Alma Malster: What Brewers Drank in College

November 07, 2017

By Hunter Smith, November 07, 2017

College & Beer: The two go hand in hand. There’s some irony that some of the most fun memories we create are also the hardest to recall.

As a brewer, I have the good fortune of knowing folks in all phases of the beer business: beer buyers at bars, brewery sales reps, beer writers, brewery owners past and present, industry suppliers, distributor sales reps, brewmasters, keg washers, lab rats, you name it. These folks at each position level come in all different ages, sizes, genders, and backgrounds, so I was pleased to see the variety of feedback I got when I asked them about their college drinking experiences.

Some answers, like Pabst Blue Ribbon, were fairly unsurprising, particularly amongst the millennial set. Cheap and ‘cool’ again in a way that no one could have predicted, Pabst Blue Ribbon has earned its role as the Converse All-Stars of the beer world. Moderate quality, not entirely remarkable, but reliable as hell and trusted by most everyone.

A few other surprising answers were blasts from the past offered courtesy of some of my more tenured beer brethren. Throwbacks, some of which I had never heard of, included Henry Weinhard, Mac and Jack’s, Augsburger, Watney’s Red Barrel, Haffenreffer, Goebel, John Courage, Falstaff, Shaffer’s, and South Paw.

Some responses that are still around but you don’t see as often today are Killian’s, Newcastle, Pyramid Hefeweizen, Shiner Bock, and Bass. The variety of approachable beers being brewed at a competitive price point by local or craft brewers has cut into the volume of imported beers considerably.

It’s hard to imagine needing 30 cans of beer, but they went by quickly!”

Of course, a primary factor in college life beer buying was value, or, more to the point, price. Many of us were not working, a lot of us were on some sort of stipend, some of us were working one or two jobs to get through it, and at any rate, beer money wasn’t plentiful or a priority for Mom and Dad.

Of course, there’s the whole part where only 25% of us were of legal drinking age during those (hopefully) four years. Perhaps that’s why some of my more older friends in the industry had more beers to name – I could only have dreamed of drinking legally at 18, but that’s probably all the better for my longevity. Among that list of options from the older crowd were Pete’s Wicked Ale, Honey Brown, Carling Black Label, Little Kings Cream Ale, Knickerbocker, and Moosehead.

No matter what, we were novices at the beer store when we got there. This is where we might have gone for broke. Were there some tasty options available? Maybe. Not our focus. Get the plastic handle of whiskey or the biggest box of the strongest beer you can, that was mostly our goal back then. One particularly rough outing involved a handle of bargain scotch, which was not the whiskey we were looking for.

This hunt for the biggest bang for the scarce buck is where ridiculous formats of large packages come into play, some of which you might never see outside of the college house party.  Of course there’s the 30-rack, my favorite cube of the bunch. It’s hard to imagine needing 30 cans of beer, but they went by quickly! This format is best for a poker game, a righteous Dungeons and Dragons quest, or a serious Netflix binge these days. Brewers mentioned cheap options like Labbatt, Beast, Hamm’s, Schlitz, Olympia, Old Milwaukee, and Stroh’s.

KeithOld school kicks, old school kegs.

We’re all familiar with the keg and the glory of the keg stand, even though none of us ever seem to actually kill a whole half barrel keg of beer. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of nursing a keg on the back porch for a week or so just trying to spare the shame of returning a heavy keg back to the beer store. Maybe you remember that move, too. 

The strangest large beer format might be the ‘beer ball,’ something I still haven’t seen since college, even as a professional. This bizarre plastic ball was filled with the equivalent of 55 beers, just over the volume of today’s sixtel keg. The beer ball was effectively a crappy plastic ball pressurized by a crappy plastic pump, and its issues with foaming were legendary. You may as well have had a backup, considering how many foamy pours went into the sink.

That said, it is super considerate packaging – the square cardboard boxes they come in are lined with plastic, allowing the buyer to pop the box, fill with ice, tap, and go to work. As flawed as the tech is, it is also the perfect middle ground size between the 30-rack and the stainless keg.

My favorite beer experience from college involves one of these very balls, one that happened to be filled with Budweiser. My pal Graham and I went to the store to get the beer ball. The box was crazy unwieldy, and so I with my long arms volunteered to hump the ball back to the apartment.

When the Boston Police were kind enough to check in with us on the street, they wanted to know why I was carrying the ball and not my older looking friend Graham. Graham deftly explained that I was helping him carry his beer to his place for the Boston Marathon party the next day, but the officers knew better. After some mocking of my Virginia license and Eagle Scout card, they let us on our merry way, and we drank the hell out of that beer ball.

With as many amazing breweries as there are to visit in the states right now, college students are getting to taste and experience far more brews than ever before. This salty dog still thinks that some parties are just meant for consuming volumes of quaffable brews. While the body will still tolerate it, of course.


Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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