Alongside the colorful stories of my atypical childhood are the ordinary underpinnings of a suburban American family of the ’60s, one of which is a dad who watched Sunday sports on TV accompanied by beer. Typically he’d hang out in the living room with a few friends while they took in a football game. In the summer he’d be working in the backyard on a home improvement project — Red Sox game on the radio and a half-empty six-pack of tall Narragansett bottles alongside the toolbox. I’ve never been much interested in watching sports, though I do periodically get wrapped up in playoff fever, always with a beer by my side.
Beer has a long history with spectator sports, a symbiotic relationship by which both cultures have fed off of one another as they developed. Peel back any sport’s history and you’ll find beer. For example, a 19th century precursor to Major League Baseball’s American League, called the American Association, distinguished itself from its rival, the teetotaling National League, by selling beer at its games (National League team owners dismissively referred to the upstart as “The Beer and Whiskey League”).
In an early episode of The Simpsons, the great American beer sage Homer Simpson sits empty-handed in the bleachers during a baseball game while guys all around him down cups o’ suds, and this leads to an epiphany: “I never realized how boring this game is.”
Beer is not a sports-viewing amenity — it’s essential. So when it comes to spectator sports, the question is not, To beer or not to beer?, but rather, Which beer? If corporate beer marketing is any gauge, it appears that the preferred sports beer is light in color, lightly hopped, and typically a lager. From my experience mixing beer with sports, I would agree with those guidelines in principle. But in actuality, the brews of the major beer companies are sadly lacking in body or taste. Could there be a good beer for sports fans that has decent flavor and is made by a smaller brewery? To find out, I took field trips to two Portland sports bars, Rivalries and Binga’s Stadium, in search of a craft sports beer.
I timed my trips to coincide with the “March Madness” college basketball games. The Thursday I went to Rivalries also happened to be baseball’s opening day — the earliest in the history of the league, which may explain why the place wasn’t crowded. I asked for their most popular local beer and was given a Lone Pine Portland Pale Ale ($6.50). True to the name, it tasted a little piney, and it accompanied the Sweet 16 alright, but its bright hops didn’t match my idea of a sports beer.
After looking in vain for a lighter and less hoppy local alternative, I took an off-project tack and tried a Bangor Brown ($7) from Geaghan Brothers Brewing Company, in the Bangor/Brewer area. I’ll give you the details of that misstep in my autumn round-up of brown ales. Suffice to say it didn’t make the team.
The beer selection at Binga’s Stadium is easily three times as large as Rivalries’, as was the March Madness crowd on the Saturday night I visited. I started out with a safe bet: Sam Adams Boston Lager ($4.50). It met all my standards, except the local angle, and I would have sat on that bet all night had I not been on a mission to try a variety of brews. Yet again, the local options all seemed too hoppy for the job, so I went with a Fat Tire Amber Ale by New Belgium Brewing Company, an employee-owned brewery based in Colorado and North Carolina. This pint and the next were also $4.50, which brings up another key characteristic of a great sports beer: affordability.
The last beer I tried came from another well established Boston brewery: Harpoon’s Rec. League. A citrusy blend of hops gave this hazy pale ale a distinctive grapefruit flavor, which was all fine and good, and I’ll probably pick up a six-pack this summer, but its loud taste was a distraction in the final minutes of a historic buzzer-beater.
Is it possible for a Maine craft brewery to deliver an inexpensive, light or lightish beer that’s not too hoppy and has an unobtrusive flavor? This doesn’t appear to be on any local brewer’s agenda. The trends I see involve uniquely blended beers and the addition of some dubious ingredients. Geary’s Pale Ale is my current home-couch standby, but I’ll stay on the lookout for a great Maine sports beer, waiting for the perfect pitch.