Reviewing my notes and sifting through relevant historical documents, it appears the last era in which I qualified as genuinely hip (or was it hep?) was in the mid- to late-‘70s.
Since then it’s been a slow slide into grumpy irritability with a few sparks of indifferent rebellion, and an overall refusal to think outside the ruts: My middle years in 25 words or less.
But the 1970s? Man, I was full down with punk rock (saw the Sex Pistols at Winterland, and The Clash back-to-back nights in Berkeley). I hung at the Mabuhay Gardens and was hip and hep but not hip hop and rap. Or disco. Jimmy Carter was cool, Reagan was evil, I was all over the InterDada ’80 fest and wore what appears to be, in photos from the era, a mullet.
So I wasn’t all avante garde and hep. Hip. Much of cutting edge society passed me by yet, oddly, I was among the first to embrace the next wave in brewing. Yes, I had seen the future of beer and it wasn’t the watery stuff on tap at Club Calpella.
It was a dawn that would revolutionize the beer world and it started right here. Thunder Beer was smuggled in brown bottles filled with cloudy fluid surreptitiously extracted from the trunks of parked cars and sold to select customers for the princely sum of $3 a six pack. This was circa 1977 and well within the penumbra of Prohibition’s long shadow; bootleggers understood transporting illegal beer wasn’t much different from operating a black market still. Or a backyard marijuana garden.
Young Thunder Beer, proudly and illegally brewed and bottled in Ukiah, was a beer that lay upon the tongue like a furry film, tasted better than radiator flush, and cost double what Augie Busch charged for a six-pack that came all the way from St. Louis.
Such was the price I paid for being a trendsetter, a man who was drinking craft beer before craft beer had been invented.
Thunder Beer was first a rumor, then a product and ultimately (if my genealogical tracings are correct) it spawned progeny: Blue Heron and Red Tail Ale. In the checkered history of the Mendocino Brewing Co. there should be a footnote acknowledging Thunder Beer as a pioneer, with DNA linking it to next-generation brews like Black Hawk Stout.
So we’re talking hep. Originally I liked Thunder Beer because it wasn’t Stroh’s or Olympia. It was more like Rainier Ale, nicknamed Green Death both for the color of its cans and the crippling hangovers it administered.
As an early insider I consumed a couple six packs of Thunder Beer a month and bored everyone at how hip-hep I was at the vanguard of a coming beer explosion. Then the Hopland Brewery opened and Red Tail Ale was unleashed in a sudden flood of craft beers, media frenzy and everybody heated up about the Next Big Thing.
Except, of course, me. If craft beer was the hottest thing since Napa wines, I was all for cooling off, jumping ship, and hustling down to Foggy’s Liquors for a cold case of Falstaff. And some pork rinds.
Because once craft beer got hep, the hip crowd got snooty. It was now all about subtle hints of caramel, a muted evanescence of ambergris, and a rounded though bold finish. They were turning beer drinkers into wine snobs, so I backtracked to Schlitz quarts. My craft brew days were done.
To be honest it was also because of the hops, the bitter gnarly hops. Hops became the MSG of craft beer. Hops were to it what brie and chardonnay were to west side Ukiah, or cocaine to Hollywood. Hops provided the distinctive bitter flavor that all craft beers had (and still have) but is notably absent from their cousins in the industrial wing of the beer business. Coors, Corona and PBR would have hops arrested at the factory gate.
The fad beers had degrees from UC Davis, were choked with hops, and the people who flocked to them were yuppies, food critics and other snoots. But to me hops tasted like chewing on a big tough dandelion root, and I devoted subsequent decades to drinking beer’s mildest offerings, although never sinking to Lite anything.
Then for no reason a few weeks ago I brought home a six-pack of Torpedo Ale. Whoaa! It was as if all the Sierra Nevada master brewers had set their dials on “Bitter,” then stirred an extra fistful of acrid, ground-up hops into each 12-oz container. Torpedo Ale is Green Death reincarnated, cloaked in the same scary dark green can, big alcohol content, supremely undrinkable.
But because I’m old and my taste buds gave out a long time ago, I’m able to snort black pepper, gargle hot sauce and eat raw possum livers. If I live long enough I might someday be able to drink an entire can of the stuff.
Yes, dear readers, I find Torpedo Ale an amusing little affair, charming yet never pretentious, wry but not sarcastic, with harsh notes of chicory, grapefruit rinds and well-boiled expresso.
It pairs nicely with a hops-infused pan-roasted Goodyear tire.