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Lager Than Life: Beer on tap in movies, music and literature


It’s called “Bier” in Germany, “Ka bera” in Hawaii, and “Beiro” (that’s Esperanto) in certain parts of Spain.

Around here, of course, it’s mainly just “beer.” And (in moderation, of course) it’s awesome.

The oldest, most popular alcoholic product in the world, beer (and its many styles, including ale, lager, stout) is so more than just a refreshingly foamy adult beverage. It’s attractions extend beyond being a friendly pastime for hobby craft brewers to take up after mastering the Claw, the Flash and the Cascade (ask a juggler), and building all the Star Wars models currently available on the market.

Beer is, in many ways, a whole culture unto itself.

Its many joys, flavors, and attributes (along with its darker dangers) have been thoroughly celebrated, over the years, through the arts of song, dance, literature, and film. Though “Beer: The Opera” has yet to be written (someone, please do it! I’ll be the first to buy a ticket!), there are a number of other examples of beer-related classical music, the most famous being Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture.”

In 1879, the great German composer was informed by the University of Breslau that he was being awarded an honorary doctorate. Being a gentleman, he replied with a thank you note. Not long after, University’s orchestra conductor Bernard Scholz wrote back to say that, thank you notes being all well and good, what he’d hoped for in from Brahms was a new symphony composed in the school’s honor.

“Well orchestrated,” Scholz suggested, “but not too uniformly thick.”

At the time, the University of Breslau was widely known for its culture of boisterous beer drinking among the school’s young scholars. So instead of the opulent composition Scholz had in mind, Brahms delivered the “Academic Festival Overture,” described by the composer as a “potpourri of student drinking songs.”

It was the equivalent of composer John Adams presenting the San Francisco Symphony with a rousing orchestral setting of “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Speaking of which, that infuriating anonymously-written folk song from the mid-1900s has inspired something called The Bottles Project to commission and record 100 songs about beer, beer bottles, and drinking. The entire collection can be heard on Spotify and other streaming services, including YouTube (search “99 Bottles of Beer: The Album).

Beer has been inspiring songwriters (and novelists, and filmmakers) for decades. Continuing in the vein of music, there are literally thousands of songs that mention beer or beer drinking. Among the greatest are Hank Williams’ plaintive “There’s a Tear in my Beer,” Tom T. Hall’s merry little honky-tonk “I Like Beer,” with its singalong-ready chorus, “I like beer, it makes me a jolly good fellow/ I like beer, it helps me unwind, and sometimes it makes me feel mellow.” And of course, no list of beer-themed songs would be complete without one or two by Tom Waits.’ “Warm Beer and Cold Women,” bristling with heartache and humor, is a poetic exploration of barroom hopes and closing time disappointments.

“The moon’s rising/ain’t got no time to lose/ Time to get down to drinking/tell the band to play the blues.”

Even higher in giddy-gloomy alcoholic content is Waits’ lovely, “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You,” a stunningly well-written dive bar tribute to love found and instantly lost.

“It’s closing time, the music’s fading out/Last call for drinks, I’ll have another stout,

“Turn around to look at you/you’re nowhere to be found,

“I search the place for your lost face/guess I’ll have another round,

“And I think that I just fell in love with you.”

In the realm of film and literature, rising high as the foam atop a hurriedly poured Pilsner, are Tom Robbins’ whimsical pseudo-novel “B Is for Beer,” using the lilting parlance of a typical children’s book to explain exactly why beer is such a beloved adult beverage. In the same vein is “Goodnight Brew,” subtitled “A parody for beer people.” Written by Karla Oceanac, with illustrations by Allie Ogg, it describes nighttime in a brewery, borrowing the cadences of the classic “Goodnight Moon” to tell its slightly inebriated tale. Charles Dickens was quite fond of putting beer in the hands of his characters (especially David Copperfield), as was Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, the latter delivering his most iconic beer-drinking moments in the indelible “Cannery Row” and its bitter-sweet sequel “Sweet Thursday.”

As for movies, film critics frequently suggest the 1983 Canadian comedy “Strange Brew,” starring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, as the greatest movie ever made about beer. Loosely based on “Hamlet,” it involves the discovery of an evil plot by Max Von Sydow to control the world using a mind-altering beer substitute.

Other greats include 1978’s “Animal House” and its toga-themed keg parties, “Superbad” (2007) and “American Pie” (1999), featuring even more epic keg parties, the latter film containing one of the greatest gross-out beer moments in history.

And of course, 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit,” in which a pair of fearless truck-drivers (Burt Reynolds as Bandit and Jerry Reed as Snowman) are hired by Texas millionaire Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams) to illegally sneak 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta in under 28 hours. The film includes one of beer-themed cinema’s best, funniest, and most oft-quoted lines.

Bandit: (To Big Enos) “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Why do you want that beer so bad?”

Little Enos: (To Bandit) “Because he’s thirsty, dummy.”

(Email David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)