On the afternoon of July 10, 1973, Mike Royko was not drinking but instead was washing glasses and was ready, if the need arose, to “break up fights.”
He was conducting a beer-tasting event that had been born when Royko declared that “Budweiser, America’s most popular beer, tastes like it was run through the bladder of a horse.”
The newspaper columnist had gathered 11 people to drink 22 beers and … We’ll get to that shortly.
More to the point, that event is being celebrated Sunday afternoon at the Old Town Ale House. “Royko’s Beer Test 50th” will feature the tasting and rating of 11 lagers, local and national, by experts from the city’s lively craft-brewing community, including Ale House proprietor Bruce Elliott; some items from the Royko trove housed at the Newberry Library; some music and snacks; readings from Royko’s work by actor Gary Houston, me and others; words from Royko’s son Sam, former TV reporter Andy Shaw, Northwestern University professor and Royko scholar Bill Savage and Liz Garibay, founder of the Brewseum.
As an example of the durability of Royko’s work and legend, the event sold out shortly after it was announced on the Brewseum website.
Paul Durica started all this. He is now the director of exhibitions for the Chicago History Museum but previously worked at the Newberry and that is where he initiated what will be a major exhibition on Royko, scheduled for next summer.
“I came across the materials he used in planning and organizing this beer taste test,” said Durica. “I thought bringing back the test would be a good way to celebrate Mike and also explore the growth of the craft brewing scene here as well as the changing landscape of neighborhood taverns.”
He immediately contacted Garibay and Savage.
“In some of my classes I will introduce students to a number of writers they have probably never heard of … (Nelson) Algren, (James T.) Farrell and Royko,” Savage says. “Every year, without fail, Mike Royko is the one writer that has the students saying, ‘I want more.’”
Royko, of course, lives in print in a number of collections of his columns and in that magisterial biography of Richard J. Daley titled “Boss.”
Garibay, Savage and Durica are among the most passionate and knowledgeable historians we have. All are excited about Sunday’s event and next year’s Newberry exhibit. “The sellout response to this beer tasting says a lot about how popular Mike remains,” says Durica.
There is no telling if anything will be included in this Newberry exhibit from the first beer tasting but I will tell you that in 1973 Royko gathered a panel he described in print as “men and women who didn’t know what beers they were tasting. Some of them usually drink only American popular brands. Others drink foreign and domestics. A few seldom drink beer at all, and a few others drink it regularly. They included young people and middle-aged people. Their ethnicity ranged from German to Polish to Bohemian to Irish to Norwegian to Jewish to WASP.”
There has been some uncertainty about where the tasting took place. Though most assume it was at the Billy Goat Tavern, Royko’s favorite saloon and sponsor of the Daily News (and later Sun-Times) softball team, a couple of people think it might have taken place oddly at the bar once atop what used to be called the Hancock Building, and another thinks it might have happened in the backyard of Royko’s Northwest Side home.
One of the participating judges was Don DeBat, a Daily News colleague of Royko’s and a hard-hitting member of the newspaper’s 16-inch softball team. He was sure that the contest took place at the Billy Goat Tavern but tells me, “That was 50 years ago. Memory is cloudy from too much beer.”
The location is really not important. The 11 people drank and then they rated.
As Royko reported in his column, the tasters, “drinking from unmarked glasses, rated each beer from one point (barely drinkable) to five points (great).”
Coming out on top were Wurzburger from Germany with 46 points and England’s Bass Ale with 45. On the bottom were three U.S. brews, Old Milwaukee (20), Schlitz (18) and Budweiser (13).
While writing this story, I solved the mystery of where that first beer tasting took place. It happened in the backyard of Royko’s home. So says Mike’s son David, who was a 13-year-old server there. “It was quite a day.”
I will happily report next week on Sunday’s upcoming winners and losers and also provide other details of the event. Mike’s widow Judy plans to be there, as does his son Sam and perhaps his grandson Jake (on his 30th birthday). I plan to read from the introduction that Royko graciously wrote for my 1978 book, “Dr. Night Life’s Chicago.”
No longer available except perhaps at the oldest of used bookstores, it contains short takes on dozens of taverns no longer around, an example of the precarious nature of running a neighborhood saloon. Mike knew that better than most and he wrote in the book, “So as much as the traditionalist in me hates the thought of someone thumbing through a book to decide where to go to get a drink, it is probably a useful and necessary aid to modern urban boozing life.”
As for the beer? I will not be tasting. I hate beer.