Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Into The Drink

Imagine you're standing on a beach, at the point where the sea meets the sand. Look down at your feet. Can you see the foamy seawater bubbling over your feet, tickly, exuberant and refreshing? Well, imagine that couple of feet of water washing around your toes represents beer today. Now look out to sea, all the way to the misty horizon, and side to side as far as the eye can see. That vast ocean represents the sum total of all human experience of beer. Care to come for a dip?

Let's wade out a little bit, leaving behind the present day expression of the brewers art, all the delicate, pin-bright flavours and aromas of exotic new world hops. Let's wade out knee-deep, where the water is churning up the sand into gritty murk, where things don't look so bright and cheerful. That represents what is perceived by many to have been a low point in beer, the keg revolution of the 1970s. In fact, let's say it's 1971, the year that the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded. This year, their 40th anniversary, sees a general consensus that they have met their aim, and have saved real ale. Real ale is Britain's gastronomic gift to the world. Live beer, with the yeast still gently working, was nearly driven to extinction by the onward march of brewing technology. It's true that beer is more stable if you filter, pasteurise and artificially carbonate it, but it also tastes as though it's had all the life knocked out of it. Which of course, it has.

Come on, let's really swim now. Stride out of the murk, yelp as the cool water reaches your nethers, and plunge in. As you bob back to the surface, gasping, you can feel yourself supported by the ocean, transparent but indisputably there. That sensation of support represents everyone involved in the beer industry – brewers, publicans, retailers and consumers, all coming together and finding themselves bound by a common interest, a drink that sometimes becomes overlooked with the contempt of familiarity, and yet is still the first port of call for a social event.

President Obama has now put beer centre stage twice in his presidency, once exchanging beers with David Cameron, and once at the 'beer summit', where he famously sat down with his Vice President, along with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and Police Sargent James Crowley. There had been a suggestion of racism in the actions that Sargent Crowley had taken against Prof. Gates, and they were talked about and settled over a glass of beer.

It takes something as simultaneously momentous and simple as an American president doing business over a glass of beer to remind us of what we already know. Beer isn't just a beverage, it's a symbol of equality, of companionship. If you want a real flight of fancy, look at the derivation of the word companion. From the Latin companionem, literally meaning someone you break bread with. We all understand the significance of breaking bread with someone, but that meaning seems to have become lost when applied to beer, which is a shame when you consider how many ingredients these two foodstuffs share. But are you here to take flights of fancy, or are you swimming?

The companionship offered by beer doesn't just extend to those who drink it. The brotherhood of brewers is a happy, tight-knit family. There is a maxim among brewers that their job is just to keep yeast happy, and while there is some truth in that, it also plays to the typical modesty of an artisan. The world of beer offers a whole spectrum of colours, tastes and aromas, all born of more or less the same basic process. The problems that face one brewer are faced by them all. Perhaps it's this that makes them such a generous bunch of craftsmen. When there was a disastrous hop shortage a few years ago, many larger brewers took the unusual step of releasing some hops from their reserves to allow smaller brewers to carry on production. In material terms, the value of this didn't amount to much, but symbolically, it spoke gallons about how brewers view their place in the world. They are servants to the yeast, and servants to the public, determined to deliver the daily bread, no matter what.

Strike out. Now you're really swimming, the water deep and dark beneath you, effectively bottomless. This is the heyday of British beer production, the happy period after the industrial revolution, the Victorian era where technology was proper technology, powered by fire and steam, and anything was possible. Swim away from the shore, float out into an ocean of beer. India pale ale, London porter, produced in volumes that only a few decades previously seemed impossible. There must have been a belief among the beer industry that this was their apogee, that they were producing the best beer ever, in the biggest volumes possible. London porter brewers constructed ever-larger vats to age their beer in, not big barrels, but huge, vertical vats made of wood and encircled with iron hoops, as big as a house. If that sounds fanciful, bear in mind that to celebrate the commissioning of a new vat at the Meux (sadly, it rhymes with 'pukes') brewery, the brewers threw a dinner where they seated more than 200 people inside the vat. And if that sounds too good to be true, it turns out it was. The same brewery was responsible for the great porter flood of London in 1814, where the hoops encircling one of the vats broke, sending beer cascading into nearby streets and tenements, and killing 8 people. Some high point in beer that turned out to be.

Sit up. Look around. You're almost out of sight of land. Everywhere is water. This symbolises a time when the production of beer wasn't centralised, but was in the hands of the home-makers, the alewives and brewsters (female brewers). Beer wasn't something that you bought in a pub, because pubs didn't exist. The whole concept of a place where you went to drink beer evolved over time, and as ever, the clue is in the name: public house. Beer was something that was once only made at home, and then some bright spark realised that people would pay to drink beer in their house, and the pub was born.

Lay back. Float. Float back to a time when beer wasn't a carefully crafted product, but a hit-and-miss process of fermenting gruel. The simple calories in grain are better preserved as beer than as a dried cereal that risked spoiling. That the nourishment made you feel good too was a bonus, and all the more reason to build a ritual around it.

That's enough, you've drifted too far. Now there is only a memory of where land was, so strike back for it, hard. Head down and push, leaving behind the murk and slime of primitive, faintly boozy grain porridge, the memories of sweet beers brought to life with a magic, yeast-infested stick, swim back through the steam and smoke of Victorian London, through the war years, through the paradoxically fizzy and lifeless years of keg beer's heyday. Strike back for that tiny strip of white foam, breaking on a beach of golden sand, suggesting a soft, white head atop a shimmering, golden beer. Feel hopefully with your feet, and then stand up and scurry back to a sun-baked towel. Rub down, and feel the healthy glow that exercise and cold water brings to your body.

I don't know about you, but exercise makes me thirsty.

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That was my entry for the recent Wells & Youngs writing competition, as covered by Pete Brown here (and seemingly nowhere else, rather disappointingly). I'm sure lots of other bloggers entered - how about now that I've shown you mine, you show me yours? Links below, please.

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11 comments:

  1. An excellent piece Zak a super metaphor for brewing history.

    I just wish I could write a single paragraph in a similar vein as this! I think I'll leave the writing up to my beer buddy Chris!

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  2. Nice one. I didn't enter myself, I can barely keep up a thin stream of drivel on my blog as it is.

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  3. excellent stuff, will put mine up tomorrow morning when I’m sober

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Very nice mate, Very nice. I didn't enter , I'm afraid - and knowing that the likes of yourself and ATJ waded in (no pub intended), I'm glad I didnt embarrass myself by doing so!

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  6. In good fashion, I'd probably stand on some broken glass in the shallows, get sand in my butt crack, get tumbled arse-over-tit back to shore by a big wave coughing and spluttering from the sea water half way to my lungs!

    Very lyrical, I think I prefer your version :)

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  7. Thanks all, and Ed, I'm pleased to hear that you didn't enter yourself - that sort of thing can get a man a reputation.

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  8. And now Martyn Cornell flashes his in our direction.

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  9. For true fans of this thread I will address is a free online! גמילה מאלכוהול

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Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.