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17 october 2016
To write about Gavin Smith's global history of beer, I thought it appropriate that I should pour myself a beer. The one I had in the fridge was a can of Firestone Walker 805. I must say, that in this day and age when beer cans tell you the life story and historical antecedents of the drink inside, a can of 805 is rather mysterious. It's just a black can with the name of the beer in silver, announcing its Californian origins. Google must be invoked to determine what kind of beer this is. Come to find that it is a blonde ale, a little dry, a little bready. It does not have the Pine-Sol-like attack of the hoppy American ales of the 2010s, and it doesn't have weird fruit flavors, and it isn't very dark or very light or very weak or very alcoholic, either, coming in at 4.7% by volume. In other words, Firestone Walker 805 is somewhat typical of beer for most of its history: a way of turning grain and yeast and water into a liquid food that won't kill you, will nourish you a little, and will make you slightly delighted.
"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," said Benjamin Franklin, or maybe not; at any rate he should have said it, and Smith quotes him as doing so (111, inexplicably promoting Franklin to "President" in the process, but after a few beers, who cares). I think it's a self-evident truth that beer is one of life's great consolations. But I've lived with people over the years who had significant aversions to beer. Several of my ex-in-laws couldn't stand it (which put them at odds with others of my ex-in-laws). My current partner never touches beer. My non-drinking friends obviously don't, but even among those who have no objection to a glass of wine or a margarita, some would never think of having beer. Beer is bitter – one of its defining qualities – and everyone dislikes specific bitter things.
In other words, growing up in pre-modern eras where beer was one of the few potable liquids must have been trying for a lot of people. Smith notes that a major exigence for beer, for millenia, was that the water would kill you. Invented independently in nearly every world culture, beer is a way of harnessing the inevitable fermentation of grain to the dicey qualities of water – two bad things – and producing something extra positive in the process.
Smith, with some trepidation, traces brewing to Kurdistan, 12,000 years ago. The attribution may be inexact but can't be far off. By historical times, in Egypt 5,000 years ago, in Sumeria 4,000 years ago, beer was already a staple. Hammurabi, that ancient legal eagle, laid down quite a few laws concerning beer, which continues to be regulated, like other key staples such as bread and milk, by governments, still today.
Smith is most interested in European brewing traditions, and their ultimate globalization. For him, beer is what the German Reinheitsgebot defines: water, grain, yeast, and hops. Of the four, hops are a latecomer, replacing something called "gruit" in medieval times. Hops and gruit preserve and flavor beer, and hops provide its classic bitterness. Some craft brewers today try to recreate gruit mixtures and forego hops. Their brews are interesting, but they don't taste like beer.
Beer yeast was traditionally caught wild, like sourdough bread yeast, and so doesn't even fall under the original Bavarian Reinheitsgebot of 1516. But water and grain are immemorial. The Bavarians went further and specified barley. With mild irony, the great Bavarian beers of the present day are Weissbiers, made with a healthy helping of wheat. American "adjunct" beers – the thin lagers we all love to hate – are made from corn and rice. They don't taste like beer either.
Nah, I kid. Of course they taste like beer, even if they don't taste much like this Firestone 805 that I'm drinking at the moment. Beer, for Americans of my generation, tastes like the Schlitz my grandfather used to keep around in the early 1970s. Fizzy, burp-inducing, metallic (from the can), more sour than bitter, and without much effect on even a 12-year-old's mental processes unless you trusted that lack of effect too much and drank three or four in quick succession in which case you were suddenly under the table.
I thank God and Benjamin Franklin every day that I have lived to see the great renaissance of American brewing. That revival happened in two distinct waves. First, in the late '80s and the 1990s, a few independents – Sam Adams and Pete's prominent among them – somehow got a toehold in the market and began to sell beers somewhat heavier, darker, and fuller-bodied than the traditional Schlitz. Then everybody opened a brewpub. Every brewpub produced something that tasted just like Sam Adams or Pete's, and everybody got massively tired of the stuff, and all the brewpubs closed and we were back to trying to choose between Miller Lite and Budweiser again.
But in the 21st century, after an odd but perceptible hiatus, suddenly even suburban supermarket beer shelves stocked grapefruit IPAs and cinnamon-horchata hefe-weizens and Trippel Imperial Ye Olde Motore-Oile stouts. You cannot now hope to live long enough to try all the American beers on offer – I doubt I could hope to sample everything brewed even in Dallas-Ft. Worth, which is hardly the capital of craft beer. And once again, President Franklin's maxim is borne out: God does want us to be happy.
Smith, Gavin D. Beer: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.