The Art of the Football Tailgate Party

Originally published in the September 2021 Issue of the Old Town Crier Magazine

“You can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning!”

My fraternity brother, Smitty, speaks these words to me while he’s ladling Bloody Mary’s out of a full 12-gallon stock pot into two plastic cups for us. The year is 1982. It is eight o’clock in the morning on my first football Saturday living in the fraternity house. There are two 12-gallon stock pots on the bar, the Bloody Mary one, and one full of vodka and orange juice, Screwdrivers, next to it. These are our morning vitamins. The smell of stale beer that had been spilled at the party the night before is our potpourri. I remember the drinks being great. But I’m sure they were terrible.

My palate today is much more developed than my 20-year-old palate. Soon we will be in a pickup truck with 3 kegs of beer, a grill, hotdogs, hamburgers, and the accompanying accoutrements. The kegs are full of cheap, mass-produced beer. That’s how it is when you are in college. It was also years before the craft beer trend hit the US. High end beer at this time was imported beer, and it was expensive.  We are on our way to the stadium parking lot, about to have a tailgate party. Tailgates are an American tradition that did not have its beginnings at a football game. It has its roots in traditional Fall bounty festivals and a Civil War battle.

The tailgate party is not just about drinking before a football game. These parties occur in fall, when end of summer festivities have been celebrated for centuries. The football tailgate is merely an extension of those celebrations. University of Notre Dame cultural anthropologist John Sherry states that:

The idea of getting out of your house and feasting and drinking somewhere else is a pretty old tradition. People eat and drink and build up community in the process. It’s one last blowout before we hunker down for winter.”

The USA Today published an article about John Sherry’s work. Sherry conducted a two-year study on college tailgating. He found that tailgate parties have ties to harvest celebrations dating back to Ancient Rome and Greece. According to the article:

’Tailgating is more about sharing than it is about competition,’ and people who participate help build the brands of their favorite teams. ‘The individual traditions that they are creating add to the larger tradition,’ Sherry says. ‘They see it as participating in the team experience.’”

The first Battle of Bull Run occurred at the beginning of the American Civil War in northern Virginia. It was the first major battle of the war and a Confederate victory. So, what does this battle have to do with tailgating? People traveled from Washington, DC to the Manassas, VA area to root for their favorite team, or army in this case. It is said that they gathered on hills surrounding the battlefield with picnic baskets full of minced meat, plum pudding, and apple pie to cheer their side and party during the battle.

There’s always a variety of craft beers ready to go

It is believed that fans partied before the first college football game between Rutgers University and Princeton University in 1869. And legend has it that Green Bay Packers fans coined the phrase “tailgating” back in the early 1900s. The football tailgate is a major part of both college and professional football. Statistics show that 35% of people who tailgate do not even attend the game. I must admit that I have been guilty of this in the past. The tailgate atmosphere can draw you in so strongly that you don’t want to leave.

College alumni and students take their tailgating seriously, as they should. It is a time-honored tradition and a great bonding experience. Tailgate parties build the bonds of loyalty to our schools and to our football teams. Here are some tips to help you enjoy the next tailgate party you attend.

  • Remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Tailgate parties start before the game. But it is not unusual for the party to last through the game and well after it. Take your time and drink casually. As we used to say “back in the day” at WVU ‘It’s all about Buzz Maintenance’. Don’t overdo it so that you can last throughout the day. Or as was the case back then, through the party that night as well.
  • Bring a variety of craft beer, but more light than heavy. Craft beer and tailgating are the perfect fit. Modern day tailgating has evolved way beyond just hot dogs and beer. Our sports palates require high end fare nowadays. Marinated meats on the grill, exotic dips, charcuterie boards, and gourmet cheese boards are very common. Pairing craft beer with these finer cuisines is fun and enjoyable.  Bring a variety of craft beers but go with more light lagers than heavy ales. Ales are great, but not always conducive to the long haul of a football Saturday. They can easily fill you up and weigh you down.
  • Check the ABV % of the craft beers you buy. This is very common mistake and can have bad consequences. ABV, sometimes stated as alc/vol, stands for Alcohol BV It is the standard measure of how much alcohol is contained in the given volume of a drink. The ABV will be printed right on the beer bottle. The standard mass-produced beer has about 5% ABV. Craft beers can run from 4% ABV to as high as 12% ABV. People often assume that all beers have the same ABV. So, you’re having a great time at your tailgate, and suddenly, your cousin Ed is staggering all over the place. Make sure you know the ABV percentage of your beers and warn people accordingly, especially any college students at the tailgate. They are probably used to low ABV mass produced beers and will be hit hard by the higher alcohol content.

The tailgate party is one of our greatest American traditions. We have many universities in the area. Go to one and partake in one of these great fall festivals. And bring some good craft beer! Your hosts will greatly appreciate it. Cheers!!!

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