My First Time

My First Time

Metropolis' beer correspondent takes a ride down memory lane


Originally published on on March 2008

the author in 1972, above and below left<br><i> Photos by P. Reid Hart</i>

the author in 1972, above and below left
Photos by P. Reid Hart

Two years ago, Metropolis broke ground as the first English-language magazine in Tokyo to have a regular beer column. To the best knowledge of our lawyers, this is the only regular beer article printed in Japan in English or Japanese. In this column, Bryan Harrell details his relationship with beer over the past third of a century.

The first time I remember having a beer was in 1972, on my 18th birthday. I was on a summer-long bicycle trip with my pal Reid. We rode from Sacramento, California, to the Canadian Rockies and back.

That day, July 21, 1972, we cycled over Kicking Horse pass, crossing the Continental Divide between British Columbia and Alberta. It was snowing moderately as we descended into Lake Louise. On skis it would have been fun, but on thin racing tires it was scary.

By chance, the drinking age in Alberta was 18, and Reid was anxious to legally purchase beer—specifically, some English ales. At the time, you couldn’t get them in California, no matter how old you were.

Reid was already a home brewer, making—as he called it—“sparkling barley wine” since, he reasoned, at the time it was legal to make wine at home, but not beer. Being a year older than me, Reid always seemed to have things figured out, though I am sure he was unfamiliar with the style of beer called barleywine.

I don’t remember what beers he bought, but I recall they were slightly sweet and amber colored. From there, we rode up the Rockies to Jasper, headed west to the Pacific, then down the coast to San Francisco after about 11 weeks on the road.

But it wasn’t until a year later that I really got started on beer. At 19, I was still underage in California, but the word around my apartment building was that the German guy running the bar across the street never seemed to card anyone.

One hot summer afternoon, I poked my head in the doorway of the Little Club, and was welcomed in by owner Egon Spiess. Being small, I could barely pass for 15. Still, I plopped onto a bar stool and said, “I’ll have a beer.”

“Well, what kind of beer?” Egon queried.

“Uhh, a Miller,” I said, reciting one of the two or three beer names I knew.

“Nahhh, you don’t want a Miller. You want a Dinkel Acker,” he said authoritatively as a glistening bottle of the same landed in front of me, along with a tall, thin glass.

730-DS-01That’s when it started. Of course, the Dinkel Acker (dinkle is German for “spelt”) was delicious, quite a bit different than the thin, metallic brews I would be served later at parties, only to leave them after one sip. Egon stocked well over 10 European imports, quite a feat in 1973, and I ended up trying them all. Thanks to him, I never had to go through the industrial beer stage in my search for good beer.

I later asked Egon why he served me. “Well, I believe if you are old enough to ask for it, you are old enough to have it,” he replied in his thick German accent.

After that, it was trips to the local gourmet supermarket with Fred, my drinking-age apartment manager, to purchase anything European. Once, I bought a Heileman’s Special Export, thinking it was German, only to find it from Wisconsin. I dashed off a letter of praise to the brewery (remember, this was 1974), and later was given a $50 check for permission to use the letter in their ads. It was my first time I made money from beer writing.

I did dabble in home brewing, illegal at the time, but the selection of materials—canned malt syrup, bread yeast and hops from who knew where—were as unspiring as the result. Beers from Europe, and an oddball little brewery in San Francisco, were a whole lot better.

After graduation, I decided to move to Japan, arriving in July 1977. I’d planned to stay for a year or two, which has somehow stretched to 30. I brought with me a love of good beer, which I still carry with me. Over the years, the beer scene has expanded greatly, from Kirin Lager and Sapporo Draft to a new wave of Belgian beers in the late ’80s, and a newer wave of craft brews after Japanese deregulation in 1995. Now, an increasing number of US craft beers are hitting the bars and shelves here, so the future looks bright. Now, if they could only legalize home brewing!

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