Saturday, July 5, 2014

Session 89: Beer In History

I'm a little late with this month's Session. Truth be told, I haven't written a Session post since the Session was in its 60s. However, since the Pittsburgh Beer Snob threw history into the mix and I thought it was about time to come out of retirement. Mr. Snob challenged us thusly:
When I posted on a more consistent basis I tried to incorporate history in as many posts as I could. I love history. There's just something about it. It's fun. It's interesting. It even gives me goosebumps. So, I only saw it to be fitting that I choose the topic of Beer in History.

At many points in history you can look back and find alcohol intertwined. A lot of times that form of alcohol is beer. Beer is something that connects us with the past, our forefathers as well as some of our ancestors. I want this topic to be a really open-ended one. So, it should be fairly easy to come up with something and participate.
If I've learned anything about history working at the New York State Museum it's that history does not conform to a tidy little package. Over our four year investigation of Albany Ale and the history of brewing in the Upper Hudson Valley of New York state, I've often been asked "what was Albany Ale?" There's no simple answer to that, because it's not so much of a "what" it was answer, but more to the point, a question of "what was it when…?" Albany Ale in 1835 was quite a bit different than it was in 1905—and for that matter so was Albany.

Beer is not a singularity. It's not a Doctor Who-esque phenomenon. That is to say, a fixed thing in time. Beer evolves, and has changed through time. Telling the four hundred year story of beer in the Upper Hudson Valley, proved that to me. For example the notion that beer—and not just Albany Ale—was stronger "back then" is often put forth. But back then is a pretty wide spectrum isn't it? What a specific beer was all depends on when the "back then" was—and where the "back when" was, as well. Beer is, was, and will always be the product of its environment and the social and economic factors that act upon—and against—that environment. That's the part that excites me. It's not just the "oldness" beer. It's the contributing factors—the contextualizing elements—that affected the beer, that perk my coffee.

Beer did—and for that matter does—not exist in a bubble. Why did Albany Ale become the phenomenon it did in the 1850s and 1860s? For a multitude or reasons that quite honestly have little to do with the beer itself—like the recovery from the Revolutionary War, the devastation of the American cereal crop by the Hessian Fly at the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution—and last but most definitely not least—the opening of the Erie Canal. Take any one of those bits out, and you have a chain missing a link.

I think that's why there are some many misconceptions about the history of beer. We often do not look at the whole picture. We generalize history into bite-sized chunks of information, developing the quick story to explain what is in fact a rather complicated story. Unfortunately, some times those easily digested stories are wrong. Just mention to Ron Pattinson that early 19th century IPA was brewed strong to survive the trip to India, and see what happens. I'll be in the other room, mind you.

We also have the tendency to—what a psychologist might say—project our expectations onto the past. We are modern, they are old. Their ways must have been inferior or less efficient than ours. Most of the time, that's just not true. If the breweries of 1870's Albany were operating today, the majority of them would fall under the Brewers Association classification as a regional craft brewery—that being a brewery which produces between 15,000 and 6 million barrels per year—a category that encompasses about 4% of the breweries in the U.S. That seems pretty efficient.

But this post isn't about dispelling myths. It's about understanding that the history of beer is more than beer. It's a history effected by other histories—and a a contributing factor on those histories as well.

The history of beer is the history of us.

1 comment:

  1. Very true, and non-brewing factors will shape the palate to a large degree. E.g. use of heavy corn adjunct in American brewing, National Prohibition, the subsequent laws on "3.2" beer, heavy taxation in Britain during WW I, or just the way hops taste when they come out of American soils...

    It's interesting that "good beer" doesn't really exist as an ideal. It used to be that one could say, "Bavarian lager" or "English ale" were ideals but if that was ever true it is not true now.