What beer to quaff on Labor Day—and on the job.
On precisely this date in 1844, the authors of The Communist Manifesto went on a bender in France. It was epic, and it was epochal, and it is hard to think of a drinking session more significant to the formation of the modern world.
Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were in their 20s at the time, and neither was a drinking novice. Marx first demonstrated talent in the beerhounding field during his first and only year at the University of Bonn. It was, in the understated phrase of his father, a period of “wild rampaging.” As a co-president of his “tavern club,” the lad often tangled with the rival Borussia Korps, which would force him and his bourgeois brethren to kneel in allegiance to the Prussian aristocracy. In hopes of repelling their attacks, Marx started packing a pistol, and a bullet grazed his brow in the duel that inevitably resulted; boys will be boys. He transferred schools, got serious about philosophy, and fell in with the Young Hegelians for a while. To blow off steam while working on his Ph.D., he would knock back pints with Bruno Bauer; they would now and then get smashed and ride donkeys down the main streets of villages.
Engels, meanwhile, had been educating his palate, preparing to become first great champagne socialist. One month-long vacation in the French countryside found young Engels “more or less squiffy all the time,” and his most recent biographer likens his diary of the trip to “an upmarket wine-tour brochure.” (Sample text: “Within a few bottles one can experience every intermediate state from the exultation of the cancan to the tempestuous fever heat of revolution, and then finally with a bottle of champagne one can again drift into the merriest carnival mood in the world!”) An industrialist and a revolutionary, Engels spent two years learning the family business at Ermen and Engels’ Victoria Mill outside of Manchester, England, witnessing the horrors of child labor and gathering material for his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.
Late that summer, Engels passed through Paris and arranged a get together with Marx, who had recently hatched his theory of alienated labor—of the worker as the “plaything of alien forces.” On Aug.28, 1844, they got faded at Café de la Régence and kept going for “10 beer-soaked days,” as one historian puts it—two dudes joined in a buzzing discussion where they broke it all down, as dudes will. This was bitching about work on the highest level, Marx and Engels in Paris and going gorillas.
Some long-term consequences of that conversation were highly unfortunate, the contraband status of Havana Club rum not least among them. But no right-thinking, left-leaning American can deny that beer, having thus fueled the birth of the labor movement, deserves to be honored at this time of year. You needn’t be a dialectical materialist to celebrate Labor Day with a cold one; anyone can see that beer and Labor Day weekend go together like thesis and antithesis. (Though if you are a dialectical materialist—or a Marxian literary critic or a pinko commie or what have you—then you will appreciate the jesters who conceived the Karl Marx Drinking Game: “For every instance in which the history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, take a drink.”)
What kind of beer should you drink on Labor Day? There are two broad categories of the world’s most popular intoxicant: lager (styles include pilsner, Oktoberfest, and—oof—malt liquor) and ale (styles include IPA, stout, and all those delightful things they do in Belgium). Your first job is to determine which better suits your mood.
The many millions will be grabbing mass-produced brews out of fridges and coolers, and if you find yourself among them, you should fish around for a crappy regional lager admired for its “drinkability.” In the mid-Atlantic, for instance, you might try Yuengling Traditional Lager. Brewed in Pottsville, Pa., it is a traditional dietary staple of anthracite coal miners and other figures recognizable from Joe Biden speeches scripted for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre media market.
Some crappy-beer purists might argue that Yuengling is not thin and bland enough for the task at hand, holding that its slight hint of caramel and subtle citrus kick give it more character than other best-selling macrobrews. But rest assured that it is eminently suitable for easy guzzling. “Not as good as some of the beers I might sip at home,” says an observer from the United Kingdom, “but the best when it comes to getting slammed inexpensively in the city.”
The ale most thematically appropriate to Labor Day is porter, the progenitor of stout. Soon after emerging in London in the 1700s, this dark beer “became known by the occupation of its best customers,” the men who delivered cargo to market. Porters tend to burst with chocolate and coffee and dark-fruit flavors, and some beer nerds thus reserve them for cold-weather sipping. However, it seems to me that if this stuff was sufficiently thirst quenching for guys who carried sides of beef on their backs 12 hours a day, then it ought to be good enough for you after … what the hell have you done today, anyway?
The two brands easiest to find hail from California. Sierra Nevada Porter, brewed in Chico, is relatively light of body, so it’s probably the porter you should be drinking if you’re going to be drinking one more than you should—and yet its charcoal finish invites lingering. Then there’s Anchor Porter, flowing smoothly from San Francisco since 1972. It’s available in 22-ounce bottles, a serving size proportioned perfectly to go with a pint of vanilla ice cream and an hour of late-night television.
American microbrewers and dirty foreigners alike offer many other worthy options, but the ultimate Labor Day beer must be Revolution Brewing’s Eugene Porter, available only in Chicago. Its name honors Eugene V. Debs, the union leader, who, like “Big Bill” Haywood, liked to raise a glass and get a little wobbly. As Madelon Powers writes in Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1920, “Like both Debs and Haywood, many men interested in the cause of labor found the barroom to be a ready-made forum for union organizing.”
In general, porters pair well with grilled meats, which is reason aplenty to crack open a few at a late-summer barbecue, provided you can do so responsibly, this time keeping the lighter fluid away from the Super Soakers.
Whether lager or ale, beer, it should be obvious, is the quintessential working man’s drink. There’s beer, followed closely by whiskey, and there’s the boilermaker, which is whiskey closely followed by beer. The boilermaker is the grandfather of beer cocktails—the august but sometimes funny-smelling grandfather. You got a slug of hooch, you got a cold beer, and that’s that, unless you want to start talking about depth charges, which right now I don’t.
The shot-and-a-beer ritual has been going on for ages in the Netherlands (where it is called a kopstoot, or head-butt) and in Germany. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink further traces it to the mining camps of 1890s Montana, where the Irish saloonkeepers called it the “Sean O’Farrell.” The Joy of Mixology notes the boilermaker’s association with the steelworkers of western Pennsylvania. Author Gary Regan passes along a letter from an admirer of the area’s bars, “not the Yuppie bars with their White Wine Spritzers” but the old neighborhood spots: “Three and four generations have been thrown out of them.” The prototypical Pittsburgh take on the boilermaker is the Imp n’ Ahn: Imperial Whiskey (“For men among men, there is a whiskey among whiskies.”) chased by the crappy regional lager called Iron City (“At least I can drink it without breaking into an involuntary grimace.”).
The boilermaker will endure forever, helped along by what a retired steelworker might call “Yuppie bars with their Golden Ales aged in Chardonnay Barrels.” For instance, a new Philadelphia joint named Boilermaker offers gourmet shot-and-beer pairings (such as Aviation gin and farmhouse ale) alongside the traditional Philly delicacy known as the “Citywide Special” (bourbon and Pabst Blue Ribbon). No, the boilermaker isn’t going anywhere, even though its links to American industry are disappearing. Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune noted that the decline of U.S. manufacturing has led to the disappearance of “early morning taverns” catering to guys getting off the third shift—or, of course, heading into the first.
I cannot endorse drinking before operating heavy machinery. While I’m at it, I’ll add that light machinery is not exactly a picnic either. Consider, for instance, the telephone. Keeping a finger on the mute button so that you don’t belch into a conference call? Buzzkill.
In contemporary America, there is much rich discourse on the topic of work-related boozing. While Esquire presents sensible guidelines for the in-office 5 o’clock drinks meeting, Businessweek offers a flowchart suggesting what to order at various after-work drinks occasions, such as closing a deal with a client or kissing your boss’s ass. There is online advice on how to proceed if you think a subordinate is drinking at work, advice on what to do if your boss is drinking at work, and then there is advice for people planning to drink at work, the most thorough of which comes from Frank Kelly Rich, editor of Modern Drunkard Magazine. Though the MDM lifestyle is too rich for my liver tissue, I must concede that this 5,000-word article, titled “Juicing on the Job,” is magisterial in its coverage, including its tips on endgame strategy: “Accept the fact that sooner or later you will be found out. Hopefully by that time you’ll have made yourself indispensable and they will look the other way. This is called reaching the Churchill Stage.” And how does the modern drunkard maintain his buzz among the cubicles? With “vodka or neutral spirits diluted into a large bottle of designer water.”
I counsel against this. You don’t want to become the guy with the archetypal vodka bottle in the filing cabinet. (For one thing, per Rich, you should always premix your drinks before work.) You should drink at your desk only where the corporate culture encourages you to do so openly, as Engels did before his years in Manchester while a clerk at an export firm in Bremen, Germany. “There is a bar in our office,” he wrote his sister. “Beer bottles all over the place.”
But back to early morning drinking, which not strictly taking place on the job, I can endorse with a clear conscience.
Someone—perhaps an Old Bolshevik named Lazar Kaganovich—said that you can’t expect to make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Same goes for a controversial beverage described in the book Yuengling: A History of America’s Oldest Brewery:
At the bar in the early morning hours, a “Miner’s Breakfast” could be ordered: two raw eggs dropped into a glass of beer after being cracked on the rim. The miner would first gulp a shot of whiskey and then soothe his burning throat by chugging the raw egg and beer concoction. Then, it was off to the mines.
You may have watched stevedores drink beers with eggs before clocking in at the dock on The Wire or seen Paul Newman’s alcoholic lawyer do it in The Verdict. You may have heard the combination touted as a virility potion, particularly in connection with Guinness. You may even have smelled the kind of barfly who treats it as a regular pick-me-up—the tall cousin of the prairie oyster, which is a seasoned raw egg served with or without brandy. But have you tasted it yourself?
Wanting egg in my beer, I cracked a cage-free number into a glass of Smuttynose Robust Porter. The yolk brightly sank through the glass, and the drama of this, like the sight of the black beer sitting atop the golden treasure and its squished ellipsis of albumen, quickened the pace of my slurping. The egg coasted down the gullet with gratifying sliminess, and a final trickle of brew punctuated the glug.
If this icks you out, then perhaps it will settle to your stomach to know that, as a matter of settled law, I wasn’t eating the egg but drinking it. Or to understand that adding egg to your beer is not just for manual laborers. That much is clear from a scan of The Ideal Bartender, published in 1917 by a country-club bartender named Tom Bullock, who offers a simple anytime recipe for a cold ale flip; the Republican patriarch George Herbert Walker wrote the introduction, vouching for Bullock and “the nectar of his schemings.” A century later, Anvil, a well-regarded bar in Houston, has taken a maximally mixological approach to the egg-enhanced boilermaker. Its frothy Rooster Cogburn involves one whole egg, one shot of Buffalo Trace bourbon, 2 ounces of India Pale Ale, 1 teaspoon of cane syrup, and half an ounce of a “lager syrup” made from Lone Star, the crappy regional lager of Texas.
While this witty beverage is appropriate for a sophisticated evening, there remains the crucial matter of how best to booze at a home-cooked Labor Day brunch. Try this:
Flip ‘n’ Serve Breakfast
¾ ounce brandy
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 large egg
6 ounces porter, stout, or other dark ale
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Put the first three ingredients in a shaker. Shake vigorously to emulsify the egg. Add ice to the shaker and shake again. Strain into a chilled highball glass. Gently pour the dark ale—a milk stout would be delish—into the glass. Garnish with the nutmeg. Serve with a straw.
This is such a fine beverage—with a head like cappuccino foam and a body like an elegant coffee milkshake—that I feel obligated to remind you not to make that uncouth sucking noise with your straw when approaching the end of it.
Use the half bottle of beer left behind to improve upon the recipe above so that the drink hits extra parts of the palate. Even a squeeze of lemon juice would add interest, but ardent cocktailians might add two dashes of black walnut bitters or substitute orgeat for the maple syrup. Or maybe this is the opportunity for which a neglected nut-based liqueur in your pantry has been patiently waiting. You’ll make something work.