James Werrell

When you say Bud, you haven't said it all

A few years back, a merger between the second- and third-largest U.S. brewers would have been disturbing, more evidence that the nation's beer drinkers would have to settle for nothing but bland, tan, predictable suds. But when Miller and Coors announced this week that they were joining forces to battle No. 1 Anheuser-Busch, discerning beer guzzlers could afford to yawn.

Not long ago, it seemed that America's major brewers were intent on making sure that every beer in the nation tasted like a Bud. Many smaller brewers were either being bought up by the behemoths or going out of business, and the nation's once diverse assortment of beers dwindled precipitously.

Thankfully, America had a beer renaissance beginning in the '80s and gaining momentum ever since, with beer pubs and boutique brewers popping up all over the country. These days, you can walk into just about any pub, saloon or restaurant in the nation and order some variation of Joe Bob's Summer Oktoberfest Weissen India Pale Strawberry Pilsner Bock Bitter Ale. And the guy next to you will be commenting on its hops content, its maltiness and the quality of the head.

Some of these beers are great. Many make you yearn for a Bud.

I, however, am old enough to remember the days when America had a vast number of thriving regional and local brewers. They weren't brew pubs; they didn't make beer in the basement and pump it out of taps. They sold beer in bottles, cans and kegs to imbibers within a limited geographical area.

Coors, in fact, started out as something of a regional cult beer. Because it was unpasteurized, it wasn't shipped much farther east than Texas from the brewery in Golden, Colo. It was not uncommon for young Eastern entrepreneurs to make a beer run out West and bring back cases of Coors to sell at exorbitant prices to their gullible friends back home.

Now that Coors is sold nationwide, we know that it is just another inane lager. It can't, for example, hold a candle to the Schoenling Little King Cream Ales I consumed in my youth in Cincinnati. Little Kings were diminutive green bottles of ale, which, because they held only 7 ounces, stayed cold to the bottom.

Shoenling, Burger and Hudepohl were all Cincinnati beers sold frequently at the ballpark during Reds games. I remember the beer barkers walking around Riverfront Stadium with cases of cold Hudepohl: "Come on, get moody with the Hudy, rock and roll with the Hudepohl."

In college in Upstate New York (where, by the way, the drinking age was a sensible 18) we drank Genesee, Utica Club, Schaefer, Carling Black Label, Ballantine and Rheingold beers. Schaefer, now hard to find anywhere, had the memorable, if not especially PC, jingle: "Schaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one."

Speaking of non-politically correct, Rheingold used to come in wide-mouthed bottles called "chug-a-mugs."

Traveling around the country in those days, you could have sampled a variety of regional beers: Iron City in Pennsylvania and northern Ohio (terrible beer); Leinenkugel in Wisconsin; Dixie in Louisiana; Hamm's in Minnesota; Rainier on the West Coast; National Bohemian -- or Natty Bo's -- in Maryland.

Living in Texas, we drank Lone Star, Pearl and Shiner. A few Lone Star longnecks were the perfect accompaniment for mesquite-smoked beef brisket.

There were also large national brands such as Schlitz, Strohs and Pabst that now have shrunk to obscurity. Schlitz, the nation's second-largest brewery until the mid-'70s, was everybody's second-favorite beer, a reliably drinkable brew when your first choice was unavailable.

To some, brand loyalty was fierce: It was always a Bud; always a Pabst Blue Ribbon; always a Miller High Life ("the champagne of bottled beer"). I, however, was always on a mission to taste as many different beers as I could -- a mission, by the way, that I still am trying to fulfill, although not with quite the same fervor.

I like wine better now, and if I am going to drink a beer, it usually hails from England or Ireland, a Bass or a Harp's. But just recalling the names of those old regional beers brings back many happy memories (and more than a few miserable ones).

All in all, as the eloquent Homer Simpson might say: "Beer!"

That pretty much sums it up.