Beer in the Backcountry
Being both an avid beer drinker and an outdoorsman generally does not present a problem. The two lifestyles are complementary and probably feed off each other in more ways than you've imagined. After all, when most beer lovers pack for a trip, one of the fundamental staples for "the list" of things to pack is probably beer.What better place to enjoy the elixir of the Gods than in God's country? I can think of nothing finer than quaffing my favorite brew in my favorite places in this grand state of ours, and I do so commonly and with resolve. It heightens both experiences. On top of that, enjoying the out-of-doors can be mighty thirsty work. Aside from the obvious hydration requirements that only water can provide, sometimes only a good beer has the true quenching qualities that we maltofanatics can't seem to travel far without. The only time things go awry is when alcohol is abused in our unforgiving wilderness. That's not the point here, however. The problem is that, as a matter of logistics, physics and the laws of Ma Nature, water is infinitely more available in the backcountry than beer.The mode of backcountry travel, intensity of the wilderness experience and length of the trip are all key variables in the amount of logistical planning required to enhance our outdoor leisure activities with our favorite beverage. It's certainly easier to stuff a Winne-bargo with half a Brown Jug Warehouse than it is to find a spare cubic centimeter and a dram of weight tolerance in a backpack, even to accommodate a celebratory beverage for the summit. For anything more serious than backing into a campground with a cooler full of ice and beer, our beer-hauling choices and capacity become severely limited.Here's the fundamental problem: What goes in has to come out. This means that the common exoskeleton (glass or aluminum) of our beloved elixir gets a round trip ticket and we shoulder its weight and bulk both ways. For most quaffing backcountry enthusiasts, canned beer is the medium of choice because, although the empties have to be hauled back out, the volume can easily be reduced with some relatively effortless stomping and the weight is much less than that of a comparable bottle. How come, then, there's not a greater selection of reasonably-priced decent beer in cans to accommodate our needs?Let's examine the options. Skip the big three (Bud, Miller, Coors); I can obtain all the water I need along the way. Skip the current genre of ice beers and malt liquors too. What's left? I took a hike down the hallowed aisles of a handful of our local liquor stores and pulled a sample of what might look to be beers of reasonable quality that are available in cans. The first thing to jump out at me (perhaps because of size) was the Foster's line. This includes a special bitter and a lager. These 25-ounce oil can behemoths would suck up some serious pack space, but as one of Australia's equivalents to our mass-produced giants, I was a bit disappointed with the thin character, unassertive flavor, and a detectable tinny aftertaste, perhaps all too common in many canned beers. This is not always the brewer's fault. It's the can's fault. Despite the fact that aluminum beer cans are lined with a special "flavor-neutral" lining, it's often easy for discriminating drinkers to "taste through" this lining, or pick up some of the flavor from the non-lined top surface of the can.Labatt's of Canada offers some similar mondo can choices, including a Canadian pilsner (Labatt's Blue) and an "Elephant Red Lager." My tasting notes for these products roughly equaled those for Fosters. A 22-ounce can of Sapporo Draft (Japan) was a notch up in terms of taste, and came across a bit crisper and "cleaner" than the previous two. This is more like the quenching style I might appreciate after laboriously trekking or pedaling up a hill.Next, I stumbled across a relatively recent entrant into the local beer market, Padernorner Pilsner. Another "large" beer, this 16.9-ounce German import was unremarkable and still managed to leave a thin impression and a can-flavor bite in the finish. I looked for Warsteiner in a manageable-sized can, and briefly contemplated what it would be like to haul the 5-liter "party keg" can they had. Perhaps if I had a St. Bernard. I believe some smaller Warsteiner cans are available, but I couldn't find them on this particular day. Grolsch also offers its beer in a 5-liter vessel.Yakima Honey Wheat is a loosely-disguised Rainier product and is not a particularly good example of the style it's trying to represent, especially when it warms a bit, as most cans do with un-refrigerated travel. I sprung it on a friend of mine and she said, "It tastes like pancakes." I walked right on by the ubiquitous green Heineken cans (remembering some not-so-great-tasting experiences of desperation on Alaska Airline redeye flights) and found Boddington's Pub Ale Draught. This traditional English ale (14.5 ounce) held a bit more promise. Ales, with their estery/fruity character, it seemed, might do better smothered in aluminum than their lager relatives. "This might do," I thought to myself as I trudged ahead, looking for that diamond in the rough.A handful of dark beers in cans graced the shelves. Sapporo Black (dark lager) was the lightest of the bunch, followed by a few respectable darker beers in cans including Guinness Draught and Murphy's Pub Draught. The darker ales have flavor robust enough to mask can-induced tinniness, and might make good choices if they're your idea of a thirst-quenching beer or if you're bringing the beer along as a late-night, under-the-stars beer, or if you just like the dark beers in general. Both Guinness and Murphy's have nitrogen "widgets" in the can which provide a smooth, creamy head. It would be nice to see some more good canned selections come along, and the distributors are doing a good job of bringing us what they can. What's brought up here has to sell, and the diversity of the mass-produced can products attests to their popularity. I didn't find that "diamond in the rough" I was looking for, but I have pretty finicky tastes. And although I was generally pleased with some of the darker wares, I was hoping to find that perfect quenching light lager or ale in a can. Everyone has their own preference for beers, and if your favorite comes in a can, lucky you! Hoist one for me next time you're in your favorite wilderness retreat.