BEER CLINIC :: Mentoring Medical Students in the Beer Clinic

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on March 26, 2011

A few months ago I was visiting one of my favorite beer bars, The Map Room in Chicago.  This is a classy joint  which has a national reputation as a great place to enjoy many different types of beer on draft (26 taps) or bottles (over 200 brands). In other  words, my kind of place. Because of the selection and quality, the drinks are a bit pricier than they are at your usual Bud Lite bar, so the Map Room attracts an upscale clientele who can afford to drink there: boomers with money (me), young professionals with downtown jobs, and students in professional school. (You have to take out really big loans to go to law school or med school,  so as a result you have extra spending money.)

I was enjoying a Belgian draft, scrutinizing the beer list for my next pick, when a young woman  sat at the empty stool next  to me. She looked perplexed. She turned to me and said, “You seem to be enjoying your beer. Can you suggest something for me?”

She admitted she really didn’t drink much beer, but wanted to give it a try, and didn’t know where to start. I asked about her preferences (which ran toward highly sweetened cocktails) and picked out a few “easy” beers. I suggested we ask the bartender for a taste of each.

“You mean they let you do that?” she asked, naively. I explained why it was okay to ask the bartender for a taste of his drafts—he appreciates your interest and he sells more beer that way. As I expected, she really liked the Duchesse de Bourgogne*, which is a refreshing Flemish red ale that tastes a lot like cherry soda, though it contains no fruit. It’s a good introduction to the Belgian Ale genre.

While she was tasting her draft, I took a wild guess and asked her if she was a student.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m a medical  student.”
“Where?” I asked.
“University of Chicago, Pritzker School,” she answered brightly.
“What a coincidence!” I said, “I went to med school there, too, and I also taught on the faculty for years.”
“No kidding!” she said, “my parents went there, too! What year did you graduate? I told her and she said, “Omigod, my folks graduated the same year!”

Ulp…yes, I remembered Larry and Karen (not their real names). I hadn’t seen them since graduation. We caught up on news and exchanged contact info. She thanked me for introducing her to Belgian beers and then…paid my tab! Boy did I feel old! Her folks had moved on to career and family, and were ready to retire…and I was still practicing medicine and drinking beer in bars!

I started drinking beer in medical school. Med school is a lot like summer camp—there are many group activities (such as exams, parties, team sports, and dissecting cadavers)—and going to a bar with other med students is a good way to bond, as well as let off steam. Beer is the quintessential social beverage. You can’t drink beer alone. Try it. Go into a bar and sit by yourself and order a whisky. No one will bother you. Now, order a beer. Pretty soon someone will sit next to you and start chatting with you, and the bartender will join in, and a med student will walk up to ask your opinion. Even if you enjoy a cold long-neck at home at the end of your workday, you will not be drinking alone because you will be turning on the TV to see your favorite sports team or your TV sit-com friends (reruns of Cheers?).

My theory is that the taste of a specific beer evokes a memory of a person or event that will forever come to mind when you drink the beer again. Not unlike Proust’s remembrances of childhood evoked by smells. Perhaps that’s one of the yet undiscovered characteristics of hops. And that is part of the process of beer appreciation—you begin to remember the taste of a beer as you associate it with a specific social event or a person and as you “acquire” more beers, you have a wider social context and become a member of the community of beer aficionados.

As I mentioned, I drank beer in med school but I didn’t appreciate it much. Back then we didn’t have much selection besides Bud, Miller or Schlitz.  As a matter of fact, our group preferred single malt scotch to beer since it had more character compared to the beers of the 1970s. It wasn’t until I went to England and discovered real ales on draft—and real pubs—that I developed a taste for beer. In England, we discovered Theakston’s Old Peculier at The Grange Bar in Ealing, London. What a fabulous, dark, malty high alcohol ale! Tasting it now brings back memories of good times in the UK. We spent months trying to find it in Chicago (in bottles) and discovered Delilah’s Bar, with its funky draft beers and “punk music nights” on Mondays. We learned  to drink Belgian Beers in Paris—I remember one late night sitting in a bar drinking Leffe Blonde and having a “conversation” with a young Basque soldier, even though we didn’t have a common language. And to this day, the taste of Harpoon IPA reminds me of consuming large bowls of steamed clams with my husband at the Union Oyster House in Boston, shortly after we moved there. And I’m sure you have stories of your own for each beer that you like!

I have a feeling that my young medical student will always remember her experience with The Duchess at the Map Room. I predict that she will move on to more challenging and even better beers, and soon will be an expert on the subject like her mentor (me).  And the more you learn, the more you appreciate a good beer. So from the Beer Clinic, here are lessons on how to appreciate beer:

1. First, you have to drink it. Find yourself a beer bar that has a good selection, preferably on draft, and by all means ask your bartender for tastes.

2. Drink only good beer! That means no mass-produced lagers. No Bud, Bud Light, Coors, etc. If bad beer is all they have, then drink a gin and tonic or rum and Coke instead.

3. Taste all the different styles of beer and learn to tell them all apart. One of the nice things about being a beer aficionado is that it’s a lot easier than becoming a wine expert. For one, there are only a limited number of beer styles, so you can know them all.

4. Find a style that you like and concentrate on that for a while to the exclusion of everything else, as you try different breweries’ versions. During our “Old Peculier” phase we drank only dark ales and porters.

5. Start simple and light—pilsners, cream stouts—and move on to stronger tasting beers such as American IPAs or the complex Belgian Abbey Ales.

6. Pick out a few good regional beers that are available in bottles so you will always have something to order at a bar if there is nothing appealing on draft.

7.  When you are uncertain what to drink in a strange bar, you can’t go wrong if you stick to the draft list and select local or regional microbrews—usually they are the freshest kegs on the bar.

8. Finally, cultivate a good social experience while you drink your beer. Not only will this help you remember your new-found beers, you will have a good time doing it.

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* Duchesse de Bourgogne: [from Brouwerij Verhaeghe] is the traditional Flemish red ale. This refreshing ale is matured in oak casks; smooth with a rich texture and interplay of passion fruit, and chocolate, and a long, dry and acidic finish. After the first and secondary fermentation, the beer goes for maturation into the oak barrels for 18 months. The final product is a blend of younger 8 months old beer with 18 months old beer. The average age of the Duchesse de Bourgogne before being bottled is 12 months.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ceci March 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm

8. Finally, cultivate a good social experience while you drink your beer. Not only will this help you remember your new-found beers, you will have a good time doing it.

I beg to differ: when I cultivate too social an experience with my beer-drinking, it leads to an inability to remember much at all!

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Dr. Carol Westbrook March 26, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Ah, its nice to know the med students in the audience are paying attention. The advice was to cultivate a GOOD social experience, not TOO social an experience! All things in moderation. There will be an exam on this next week.

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Susan March 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Thanks for the tip on Duchesse de Bourgogne. Sounds intriguing.

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