I remember the very first time I tried a sip of beer: it was cold, out of the bottle, my father’s brand. I was young, and as with most young boys had a vague idolization of everything my father did as the epitome of adulthood. Beer, I thought, was certainly a part of adulthood, and I was a big boy. I deserved to drink the big boy drinks. After enough pestering, and with a knowing eyeroll, my father offered me a sip.
I may have spat it on the ground. Beer sucked.
Grown-ups drink this? I thought. Well, grown-ups are dumb. And weird. Do they just not know that chocolate milk, a far superior beverage option, exists and is widely available? We even had a carton or two in the fridge, and I thought about suggesting the alternative to my father, who must have just been misinformed. You don’t need to drink this swill, my face read. Your suffering is over. We can get you something better.
As such, when I became a teenager and began dipping my toe into the glorious world of underaged drinking, I steered clear of beer. Years had done nothing but calcify the memory in my mind, fossilizing the flavour of beer as essentially bottled repulsion, a coagulation of yeast, urine, and bilge water, with some alcohol thrown in for good measure. It seemed absurd that people drank it, especially as I drank the saccharine beverages of youth, sweetened and carbonated and reworked until you couldn’t taste any of the alcohol in it anyway.
But as I rapidly approached university, I was confronted with the social mores of drinking: the beverages I drifted towards were girly. They came in clear bottles, and had swanky names. You could not buy them in a case, nevermind the patriotic, stalwart 2-4. They tasted like maybe a unicorn would drink them, or the heiress to an oil baron. If you ordered one at a bar, the bartender would pause and give you a look for a second, like, “Maybe you want to reconsider this? People can see you, boy.”
I was growing up. I had plans on being a Canadian man for some time, and Canadian manness stereotypically tends to include beer. Staring down the barrel of Canadian male adulthood (no matter how nascent and gin-soaked it might have been in university), I needed to prepare myself. I needed to learn to like beer.
The process, I thought certainly, would be arduous. I would need to train: I would put on montage music, and begin the gradual process of slowly drinking more and more beer until my tastebuds acclimated. Until my teeth developed tiny, enamelled biceps. Until my throat was cast-iron, until I could taste nothing and could pound any gutter brew that was put before me. Maybe there would be sweatbands.
Of course, training yourself to like an alcohol basically means just regularly getting drunk, and university certainly provided ample opportunity for that.
It was slow, at first. To this day I still cannot drink my father’s brand of beer, for the stain it left on my fragile, juvenile memory. I sought, at first, the beers of the populace, of the douchey, of the university proletariat. I drank Heinekens and Stellas, Budweisers and everything Molson produced. It was tolerable, and got the job done, and people saw those bottles in my hand and thought of me as a Beer Drinker.
In time I began to delve into other beers, into micro-brews, into ales and lagers and stouts. I started to like beer. Was it Stockholm Syndrome? Was it a matter of my tastebuds just giving up? Did my brain just shortfuse and allow my desires to take over my sensory impulses? Whatever it was, suddenly beer was great. Beer was a companion. A cherished friend. We could tell each other about our day.
University sailed by, and suddenly I was in teacher’s college. I was working my way towards becoming a professional. A real adult. Someone who looked after the youth of others, and brought them, squalling and fidgeting, slightly more towards their own shuttering independence.
I had grown to like beer, to cherish it, but at the same time it seemed so… pedestrian. So unrefined. So unprofessional. Could I really be a teacher and crush a beer can to my forehead on the weekends? What kind of serious educator pounds a brew? Could a pedagogue be a pedagogue and still rock a kegstand?
Wine was the answer. Wine was for classy bastards. A teacher could drink wine, because European sophisticates could drink wine. People drank wine on the banks of the Seine. They drank wine while discussing world politics and classical music. They drank wine at the opera, probably, while staring through tiny, tiny binoculars and monocles.
Of course, wine also tasted like garbage.
My first experience with wine, as a child, had been much like that with beer. I had an aunt and uncle who I generally considered to be Classy (with an uppercase C), who both enjoyed wine and usually had bottles of it at all the family parties. It was another symbol of adulthood, but it was delicate and fancy where beer was base. I begged for a sip, a snifter, a shot: however it was that adults drank it. Knowingly, again, an adult gave me a tiny swig and watched as I clutched my tiny, bewildered throat.
It was even worse than beer! It was sour and foul, and not even carbonated in any way. Adults claimed that grapes were somehow involved in its production, but surely grapes would not betray me like this. Grapes tasted nice.
I began the training once again, years later. I could still enjoy beer, but I needed to be able to enjoy wine, too. I needed to fit in with a certain crowd, should such a certain crowd ever deign to be around me. I felt desperately certain that I would one day be invited to a dinner party, and I knew that sipping the wine and slowly dribbling it down my chin in disgust might not go over well.
You can imagine another training montage here, this time with purple-stained teeth.
Much like with beer, it was a matter of exposure, of breadth, of trying to be open. With adult tastebuds, adult patience, and an adult appreciation of getting wasted, I knew I would get there, but I needed time and variety to really get my brain to understand why people liked these flavours. My tongue needed to grow-up, too.
Now, just to train myself into liking scotch.