Memories in a Can

Who doesn’t remember their first time?

I drank my first beer on my grandparents’ back porch. It was little more than a sip, but it was memorable just the same.

I was probably just a pull-tab older than 10. My grandfather and I were sitting on the glider listening to talk radio — real talk, not sports-talk or Rush-talk, but actual dialogue on a radio with dials. He was watching the birds at the feeder, waiting for his favorite cardinal. I was doing what kids do — squirming, tossing a ball, asking questions.

“Can I have a taste?” I asked, like I had umpteen times.

This time, finally, he relented. He handed me the plain white can with the red-and-blue lettering: USA (U Save Alot) Beer. I took a swig, just like I did with the Fresca my grandmother usually had for us.

It tasted terrible, even in this watered-down, generic version of beer. (Or maybe because of it.) Still, I didn’t want my grandfather to know I thought Fresca was better. I handed it back with the straightest face I could muster.

Just the thought of USA Beer makes me chuckle these days. (Hey, it’s patrioticand cheap! What could be better?)

The early ’80s were the age of generics. Grocery aisles were filled with plain yellow packaging marked in black lettering: “potato chips,” “cola,” “yellow cake mix.” The economy was faltering, and we needed to save a little (or a lot) wherever possible.

So we simplified, scaled back. Value trumped brand loyalty.

Our current economy isn’t much different. Yet, this month’s issue is anti-generic.

It’s a nod to a time when authenticity and local identity mattered most. When homemade meant your mom cooked it the kitchen and when your beer was made in a Cleveland factory down the street.

So we turn back our kitchen timers to when Christmas downtown meant a stop at Higbee’s Silver Grille, when you went to Miller’s Dining Roomjust for the sticky buns and when celebrating meant an evening at Top of the Town. We’ve even dislodged some authentic recipes from those spots for you to try in your own kitchen.

While you’ve got the stove going, this month’s issue provides Old World secrets for making classic Cleveland pierogi, matzo balls and cannoli (hint: add a little red wine). If you can’t bring yourself to cook (or even if you can), we serve up 12 old-school eateries — from Ferris Steakhouse to Steve’s Lunch — that every Clevelander must try in the next year. (We’ll check up on you.)

Certainly, no beverage goes better with Keifer’s Weiner schnitzel or grandma’s stuffed cabbage than beer.

“Cleveland has always been a beer town,” says Carl H. Miller, in his bookBreweries Of Cleveland. “Before prohibition, virtually every neighborhood in the city had its own brewery — especially on the West Side, where the Germans lived.”

By 1939, Cleveland’s nine breweries employed 1,265 and formed a $10 million industry, according to theEncyclopedia of Cleveland History. So we look back fondly at some of this city’s favorites through their distinctive labels — from Gund’s Clevelander, with Moses Cleaveland spying a 1910s-era Public Square, to the simple red-and-gold lettering on 1950s best seller P.O.C. (Yes, there’s Leisy’s Light and Erin Brew too.)

We also provide a tour of the microbreweries keeping local beer making alive (and, as we discovered, well). Most are still on the West Side, but there’s a lot more to sample than the holidays’ undisputed champ, Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Christmas Ale (supplies are limited!).

We even have a beer chaser: the best beer joints in town. With their wooden bars, no-frills stools, mini-bowling and good conversation, these places put a premium on their draft and bottle offerings (not some frilly martini list) with a good mix of local microbrews and imports. They’re spots crafted with barley, hops and a hearty dose of Cleveland.

They’re authentic, just like the first time.
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