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Brilliant romp through beer's history

Added: Monday, April 5th 2021

Peyton book

The Philosophy of Beer, Jane Peyton (British Library, £10)

Jane’s book arrived at a timely moment and stopped me throwing a brick through the window. I had just read a fascinating article in the Observer about new varieties of grapes developed in France to bring fresh character to wine. I knew that if I suggested to the good people at that newspaper they should run a similar piece on new hop varieties grown in England – Boadicea, First Gold, Endeavour and the American Cascade – I wouldn’t even get a reply.

I once phoned a friend at the London Evening Standard and said his paper really should cover the Great British Beer Festival as between 50,000 and 60,000 people would be attending. “Beer?” he scoffed. “Do you seriously think readers of this paper want to read about beer?” Yet wander into London pubs – when they’re open -- and what will you see: people reading the Standard and drinking a pint of beer.

Beer in Britain is the drink that dare not speak its name. Wine columns flow in unending torrents from the posh end of the press but beer is usually only mentioned when there’s a report about problem drinking.

So hats off to Jane for writing this brilliantly researched book that turns the spotlight on our national drink, including a style – cask-conditioned ale – that should in any rational society be a source of great pride. As the book has the imprimatur of the British Library, perhaps it will give editors pause for thought and consider beer to be worthy of consideration.

Jane begins her romp – for this is a lively, well-written and witty overview of the subject – by stressing beer’s democratic role in societies, uniting people of all backgrounds to enjoy the pleasures of the world’s favourite form of alcohol. It’s a beverage that comes in many forms – including pale ale and Pilsner, porter and stout, old ale and barley wine, Bock and lambic.

And as Jane stresses, drinking beer is about pleasure:  as a writer in Ancient Egypt said, “It brings joy to my heart and a healthy liver”. And that’s where beer began, in the Fertile Crescent that’s now the Middle East covered by Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Palestine and parts of Iran and Turkey. Around 12,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers settled into recognised communities with the aim of growing grain to make bread and beer. Jane quotes Dr Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania who thinks it was grain and its end products that led to societies based on culture, commerce, education and law. In short, beer is civilisation.

Beer migrated from the Ancient World to Europe and Jane covers its development from a drink dosed with herbs and spices to balance the sweetness of the grain, to the arrival of the all-important hop plant. Hops not only give delightful aromas and flavours to beer but their anti-bacterial qualities also give it what in modern parlance is called “shelf life”. Hopped beer lasted longer than ale made with a blend of herbs and spices known as gruit. And hops led to commercial brewers springing up to meet the insatiable demand for beer as the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hops were followed by a scientific knowledge of the wonders of yeast and it was the work of Pasteur and Carlsberg’s brewers in Denmark that led to a style of beer – lager – that would conquer the world.

In recent years there’s been an attempt by beer writers – mainly in the United States and this country – to develop a language of beer to help consumers understand why pale ale is different to porter. I’m grateful to her for mentioning the pioneering work of the late Michael Jackson and myself in tackling the need for a beer language and the derision we sometimes suffered. I was once laughed to scorn at a CAMRA meeting when I said a certain beer had a chocolate aroma but few would laugh now. Knowledgeable drinkers appreciate that if a beer is brewed with chocolate malt it might actually taste of chocolate!

Jane writes some lip-smacking suggestions for matching beer with food and the image of a hunk of Stilton and a glass of IPA has me salivating.

She bravely – and this will cause uproar among those po-faced medical authorities who think beer should be confined to the outer reaches of hell – outlines the healthy attributes of moderate consumption. Want healthy bones, skin and bowels, and need to avoid head lice, arthritis and gout? Then head to the bar.

And finally Jane sets off to Belgium to marvel at the wonders of a country where, I discover from the book, beer is included on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Just learning that from Jane’s splendid book is worth 10 quid of anyone’s money – which where I live comes to two pints in my local.