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2012 Essay Contest winner: Rolling ahead

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ILLUSTRATION BY JACK HORNADY

Back in winter, we asked our readers who most influenced the way they drink, and to write about it for our annual essay contest. Our winner is Ethan Fixell, whose story below tells how a sip of his grandpa’s Rolling Rock set him on the road to beer consciousness.

Grandpa Lee was the first person I had ever seen drink beer. To watch him swig from a bottle of Rolling Rock while grilling outside on a hot summer day was a tradition I not only took comfort in witnessing, but soon longed to participate in. His theatrical “Ahhh!” punctuating each gulp only reinforced the refreshing qualities of the forbidden beverage.

“Why can’t I try?” I asked, when I became too old to continue believing that the liquid in question was “just soda.”

“Because he’s too young,” my mother always interjected before Grandpa could respond.

That is, until one day, at the age of 13, I was finally—secretly—offered a sip. “Don’t get too used to this,” Grandpa said with a playful poke.

Suppressing a wince, I unknowingly announced my first official beer review of hundreds to come: “Tastes like bread-flavored seltzer.” But there was something indescribably romantic about the experience, too; just as I knew I would one day grow chest hair, I also somehow knew I would grow to appreciate beer.

When I asked my grandpa why he drank Rolling Rock over all the other more well-known brands endorsed by cool canine mascots and sexy beach-party-goers on television, he explained that it was an honest, dependable brew which he had first tried with co-workers in Pennsylvania shortly before I was born. Commuting between Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Rockville Centre, N.Y., he would bring home a case of the otherwise unavailable lager each month. Thankfully, Rolling Rock had finally gained distribution in New York, saving him a three-hour drive each time his supply ran out.

Throughout college and my first years on my own, Rolling Rock was my beer of choice. If it bore the seal of approval from a drinking veteran with more than 50 years of experience, I reasoned that it was good enough for me. I also admit that each bottle conjured a good bit of nostalgia; drinking one always made me feel closer to my grandpa hundreds of miles away.

By the time I was 24, I noticed one evening that the usual stacks of Rolling Rock cases in my grandparents’ basement had been replaced by a few stray six-packs of various labels. I asked Grandpa about the change, and he explained that Rolling Rock—just bought by Anheuser-Busch—wasn’t being made in Latrobe, Pa., anymore. He thought the beer changed, so he gave it up altogether.

Taking cues from a man who always had high standards for quality, I, too, felt betrayed. I suddenly realized that I needed to pay closer attention to what I imbibe, and resolved that some experimentation was in order. After some cursory Internet research, I discovered the existence of some small but mighty players such as Dogfish Head and Harpoon, and made a pledge to seek out and try as many craft beers as possible.

At first, the onslaught of new, delicious flavors I encountered at beer festivals and in barroom flights was entirely overwhelming. Most of the time I could barely remember what I had tasted; the rest of the time, I could barely make out my illegible notes, written like a sugar-addicted 6-year-old set loose in a candy store (there were plenty of “10!!!”s doled out in those days). But soon, I began to develop a much more sensitive palate, becoming familiar with an array of styles, and slowly realizing what I actually liked or disliked about each IPA or porter. I finally came to understand how beer was actually supposed to taste.

A few months into my craft beer journey, my grandpa and I went out to our favorite seafood restaurant to dine on raw clams, our mutual favorite food. While he got ready to settle in with a Pabst (the only beer he recognized there), I quickly scanned the beer list for something new he might appreciate. A smooth, tasty Lighthouse Ale by local brewer Fire Island Beer Co. seemed like it could offer the perfect transition into craft beer. It turned out I was right, and he let me guide his mealtime beer choice ever since.

Only a few days after I sat down to write this, my grandpa at last succumbed to a long battle with cancer. The illness made it impossible for him to drink almost anything—much less beer—for the last few weeks of his life. But even in his physically depleted state, he would still take pleasure in hearing about my own beer experiences; as a touring comedian, I try to visit at least one brewery in every U.S. state I perform in. Of course, I took immense pride in being able to share my newfound knowledge with the man who taught me to love beer in the first place. My only regret is that I never took the time to tell Grandpa Lee about how each new beer I sample always takes me back to the experience of sharing my very first Rolling Rock with him.

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