Monday, May 18, 2009

The Sociology of Beer (And Other Brew-hahas...)

BLUE, maiden issue
Grab some gravitas next time you have a beer

Let's be clear about a few things.

1. Contrary to popular rumors, this country is not going to the dogs. It's going to world-class thieves who are stealing absolutely everything, including dog chow.

2. It's high time we go for groovy. Lolita Carbon for President, and Sugarfree and Radioactive Sago for the entire Philippine parliament!

3. Although the ballot you cast may not always get tabulated in this country, believe me simple things still count. Next time you hold another bottle or glass of beer, don't just drink it. Enjoy it and give yourself and your beer a little more respect. You hold far more power than you think you have, and the brew in your hand actually holds the memory of entire civilizations. It's completely true.

There's a perfectly legitimate theory held by scholars such as Dr. Delwen Samuels that beer may have come first before bread, which to a beer-fan kind of conveys almost transcendental wisdom. Anthropologists like Thomas W. Kavanagh have even wondered "whether the desire for a secure supply of beer might, in fact, have motivated people to intentionally cultivate grain crops and settle down." In fact, according to the late Michael Jackson (who was the first to wear the mantle "Beer Hunter"), "the world's first known recipe, on clay tablets, appears to be a method for making beer."

The cultivation of grain such as barley and wheat took place alongside the development of things such as art and language, all marks of nascent civilization and not long after, the domestication of similar beer-enabling crops spread out from the Mesopotamian region. In the hotter south, Jackson tells us, Africans began brewing beer from sorghum and millet while Asian peoples in the wetter east did the same with rice, "leading to the production of sake in China and Japan." (Yes, sake is more a variant of beer than 'rice wine', since it comes from a grain.)

Did you know that the earliest evidence of written language, which comes from the Uruk people, "was used primarily for counting and measuring important things, like beer"? The Code of Hammurrabi, for instance, named after the King of Babylonia, contains rules regarding beer and taverns, such as fixing fair rates for beer and requiring female brewers (yes, macho drinkers, the brewers were all female at the time) "to bring disorderly customers to the palace to be summarily punished."

Beer has long had roots in all things spiritual across entire regions.

The Egyptians adopted Isis, the quintessential Nubian earth-fertility goddess, and called her "the Mother of all Goddesses, the Lady of Green Crops and the Lady of Beer." According to Fermenting Revolution, the celebrated book written by brewer and beer scholar Christopher O'Brien, the mythology of Isis later merged with that of Hathor's, the goddess who greets the souls of the dead in the underworld and who is the subject of a hymn where she is called "the Mistress of Inebriety without End."

According to the Kalevala, "the ancient Finnish account of the creation of the world," three women brought about the birth of beer, the initial preparations of which fell flat until one of them "combined saliva from a bear's mouth with wild honey," which caused the beer to ferment and foam.

In the Norse paradise of Valhalla, the Viking god Woden "entertained the dead with war stories" over pitchers of ale that "streamed from the udders of a mythic goat named Heidrun."

Closer to the spiritual home of most Filipinos, did you know that St. Luke the Evangelist "is the first beer saint and one of the few to be formally recognized as such" by Catholic Church?

Apart from his duties watching over prostitutes and seafarers, jolly-man Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus, is also officially listed by the Catholic Church as a Patron Saint of Brewing. There is even a really rare beer named after Holy Nick - Samichlaus Bier - brewed originally in Switzerland. At 14 percent alcohol by volume (% AbV) - unusual for a lager - Santa's brew is made only every December 6, his feast day, and bottled the following October.

I've tasted a really luscious beer named He'Brew: The Chosen Beer (10% AbV) made by Schmaltz Brewing for the niche Jewish market in New York, which my wife brought home for me in 2006 from Brooklyn. The He'Brew bottle occupies a special place in the Kamuning Republic, which holds the entire beer bottle archive that will one day pass over to Rio (nine year-old boy) and Luna (five year-old girl), better known for now as the kids of Red and Kala.

The Kamuning Republic's beer collection is the alcoholic journal of my beer adventures. It started with seven bottles, most notably Bass Pale Ale, which I brought home after my grandfather and I (his treat) went to the unfortunately quick-lived Planet Beer bar in Makati to celebrate my graduation. The collection has grown since to an (almost) fully annotated 400-bottle collection (already much vetted due to perennial space problems).

The Kamuning Republic has all of the best beers that I have tasted, such as Rochefort 10 (AbV 11.3%), an incredibly complex beer brewed by Belgian trappiste monks and which tastes as if you were drinking liquid cake. There is the spice-heavy Hoegaarden Grand Cru (8.5% AbV), which has a distinct finish of nutmeg and cinnamon. There is Zatte (8% AbV) a signature drink of the great Amsterdam microbrewery Brouwerij 't IJ. (In the name of world peace, try this beer.)

The Kamuning collection is also made up of a lot of beer given (with contents intact...) by generous friends such as Kirsten Macey, who introduced me to Little Creatures (5.2% AbV) - a stand-out, very full-bodied pale ale from Freemantle, Australia. The amber-bottled Banks (4.7% AbV) from Barbados, West Indies, on the other hand, is part of the pasalubong from award-winning reporter Maki Pulido after she did a show on the Filipino crew of a luxury liner plying the Caribbean.

Kala gave me a couple of beers last year after she attended an assembly of reproductive health advocates in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - a country with a beer culture that is unsurpassed even by Europe, and where, with exception of devout Muslims, "virtually every woman brews beer."

"Beer is part of everyday Ethiopian life," O'Brien tells us. There, beer drinking "doesn't go on behind closed doors, exclusively by men... Kids get the occasional sip. Grandma and Grandpa get a healthy jug full. Women drink as well as men."

O'Brien makes a singular contribution to drink, scholarship and radicalism in his book when he reminds readers about the distinctly women-based origins of beer-making. His approach is radical and grounded and gives great resonance to his call "to bring back the ale in female." O'Brien surveyed a wide range of beer literature that includes, for instance, the work of Judith Bennett covering the transition of brewing from women to men in England in the period 1300-1600. "Biology has nothing to do with women leaving brewing," Bennett asserts. Instead, based on evidence she has gathered, "cultural ideas about women gradually gave brewsters a sleazy reputation."
Bennett leverages "a large literature in late medieval and early modern England that depicts brewsters as filthy, disgusting workers, as women who produce polluted ale and cheat their customers." Interestingly, said Bennett, "There's no literature like that about male brewers." Her point should be familiar to some Philippine drinkers - there remains a very strong notion, for example, that Filipinas who drink as much and as frequently as men today are looked down on or considered 'easy' or of loose morals. But there's no such thing when it comes to male boozers.

There's more to beer than just suds. At least there should be.

Each year, around 350 billion 12-ounce servings of commercial beer are brewed globally. Unfortunately, more than one in five are produced in the US. The corporate colossus, Anheuser-Busch (AB), America's largest, produces one out of two beers sold in the US, and its most popular brand is called Budweiser. (It's a tragedy, actually. Some of the greatest beers of the world are produced by US microbreweries who truly, passionately love beer making).

You would know, if you're the type who goes through business periodicals or the business section of regular dailies, that there's been a brewing global corporate melee courtesy of the bid of European brewing giant InBev to acquire AB. InBev owns today some of the world's biggest brands such as Stella Artois and Beck's.

If InBev gets its way, it will become the world's largest beer maker. Among brewers and drinkers who take beer quality seriously, though, such an event is likely irrelevant, taste-wise. Both companies represent not just the continued take-over of smaller, local breweries but also the process that O'Brien calls the blandardization of beer. And he's right, of course. But of industrial, crappy beer - as bad and as farcical as the current Philippine government - we will need another article altogether.

Cheers! #

1. Roger Protz, The Taste of Beers: A Guide to Appreciating the Great Beers of the World (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998)
2. Christopher Mark O'Brien, Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World (New Society Publishers 2006)
3. Christopher Mark O'Brien, Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World (New Society Publishers 2006)

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