This post has nothing whatsoever to do with my grandfather or his calendars. It’s just a semi-historical personal musing I’m posting here because it won’t leave me alone, but I have no other place to put it. If you choose to skip it, the next regular calendar-based entry will be along on Monday.
Time is a remarkable intoxicant. Given enough of it, the stuff of long-ago loathing becomes the stuff of warmth and nostalgia.
Take Genesee beer. Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., I understood from an early age that the local beer was commonly presupposed to be horse piss.
That isn’t my own assessment, either. Two well-traveled witticisms of my youth, familiar to any native Rochesterian, both likened Genesee Brewing product to equine waste.
There was the hoary old joke about the guy who sent a sample of Genny to a lab for analysis and was told, “I’m sorry, sir. Your horse has diabetes.” Meanwhile, critics of Genny’s 12 Horse Ale brand never failed to ask how they got all 12 horses lined up above the bottle.
In my own house, my dad rarely drank Genny products aside for an occasional acceptance of Genesee Cream Ale, probably the brewery’s most fondly regarded product in the court of public opinion.
(I remember going to a Rochester Red Wings game with my dad when I was 10 or 11 years old. He bought a cup of Genny at the ballpark, and commented on the way home that it was high time the ballpark beer stand cleaned out its tap lines. This led to a discussion that created my first understanding of how draft beer differed from bottles or cans. My dad never got around to telling me about the birds and bees, but he covered the stuff that really mattered, and for that I am grateful.)
In the ’70s and ’80s, before the microbrew revolution, Canadian beer was considered as good as you could get unless you really wanted to dig for fancy foreign stuff. So, when my dad felt like stepping up from Old Milwaukee, he would get something like Molson. But the products of the hometown brewery were not commonly on his menu.
The pro-import, anti-Genny bias was reflected and codified around 1990, when my high school garage band recorded a song about beer. The lyricist shall go unnamed, but he looked a lot like me:
Sweet as a kiss
But Genny Cream
Tastes just like piss.
I liked my hometown more than I liked its beer, in those days. (Even when I was a high-schooler, illicitly buying beer with my lawn-mowing money, it was understood among my group of friends that Genesee was not worth bothering with. We drank Piels. God knows why.)
The suburbs of Rochester were a nice comfortable place to grow up. But I had the not uncommon desire to get out of them and see something more of the world. So I made a point of applying to colleges that were out of state; had the good fortune to choose a school in one of America’s great cities; and embraced that area for a number of years.
Somewhere along the line, though, I began to look back on Rochester with increasingly greater fondness.
I have always steered clear of flash and glamor; and Rochester, a ragged notch in the Rust Belt, is a little bit unglamorous the way a Ferrari Testarossa is a little bit red.
I have always liked underdogs, too … and Rochester is nothing if not an underdog, cold and gray and out-of-the-way, a place where few visit and still fewer stay.
Rochester’s brutal weather was a badge of honor in the outside world. As a native of western New York, I inherited a Get Out of Snowstorms Free card, or at least a right to scoff as I watched other drivers fishtail hopelessly onto people’s lawns.
And my geographic upbringing came with an accent. Or so I was told by people from Manhasset and Natick and Bethlehem, who detected in my voice some mysterious thread that they traced everywhere from Chicago to Toronto — but never to its true wellspring. (The “Rochester accent,” marked by pinched nasal Midwestern “a” sounds, really does exist; but I am ill-positioned to diagnose its presence in my own speech.)
It appears that, 20 years after I ditched Rochester for Boston, nostalgia has come to an unexpected turn: I have embraced Genesee beer.
A few weeks ago, the Genesee Brewery — which has battled through declining sales and changes in corporate ownership — rolled out a “Heritage Collection” case.
It features eight bottles of classic Genesee beer; eight bottles of Genny Cream (more than enough to give one the “Genny Screamers“); and eight bottles of newly reintroduced 12 Horse Ale. And, in a really cool touch, the beers come in old-school rotund “stubby” bottles with labels straight out of 1980.
Yes, the historian in me was charmed by the idea of drinking a beer that some janitor at Kodak might have hoisted 30 years ago.
Yes, I bought a Genesee Heritage Collection case. And yes, I am enjoying it.
Years ago I adopted the term “beer soda” to describe yellow beer that is characterless and not actively offensive (I happened to be drinking this stuff at the time.) And Genesee beer, no matter which brand, is beer soda in excelsis.
Drinking Genny is like watching “Kojak” or listening to the Stones’ “Black and Blue” album, both longtime lowbrow favorites of mine.
As I drink Genny Cream or 12 Horse, I am nagged by the thought that I should be consuming something more critically approved — in much the same sense that I could be watching something more nuanced than Telly Savalas, or listening to something more substantial than “Hot Stuff.”
But I don’t care. My body is no temple; my time is not precious; and I’ll wallow in lowest-common-denominator if I damn please, especially if it’s a roots move.
Maybe I’ll think I was foolish ten years from now for buying Genesee products. But for now, each stubby beer-grenade reminds me a little bit of Rochester, and of a place and time when life was free and limitless, and good things were waiting to break open — even though Genesee beer was almost totally absent from that actual period in time.
A community gets the beer it deserves, I suppose. And so do its expatriates, scattered to the four winds with their memories, susceptible to nostalgia and well-crafted illusion.
How do you suppose they get twelve horses over the bottle, anyway?