From Beer to Eternity - James Scolari

From Beer to Eternity

Man's ancient brew is more popular than ever. Published in the Ventura County Reporter
It’s been said that the ocean has no memory, and if the same could be said of a beverage it would undoubtedly be true of beer. The ancient libation – it’s brewers’ arts hearkening back over untold millennia – is said to be the world’s third most popular beverage, bowing only to water and tea in populist preference.
An eminently democratic beverage, beer has always been of, by and for the people. The brew was born and raised in the kitchen, the province of Europe’s celebrated ale wives -- the recipes of whom often eclipsed the demand for rich dowries or even a glamorous profile – whose product gave rise to the ‘public house,’ or pub, now an inextricable part of the culture not only in Europe, but worldwide. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the brew moved for a time from the kitchen to the factory, as giant corporations sprung up to thrive on both our enduring love for the draught and enduring need for its intoxicating nudge out of the everyday grind. Today we find the pendulum swings back, as in all great historical movements, to find the brewer back in the kitchen, as the art thrives with an exploding array of micro-brews, niche and underground labels, home craft and more.
It’s perhaps in the democracy of beer and ale that their appeal most takes root, for there has never been a time in world history when a frosty mug or frothy tankard lacked the power to render the strife between foes altogether moot, even if only temporarily. The idea is alive and well even in this age of a nearly hopelessly polarized America – as evinced in President Obama’s recent ‘beer summit’ that sought to bury the hatchet simultaneously between red and blue, right and left, black and white, and between academia and the salt of the earth. It might have taken three vastly different brews to cement the toast between such disparate realms as president, professor and police officer, but such is the nature of beer to be so accommodating – and so between bottles of Sam Adams, Bud and Blue Moon, the hatchet was buried, to the delight of -- if neither left nor right, black or white -- at least beer aficionados everywhere.
It’s in the same manner that business is frequently transacted over a draught or few: “I’m a biologist, and I was meeting in downtown Sacramento,” notes Venturan Steve Howard, “dealing with the conservation of endangered species on the West Coast, and we’d always finish up saying ‘Let’s take this to the pub;’ and we’d frequently seem to get more done over beers, with a much more relaxed atmosphere, even though we were talking about serious stuff.” He continues, “We’ve been involved in some lawsuits, and I always think, if we’d just take this over to the bar, we might actually come up with some common ground!”
Such social alchemy of the brew also remains central to its appeal, as since time immemorial we have sought some means of transport out of ourselves – seeking what Aldous Huxley termed “doors in the wall” of perception, that offered perspectives, if not revelations, beyond our often oppressive everyday experience. “The longing to transcend ourselves if only for a few moments,” he wrote in 1963, “is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul.” Likewise in 1952’s The Devils Of Loudun, he observed: “Always and everywhere, human beings have felt the radical inadequacy of their personal existence, the misery of being their insulated selves and not something else, something wider, something in Wordsworthian phrase, ‘far more deeply interfused."
The wish to be “more deeply interfused” seems to fit the notion most aptly – and if the nomenclature feels a bit thick in everyday parlance, it would likely resonate for one regarding his domain from ‘deep in his cups.’ Truly, could any be regarded as “more deeply interfused” than a pair of barstool brethren ensconced in a musky, dusky tavern? While such heady syllables as Huxley’s might remain out of reach of those in the arms of the deep amber embrace, they frequently effect the identical sentiment with a heartfelt, even if too-often slurred “I love you, man,” that for all its ridicule is no less profound – at least until the onset of the hangover.
As with the democracy of beer, so is its profundity likewise central to its appeal. It’s no coincidence that early in its history the production and distribution of brew became inextricably tied to both quasi-religious practice as well as demonstratively religious institutions. Ecstasy through intoxication has long been and remains an essential part of the religion of people in widely disparate cultures across the globe. History shows it as an essential aspect of the religion of the Celts, the Teutons, the Greeks, pre-Islamic cultures of the Middle East and many others. Citing Huxley, “It is not merely that beer ‘does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man:’ beer is the god.” Though the sentiment may ring blasphemous to Christian sensibilities, it likely rings increasingly true as the blood alcohol percentage rises.
Even in cases where it has not supplanted God, beer has certainly financed Him: under the dictum that monasteries be self-supporting, much ecclesiastical industry in the Middle Ages centered on the brewing of beers and ales – and while many of Europe’s monastic breweries were destroyed in World War Two, the practice continues to this day, with Trappist Monks still producing some of the world’s most celebrated labels.
Another of beer’s many gifts is a long-standing and, contrary to contemporary popular belief, unequivocal view that the brew bestows and supports good health. In early days, when water supplies were too-often contaminated, the process of brewing rendered beer sterile and so unfailingly safe, thus embodying the physician’s first mandate of “first, do no harm.” (Of course, while it must be noted that alcohol has and continues to wreak havoc in countless ways, such is certainly not the singular province of beer.) Beyond the purely utilitarian superiority of beer to bad water, beer enjoyed a legendary status of healthy and restorative effects – in the Emerald Isle, Guinness thrived under the simple, effective maxim, “Guinness is good for you.”
While contemporary sentiment might have overturned that notion, again, we find the pendulum swinging back to jibe with a more anachronistic view, as researchers at Tufts University reported this year that among older adults – especially women – a regular, moderate intake of beer is associated with greater bone mineral density. Their research was independently supported by a Spanish team at the University of Extremadura – inspiring a new look at the benefits of the old brew. By the same token, according to the pundits that inform the “go-to” answer site www.about.com, “… Along with increasing bone density, the presence of folate in beer helps lower the risk of heart disease when consumed in moderation. Beer also reduces blood clots and it has been shown to improve mental function in women.” Thus, while many women have, at least in modern day, been far less enamored of the amber brew than their masculine counterparts, it’s perhaps an ethic that’s changing.
According to Vincenzo Giammanco, who heads up Ventura’s upcoming California Beer Festival, advance tickets for the event have so far been selling in greater numbers to women than men, an aspect that he finds most pleasing. “A lot of women will say ‘I don’t like beer, what else do you have,’ he notes. “When I ask what they’ve tried they’ll reply ‘Coors Light.’ Well that’s not beer,” he laughs. “Yes, it’s beer, but there’s so much more out there! With our festival we’re excited to provide a good opportunity for people to get out there and see how diverse the world of beer really is. If, when all’s said and done, we make a new beer lovers out of a few women – or men, for that matter – our festival can be considered a great success.”
No matter where one resides on the scale of beer appreciation, from the refinement of the beer sommelier to the everyday devotion of Homer Simpson (“…mmmm, beer...”), there is a beer for just about everyone. Having no memory, beer simply is, as we’d have it, for better or worse, for all time. “It's really an amazing thing, beer,” concludes Ventura beer lover Joe Lombardo. “An age-old beverage that can bring people together, complement food, support industries both large and small. It's definitely going to be around as long as we are.”