Here's an essay I submitted to a British beer-writing contest a few weeks ago. It didn't win the 2000 pound prize, but I still think it's worth a read. Hope you think so as well.
Beer: A Bright Light in a Dark World
The world we live in today is, in many ways, a pretty grim place. Wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, social upheaval, ethnic and religious violence, economic collapse – the list goes on and on. One asks about the latest news out of a sense of dread these days, rather than curiosity. We live in tough times.
But then again, when has it ever been different? Looking back through the thousands of years of recorded history, and I’m sure through the thousands of years of prehistory before that, it seems things have always been pretty tough for the human race. Building the first cities in Sumeria was certainly no picnic, and they probably didn’t get a lot of cheerful volunteers to haul stone blocks under the Egyptian sun to build the pyramids. Standing guard on Hadrian’s Wall, waiting for the Picts to pay you a visit was no bed of roses, nor was making it through the Black Death or the Hundred Years War. Later generations got to experience the joys of the Napoleonic Wars and the wrenching dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, followed up by the crowning achievements of the 20th Century, two World Wars sandwiching a Great Depression. Yes, bad as things are today, it seems that’s just the natural state of affairs. All that doesn’t bode well for the future, but what else is new?
Still, through all the dark days and hardships of the past, present, and future, mankind has always had a few good things upon which we could rely for solace and good cheer. Chief among these few good things for at least the last ten thousand years or so has been beer. Let’s face it, after a tough day’s work for the pharaoh (whoever your particular pharaoh happens to be), there’s nothing a man wants more than to sit down and enjoy a nice pint of fermented grain with his mates. Plus, that pint was a pretty special thing; for much of history it was about the only thing you could safely drink. Even today, it’s a healthy choice, with vitamins and minerals your body needs, along with just enough alcohol to keep your heart healthy and your soul happy. Yes, beer has been one of the few good things that the working man has had to look forward to through the ages.
Just as important as drinking beer has been doing so in a social setting, as a communal activity. From the carved reliefs of the Sumerians, we see men and women, sitting around a communal jug of beer, drinking through their individual reed straws and no doubt discussing the issues of their day. Ever since we humans figured out how to brew it, we’ve been inviting our friends and family to share beer with us.
This emphasis on imbibing in a communal fashion seems to be something almost unique to beer. Sure, the Ancient Greeks had the occasional symposium with wine, but beer seems to almost always be consumed in a group setting. Much of the pleasure of beer seems to reside in this social aspect. Hard liquor and even wine contains too much alcohol to be consumed in quantity over a long time span without negatively impacting the drinker’s ability to converse and behave in a polite fashion. Beer seems uniquely suitable as the tipple of choice for a long session at a party or the pub, talking and laughing with friends.
Even today, in our much more atomistic society, beer drinkers have created spontaneous social communities on the internet. On websites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer and in thousands and thousands of blogs, beer drinkers reach out for the same communal experience that our ancestors enjoyed: drinking beer and talking about it with friends. Wherever and whenever beer is consumed, social relationships are created. It’s the soil in which friendships take root and grow.
The enjoyment of beer in a social setting is at the heart of the centuries old cultural icon that is the British pub. While it may have some analogues in other cultures (the café in Belgium, the German biergarten, or even the neighborhood bar in America), none of them are such an important component of their respective cultures. Despite the numerous body blows that it has taken over the last several decades from foolish governmental policies and changing public tastes, the pub still rests at the heart of what it means to be British.
Furthermore, a fine, well-kept pub still remains the best setting in which to experience the joy that is an excellent beer. Walking through the door into an attractive public bar, looking over the beers on offer, making a selection based on personal taste and mood, having it expertly pulled and served to you in a lovely, clean glass, inhaling the wonderful aroma, feasting your eyes on its beautiful color and clarity, then at last taking that first, wonderful sip – well, I’m not a religious person, but I think I can grasp the concept of religious ecstasy!
Once you are past the sheer enjoyment of the beer itself, there is still the entire social dimension of the pub to enjoy. Whether you are a stranger in town or dropping in to your local for a pint after work, you are almost guaranteed to strike up an interesting conversation. The atmosphere of the truly fine pubs, the ones that eschew televisions and loud music, encourages this sort of interaction. Good beer and good conversation go hand in hand; they always have and they always will. In many ways the pub has been and remains the social glue that holds communities together. It provides an individual the chance to meet and interact with the other members of their community, in a setting that promotes equality and conversation, lubricated with the moderate amount of alcohol provided by the responsible consumption of beer. What could be better than that?
In good beer mankind has found a healthy drink for the body, a stimulant to the intellect, and a solace for the soul. It’s the common factor that promotes communication between both strangers and long-time friends. It breaks down barriers and builds communities. Its production embodies centuries of history, yet utilizes the most modern of technologies. It’s a luxury that the rich man cannot monopolize, as it remains one the average man can afford.
Over three thousand years ago in Egypt, someone carved the following inscription: “The mouth of the perfectly contented man is filled with beer.”
Some things never change.