Matt’s Splits or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Craft Beer, Part 1

On occasionMatts Can I am asked how I first got into craft beer.  In truth, I didn’t like beer at all until the end of freshman year of college.  This may have had something to do with the fact that my father drank Esslinger or, if he wanted to splurge, Piels and so when I tried beer at home, it made a distinctly unfavorable impression.

Of course once I went to college I found that beer was the life’s blood of the social scene.  Indeed, one could only ask for a wine cooler (remember those?) so many times before you would be asked to hand in your man card.

Once I decided to pledge at Delta Phi fraternity, what I found was that drinking beer was not so much of an option as it was a requirement.  And so I held my nose and over time, so long as it was cold, I found that drinking beer got easier.  By the end of our initiation I could pound the Old Milwaukee with the best of them.

Of course Old Swill hardy qualifies as craft so you may be wonderinHamilton_College_Chapel_103171852_stdg how frat life led me to having anything more than a funnel-deep relationship with beer.  Fortunately for me Hamilton College (shown right) is only about 20 minutes outside of Utica, New York.  Like most post-industrial cities in the northeast, Utica is a rusting hulk of closed factories that is but a pale echo of its former glory.

However one industry survived, namely the F.X. Matt BreweryMatts BreweryOriginally known as the West End Brewery, it gained some measure of national prominence as being the first beer to be served at the end of Prohibition and for its famous Schultz and Dooley commercials.  These talking beer steins became so popular that they graduated out of commercials and actually got their own tv show (you can watch a sample here).

Of course all that was in the past and when I arrived at Hamilton in 1987 I had never heard of Matt’s or their beer.  Indeed, their line beer, Utica Club, was nothing special though certainly better than Old Milwaukee.  Fortunately for me they offered better options.  The next step up was called Matt’s Premium Lager.  I cannot really judge it with my more educated palate today as it is no longer made, but if my frat wanted to splurge for some special occasion we would step up to a keg of this.

However, how my brothers and I really liked our Matt’s was as splits.  These 7 oz ponies were  miniature versions of clear long neck bottles and in that format they sure went down quickly.

As fond as those memories are, I have no doubt that nostalgia has heavily colored my memories.  Even so, having such easy access to Matt’s beer, and as I will recount in a later post, Matts brewery, helped to set my feet firmly on the path to loving beer, not just as a party accessory, but as something to be enjoyed and loved in its own right.  So here’s those places that helped me learn to love craft beer.  Here’s to Hamilton College, to Delta Phi and most of all, here’s to FX Matt!

Hey Yank!

open-doorOk, so this one is not about me but comes from a fellow priest now retired. Back in the early 90’s, he was serving in a small church in Scotland. Now one day Steve was in the pub and the television was reporting on the First Gulf War. Now sitting down the bar was Hamish. As the story continued, Hamish began to mutter and the “Damn Americans.” As the minutes passed, Hamish got louder and turned to direct his comments at Steve. “Yank! Hey Yank!” Finally Steve, who had a son in the military, could ignore this baiting no longer, stood up and said, “You got something to say to me Hamish?” When Hamish stood, he towered over Steve (who stands only about 5’7”) and said, “Let’s settle this outside.”

Now even though Steve was grossly over-matched he did not back down and turned to go. At that moment, Tom the barman interrupted, “Sit down Hamish.” Hamish ignored him and continued to follow Steve towards the pub door. This prompted Tom to shout, “Hamish, if you touch him you’re banned for life.” Now for a Scotsman, being banned from your pub is indeed a very serious threat and Hamish backed down rather quickly.

A very relieved Steve turned to the barman and said, “Thanks a million. If there’s ever anything I can do, you just let me know.” “Do you mean that?” asked Tom. “Of course I mean it,” replied Steve. “Then would you baptize my granddaughter?” asked an embarrassed Tom. “Of course I would,” said Steve. Tom paused for a moment then explained, “Well, you see Reverend, her mother’s not married.” Without missing a beat Steve smiled and asked, “When would you like it to be done?”

What you need to understand is that while unwed mothers are commonplace for us, back then in small town Scotland, there was still an element of scandal to it and certainly enough shame to make the whole idea of baptism very awkward. But Steve was more than happy to oblige.

When the day of the baptism finally arrived Steve walked into the church to see a remarkable sight- the church, which usually all but empty, was instead practically full. The pews were packed with all the friends and customers of Tom the barman. And they certainly did not look like your typical churchgoers. Many were clad in black leather and sported tattoos, and the vast majority of them had not darkened the doors of a church in decades. Yet there they were.  Even more remarkably, for the remainder of Steve’s time in Scotland many of these folks continued to come to church.

Then Steve had to go back to the States. After he left, these men and women stopped coming. It seems that Steve was replaced by a local priest with  traditional sensibilities who made some off hand remarks about how Steve’s agreeing to baptize Tom’s granddaughter was “inappropriate” and that such a thing would never happen “on his watch.” It didn’t take long for the bar patrons to take the hint. 

This story only goes to show the truth of something I became convinced of along time ago…  that many of the people who long for the grace and love that the Church ought to be offering will never come through its doors.   If only we, the people who truly make up the Church, would wake up and recognize the opportunity that lies before us and be willing to open our doors to invite all those outside to come in, without condition or judgment. The more the Church does to alienate and exclude the less it embodies the example of its founder. 

So was it worth it?

So my fast ended more than a week ago, giving me plenty of time to reflect.  And, as I have been able to ease back into my norm of being able to have a beer with dinner or on a sunny weekend afternoon, I have also been able to observe the very real contrast in my life with beer and without it.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  I lost about 5 pounds.  While this is a nice benefit, in fact it is not as much weight as I thought I might drop.  Why?  Well, this leads into some of the psychological observations.  Because unfortunately for me, I sublimated my cravings for beer into cravings for food, smoking my pipe and, on the plus side, into exercise.  Obviously the fact that I found myself constantly snacking is what got in the way of my more ambitious weight loss goals.  I also started smoking my pipe much more often.  Before my fast I would smoke perhaps only once a week.  During Lent this increased four or five fold.

On the  healthy side, I also added to my exercise routine, adding daily sets of pushups and sit ups.  In the case of food and smoking I was trying to fill a void that I would often try to fill with a drink.  In the case of the exercise, at least I found a positive way of finding a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

I discovered something else when it came to power of association.  Often on Friday nights I would have a gin and tonic.  During Lent I found that a simple tonic and lime would often bring the same sense of relaxation and enjoyment.  Indeed, I found that many things in my life that I thought might have been affected by alcohol were in fact, not.  For example, I tend to fall asleep in my living room chair between 9:30 and 9:45.  I had assumed that having a beer or two was the culprit behind my dozing off.  But as I found out during my fast, apparently, I am just getting old since I still would doze off when dead sober.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact that by the last week I actually was not missing it at all.  Whereas in the first couple of weeks every time I walked by my beer fridge or liquor cabinet I would find my eyes and mind drawn into thinking about a drink, by the end, I barely missed it or thought about it at all.  I was even in the habit of getting a glass of wine for my wife without having the slightest desire to have some myself.

Now that life is back to normal, I find that my fast is still having a beneficial effect.  I no longer have the same impulse to go and get a beer as my first action at the end of the work day.  Moreover, I find that I am satisfied with few beers and am better able to listen to my body when it comes time to stop.

So was it fun?  Hardly.  There were times, especially on weekends or at times of stress when I really struggled.  But was it worth it?   Most definitely.  If you are ever wondering if you are drinking too much or are coming to rely on alcohol to meet other emotional or spiritual needs, then I highly recommend an extended period of fasting.  It may well help you get some clarity when it comes to your favorite beverage.


Easter Beer_007I made it.  40 days of Lent without booze.  I know that this “achievement” hardly equates to summiting Everest, but I am proud anyway.  I have a lot of thoughts, insights and reflections to share with you, but these will come in next week’s post.   What I wanted to share with you now was how I broke my fast.

After the Great Vigil of Easter, after which it is officially Easter, I walked into my house about 9:30 on Saturday evening.  Once I carefully hung my work clothes back up, the first order of business was breaking my beer fast.  I actually had been thinking about this for a while now…. with well over a hundred different beers in my cellar to choose from, the task was challenging.  How would I like to celebrate?  Since I had to be up and on my game at 6 the next morning I knew I had to limit my choice to just a few.

I ended up starting with an Orval from 2011, a Trappist ale from Belgium.  Dry, hoppy and just plain wonderful, this was a great way to start.  I forced myself to take my time and savor it, which, even though Orval is hardly a beer for chugging, still wasn’t all that easy.

For the next choice I opted for something much closer to home, a fresh Nugget Nectar from Troegs.  One of the all time greats this “Imperial Amber” is a bit bigger than most IPA’s and the hops just sing.

My final beer of the evening was chosen as much for its name as for its style.  Deliverance from Lost Abbey is super dark and malty and carries lots of flavor notes from both bourbon and brandy barrels.Easter Beer_001

When paired with my Easter Eve tradition of watching the Ten Commandments (Oh Moses, Moses!) the evening was relaxing, satisfying and joyful.

I thank you for your thoughtful comments, well wishes and prayers.