Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The End of 2 Below

I’ve always been a fan of good beer.  I like trying new beers, drinking local when I travel and generally staying away from the big three: Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light.  In my apartment in college, my roommates and I lined the top of our kitchen cabinets with a bottle from each different kind of beer we drank during the year.  I don’t remember the exact count by I know we were well over one hundred by the time finals rolled around in June.  Back then, my stand by, my go-to every day beer was Bass Ale.  Even today Bass is still among my favorites and usually be found in refrigerator under my bar at home. 

Since the craft beer craze started in the late 80s, beer selection has exploded.  Breweries are putting out a larger number of brews and now included seasonals.  You’ll have your summer beers, like Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Goose Island Summer, and others.  Then there are the Oktoberfest beers in fall.  But right around this time of year is when my favorites come out: the winter seasonals.

For me it started in 2004 with Sam Adams Winter Lager.  Sam’s has always made good beer, but there was something about Winter Lager that kept me coming back.  There was a slight hint of mint in this beer and it went down so smooth.  It wasn’t too heavy or too hoppy, and it wasn’t a light beer either.  This was my gateway to winter beers and a favorite for a few years.  Until New Belgium came to Chicago.

New Belgium, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, is best known Fat Tire, a beer I had every time I visited my friends in Colorado.  It seemed to be the only beer they drank, or at least the only beer they drank when I came to visit.  It was a good beer and often I’d take a case home with me since I was unavailable to get it at home.  Then, finally, New Belgium struck up a distribution deal in the Midwest and soon they were everywhere.  What I didn’t know is that New Belgium made some top notch seasonals as well.

Fast forward to December of 2006; I went to the liquor store near my house, one of only a few on the south side that had a wide selection of craft beers.  I was there looking for a twelve pack of Sam Adams Winter to replace the one I had bought for a Christmas party but drank before the party came around.  Sadly, they were out of Sams but had a handful of other winter brews.
Enter 2Below.
Hmm, I thought.  A winter brew by New Belgium.  I couldn’t go wrong.
 I bought a six pack of 2 Below and a couple other winter six packs, just in case I didn’t like one of them. Later than night, I opened a 2 Below and poured it into a glass.  I like to see what the beer looks like the first time I drink it.  I stuck my giant honker of a nose into the pint glass and took a sniff.  Yep, it smelled like beer.  I raised the glass to my lips and took a sip.  Hmm, pretty good.  It’s got some hops, a little hint of mint, not as much as Sam Adams, and man was it smooth. I took another sip.  Then a big slug.  Two minutes later I had downed the entire glass.  I poured myself another.  Clearly, this beer was staying home with me and the others were headed to the Christmas Party
            The next day I went and bought another six-pack.  Since it was a seasonal, I didn’t how long it would be around.  Sadly, I couldn’t keep my fridge stocked.  I’d have one with dinner most nights, and maybe a couple while watching football on the weekends.  On Saturday mornings when I was out running errands, if I came anywhere close to the liquor store, 2 Below beckoned me like a beer siren.  “Come buy me.  I might not be here next week.”  I’d duck into the parking lot and pick up another six-pack.  I think they called me the 2 Below guy when I wasn’t there.
By late January, 2 Below was no longer available at the liquor store.  I kept twelve bottles in the fridge, tucked behind the Miller Lite, and rationed them out.  I drank the last one on March 1st.  It would be almost nine months before my next one.
2 Below had roped me in.  All I could think about was just making it through the summer beer season, beyond the Oktoberfest ales and back to winter.  Most people hate winter; the snow, the cold, it gets dark so early.  I was looking forward to it for the beer.  One year, while traveling for work in California, I went with a group of co-workers to a Mexican restaurant.  I was checking in with my wife while everyone at the table ordered their first round.  I faintly heard the words “2 Below” and while my wife was in mid-sentence I said, “Honey I need to go.  Did you say you have 2 Below on tap?” I asked.
“We do,” the waitress replied.
 “Bring me two,” I asked. 
They were fantastic.  They were as good as 2 Below in a bottle, but better.  I was in heaven.  I knew when I got home that the 2 Below would be coming to Chicago soon.
That year my beer scouts were out at the liquor stores doing field work for me.  Within twenty minutes of each other on a Saturday morning, I received three emails from my fellow 2 Below lovers who picked up their first bottles then notified me.  I ended up buying six twelve packs.  I didn’t share any until our annual Super Bowl, er, Big Game party when I realized I still had thirty left.  I might have over bought that year.
As Thanksgiving approached this year I was looking forward to another winter of drinking 2 Below.  I stopped at my liquor store last week to see if the 2 Below was in yet but it wasn’t.  The girl at the store said probably next week.  I told her I’d call.
At a birthday party I talked up 2 Below, telling everyone there that it was my favorite beer in the world. Most of them had never had one before and I was looking forward to being there for their first tastes in the next week or two.  At the party we drank some other winter beers, but I went on and on about how they all paled in comparison to my beloved 2 Below.
It turns out that day will never come.  The very next morning I received a disturbing email from one of my scouts.  “No 2 Below but a new winter brew called SnowDay from New Belgium.”
What do you mean no 2 Below?  I went online and quickly found an article from a Colorado newspaper.  I could barely read it.  2 Below was gone.  Kaput.  Over.  They were doing a reboot of their winter seasonal.
I should have seen it coming.  New Belgium had changed up a couple other seasonal brews, replacing the summer Skinny Dip (which I never liked much) with Sunshine Wheat.  But 2 Below?  For a second I thought I was going to cry.  Had I known it was not coming back there was no way I would have shared my stash at the Super Bowl, er, Big Game party back in February.  I could have enjoyed those last 2 Belows myself well into March.
Dejected, I sulked.  I thought of quitting drinking all together, but that was just silly (sorry, honey).   I thought about returning to Sam Adams Winter but that’s like watching a hockey game on a black and white TV after getting used to seeing it on a 42 inch hi-definition screen.  I thought about trying a whole spattering of other winter brews, but that was a lot of work. I finally decided I should at least give the 2 Below’s successo a chance.  How bad could it be? 
So last night while doing my pre-thanksgiving liquor shopping at Binny’s, after getting the Riesling, after getting a few bottles of Pinor Noir and a Chianti on a recommendation I went to the beer section.  They had the usual New Belgium offerings, lots of Fat Tire, some of their IPA, but Snow Day was nowhere to be found.  Wow.  Binny’s didn’t have it.
“You looking for the New Belgium winter?” the guy asked.
“How can you tell?” I answered.       
 “It’s in the cooler.”
I pulled a six pack from the rack.  I was going to ease a toe into this instead of buying cases. 
 That night with dinner I had my first Snow day.  I poured it into a glass and was dismayed at first.  It was a lot darker that I had expected.  I hoped it wasn’t going to be stout like, or too hoppy.  I took a quick sniff, then a small sip.
Hmm.  Not bad, I thought.  It’s no 2 Below, but it’s decent.
I took another sip.  Smooth finish, good aftertaste, a hint of nut and oak.  This was pretty tasty.  I finished the glass quickly.  And I have to admit, it was pretty tasty.  Maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to judge.  These New Belgium guys just might know what they are doing.
The jury is still out on Snow Day.  Maybe after I make it through the holidays and into the new year I’ll report back.  I do have a handful of other winter beers to taste this year.  I’m going to be open to trying some new ones, see which one is my new favorite.  Over time, I’ll get over it and I’ll come to accept that favorites aren’t forever, just for now.
I do remember my last 2 Below. It was the first week of March and I hadn’t been in the bar fridge in a while.  I was restocking it with a twelve of Bass when I saw the brown bottle with the red label hiding behind a few Miller Lites on the bottom shelf (if you live in my neighborhood, you are required to stock Miller Lite and share it with your neighbor anytime he helps you with something, even if that something is standing in the alley and drinking Miller Lite).  I popped it open with my Homer Simpon bottle opener (“Mmmmm, beer!”) and poured it into a glass.  I sat down at my bar, something I rarely do and enjoyed it.  I knew it was the last of the season.  I didn’t know it would be my last one ever.  I took my time and enjoyed every sip.  It was quiet in the basement.  My family was upstairs and I’m sure they were wondering what I was doing down there for so long.  When I was done, I rinsed out the glass and tossed the empty bottle in the recycling bin.

Thanks for reading.  Have a  great Turkey Day.  Gobble, Gobble!

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