A Beer for the Ages

Forced to name the best time in my life, I’d choose the collegiate semester I spent in Seville, Spain, a place where thoughtful visitors are taught to cultivate everyday pleasures. Sitting on the bank of the Guadalquivir river, cheering on Real Betis futbol from high in the stands, congregating in plazas among other young people till the wee hours of the morning — these were my favorite pursuits, complemented more often than not by Andalucia’s most ubiquitous beverage, Cruzcampo beer.

This explains how I can be a beer connoisseur, enamored of Belgian ales and Northern California micro-brews, and someone who counts a pale gold lager, simple and refreshing, as my favorite brew. Whiskey and wine are said to improve with age, unlike light, mildly hoppy beers; Cruzcampo invariably gets better as I age.

The process began in autumn 2001, when I was 21. Seville’s sun-baked plazas were crowded with tapas bars that served Cruzcampo in tall, thin glasses. On late afternoons, old men inside the Plaza de Toros sold sweating red and white cans from plastic buckets to aficions watching the bullfights. I drank Cruzcampo from plastic cups during Spanish league soccer games, beside the river with my best friend Mike, and on the floors of discotheques, watching guapas dance while sipping crisp, light suds.

The semester ended, yanking me back to the United States. How I missed that city afterward and cherished every memory of it. As some people associate a song with a time in their life, drawing nostalgia for a certain place at a particular moment, I came to relive my days abroad each time I sipped Seville’s home brew. Just as the same song takes on added layers as the listener considers its lyrics in light of new experiences, my nostalgia for Cruzcampo acquired depth by virtue of its presence at various times marking my gradual coming of age. Its dry finish is by now heavy with these notes.

Over the years, I’ve sought Cruzcampo wherever I’ve lived, often to no avail. It is almost impossible to rustle up even an 8 ounce bottle anywhere in California, specialty liquor stores included. Once, when a friend went on a weeklong vacation to Spain, I insisted that he carry as many cans as possible back in his luggage. Mike and I split the four beers he brought home, reminiscing about Seville. I resolved to save up some money, quit my newspaper reporting job and go back.

The following winter, having finally returned to Europe, I stumbled upon Cruzcampo in a Paris tapas bar, served in those tall thin glasses I remembered so well. I’ve never been so thrilled by a gastronomic discovery, one that satiated me until my return to Seville later that spring. The season affords its own particular memories, and I paired each with my favorite lager, savoring what it added to Semana Santa, Seville’s famous Easter Week extravaganza, and the Feria de Abril, its annual fiesta.

How could I fail to return to the United States with a supply for Mike? I brought back several bottles for us to share, and a few years later, he returned the favor. I’d since moved to New York City, where he visited me on his way home from a trip abroad with his fiancee. A sly grin indicated he had a surprise, and as he fetched two cold Cruzcampos, surreptitiously stowed in the fridge earlier that day, I though I’d figured him out. Then he toasted, the faint scent of the just open beers hanging in the air as he asked if I’d be the best man at his wedding.

Another year passed, seemingly quicker than the last, as happens with age. Fortuitously, my sister took a trip to Paris just in time to supply the bachelor party I organized for Mike, an overnight river rafting trip where I arranged to have an ice chest delivered to the campsite. We opened it up after dinner, guiding Mike through a “this is your life in beers” with a series of toasts. Each bottle evoked a time and place: Mickey’s grenades to commemorate underage high school drinking, when the green bottles were easiest to conceal in shrubbery; Firestone Ale to mark college in San Luis Obispo; sundry other brews, each meaningful for its own reason; and Cruzcampo as the nostalgic highlight.

Ever since Heineken bought Cruzcampo, I’ve been hoping for distribution in the United States. If I were able I’d purchase a keg, post an ad on Craig’s List, and satiate other transplanted Sevillanos, for I am certain my associations aren’t entirely unique.

But I must admit that it’s been more special enjoying the beer at long intervals, and on such special occasions. Every time its presence seemed a necessity, I found a way to acquire a small supply by luck or pluck, a streak I hope to keep up should I marry, parent a child, publish a novel, reach some ripe old age, reunite with old friends, or otherwise add new verses to life’s song.

This piece first appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of Draft Magazine.