I am haunted by hops. I attended my first Oktoberfest in 1974, and I am not sure what was scarier — my new surroundings or the fact I was forced to drink beer at the legal age of 14. In Germany, the drinking age for beer is 14 and hard liquor is 16. It is one of the first things you learn as a teenager upon deplaning in Frankfurt for the first time. And the all-important fact that “ausfahrt” has nothing to do with flatulence – it means “exit” in German. You don’t want to get those two mixed up.
And you better love beer. One of the traditions of “Army brathood” in Stuttgart in the 70’s was to take the “new kid” to Oktoberfest and make ‘em chug their first liter of Dinkelacker. Whatever beer was not finished, ended up on your head.
If you have never been the new kid on an Army base, you might walk away from a beer challenge, but brats learn from a very young age to run head first into a fire, despite the pain of burning. There was only one thing more frightening than your friends calling you a sissy – for your father to come home, decked out in full military uniform, and calling you something much worse.
A good beer “bullying” was the least painful way a military brat learned the hierarchy of Robinson Barracks. At “RB,” you were as important as how much beer you could drink and what the stripes your father or mother wore on their sleeve. Fortunately for me — or maybe not — my father was an officer, meaning we lived on King’s Row, high atop the hill looking over the valley where all the officer’s children lived. I could also chug beer just enough to keep the older kids – those who had been there more than a year – from kicking my ass.
Dinkelacker-Schwaben Brau made us tough. Not a bad thing, when you think about what we faced each day – navigating a new language and economy. We rode the STRAUSSE, put mayo on our french fries like the Germans, drank bitter wine, road trains through Europe, physically fought off the Greeks and a Spanish man, and oh yeah, a crazy French woman on the Fourth of July, who did not like my rendition of the national anthem.
Coke was too expensive so we drank beer and ate cheese. Like the vagabonds we were, we carried our luggage and backpacks across the world, looking for acceptance, permanence and love. And along the way, we visited all the beers the world had to offer. Sadly, I am gluten-free now, probably the result of too many liters in my teens, but I still dream in pale ale. And once in a while, on a slow amber morning, I can still taste hops on my tongue, and see my friends — all sittin’ round — yelling Prost!