Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

January 11, 2010

Beer Diary:

Holy History, Batman!

Why is it big chunks of history about beer and brewing get not only ignored, but even denied?
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
So I recently got done reading Pete Brown’s Hops And Glory, subtitled One Man’s Search For The Beer That Built The British Empire.

It’s a decent read. Brown, a British beer journalist, attempts to recreate the 18th century journey of India pale ale from the brewery in Burton-upon-Trent all the way to Kolkata (Calcutta). In other words, entirely by boat. A bit of a spoiler: he cheats. But probably not for the reason you’d think. Anyway, I found the historical chapters where he described British colonial India immensely interesting—probably because it’s one of those facets of history that we don’t really learn a lot about. Parts of his journey were tedious—his time aboard the tall ship was all travel writing and no beer writing, and Pete is, without a doubt, a beer writer—but the finale actually delivered with some emotional weight, so much so that I had to pop open a bottle of Three Floyds Dreadnaught to quaff while I read the last few chapters. So, much like India pale ale’s antiquated journey, the book was long, a bit difficult in parts, but nonetheless worth it.

But who gives a rat’s ass what I, a semi-educated troglodyte-like cellar dweller, thinks about the book? No, the more interesting aspect of the whole subject—which Brown touches on only with a mere footnote—can actually be found in the latter half of the book’s subtitle: The Beer That Built The British Empire. But before we go any further, let’s set something straight: India pale ale—or any beer, for that matter—did not build the British empire. It didn’t even build the colonization of India. Brown was just playing with a little hyperbole here, which he can be wont to do. Just reread the book’s title, for Christ’s sake.

Hyperbole aside, beer did play a significant role in the British empire, partly culturally and mostly financially. In fact, at the heyday of India pale ale in the late 1800s, brewing was the second largest sector of the economy in the British empire, right behind cotton. Remember learning about the industrial revolution back in high school, all about the coal and steel and railroads? Apparently this was all to facilitate the brewing—and drinking—of beer. Hell, the world’s oldest registered trademark is for Bass ale, the flagship brand of what became the empire’s largest brewery.

So after reading Hops And Glory I rifled through the folks’ “library” (the boxes upon boxes of moldy books that take up roughly a third of the basement) and dug out a copy of Lawrence James’ The Rise And Fall Of The British Empire, a 700-hundred-page beast of a book detailing the last 500 years of fog monkey history.

And guess what I found? Only 4 mentions of beer, and none of it having to do with the brewing industry, just mentions involving taxes, rations, and direct quotes. Cotton, on the other hand, is mentioned 25 times. Fuck, even the cinema gets far more attention in the book than the brewing industry, and that’s been around less than a century.

Beer, brewing, and alcohol in general basically get ignored when we learn about history, regardless of their cultural and economic impact.
Obviously, this is only one history book (although The Sunday Telegraph recommended it to “sixthformers”), but it kind of highlights how beer, brewing, and alcohol in general basically get ignored when we learn about history, regardless of their cultural and economic impact. In his footnote mention of the brewing industry and how it was at one point employing 1.5 million people and responsible for a third of empire’s tax revenues, Brown notes that its omission in our educational curriculums “is perhaps the most significant victory of the temperance lobby.”

Although Brown found such an idea worthy of a single anecdotal mention, I find it downright terrifying. Whole swaths of history blotted out, because, as we all know, so much as an allusion to alcohol or even just its production in the presence of schoolchildren will instantly turn them into raging alcoholics, if it doesn’t make their livers instantly explode.

But ignoring big chunks of our past won’t somehow make them not have happened, which is the best, more ironic part about this kind of revisionist history. In fact, the effect of this hole-filled history is more likely to lead to the opposite, since, as we all know, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Or, in the case of India pale ale at least, blessed to repeat it. Another pull from the high-seas-aged cask of bitter, anyone?

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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