Mike Royko Wades Into the Beer

Before I start in, thanks to Toronto-based, veteran beer writer Steve Beaumont for sending me Mike Royko’s article mentioned below. Steve’s got a new book out, Will Travel for Beer, which fans of beer and travel won’t want to miss, details here.

In July 1973 Mike Royko (1932-1997), a long-time Chicago journalist and author with a hard-boiled, satirical streak wrote on beer in the Daily Illini. You can read the article here.

Royko (pictured) assembled a panel that rated a selection of beers. The summers of the Windy City can broil, I can attest personally, and beer pieces in July or August were a stock device of editors in those days. Some time ago I described (“New York Magazine Does Beer“) a similar tasting reported on by New York magazine, held a couple of years earlier.

These 1970s beer forays were written humorously: semi-serious would put it at its highest. This was seen as appropriate for the subject of beer versus the serious sniffing of wine that had gained respectability since the 1960s. Spirits? Forget it, not on the scribblers’ map for another 20 years.

Beer critic Michael Jackson came a few years later and had a lot to do with lowering the level of levity toward beer in food and drink writing. He mentioned Royko’s article in his seminal The World Guide to Beer (1977).

I can see the influence it had on Jackson, e.g., the high opinion of Wisconsin’s Point Special, a regional but otherwise mass-market-style lager. The panel’s good opinion of some top German and U.K. names could only have encouraged Jackson as well. True, the panel kind of dissed Pilsner Urquell but Royko was quick to note that slow turnover of such items on Chicago shelves probably accounted for the middling score.

In fact, considering that so many imports then were tired from poor handling and very chancy – I was there – the high scores are testament to how inherently good they were.

(On the other hand, Jackson’s early books gave more credibility to Budweiser, which scored very low in Royko’s tasting).

Royko himself didn’t drink beer in the poll, his job was to wash glasses and break up fights, as he put it. The panel was drawn from the ranks of the everyday beer drinker. It even included a couple of people who drank beer only occasionally. The panel did a good job judging by the tallies, the results are pretty much what one would expect even today among the kind of beers tasted.

But Royko of course was being modest: he had grown up over a tavern run by his parents and helped out behind the taps occasionally. He knew about beer, you betcha.

To be sure, the tasting had limitations: there was no domestic ale, no stout, for example. But this is Chicago, early 1970s: give them a break. Goose Island wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Had anyone suggested that a new brewery could take root in Chicago and dontcha know, go international he would have been hooted down in a Chicago minute.

Times change.

Apart the odd outlier result Royko’s panel judged imports like Spaten, Wurzburger, and Bass on top, regional adjunct lagers in the middle (e.g. Huber), and famous names like Budweiser and Schlitz at the bottom – in the toilet as a Chicago ball fan might say.

International lagers like Kirin or Zywiec finished mid-course, as did a national name or two, which makes sense too.

Royko commented viz. the poor showing of Bud and Schlitz:

The American beer industry answers its critics by saying it gives us the kind of beer we really want. Oh yeah? ….

my back-yard beer tasters had a few … comments about Bud: a picnic beer smell; lousy; Alka Seltzer; sweet and weak; yeccch. Schlitz and Bud are free to use any of the above comments as testimonials, or in their next commercials. It might be fun to see one of those dashing actors on a sailing ship downing a can of beer and instead of grabbing for gusto, grabbing his stomach and yelling: Yeecch!

Royko was known for speaking up for the common guy: the office drudge, labourers of Slavic background (as he was) or from another sub-set of Chicago’s melting pot, all pushed and pulled by national advertising (who isn’t) and that’s just the least of it.

But he didn’t defend famous beers as somehow still keyed to the national taste, the workingman’s heart of hearts. He implied the popularity resulted from clever advertising.