Brewing a Revolution?
Whether you like it in a pint glass, flagon, schooner, bird feeder or fedora, there is undoubtedly a beer to suit your taste nowadays. Offerings in even the most basic pubs are beginning to go beyond fizzy foreign lagers and flat generic ales, now being as varied and intriguing as beer's own history.
Until more recently, beer drinkers in the UK have been cast as balding men with rotund bellies and a penchant for darts. But the identity of beer drinkers has morphed and shifted over time, as much as where, how and what they have enjoyed drinking.
In keeping with Ninkasi - the Sumerian goddess of beer - pre-19th c. brewers in the UK were mostly women - 'brewsters' - brewing small batches of beer for domestic consumption. This home brew - sometimes called 'small beer' - was usually drunk throughout the day. The fact that we might feel a little shocked by the idea of women and children drinking beer all day, says a lot about how our cultural perception of the drink has changed over time. In fact, this beer would have been low in alcohol and a more nutritious, safer alternative to water at the time. It might have tasted a bit funky and sour, as bacterial infections during brewing were harder to omit without the chemical sanitation we have now, and it would rarely have been the same from batch to batch.
With industrialisation in the 19th c., beer became a cheap, standardized drink made on a much bigger scale. In public, it was mostly drunk by working class men who took consumption out of the home and into public houses, where it became improper for women to hang out - though most likely this was to safeguard men's space away from their families rather than any genuine concern for the health or propriety of the 'gentler sex'. However, as most famously depicted by William Hogarth (above), it was still preferable for women (and everyone) to drink beer if the other option was gin - the tipple most infamously associated with moral ruin.
Into the 20th c., the reputation of beer sank, reaching a significant low in the 1990's with the birth of 'lager-louts'; destructive football fans, fuelled by cheap, sugary industrially produced lager. At that point, only a few international breweries were supplying the vast majority of the beer market in the UK.
Nowadays, things are pretty different. There are apparently over 2000 'craft' breweries in the UK. Choosing from the average selection of obscure brews at any well curated bar has become a tricky business; at once offering you the potential to show off your artisanal-brew-savvy, and then negating all suave by making you rather squiffy. Average ABV (alcohol by volume) keeps creeping steeply upwards with the strongest beer now being a ludicrous 67% and, of course, Scottish. Alongside escalating booze content, beer branding is seriously upping its game, and breweries are also engaged in a fierce battle for attention by seeing who can squeeze in the weirdest ingredients (toasted marshmallow, sourdough starter, oysters, nettles, squid-ink and a yeast strain from the brewer's own beard, just to name a few...). This trend is partly about raising a middle finger to convention - an attempt to give beer's old-fashioned, dowdy reputation the heave-ho - and it also serves to reinforce a reputation of playful rebelliousness. Many acknowledge the existence of a craft beer 'revolution', arguably spearheaded by the original 'punk' brewers; Brew Dog, but now carried forth by a litany of tiny, diverse, and thoroughly intrepid micro-breweries. The aim is ostensibly to turn beer culture in the UK on its head, but perhaps to subvert a few other societal beliefs and conventions at the same time. However, some unfortunate tradition perseveres, with the vast majority of beer enthusiasts still being men. Many criticise the validity of the 'movement', saying it remains elitist and is becoming overly commercial.
Perhaps. But weirdly, alongside the boom in craft beer for sale, there's also been a big rise in home brewing. I've never really understood why you'd go to the trouble of BYO (brewing your own) while so much good stuff is readily available. It seems like a lot of hassle now that our homes are no longer set up with stone vats, bottling rooms and storage cellars (unless you're very lucky). But I recently learned there are other reasons to brew other than convenience or cost, or even quality. The splendid David Pollock - graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science (UniSG) - showed me how to brew a 'smash' (one hop, one malt) beer the other day. I was prepared to be swamped by technical jargon and tricky science, but in fact everything from the kit necessary to make it, to the process itself, can be quite simple. The kitchen where we brewed smelled delicious - intoxicatingly sweet and complexly perfumed just from boiling malt and hops. Without a toasted marshmallow or graffiti inspired logo in sight, I was reminded of the elemental nature of this ancient beverage. We have been brewing for millennia, after all. Some historians even believe that beer was the original reason for transitioning into agriculture.
Beer is undoubtedly one of the most basic and overlooked drinks in British culture (after milk), and weirdly, to some extent it is being further obscured by the current hype.
Come and debate this with David and I on Sunday 13th May, and taste some of the beer we made last week. Apparently it's going to be strong pale ale, at about 6.2% :) We'll be showing you how to brew your own, and exploring the history, politics and controversies (and flavours) of the craft brew movement at the same time. We even have an actual old stone brewery to serve as a talking point! And as always, delicious lunch and food-focussed conversation comes as part of the day.
Take a look at the event details here, and register soon!