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

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Aug. 28 2012 4:58 PM

A Prole’s Guide to Drinking

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

Friederich Engels and Karl Marx.
Friedrich Engels, left, and Karl Marx.

DieBuche; Scewing/Wikimedia Commons.

On precisely this date in 1844, the authors of The Communist Manifesto went on a bender in France. It was epic, and it was epochal, and it is hard to think of a drinking session more significant to the formation of the modern world.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were in their 20s at the time, and neither was a drinking novice. Marx first demonstrated talent in the beerhounding field during his first and only year at the University of Bonn. It was, in the understated phrase of his father, a period of "wild rampaging." As a co-president of his “tavern club,” the lad often tangled with the rival Borussia Korps, which would force him and his bourgeois brethren to kneel in allegiance to the Prussian aristocracy. In hopes of repelling their attacks, Marx started packing a pistol, and a bullet grazed his brow in the duel that inevitably resulted; boys will be boys. He transferred schools, got serious about philosophy, and fell in with the Young Hegelians for a while. To blow off steam while working on his Ph.D., he would knock back pints with Bruno Bauer; they would now and then get smashed and ride donkeys down the main streets of villages.

Engels, meanwhile, had been educating his palate, preparing to become the first great champagne socialist. One month-long vacation in the French countryside found young Engels “more or less squiffy all the time,” and his most recent biographer likens his diary of the trip to “an upmarket wine-tour brochure.” (Sample text: “Within a few bottles one can experience every intermediate state from the exultation of the cancan to the tempestuous fever heat of revolution, and then finally with a bottle of champagne one can again drift into the merriest carnival mood in the world!") An industrialist and a revolutionary, Engels spent two years learning the family business at Ermen and Engels’ Victoria Mill outside of Manchester, England, witnessing the horrors of child labor and gathering material for his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.

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Late that summer, Engels passed through Paris and arranged a get together with Marx, who had recently hatched his theory of alienated labor—of the worker as the “plaything of alien forces.” On Aug. 28, 1844, they got faded at Café de la Régence and kept going for “10 beer-soaked days,” as one historian puts it—two dudes joined in a buzzing discussion where they broke it all down, as dudes will. This was bitching about work on the highest level, Marx and Engels in Paris and going gorillas.

Some long-term consequences of that conversation were highly unfortunate, the contraband status of Havana Club rum not least among them. But no right-thinking, left-leaning American can deny that beer, having thus fueled the birth of the labor movement, deserves to be honored at this time of year. You needn’t be a dialectical materialist to celebrate Labor Day with a cold one; anyone can see that beer and Labor Day weekend go together like thesis and antithesis. (Though if you are a dialectical materialist—or a Marxian literary critic or a pinko commie or what have you—then you will appreciate the jesters who conceived the Karl Marx Drinking Game: “For every instance in which the history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, take a drink.”)

What kind of beer should you drink on Labor Day? There are two broad categories of the world’s most popular intoxicant: lager (styles include pilsner, Oktoberfest, and—oof—malt liquor) and ale (styles include IPA, stout, and all those delightful things they do in Belgium). Your first job is to determine which better suits your mood.

120828_DRINK_Yuengling

The many millions will be grabbing mass-produced brews out of fridges and coolers, and if you find yourself among them, you should fish around for a crappy regional lager admired for its “drinkability.” In the mid-Atlantic, for instance, you might try Yuengling Traditional Lager. Brewed in Pottsville, Pa., it is a traditional dietary staple of anthracite coal miners and other figures recognizable from Joe Biden speeches scripted for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre media market.

Some crappy-beer purists might argue that Yuengling is not thin and bland enough for the task at hand, holding that its slight hint of caramel and subtle citrus kick give it more character than other best-selling macrobrews. But rest assured that it is eminently suitable for easy guzzling. “Not as good as some of the beers I might sip at home,” says an observer from the United Kingdom, “but the best when it comes to getting slammed inexpensively in the city.”

The ale most thematically appropriate to Labor Day is porter, the progenitor of stout. Soon after emerging in London in the 1700s, this dark beer “became known by the occupation of its best customers,” the men who delivered cargo to market. Porters tend to burst with chocolate and coffee and dark-fruit flavors, and some beer nerds thus reserve them for cold-weather sipping. However, it seems to me that if this stuff was sufficiently thirst quenching for guys who carried sides of beef on their backs 12 hours a day, then it ought to be good enough for you after … what the hell have you done today, anyway?

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