HEARTENING NEWS: BEER AS HEALTHY AS JOGGING the Oregonian headline proclaimed. The text went on to explain that a recent study, conducted at Baylor College of Medicine and reported in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, determined that drinking beer increased the level of HDL, or "good," cholesterol in inactive men, thereby significantly reducing their risk of heart disease. "Our data suggest that non-exercisers can maintain levels [of HDL cholesterol] similar to those of individuals who jog regularly by ingesting three beers a day," said Dr. G. Harley Hartung and his colleagues.
This bit of news was undoubtedly greeted with euphoria by sedentary beer drinkers everywhere, but when I considered the implications of the story, I realized at once that I have no interest whatever in giving up regular exercise—or in taking beer for medicinal purposes. It's not that I doubt the beneficial properties of malt, hops, yeast and water, it's just that I think I have far better reasons for drinking it.
The fact is, I probably love beer as much as anybody does, or ever has. I've enjoyed it for more than three decades now, from the beaches of Hawaii to the Gasth�user of Bavaria, as well as a great many places in between. And through all of those years and in all of those places, beer and exercise have been closely, happily, related.
My beer drinking began early, I'll admit—in 1949 in Honolulu, when I was a mere sixth-grader. But I didn't steal a brew from the refrigerator while my parents were out. Here's what happened: One Saturday afternoon I was a last-minute replacement for an injured catcher on my father's city-league softball team. It was a close game, and I not only hit well—3 for 4, as I recall—but also blocked the plate and applied the tag to a base runner who, had he scored, would have won the game for our opponents. When our team went on to win in extra innings, I was something of a hero. At the postgame party on a nearby beach, everybody drank Primo beer and ate Sashimi, and my father allowed me two cold bottles of the Primo. I found the beer delicious and accepted it as a just reward for my performance in the game, which is probably why from that day on, beer has always seemed to me to be a direct extension of athletics, enjoyment earned through physical effort.
There were many pleasant sports-related beers through subsequent years—after football and basketball games, track meets, volleyball and tennis matches. Two cool ones following strenuous physical exertion made any activity end satisfactorily, no matter what the outcome of the competition.
When I was 22, the U.S. Army was kind enough to ship me to Germany, where I ended up playing basketball on a service team and, naturally enough, drinking postgame beers with my teammates. Luckily, I was sent to Bavaria, the beer-drinking capital of the world. Even more luckily, I was stationed in Bamberg, considered by many Germans to be the beer-drinking capital of Bavaria. Most luckily of all, I met my future wife, Hilde, there—in a fine old beer hall, of course. If she hadn't been lovely, intelligent, kind and endowed with a good sense of humor, and even if I hadn't fallen in love, I probably would have tried to talk her into marrying me anyway, just to give myself a reason to return to Bamberg and its beer.
The town's proclivity for brew goes back a long way. A study conducted in 1439—although it had nothing to do with cholesterol levels or jogging—determined that the 4,000 citizens of Bamberg downed 462,800 gallons of beer that year, for a staggering average of more than 460 quarts per person. There's a well-known story that in the 18th century a local Benedictine monk informed his superior, in writing, of the sacrifice he intended to make for Lent: "From Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday, I will drink only 10 liters of beer a day, instead of 16 to 18." In that same century, an official decree defined the quality that Bamberg brews were to achieve: "The beer should have a strong sparkle and foam that lasts. The color should be from brown to light yellow, clear and transparent. It must have a tingling taste which transmits the hops' own bitterness and excites a cool and refreshing sensation on the palate, and the taste must also impart the smell."
Bamberg's current population is about 75,000, and my guess, based on a lot of personal observation, is that the consumption of beer per capita has declined little since 1439. There are a dozen breweries in town, and it's my conclusion that each of them brews beer that lives up to that 18th-century decree.
Since leaving the Army more than 20 years ago, I've been back to Bamberg every year or two. But—we now get back to the point—drinking beer isn't my only recreation while I'm there. With my days of organized athletic competition far behind me now, I run—eight, 10, 12 miles a day—through the forests and the grain-fields, over the country roads that connect the villages surrounding Bamberg. I run fairly hard, to sweat as much as I can, and if the weather is hot and humid, so much the better. Then, when I'm finished, comes the best part of all: the beer. I reward myself at the Schlenkerla, the Spezial, the Greifenklau, the Windfelder or any one of 25 or 30 other very comfortable Gasth�user within several miles of Bamberg.
Both at home in Oregon and in Germany, people often ask me why I run. There are several reasons, but an obvious one is to justify the beer I drink and to enhance my enjoyment of it. I know exactly what I'm doing, and why. Beer tastes better and is more satisfying after running than it is after basketball or tennis. Running burns off more calories per hour than almost any other form of exercise, and just an hour of it—eight or nine miles—entitles me to two full liters of Bamberg's finest and, if I feel inclined, a plate of bratwurst and kraut to go with it. So here is the scene, a beer-drinking runner's ideal: