Monday, March 26, 2012

An Ode to Oberon, the Gateway Beer

Temperatures are rising. (And freakishly so.) Birds are chirping. Trees are budding. In metro Detroit, that can only mean one thing: it's time for the release of Bell's Oberon.

This seasonal brew is released but once a year. Granted it's released in stupid-large quantities and is probably more widely available than Budweiser now that craft beer bars are all anti-Bud, and also you can usually find it well into October so their definition of it as a "summer seasonal" is pretty loose; but in the hearts and minds of metro Detroiters, Oberon is synonymous with summer.

And it's a pretty big deal. The official count of Oberon release parties and related events in Michigan alone is over 130; while a very small faction of the beer-drinking illuminati go batshit for Bell's Hopslam, the by and large beer drinking majority go b-a-n-a-n-a-s at the mere mention of the world "Oberon."

The reason for this is simple: Bell's Oberon is the ultimate gateway beer. Do you remember where you were when you had your first Oberon? Probably not specifically, but probably it was in college, and also probably it was your first experience with a beer that had a name beyond just that of the brewery + "lite," and that represented a brewing style that was not yellow fizzy.

Oberon is a ubiquitous brew, readily available in most dive bars, college bars, sports bars, corporate chain bars, bougie bars, snooty bars, wine bars, beer bars, and just about everywhere adult beverages are sold. At some point in our lives, all of us started out as wide-eyed, innocent, fledgling beer drinkers sneaking Natty Lights from Grandpa's stash. None of us were born with knowledge of craft beer, and probably very few of us had parents in the know; no, this knowledge had to specifically be sought out. At some point someone passed you an Oberon and said something like, "DUDE, try this - OBERON!!!" (there may have been a "woooooo" that followed) and you did. And you liked it. And it became a special thing, something you and your friends developed a devoted fandom for. It had that certain "being in the know" appeal, that little bit of an air of sophistication - while others ordered up their $2 talls of Miller Lights, you'd ask for a pint of Oberon. Impressive, right?

(Personally I remember many years ago spending endless hours playing darts and drinking ridiculously cheap 22-oz Oberon drafts at Buffalo Wild Wings on 35-cent Tuesday wing night. I was a long way off still from being indoctrinated into the world of craft beer, but this is my special Oberon memory and also how a beer nerd was born.)

Oberon is the ultimate gateway beer. Light, refreshing, summery, happy not hoppy - there are no difficult flavor profiles to overcome, no pronounced hops or funky yeasts; it's just a delightfully drinkable session beer that appeals to a wide range of palates. But Oberon is also a beginner's beer education: now beer has two names, both the name of the brewery and of the beer itself (as opposed to "Budweiser," which is nothing more and nothing less than that ... "Anheuser-Busch" is a name as meaningless to a 16-year-old 21-year-old drinker as "Sysco" is to your average restaurant customer).

From Oberon, it is only a matter of time before a person discovers Blue Moon. And once there, it is a slippery slope to other wheat beers, then witbiers like Hoegaarden, then other Belgian beers (and they like their strong ales over there) like Delirium Tremens - and let's just be real here, the first time you saw that pink elephant on the Tremens bottle you immediately thought of the Simpsons (or maybe Dumbo) and said, "YES, I want THAT." Before you know it, you're experimenting with all sorts of different funky Belgian beers, then investigating various German weissbiers. You're tasting notes of banana and clove, or candied sugar and coriander. And you're liking it.

You're not in Milwaukee anymore, Dorothy.

Oberon is not the best beer in the world. It is not the best American wheat beer in the world. It isn't even the best American wheat beer in Michigan. But it is responsible for popping the craft beer cherries of countless thousands of craft beer drinkers throughout the country, and for that it will always hold a special little place in our hearts. Happy Oberon Day!