabernet and chardonnay. Enough already!

    Went to Indy today and came back with a Dolcetto, a Montefalco Rosso, an Etna Rosso and a couple of others, all good and under 20 bucks.

    Liked by 1 person

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