We humans have a long-standing love of beer. But why do we seem to have some fundamental connection to this simple, ancient beverage? I argue it’s the soulful hard work involved in brewing every glass we drink.
I love beer. I’ll wager you do too. Aside from anything, these days it’s the cool thing to be seen drinking. But deep down you suspect your love of beer is a fundamental, maybe elemental part of you.
I know I do. I was a child in England in the 1980s, and rarely a week would go by without my family spending time in a pub, my father drinking a pint of bitter and my mother a half of Guinness, while my brother and I snacked on crisps and slurped down ginger beer. My family didn’t rush to the pub in a must-get-a-drink way though. Back then the pub in England was the cornerstone of community life. The smell of beer always takes me back to the congregation in the pub.
I grew to love whisky – my grandfather was something of a single malt connoisseur – and in particular wine, training eventually as a sommelier with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, but beer always spoke to me in a way that no other drink could. Wine – complex, alluring and sophisticated as it is – somehow comes across as slightly prissy and snobbish. I’m confident in my ability to impress people with wine, but even at its ethereal, mind-bogglingly expensive best, it can’t charm me like beer.
Beer is my bedrock, a faithful companion. A humble, wholesome drink that carries no airs.
Maybe you’ve heard the bold claim that beer and bread are the cause of civilization. The simple grain of the barley beckoned to Sumerian hunter-gatherers far before history was recorded, showing them a life that could be lived in one place, without the need to roam nomadically. The first arable crops, so the story goes, were of barley, and the first farmers are thought to have been brewers and bakers as well. A poem honoring Ninkasi, goddess of brewing, dates to Mesopotamia (which is now Iraq) about 3,900 years ago. Historians believe crude pots of barley grain fermented spontaneously, creating some kind of rich, hearty, unfiltered and unbittered beer.
Brewing has evolved considerably in the past four millennia (I recommend William Bostwick‘s easy-reading history of brewing through the ages, The Brewer’s Tale, for a detailed account), and in Western civilizations it has played a starring role in the development of society.
When water was untrustworthy, beer was a sterile source of hydration. When food was precious, beer, brewed from the substance of barley, was a source of nourishment. But critically, beer was a social lubricant, to be enjoyed at places of public gathering, and drunk to congregate, celebrate or simply to relax. In England in the middle ages, beer was brewed by the alewife (also brewess or brewster), a female brewer who constantly brewed and sold small batches of ale for thirsty farmers and laborers. In what is now Belgium and France almost every farm had its own small brewhouse, in which so-called farmhouse ales were brewed to refresh workers in the field.
Perhaps because of its role as the thirst-quencher of the working man, beer has stayed safe from the label of status symbol. Wine, whiskey and other spirits have become synonymous with snobbery, while beer has retained an aura of modesty. Perhaps to the chagrin of some brewers and writers, like Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, author of the amazing The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering The Pleasures Of Real Beer And Real Food, this down-to-earth, everyday-ness has prevented beer being seen as a more-than-acceptable accompaniment to good food, but it’s also been critical to the soulfulness of beer.
Nowadays, brewing is all the rage and is becoming kind of cool. It was almost killed off by post-war industrialization and commoditization (though our consumption of it never wavered), but now it’s back, and it’s reaffirming its status as a cultural totem.
I’m fortunate enough to work in the industry, and I spend a lot of time at breweries. To me, the reason beer’s appeal is waxing is simple: it is the fruit of soulful hard work.
If you know a brewer, you’ll know that her profession is not glamorous, and it’s certainly not well remunerated. But I’ll bet your brewing acquaintance loves her job. There are few occupations that allow you to blend art, science and sheer hard labor and turn it into something people enjoy so easily and with such merriment.
For a start, brewing is hard, and actually quite boring, work. You start early (usually before 8am) and generally finish pretty late. Some breweries I know run almost 24/7, and most of them are too cash-strapped to afford full rotating shifts.
The work is menial. Brewers carry big sacks of malt to the top of a mill or mash tun over and over. They repeatedly measure out precise quantities of hops. They’re always turning faucets on and off, and checking temperatures and sugar content. Oh, and they clean up all the time. Large brewing vessels need to be sterile and heavy kegs must be washed thoroughly before being filled.
And aside from the savings in not often paying for beer, they don’t generally get paid generously. If you come into beer to make money, you’re on a wing and a prayer my friend. I would guess that of the 50,000 or so people who work in breweries in America fewer than 50 are millionaires. If I’m right that gives you a 0.1% chance of striking it rich.
Yet brewers tend to be happy. Really happy, in my experience. And not just because of the free beer. Brewers get to put their heart and soul into their work. Can you imagine the satisfaction a brewer feels when pouring the first pint of a batch into a glass in the taproom? Imagine the pride in knowing you took a few sacks of malt, a few handfuls of hops, some carefully nurtured yeast and plenty of fresh water and turned it into an aromatic, balanced and eminently drinkable glass of beer.
Multiply that sensation tenfold as you watch friends, family and strangers enjoying the product of your toil. And they don’t enjoy it for its utility – this is not a practical good you have made. They drink it for its own sake, for the taste and the pleasure.
That buzz, that pride, is the reason folks brew, and do so passionately and willingly.
(Okay, maybe the free beer helps a bit.)
By some process of social osmosis, we, the beer drinking public, have to come to share in the pride and joy brewers put into their daily work. We admire and savor the creativity that goes into designing the recipes for our favorite ales and lagers, and we are constantly grateful for the dedication and attention to detail that that turns them into glasses of hop-bittered happiness.
If the craft revolution has told us anything, it’s that consumers now pay attention to the people, process and ingredients of what they eat and drink. Nowhere is that truer than in beer. The great mechanization movement of 20th century manufacturing is in full reverse, as folks eschew the macro brand and spend their hard-earned dollars on products made locally, by people who care.
Beer, the great social leveler, is at the forefront of that trend. The spotlight is on the brewer, and the role she plays in our social lives. And we increasingly appreciate her soulful hard work.