It is smoky and crowded in John Jay Grill, but this does not seem to distract from the attraction at the center of the room. Bill Christie, who graduated from Columbia College in 1941, is standing among his fellow classmates as they cheer him on—downing a full quart of beer, time trickling away as the amber liquid vanishes down his throat.
It’s January 17, 1939, and today is the drinking championship of the annual Soph-Frosh Beer Party, where countless students try their luck at winning the grand prize: a beer crown. Christie surpasses his peers and is crowned victorious thanks to a 12-second-flat finish. Spectator will cover his beer-guzzling victory the next day.
Fast-forward to April 3, 2017: Spectator is preparing to cover the ongoing student council elections, and it seems that candidates are perennially asked about the lack of community at Columbia. But has this search for communal social outlets been that eternal? The Soph-Frosh Beer Party of 1939, and the role that beer played on this campus’ social life, might indicate otherwise.
In 1877, Spectator, then five years old, featured a poem titled “Beer” by the “brilliant and unfortunate Bohemian” poet George Arnold. The poem begins with the following verses: “Here, / With my beer, I sit ; / While golden moments, / Alas ! / They pass / Unheeded by.” I thought of times I unwillingly sipped on a lukewarm beer in some transient friend’s room in Carman Hall my first year. Were these moments indicative of my college social scene here?
For years, pages of Spectator were lined with beer advertisements, paid for by big companies like Budweiser and by local breweries offering beer for students at reduced prices. One from 1955 reads, “When little horse cars kept big cities on the go, Budweiser led all the beers in sales and … today Budweiser still leads in sales and quality because … because it’s Budweiser.”
There were also announcements in big block text, like “Sophomores! FREE BEER TONIGHT 8:00 p.m.: Beer Party and Class Meeting — Rooms 1-3 John Jay Mezz.” That one is from 1947. A year later, there’s a party happening in the John Jay Mezzanine. “Barnard girls will be in attendance,” another notice reads. Price of admission is 25 cents.
For almost 50 years, the basement of John Jay Hall was home not to JJ’s Place but to Lion’s Den Pub, which served beer, among other beverages, to undergraduates. My father, Steven Solomon, who graduated from Columbia College in 1982, has fond memories of the pub. I could never imagine him shotgunning a beer or even finishing a pint within an hour. But he describes parties littered with massive, heavy metal kegs that he likens to bombs, “which was kind of fitting because getting bombed was pretty much the point of a keg party,” he reminisces.
My father tells me that there was a beer-centric social scene at Columbia and that more students stayed on campus than went into the city for their night escapades. There were also fewer choices of alcohol then, as “rarely, if ever, was wine served at a campus party,” he says.The only time wine was served was at a professor’s house. I tell my father that now the only time wine is served is in my room, on any given weeknight.
Today’s beer consumption tends to happen in the basements of frat houses, in the form of flip cup or beer pong, in small Carman doubles when the resident adviser is not around, or in local bars such as Mel’s, 1020, and Bernheim and Schwartz. But not everybody has a taste for Carman and Frat Row, and you can’t get into bars without a fake ID (or a real one). Though beer might not be what unifies the student body like it did during my dad’s time at Columbia, a kind of beer culture still exists today.
I might not like beer—I hate how it’s stereotyped as a “man’s drink”—but you can divide the people who do into several different categories. There are beer sippers, there are beer gulpers, and there are beer drinkers. Then there are people that know the brewery, track the flavor profile, delicately taste for floral notes, and savor every sip. These folks are the beer aficionados—and they are among us.
Solomon Wiener, a sophomore in Columbia College, has a mini beer hall that he set up with friends in his Wien single. His beer shrine is set up with stools and a giant beer tapestry hanging in the background. He laughs softly as he describes it, imagining the scene in front of him. “It’s, like, ‘Come and take a stool and have a beer,’” he explains.Despite the shrine, Wiener does not describe himself as a “beer aficionado.” But he does profess to love beer.
“I spent my summer in Berlin, and I was having a liter of beer a day, and that was it,” he says. “I would get a different kind each time, and there was total control.”
Wiener views his set-up as a “a little bit of a counter-culture” to collegiate binge-drinking culture—to the cheap cans of Natural Lite, colloquially known as Natty Lite, and Budweiser. He tells me, “The fact that it comes in a can already speaks to how much you value it.”
Wiener’s adaptation of Berlin summer nights hydrated by smooth, light beers reminded me of home. I thought of summer nights in Geneva’s spotless public parks and my friends sitting in a circle, slowly sipping on bottles of Reinheitsgebot. Growing up abroad in Europe, your standard beer was typically a Heineken, a Stella Artois or a cheap, Swiss 1664—a dark beer that was easily recognizable by a white, grimy looking 1664 label on a black can. For me, Natty Lite, Bud Light, and Budweiser are foreign beers.
You can find foreign beers in any New York bar, but Mel’s prides itself on its dependable variety. The bar has a unique beer culture in Morningside Heights, defined by its Brew Crew and Beer Baptisms. “The point of it is that it is a rewards program, so if you come in frequently and are one of our regulars, if you drink all of our beers, you get to be part of it,” Dan McKenna, a bartender at Mel’s, tells me as he says, nonchalantly, that it takes consuming 50 beers to be a part of the club.
It sounds like a pretty expensive club to join, given that beers at Mel’s are certainly not as cheap as the 25-cent pitchers formerly sold at the Lion’s Den in the basement of John Jay. McKenna explains the perks of the program: brewery visits, drinking out of a 20-ounce glass as opposed to the mundane 15-ounce pint, and the most monumental of all—the initiation called the “Beer Baptism.”
The night I saw a Beer Baptism for the first time changed me.
It was a standard Thursday night out in Morningside Heights. I was sipping on a cold gin and tonic in a circle of my friends when I heard a ringing bell and yelling from the middle of the bar. I looked up and saw a familiar female student wearing a white tank top with a bright pink bikini underneath standing behind the bar in front of two bartenders. The crowd was cheering as she shotgunned a can of beer whilst the bartenders hosed her down with beer from each angle. People in the crowd were taking Snapchat videos and pictures. The baptism felt pseudo-erotic in a way that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, but mostly I was concerned that this student would end up sticky with beer residue. But the girl smiled wide and laughed once she had finished her beer and the bartenders had put down their bar hoses. Smiles cropped up throughout the bar. Standing back from the crowd, I asked myself, “Is this what beer culture is at Columbia?”
Beer is versatile at Columbia—it’s worshipped, and it’s poured down people’s shirts at Mel’s, unifying the most disparate groups of students behind glasses of fluid amber and foam. The baptism tradition is bold and expressive, and like Wiener’s shrine, it shows a continued devotion to the drink on campus. The beer drinking scene still exists, even if you can’t drink in JJ’s Place anymore—you just have to look a little harder to find them.
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