Sense and Nonsense: Who Will Sell Us Real Beer?


January 1, 1988

A good friend sent me something off the Scripps-Howard wires the other day, a Denver dateline about how Coors Brewery manages its sales. In the article, Peter Coors stated, “Believe it or not, in the beer industry any more, you’re not really selling beer. You’re selling packaging, and you’re selling image….” No doubt, this observation tells us more about Coors than most of us ever wanted to know and makes my own preference for English or Mexican beer even more rational.

Now, you have to understand that Bill (my friend), who did not live in Milwaukee during his college days for nothing, likes a good beer. He has introduced me to Samuel Adams, and (was it?) Sierra Nevada. He even told me that Samuel Adams was brewed by Iron City not in Boston but in Pittsburgh. Last summer while I was in San Francisco, Bill charged me with going down to the Anchor Steam Brewery and, with the aid of our mutual friend Denise Bartlett, who knew how to package the darn stuff, to send him half a case of the special Old Foghorn, which even Schall had not heard of before. I must admit that after Mike Jackson and I had a taste of this wonderful beer one afternoon in October, this lack of malt awareness seemed especially damaging to Schall’s reputation for worldly wisdom.

To the notion that the beer business is mainly packaging and image and not providing just good beer, Bill remarked, as a true philosopher, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. . . . On the day of Armageddon, they’ll find me sipping my Old Foghorn, thank you.” Belloc would have been proud of Bill’s truly Christian spirit.

About a year ago, Bill had sent me an article in the Wall Street Journal about the best beer in Germany, which should make it the best beer simpliciter, made naturally in some monastery outside of Munich. Somehow, in my European days, I missed this particular pious and frothy place, a great loss, I suspect.

Speaking of clergy and reflecting on those beverages invented before the Reformation, the ones which Belloc said we should drink exclusively, not long ago I came across a pertinent passage in Rousseau’s Confessions. Rousseau was roaming about Savoy, a couple of miles from Geneva, when he came to a town called Configon. The cure there was a priest by the name of M. de Pontverre, who seems to have been connected through his family with a Catholic military order called the Knights of the Spoon, so called because they wore a spoon around their neck to back up their boast to eat their Protestant enemies “with a spoon” — stewed Calvinists, so to speak. Aggiornamento, you will have to concede, has not been a total gain when such things are eradicated from our ecclesiastical memories.

The cure, however, was a cultivated man with a good table. This is what Rousseau, somewhat maliciously and not without vanity, says of him:

I called on M. de Pontverre. He received me kindly, talked about the heresy of Geneva, the authority of the Holy Mother Church, and invited me to dinner. I found little to reply to arguments which ended in this manner, and I formed the opinion that cures who dined so well were at least as good as our ministers. I was certainly more learned than M. de Pontverre, in spite of his birth; but I was too good a guest to be a good theologian, and his Frangi wine, which appeared to me excellent, argued so triumphantly in his favour that I should have been ashamed to stop the mouth of so admirable a host.

Whether one ought ever to be too good a guest to be a good theologian, perhaps, can be wondered about. Indeed, I would suspect that the whole meaning of being a good theologian is to be a good guest. For the very notion of being a guest brings us, ultimately, to the heart of the divine reality which in our theology finally came to “dwell amongst us,” as a guest, I think.

Bill’s observation about the day of Armageddon, which shall find him not reading the labels on a Coors can but calmly sipping Old Foghorn, reminded me of what is perhaps my favorite passage in Chesterton, a passage which I have cited to bemused friends over a beer no doubt hundreds of times and have thought about even more. It is a passage in Charles Dickens, where Chesterton gives us his image of the sort of life we might expect when all other expectations are completed. Yes, you guessed it, it does have something to do with good beer and “good red wine” (as Belloc put it), the kind you thank God for “by not drinking too much of it,” with guests and the way the world ends.

Chesterton wrote beautifully about the comradeship and love that we bear because we are first given so much:

The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not he so much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick traveled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure forever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

No passage I have ever read, I think, has pleased me more than this one. I used it in a book I once wrote, Redeeming the Time, as a sort of final statement of what reality is all about.

Bill, of course, was right; Rousseau and Peter Coors were wrong. We should forget the package and the image, but not the theology of what is. We should talk about the ultimate things as we together drink Frangi or Old Foghorn on the day of Armageddon from the great flagons in the taverns at the end of the world.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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