by Aram Bakshian, Jr.
Beer: A Global Journey Through Past and Present
John W. Arthur, Oxford University Press, pp. 294 pages, $24.95
In all of the English language is there a more pleasantly elastic phrase than these three simple words: “a few beers”? I doubt it. Drawing on approximately sixty-five years of beer drinking experience (having recently turned seventy-eight), I have used “a few beers” to mean anything from three beers to thirty, depending on whether I was spending a truncated happy hour with a few casual colleagues or was settling into an all-day riverside picnic on a perfect summer day at the old Washington Canoe Club, with plenty of good food and good friends accompanying the beer. Whether three or thirty, the beers have generally gone down well.
Not that I have anything against wine. Indeed, I once summed up my gustatory philosophy in the following bit of doggerel:
Where grapes and olives cannot thrive,
One is, at best, but half alive.
I still hold this to be true, especially when it comes to serious dining in elegant surroundings with a good chef in the kitchen and a savvy sommelier in command of the wine list. Nor is there any denying the endless delights of deceptively simple but incredibly varied rustic dishes and local wines in grape and olive territory, be it in Spain, Italy, France, or the Levant. There’s just more flavor complexity and variety to a table laden with meze, antipasti, or hors d’oeuvres, accompanied by local cheese, grapes, olives, and breads than there is to one groaning under the weight of Teutonic plenty in the form of blutwurst, bratwurst, knockwurst, weisswurst, pig’s knuckles, and sauerkraut served with hot potato salad and plenty of rye and pumpernickel, even when you throw in some limburger cheese and pickled herring to round them out.
But for the simpler—and considerably more commonplace—pleasures of everyday life in most parts of the world, beer has no peer. Because it can be locally produced almost anywhere, it has a more universal reach than even the cheapest mass-produced wines. Whether you’re an African miner or farm laborer, a solid Bavarian burgher, a Japanese accountant, an English lager lout, a Brazilian gadabout, or a Middle American watching the Super Bowl with friends and family, beer is the ultimate social drink. More so than wine, it is a relatively mild, nourishing beverage that fosters a soft, slow glow of affability in most sane imbibers.
There’s nothing brooding or introspective about a typical beer buzz. Beer seems to lend a little of its own effervescence to the mood of those who drink it. It’s a sociable drink for social drinkers. This has been understood and appreciated by a broad spectrum of societies and cultures around the world that often agree on little else. You could say that beer is as old as history itself, except that it’s considerably older. There is conclusive archeological proof that it was being brewed and consumed in prehistoric times. Indeed, the earliest scientific evidence of beer was found in a cave in Israel dating from 11,000 B.C., a good four thousand years before humans had begun to grow grain domestically or developed pottery containers to carry beer from one place to another.
All of this is chronicled in Professor John W. Arthur’s Beer: A Global Journey Through the Past and Present. The author has done a pretty good job of telescoping a very big story into a rather small book: two-hundred ninety-four pages in all, but only one-hundred ninety-three pages of actual text, the rest being given over to professorial glossaries, appendices, re-imagined recipes of ancient or arcane brews, and a running river of footnotes. Aside from an introductory overview and terminal essay, Professor Arthur draws on his own scholarly research and field work, as well as the writings of numerous historians, archeologists, and anthropologists, to tell the worldwide story of beer. He divides his beer history into four regionalized chapters the titles of which hint pretty broadly at their content: “The Near East and East Asia: Funerary Stone Pits, Red-Crowned Crane Flutes, Ancient Hymns, and Bear-Hunting Rituals”; “Africa: Where Beer Feeds the Living and the Ancestors”; “Europe: Ancient Henge Rituals, Beer Beakers, Celtic Funerary Urns, Vikings and Witchcraft”; and “Meso- and South America: Beer Fuels Runners, Roads, and Feasts.”
Learned twaddle about urns, beakers, and rituals aside, however, the most obvious reason why beer has been so popular for so long all over the world is that PEOPLE LIKE TO DRINK IT. There is, however, another important factor. It is almost as easy to make beer as it is to guzzle it. All it takes is water, almost any sort of grain or grain blends, yeast, and a little patience. No terroir, no ancient vines, and a minimum of refined mumbo jumbo.
This helps to explain why, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a universal beer norm was established throughout the western and colonial worlds. Whether you consider this civilized progress or one more crime perpetrated by imperialist-colonialist oppressors, the facts are the same. Wherever European explorers, conquerors, settlers, or immigrants went during this period, they brought their beer with them. And modern breweries soon followed, almost universally presided over by German or “Austrian” brewmasters, the latter usually Czech subjects of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Wherever these brewmasters went, they produced what the Germans called lager and the Czechs called pilsner. Both were smooth, pale amber-hued, frothy beers of the sort that still outsells all of the good, bad, and just plain peculiar “craft beers” produced by trendy boutique operations today. Don’t get me wrong. Some of today’s craft brewers are true masters of their art and have produced a lot of good pale India ales, wheat beers, and the like, but there are others who approach brewing as if they were designing bizarre new ice cream flavors for Ben and Jerry’s. They sometimes remind me of the teenage girls of an earlier era who used to order cherry, chocolate, or vanilla-infused Cokes at drugstore soda fountains, in those long-gone days when most drugstores still had soda fountains. Who knows? Perhaps some future Professor Arthur will explain to readers how the rise of “flavored” craft beers in America was largely due to the disappearance of soda fountains, a phenomenon akin to modern humans replacing Neanderthal man.
Other evolutionary phenomena involving beer are less speculative and more fact based. To cite a prime example, until Prohibition, almost every American city had one or more large breweries. Their owners, along with those of local department stores, bakeries, and newspapers, were often the wealthiest and most respected members of the community. Then came Prohibition. Many of the breweries that were shut down at the time never reopened. Others diversified, producing products such as ice cream, soft drinks, and near-beer as a temporary survival strategy. Most of these lived to see the repeal of Prohibition—one of the few parts of F.D.R.’s New Deal that can qualify as a total success.
Beer was back, but there were new problems clouding the horizon. By the early 1960s a handful of nationally-marketed mega-brands (in those days Budweiser, Schlitz, and Miller at the premium level) dominated the national beer market. Many a local American brewer felt threatened rather than inspired by the sight of the legendary Budweiser Clydesdales clopping down Main Street in Fourth of July parades and promotional events. Their fears were warranted as more and more local and regional brewers either went under or barely hung on by underselling the big national brands, all too often with increasingly inferior products.
I still shudder at the recollection of a Washington-area brand during the late 1950s, Old German, brewed in Cumberland, Maryland, which sold at the incredibly low rate of eight bottles for a dollar. Unfortunately, it tasted as cheap as its price and, if you were forgetful enough to leave a not-quite-empty bottle of the stuff in a dark corner of the garage, attic, or basement recreation room, you sometimes found things growing out of it a few days later.
At least two old regional or local breweries elsewhere have bucked the trend and not only survived but thrived. I first encountered one of them after delivering a guest lecture at the University of Texas in Austin about eight years ago. After my talk, a few conservative students in the audience (always a distinct minority on the Austin campus) invited me to join them at a beer-fueled bull session at the student union. One of the beers on tap was Shiner Bock, produced by an independent brewery in the little town of Shiner, Texas. I’d never heard of it at the time, but I tried it and it was delicious. The brewery, I learned, was founded in 1909 “by German and Czech immigrant farmers eager to satisfy their thirst for the old-world brews of their homelands.” But it really took off in 1914 when it acquired the services of a Bavarian brewmaster named Kosmos Spoetzl. Maestro Kosmos put the place on the map in the Lone Star State and beyond. Yet, even as its popularity has grown, the brewery proudly proclaims that “Every drop of Shiner is still brewed and bottled right here in Shiner, Texas (POP. 2,069).” Long may it flourish.
My own chance encounter with Shiner Bock paid off handsomely back home in Washington when, a few years later, the German beer giant Beck’s stopped marketing its excellent dark beer in the United States. Beck’s Dark had always been my brand of choice at the Cosmos Club, founded in 1878 and one of my favorite Washington watering holes for the past forty years. Hoping to fill the gap, I told the Club’s beverage manager about Shiner Bock, mentioning the first name of its founding brewer, and suggested that Kosmos the Brewer and Cosmos the Club were obviously destined for each other. I’m happy to report that the Club has been serving Shiner Bock ever since.
The other example of an old independent brewer that has survived and thrived is Yuengling, established in 1829 and still making a “Traditional Lager,” a stout, a half and half, and a number of other popular specialty and seasonal beers. The firm is still owned and run by descendants of its founder, an emigrant brewmaster from what was then the independent Southwestern German Kingdom of Württemberg. So, besides being the sixth largest brewery in the United States (about three million barrels in annual production), Yuengling is also the oldest, and the largest wholly American-owned brewery in the nation. The company’s employees seem to be just as independent-minded as its owners. In 2006 they voted themselves out of the Teamsters Union. A subsequent boycott campaign failed miserably.
Unfortunately, Professor Arthur, whose male feminism shines through many pages of his book, chose to ignore the Shiner success story entirely. Yuengling only rated a one-sentence mention. The good professor cites Yuengling as a rare exception in the world of “beers produced by male-dominated large corporate breweries.” And even here, he gets some of his facts wrong, describing it as “America’s oldest craft brewery . . . owned by the four Yuengling sisters in Tampa, Florida,” when the company’s flagship facility and a major addition are still in Pennsylvania and Yuengling’s beer is widely consumed up and down the entire East Coast and many points west.
Professor Arthur is clearly irked by the fact that in the United States “men dominate the craft beer industry. Women-owned and co-owned breweries are rare (three and seventeen percent, respectively), and women represent only twenty-nine percent of brewery workers” while “in the past and among current Indigenous communities, brewing was and is controlled by women, whereas most of the drinking was and is done by men.” Indigenous women’s “knowledge of brewing allows them to gain economic freedom from their husbands,” he tells us, “contributing to the education of their children.” A rather sweeping assertion, this, especially since almost all the “indigenous” societies cited in the book are noted for the poverty and lack of education of men and women alike, despite thousands of years of female home brewing.
And exactly what do these feminine brewing skills consist of? One of Professor Arthur’s favorite examples is “chicha” a maize-based beer that is the traditional drink of Peruvian and other Andean native populations. Or, as the professor rather floridly puts it: “From the present-day Raramari in northern Mexico and Quechua-speakers in the Andes, to the ancient Peruvian polities of Chavin, to the Inca, beer coalesces each of these communities.” There is more: “Contemporary Indigenous women continue to brew chicha as a daily and ritual food and to unite individuals and lineages during important community projects.” One suspects that the “daily” consumption of chicha tends to outweigh its “ritual” consumption by about the same ratio that “daily” wine consumption in the developed world outweighs its “ritual” use in our own religious contexts.
In the case of “ritual” chicha, we learn that salvation sometimes walks hand in hand with salivation, woman brewers in the Bolivian highlands making their beer “either by salivating the corn flour balls or letting the maize kernels germinate twelve to eighteen hours and then grinding the sprouted kernels into a malt on a ground stone.” The flour balls are then “worked with the tongue until the balls are well moistened with saliva. . . . Beer made from salivated balls is in higher demand than the unsalivated malt, so brewers try to convert as much flour as possible into the salivated balls.” Well, to each his—or her—own, but I doubt that many readers will feel the urge to duplicate this “beer and spittles” recipe at home.
Even in the rural Andes, chicha has lost its perch as the brew of choice among the locals. Most villagers these days, when they can afford it, prefer bottled—and unsalivated—lager of the same sort that is popular with the majority of ordinary people in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America. There are, however, a few stubborn holdouts in, you guessed it, academia. These include a Dr. Jiajing Wang whose recipe for Yucca Beer puts the “yuck” back in yucca and is kindly included in one of Professor Arthur’s appendices. This extract from Dr. Wang’s recipe tells you all you need to know: “Put handfuls of cooked yucca in your mouth and chew it well, spitting it out into the water in the pot. Continue until you’ve chewed all the cooked yucca.” Yum, yum.
Even the best and brightest of anthropologists are sometimes played by the locals who know just how easy it is to con a gullible intellectual in search of colorful data. It happened to Margaret Mead, and it seems to have happened to Professor Arthur when he turned his attention to “The Spiritual World of Beer” in Africa. Perhaps he should have entitled this section of his book “From Beer to Eternity.” Among other things, he tells us that “The ancient capital of Great Zimbabwe is still an important sacred site to living people today,” and that “it is here, both in the ancient past and the present, where beer is administered to the ancestors for rain to bring fertility to the crops, livestock, and to all life.”
I was quite impressed by this last passage until I remembered something I’d come across in Tudor Parfitt’s very erudite and even more diverting Journey to the Vanished City: The Search for a Lost Tribe of Israel. It so happened that Parfitt’s search had taken him to the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe referred to by Professor Arthur above, and to the neighboring South African area threaded by what Kipling once described as the “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” where the tradition of beer-dispensing, matriarchal Rain Queens still lives, at least, after a fashion.
Here is what he found on a visit to the Rain Queen’s kraal (native village). Having asked where he could find the Rain Queen, he was directed to:
a muddy field sloping away from the back of the village. It was surrounded by cut thorn bushes. Elderly women were crawling on their hands and knees through the mud towards a circle of women in the middle of the field. In the center of the circle sat the Rain Queen. As we got closer to her I could see that the Queen was an obese black woman wearing a tight, wet T-shirt. She was drinking beer from a bottle. Stretched over her breasts were the words ‘Letaba Town of the Rain Queen’. This sluttish woman’s not very distant ancestor had been the Four-Breasted Goddess of the North, feared by the Zulus and the other great tribes to the south. The courtiers had nothing of the Queen’s girth: they were short, thin and very dirty.
And that was about as good as it got.
Still, there is a near-mystical quality to beer when it mingles with memories, personal as well as ancestral. Show me a bottle of Ringnes beer, and a N.A.T.O. visit to Norway, where it’s brewed, comes back to me as if it were yesterday, instead of during the closing years of the Nixon Administration. I can almost taste the juicy slices of roast reindeer I was served at a Norwegian Air Force officers’ mess at a base still commanded in those days by men who had earned their wings flying in the Free Norwegian branch of the R.A.F. during World War II.
When I see a Schultheiss beer I am back in West Berlin on one of several Cold War visits. Similarly, Gösser transports me to Viennese beer halls of yesteryear (though I really prefer the wine inns of Grinzing where I spent many enjoyable hours with the last of the Viennese waltz and operetta Kings, Robert Stolz, and his charming wife Einzi, whose joint memoirs I collaborated on) in the 1970s.
A bottle of Banks Beer, the local brew of choice in Barbados, always brings back memories of several delightful April days in 1982 when my then-boss Ronald Reagan was visiting his—and Nancy’s—old Hollywood friend, Claudette Colbert, for Easter. As for Kronenbourg beer, pour me a glass and I’m reliving a meal in 1974 at Brasserie Lipp, Paris’s most exclusive Alsatian-style dining spot, courtesy of Parisian editor friends. Finally, if it wasn’t already unforgettable, one glimpse of a bottle of Brazil’s Brahma Chop beer is all I need to recall digging into an open air feast of giant crayfish, rice, cassava, and feijoaha (Brazil’s black-bean-based equivalent of a French cassoulet) during a fact-finding trip to the region in the late Eighties.
But don’t get me started. I think I’ve already stretched even my elastic definition of “a few beers” to breaking point. Maybe I should read a few of Professor Arthur’s more soporific pages to calm down and cool off. For all its flaws, it tells a fascinating, living story with deep ancient roots. And it reminds us of how great a role beer has played in the history of our species, both as nourishment for our bodies and food for our thoughts.
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