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GAMBLE: Respect your beer

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“Let’s raise a glass to Mr. Owens!”

It was a little after 9 a.m. on a Saturday. I was in a park with 45 other people (mostly middle-aged men), drinking dark Welsh ale in honor of Richard Owens, the man who founded Wisconsin’s first commercial brewery on that same sacred ground in 1840. An unorthodox Saturday morning, to say the least.

For the rest of the day, I visited active breweries, former breweries and the sites of long-demolished breweries in Milwaukee as part of Discovery World’s architectural brewery tour. My stops included Pabst, Lakefront, Leinenkugel, Schlitz and Blatz, among others. Some were still hopping, others had been leveled for parking lots, but we paid our respects nonetheless. It was the best architectural tour I’ve ever taken — and the only architectural tour where the beer flowed freely.

After spending my college years in Milwaukee, there is no excuse to graduate without an appreciation for its rich beer culture. Beer is our bedrock, much deeper than any college kid’s thirst. You don’t have to be a beer snob, but you do need beer smarts. Otherwise Richard Owens and the other founding fathers of Milwaukee brewing would roll in their graves to learn their passion had been reduced to amateur Natty Light and sloppy keg stands.

The first step? Branch out. You can’t develop a taste for beer by drinking the same watered-down crap all the time. Brewmasters, those unlucky souls, have the “droll” job of combining different flavors and testing new ideas for beers just for the heck of it. Lakefront has really mastered this, with seasonal cherry beer and pumpkin ales. Put brewmasters’ creativity to use and explore less-expected combinations.

And guys, get over the “girly beer” phobia, OK? Leinenkugel’s brewmaster said it’s the Harley men, clad in leather vests with tats up and down their arms, who most frequently order Berry Weis when he’s working the bar. So try stuff out. IPA, bock, pale ales, wheat beer. Just let something roll off your tongue. Sometimes this can result in a new favorite.

Or it can go south. I once instinctively ordered a 15 percent beer called Curmudgeon. Why? Good question. It tasted like crude oil. But it wasn’t the last beer of my life.

The second step to completing your beer-ducation is to master the history of beer — or at least known enough to get you through a dinner party conversation. For instance, know the significance of Reinheitsgebot. It’s a big word for the 1516 German Purity Law, which mandated that only three ingredients (water, barley and hops) could be used in beer production. This was passed to prohibit brewers from tossing in additives or fillers since Germans considered beer to be food. A few modern day breweries still enforce this philosophy, which is beneficial to those of my friends whose nutritional pyramids resemble that of the “German diet.”

And consider this piece of trivia, plaid-clad Pabst Blue Ribbon drinkers: PBR has refrained completely from advertising campaigns in order to appeal to hipsters. Think about it. PBR would lose major cool points if they had commercials with talking frogs. They know the natural appeal to the understated and anything blue-collar. The corporate big wigs have hipsters and their consumerist habits, all figured out.

Finally, the third step to leaving Milwaukee as a well-versed beer drinker: Come to a more sophisticated understanding of how beer shaped this city. To be fair, in 2006, Milwaukee was rated the drunkest city in America. Without fail, someone would scream this fact at every house party of my freshman year. Now, as a wiser senior, I understand that beer is more than a recreational beverage — it’s a social force.

Just look at the facts. The titular stars of “Happy Days” spin-off “Laverne and Shirley” worked at a brewery named Shotz (aka Schlitz). Wisconsin was the last state in the union to enforce the 21-year-old drinking age. Right now, we have a brewer running for the U.S. Senate. Beer is an intricate player in Milwaukee’s culture. It’s not just about being the drunkest city, so don’t go home to wherever you’re from and start spouting your mouth off about that. You will sound moronic. Give credit where credit is due.

Also, check out Discovery World’s architectural brewery tours. They make a thoughtful gift and the amount of trivia the tour guides have memorized is astounding. I was able to drink “mystery” beer that had yet to be released, and deliciously cold beer from a finishing tank that had yet to be bottled. We also strolled through the deserted Pabst brewhouse, which was a little like touring the sunken Titanic.

Hope you can make time to master your beer-ducation. For some reason, I think you’ll manage.

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