Labor Day drinking: A history of proletarian benders and a guide to drinking on the job.

What Beer To Drink on Labor Day—and on the Job

What Beer To Drink on Labor Day—and on the Job

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 7 2015 10:08 AM

A Prole’s Guide to Drinking

What beer to quaff on Labor Day—and on the job.

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The two brands easiest to find hail from California. Sierra Nevada Porter, brewed in Chico, is relatively light of body, so it’s probably the porter you should be drinking if you’re going to be drinking one more than you should—and yet its charcoal finish invites lingering. Then there’s Anchor Porter, flowing smoothly from San Francisco since 1972. It’s available in 22-ounce bottles, a serving size proportioned perfectly to go with a pint of vanilla ice cream and an hour of late-night television.

American microbrewers and dirty foreigners alike offer many other worthy options, but the ultimate Labor Day beer must be Revolution Brewing’s Eugene Porter, available only in Chicago. Its name honors Eugene V. Debs, the union leader, who, like “Big Bill” Haywood, liked to raise a glass and get a little wobbly. As Madelon Powers writes in Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920, “Like both Debs and Haywood, many men interested in the cause of labor found the barroom to be a ready-made forum for union organizing.”

In general, porters pair well with grilled meats, which is reason aplenty to crack open a few at a late-summer barbecue, provided you can do so responsibly, this time keeping the lighter fluid away from the Super Soakers.

Beer mug.

Photo by Hemera/Thinkstock


Whether lager or ale, beer, it should be obvious, is the quintessential working man's drink. There’s beer, followed closely by whiskey, and there’s the boilermaker, which is whiskey closely followed by beer. The boilermaker is the grandfather of beer cocktails—the august but sometimes funny-smelling grandfather. You got a slug of hooch, you got a cold beer, and that’s that, unless you want to start talking about depth charges, which right now I don’t.

The shot-and-a-beer ritual has been going on for ages in the Netherlands (where it is called a kopstoot, or head-butt) and in Germany. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink further traces it to the mining camps of 1890s Montana, where the Irish saloonkeepers called it the “Sean O’Farrell.” The Joy of Mixology notes the boilermaker’s association with the steelworkers of western Pennsylvania. Author Gary Regan passes along a letter from an admirer of the area’s bars, “not the Yuppie bars with their White Wine Spritzers” but the old neighborhood spots: “Three and four generations have been thrown out of them.” The prototypical Pittsburgh take on the boilermaker is the Imp n’ Ahn: Imperial Whiskey (“For men among men, there is a whiskey among whiskies.”) chased by the crappy regional lager called Iron City (“At least I can drink it without breaking into an involuntary grimace.”).

The boilermaker will endure forever, helped along by what a retired steelworker might call “Yuppie bars with their Golden Ales aged in Chardonnay Barrels.” For instance, a new Philadelphia joint named Boilermaker offers gourmet shot-and-beer pairings (such as Aviation gin and farmhouse ale) alongside the traditional Philly delicacy known as the “Citywide Special” (bourbon and Pabst Blue Ribbon). No, the boilermaker isn’t going anywhere, even though its links to American industry are disappearing. Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune noted that the decline of U.S. manufacturing has led to the disappearance of “early morning taverns” catering to guys getting off the third shift—or, of course, heading into the first.

I cannot endorse drinking before operating heavy machinery. While I’m at it, I’ll add that light machinery is not exactly a picnic either. Consider, for instance, the telephone. Keeping a finger on the mute button so that you don’t belch into a conference call? Buzzkill.

In contemporary America, there is much rich discourse on the topic of work-related boozing. While Esquire presents sensible guidelines for the in-office 5 o’clock drinks meeting, Businessweek offers a flowchart suggesting what to order at various after-work drinks occasions, such as closing a deal with a client or kissing your boss’s ass. There is online advice on how to proceed if you think a subordinate is drinking at work, advice on what to do if your boss is drinking at work, and then there is advice for people planning to drink at work, the most thorough of which comes from Frank Kelly Rich, editor of Modern Drunkard Magazine. Though the MDM lifestyle is too rich for my liver tissue, I must concede that this 5,000-word article, titled “Juicing on the Job,” is magisterial in its coverage, including its tips on endgame strategy: “Accept the fact that sooner or later you will be found out. Hopefully by that time you’ll have made yourself indispensable and they will look the other way. This is called reaching the Churchill Stage.” And how does the modern drunkard maintain his buzz among the cubicles? With “vodka or neutral spirits diluted into a large bottle of designer water.”

I counsel against this. You don’t want to become the guy with the archetypal vodka bottle in the filing cabinet. (For one thing, per Rich, you should always premix your drinks before work.) You should drink at your desk only where the corporate culture encourages you to do so openly, as Engels did before his years in Manchester while a clerk at an export firm in Bremen, Germany. “There is a bar in our office,” he wrote his sister. “Beer bottles all over the place.”

But back to early morning drinking, which not strictly taking place on the job, I can endorse with a clear conscience.