What Charles Murray Gets Wrong: Bud Drinkers Live in a Bubble

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A case study in alcohol consumption, or, beer and the cultural chasm that separates America's ruling elite from its white working class.

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In the Charles Murray quiz "How Thick Is Your Bubble," the conceit is that America's ruling class, including journalists like me and cosmopolitan readers like you, exist in a cultural bubble. We distance ourselves from ordinary Americans, especially the white working class. "Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized," Murray writes. "Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them."

He's largely right. I've never lived in a small town, worked on a factory floor or ended my day with a sore back. That matters. Our country would benefit if influential Americans better understood folks with less influence. But I dissent from what is implied by asking, "During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge?" The notion that my kitchen's lack of Bud*, Miller, or Coors betrays my bubble is completely upside down.

Professor Murray might agree if given the drinking histories of the people he labels elites. Here's mine. At 18, I sipped my first beer -- Keystone Ice from a freshly tapped keg -- when a Berkeley frat guy gave it to me on a college visit. Foamy and tepid, it tasted awful, but a Solo serving got me buzzed. The following night, up in the freshman dorm of a former high school classmate, I sipped my second and third beers: Coors Lights from glass bottles, which I remember due to our paranoia. It was a dry hall, and my friend thought that if we so much as clinked bottles together an RA might burst in and expel him from university housing.

In America, we all exist in some sort of bubble, and while it's sometimes Charles Murrayesque elites who ought to step outside their self-imposed confines, other times it is the white working class that ought to do so.

My forth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth beers were Coronas from a six pack purchased by a friend with a fake ID. I took them to the most epic backyard party of my senior year of high school. These imports (technically bottled in Illinois) were the first beers the taste of which I enjoyed, so much so that I drank them in succession, a feat that pushed me across the "binge drinking" threshold for the first time. Though I didn't document the experience, I came to the same conclusions as contemporaneous research undertaken at the University of Massachusetts.

The summer before college, my friends and I preferred to obtain beer in green bottles because it was most easily hidden on the landscaped slopes that surrounded their suburban houses. Mickey's Fine Malt Liquor was a particular favorite, for it was sold in squat round bottles shaped like grenades, and was least likely to be found and appropriated by municipal gardeners.

When our friend with the fake ID was caught, given a Minor in Possession, and sentenced to community service, however, Coors Light was all we could get. I brought it down to the beach on several occasions, burying a backpack or trash bag full during the day in advance of an evening bonfire party. We thought that carrying a backpack in the parking lot at night would look suspicious, hence the elaborate preparations. Forced to drink a lukewarm beer with a sandy rim, I'd choose Coors Light even today.

As a college freshman I drank Ice House, for that is what the Associated Students of Pomona College provided in the free kegs that graced campus. The Plank Road Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, brags that it is "Ice Brewed Below Freezing for a never watered down taste you can enjoy in every sip." If their product is representative, I would not recommend ice brewing your beer.

Natural Ice and Natural Light were the mainstays of mini-fridges in freshman dorms. How did we get it? Upperclassmen helped us out on occasion. On especially lucky runs they'd even bring back 12 packs of Henry Weinhardt's, an Oregon beer for which I have great nostalgia: it was the first delicious brew I drank regularly. In those days a drug store near campus improbably put it on sale for $5.99 a twelve pack, still among the top bargains of my life. But we mostly owed our canned beer supply to Quaggs, the nickname we gave to a 34-year-old New York man we'd never met who fortuitously failed to destroy his expired drivers license. How R. got it I never knew.

In his photo, Quaggs didn't look like any of my college buddies -- he was 34, for one thing -- but a certain nearby liquor store, which carded every customer, would sell to anyone who could show that someone (in existence) was 21. R. always bought. But one weekend he went out of town and left us the ID. Since Quaggs and R. were white, it would've made sense to pick another Caucasian to buy. But that evening an Asian American guy in our dorm insisted he would do it.

His attempt that proved hilariously successful.

Emboldened, we soon permitted a black classmate to try his luck; he was gone so long that we started to worry he'd been caught, but as it turned out, the guy driving him made an In-N-Out run on the way home, and we all burst out cheering when he appeared on the threshold, two paper sacks of Double Doubles clutched in one arm, a box of 20 Budweiser bottles cradled in the other.

That liquor store did not discriminate.

During my sophomore year, I drank more beer than at any other time of my life, for that is when I was introduced to caps. Teams of two sit 10 paces apart, a pint glass in front of each team. Beer caps are thrown -- end-over-end rotation is ideal -- until one team sinks a cap in the other team's beer.

The latter team drinks.

Then you refill and repeat.

If Professor Murray weren't such a busy man, I'd go on a long digression about noteworthy things I witnessed playing caps: the time a Euro-style pint glass with a convex protrusion was shattered when a cap hit it just so; the rare game played with Guinness, when a cap got caught in the thick foam, ceasing its motion on the exact edge of the pint glass, neither in the beer (a point) or on the ground (a miss); the time a classmate chugged so enthusiastically that he accidentally swallowed the cap at the bottom of his glass, necessitating a trip to the hospital, which gave him a photo of the cap in his stomach; the unprecedented occasion when players sunk five caps straight.

But this is a case study in beer consumption. So know that when cash poor students play caps on a campus where beer is allowed but kegs are prohibited, there is much hunting for sales on canned beer (it's cheapest) and bottled beer (sometimes you need more caps, as they get bent, grimy, lost under sofas, moldy if you wash them without properly drying, and rusty if they spent too much time in beer). Among caps requiring a bottle opener, Newcastle were my favorite: a wide lip, a pleasing weight. But the caps on mass market domestic beer bottles were best. They twisted off; you'd never bend them with your opener, so they'd always be uniform and fly true.

I preferred Miller caps for superstitious reasons, so I've consumed more High Life, MGD, and Miller Lite than your average Milwaukee factory worker. We had even lower standards for canned beer, buying Bud Ice, Old Milwaukee, Milwaukee's Best, Tecate Light, Schlitz, Straub Dark, Stroh's, and others. The only beer we couldn't take, after a few painful games drinking it, was Charles Rebeinbach. If you live in a state without hazing laws, I dare you to try it, Professor Murray.

How thick is your bubble?

Later in college, I expanded my horizons. Visiting a friend in San Luis Obispo I drank Firestone. In Berkeley I first tried Anchor Steam. Abroad in France I drank 1664, and in Spain I discovered Cruzcampo, for which I have the greatest affection. After college, my beer consumption declined significantly, but my range only broadened. If I close my eyes, I can imagine the taste of a half dozen Belgian ales, everything made by the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Negra Modelo, the finest of the Mexican beers -- and now that I think about it, I can tell you about so many beers that I can't even list a tenth of them here without running overlong.

Occasionally I'll even drink a Bud or Bud Light. It's all that's in my grandfather's fridge, and it's familiar, for in my lifetime, I've consumed it shotgunned from an unrefrigerated can punctured by a car key, poured into a beer bong at a tailgate, upside down during a keg stand, crouching behind a car in a parking lot before my five-year high school reunion, while watching football on Thanksgiving Day, and from a kiddy pool at the bottom of a beer waterfall in the parking lot of a Jimmy Buffett concert. Let me assure you, based on substantial research, that people wouldn't prefer mass market domestic beer if they put even minimal effort into finding something better for a comparable price.

(Try Yuengling in cans. Or Shiner Bock.)

In America, stocking one's fridge with Budweiser, Miller, or Coors is the mark of living in a beer bubble. Last week, I went to the Goat Hill Tavern in Costa Mesa, California, where there are almost 150 beers on tap. When the man in front of me ordered a Heineken, a bobo "inside the bubble" beer, I pitied him in the way that any number of "real Americans" would pity me if they took me to a favorite barbecue joint and I ordered a cheeseburger. Or like my Thai friends would pity me if I only ordered Pad Thai when they took me out for dinner. In the spirit of Murrayesque cross-cultural interaction, I am sooner or later going to find an exclusive drinker of Budweiser, take him to the Goat Hill Tavern, and buy him beers until he discovers that there is something he likes a hell of a lot better, at which point I'll demand that he somehow return the favor. Maybe we can go to Branson, Missouri, together. It wouldn't shock me if I liked it better than Las Vegas.

In America, almost all of us exist in some sort of bubble, and while it's sometimes Charles Murrayesque elites who ought to step outside their self-imposed confines, other times it is the white working class that ought to do so. Bud isn't very good (has it even won a blue ribbon?), and it's not in my fridge precisely because I know too well what it tastes like. Cheers to bubbles bursting.

To hell with romanticizing the beer of the white working class.

Image: Reuters


*My particular disdain for Budweiser owes partly to the fact that on its label it says, "This is the famous Budweiser Beer. We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age." Isn't that the most misleadingly phrased thing you've ever seen on a beer bottle? How about your per beer cost, Budweiser? Yeesh.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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