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The Great American Pub Crawl, Part I

Michael Jackson zigzagged across the United States on a beer-hunt that bagged him some 350 potions and left him feeling like Lenny Bruce on booze - part 1 of 2

It was because they had run out of beer, and needed to find the materials with which to brew some more, that the Pilgrim Fathers made landfall at Plymouth Rock, in what is now Massachusetts. They said as much in their journal. Puritanism and consumption have since been the warring impulses of the American consciousness.

Not since Prohibition has the anti-drink lobby found the attention it wins today, yet tiny new breweries -- some making startlingly interesting beers -- are opening weekly. America has become a beer-hunter's paradise, offering not merely light lagers but rich ales, porters and barley wines, some of them even "hopped" with chilies. Many of the breweries are in the back rooms of bars, so the beers can be tasted at the source.

Had I been able to progress in a series of straight lines, it would have been a 4,500-mile pub crawl.

I have been tracking the phenomenon since it began, in the late Seventies. I have made beer-hunting trips across the continent three and four times a year. In the summer of 1990, I sampled about 350 beers, in over 100 bars and breweries, in more than 25 states, through a five-week journey that described a letter "W" from Boston to Tampa to Minneapolis to Tucson to Seattle. Had I been able to progress in a series of straight lines, it would have been a 4,500-mile pub crawl.

Following the thirst of the Founding Fathers, I start in Massachusetts. Never mind British red phone-boxes in burger bars; some of the great barrels that once fermented Bass in Burton have now crossed the Atlantic to decorate the Commonwealth pub and brewer, next to the Boston Gardens, where the Celtics play basketball and the Bruins ice hockey.

The Commonwealth was established by a British entrepreneur, but is now run by Chinese Americans, one of whom is on hand to join me in an uncompromisingly hoppy bitter. I sample seven beers, all made on the premises, several seasoned with East Kent hops, then set off to do the town.

The television series Cheers was inspired by the Bull and Finch pub, on Boston Common, and I find the two equally soapy. They should have based it on the altogether more astringent Doyle's, in Jamaica Plain. Despite one room that is a shrine to the Kennedy family, and another to Michael Collins, this is a socially-variegated pub.

Eddie Doyle ("When I was five years old, all I wanted to do was grow up and have my own bar") has no problem with sponsoring a lesbian softball team called the Switch-Hitters. "Hey, they're good for three pizzas and four pitchers of beer, and I don't have to worry about them wrecking the joint." In Doyle's, I have a Samuel Adams' Boston Lager, one of the world's finest, with Jim Koch, "the resident yuppie here." Koch was earning $250,000 a year with a famous firm of management consultants when I first met him. His father had once been a brewery and Koch was fascinated with the beer renaissance. He acquired an 1865 brewery, which had not worked since the Fifties and now makes an ale there. His bigger-selling Boston Lager is produced under contract by a larger brewery in Pittsburgh, for which slight-of-label he has become the man the beer-purists love to hate. He shrugs, and we have another.

I have a few more beers and a thrum of folk music at the Cambridge Brewing Company, and call it a night. Tomorrow I head out to investigate a brew-pub at Northampton, a town that has rendered its most famous son, Calvin Coolidge, terminally immobile -- in stone. Northampton has winding lanes such as I have seen nowhere else in America; they could be English but for the huge maples.

With the Green Mountains and its famously rocky shore, New England is a delight to explore, and one of America's more fertile beer-hunting regions. In the next few days, I become a regular at the commuter gates at Boston Airport. It is an expensive way to travel. The less intent buy a Visit USA pass on a major airline, and stick to big cities. Still, there is an intimacy to the small-town routes.

I drink a vintage dated Hampshire Special Ale, made in Portland, Maine, and served there at Gritty McDuff's brew-pub; a Berlin-style lactic summer wheat beer at the vaguely Irish Vermont Pub and Brewery, in the town of Burlington, on the shores of Lake Champlain; and a Geordie-accented brown ale called Elm City in the 1912, mock-Moorish elegance of Richter's Cafe, on the green at New Haven, Connecticut.

The Vermont Brewery is run by Greg and Nancy Noonan. Nancy's previous job was as a "substance abuse counsellor," dealing with alcohol and drug addiction. "A little of that work goes a long way. All the same, some of the people I worked with weren't happy when they heard what I wanted to do." By the time my odyssey is completed, I will have met three substance-abuse counsellors now involved in running of breweries.

Elm City beer is made in New Haven by Blair Potts, who came there to study at Yale. Blair is from the South, and has a fundamentalist Christian background. "We are not all like Jerry Falwell...but I draw the line at working on Sundays."

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: SEPT 22, 1990
In: The Independent

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