Can We Read a Beer in the Same Way We Read a Book?

What do we write about when we write about beer?

Often we write reviews of beer. How does a particular beer look, smell and taste, in itself and relative to other, similar beers? Do we judge it to be a good, bad or indifferent beer?

Sometimes we write about the history of beer, or the history of a style of beer, or even the history of one particular beer. How did it come about? Why did it come about? Why has it persisted, how has it changed, why did it disappear?

Occasionally, and perhaps increasingly, we write about the meaning of beer—to us as individuals, to us as a society, to different communities, through regions and through time.

But is it possible to read a beer, in the same way we read a novel?

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“Hops everywhere. Hops at the start of the boil, where they confer mouth-puckering alpha-acid bitterness; hops at the end of the boil, where they roll lazily with the turning brown wort, seeping peppery, fruity oils into the depths of this great (and aromatic) beer. Hops by the Essex marshes, hops on the Kentish heights. Hops in the noses and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their pubs…”

What does a novel do, as we are reading it?

Yes—oh dear, yes—as E. M. Forster put it, a novel tells a story. It has a narrative, and a plot that aims to make that narrative pleasing and compelling.

Does a beer have a narrative? Well yes—oh dear, yes! It sets the scene with its look: it is golden or ruby or black, clear or murky or opaque, fizzy or still, frothy or flat. It introduces its characters with its aromas. Those characters engage in their dramas and intrigues on the drinker’s palate, and in the beer’s finish and aftertaste all the loose ends are tied-up, the marriages are sealed with kisses, the funeral orations are given, the sunsets are ridden into and the cliffhangers are contrived.

Forster resented that the common factor in most novels was story. The more we disentangle a novel’s story from “the finer growths that it supports”, he said, “the less shall we find to admire”. He thought that a good novel should have a lot more to it than a decent story.

Formalist cultural critics, following the likes of Boris Tomashevsky, Vladimir Propp or Mikhail Bakhtin, might disagree. For them, the fact that story is so basic is what makes it so important, and the techniques deployed to tell a story, particularly those techniques that “defamiliarise” the most fundamental narratives of our cultures, are some of the most interesting aspects of a literary work. Isn’t much of the terrifying power of Shakespeare’s King Lear achieved because it initially follows the conventions of the fairy tale and then pitilessly defamiliarises them? Would Don Quixote be as funny as it is without its many straight-faced antecedents?

The narrative of a beer can achieve its effects through defamiliarisation, too.

Think of a Black IPA, which sets the scene with its dark colour and toasty aromas and then introduces the strange, alien characters of hop bitterness and fruit aromas, whose interactions create a narrative as riotous and unresolved as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Consider the way a New England IPA changes the traditional story of our hop-flower narrator from, “I was born bitter, I met some sweet malt and we settled down to a spicy, fruity marriage” to, “Fruit juice, fruit juice, FRUIT JUICE!”

A formalist critique of a beer can take us beyond a mere description of a beer’s look, aroma, taste and finish, and even beyond a simple hedonic critique—“It tasted such-and-such, and I did not like it”—towards a critical theory of beer. The formalist drinker can say, “I do not like Black IPAs, but I understand how they make me think by defamiliarising my expectations of what a Stout or an IPA should be”.

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Stout in possession of a lacklustre foam, must be in want of some oats…”

Formalist drinking explores the ways in which the appearance, aroma and flavour of a beer interacts with our experiential and generic expectations, but it arguably fails to tell us “what a beer is about”.

To say that a Black IPA is “about” the concepts of Stout and IPA does not seem to lead anywhere. By contrast, to say that Bleak House or The Trial is about how the human spirit can be crushed by mechanistic bureaucracies that have taken on an insidious life of their own, or that Moby Dick is about whether the barbarous origins the United States of America can be reconciled with Enlightenment values, is to start down important, stimulating and inexhaustible intellectual byways.

Those are the other things that a novel does when we are reading it, what Forster was getting at when he spoke about “the finer growths” supported by the story. As we are “reading” a good novel, it suggests to us a number of topics or themes that can be deployed in “a reading of” that novel.

Can a beer be “about” similarly big topics as Bleak House or Moby Dick? Can it support a “reading of” itself?

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“Good beers are all alike; every bad beer is bad in its own way…”

If a boxing match, a wrestling bout or an advertisement for Persil detergent can be “about” big topics, then surely a beer can be, too.

The essay is the form that writers have deemed best suited to exploring the ways in which apparently humdrum things conceal profound insights about ourselves and our world.

Michel de Montaigne hit upon the idea of using an event or an observation, sometimes remarkable but often not at all, as the springboard for far-reaching rumination. His celebrated essay, “Of Cannibals”, for example, ends with a few impressions gleaned from a visit of some Brazilian Tupinambá people to Rouen, and contains a good deal of fascinating book learning about indigenous South Americans. But it is really “about” the barbarism of Europe’s so-called civilisation and, at an even deeper level, the intellectual prisons of our subjectivity.

Montaigne’s lightness of touch, and the oblique angles from which he approached his subject matter, influenced the writers of the “familiar essays” of the Romantic era, such as William Hazlitt.

The Romantic sensibility recognised the epic potential in everyday work, both rural and urban, as well as in the emotions of ordinary people from all social classes and stations. It was this sensibility, alongside the techniques pioneered by Montaigne, which inspired essays such as Hazlitt’s “The Fight”, both a seminal piece of sports reportage and a sustained meditation on the relationship between expressive language and subject, of manliness and violence, of social class and patriotism.

The fight is not merely an event that Hazlitt reports, but a narrative whose meaning he reads, painstakingly and exhaustively. “The Fight” is about so much more than a fight; one might say that “The Fight” is about how a fight is about so much more than a fight.

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Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me in wine, I thought I would sail about a little and see the beery part of the world…”

We still live in the Romantic age. Perhaps more than ever, we privilege subjectivity. Because we recognise the sheer intellectual power of the subjective, interpretative mode, we are alive to the mythological potential of even the most modest things and events, whose objective facts seem constrained and readily comprehensible but whose encounter with the subject can illuminate obscure patterns and resonances.

I use the term “mythological potential” because I am thinking of one of Hazlitt’s 20th-century descendants, Roland Barthes. Barthes wrote a series of essays on cultural phenomena that had accrued the status of modern “myths”, and gathered them together in a collection called Mythologies. One was about “The World of Wrestling”—or rather, it was about the way wrestling bouts codify, dramatize and reinforce dominant concepts of social transgression and punishment. Another was about “Wine and Milk”—or rather, it was about how the myth of wine as a health-giving, revitalising, transformative substance in French social life supports the exploitative, imperial-capitalist mode of its production by making us forgetful of it.

Barthes laid the foundations for recognising the textuality of everyday objects—the idea that wrestling or wine or a soap ad could be “read”. But he also showed how these objects were part of a cultural system of signs that were so mundane, and so embedded in our everyday lives and consciousness, that they could silently work to confer the air of naturalness and inevitability upon that culture’s political and economic norms.

That anticipated the main assertion of what would become known as the “new historicism” or “cultural poetics” of the 1980s and 90s—that texts “are engaged in constructing the world, in shaping the modalities of social reality”, as Louise B. Montrose put it in his essay, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture”. Cultural poetics “reorients the axis of inter-textuality, substituting for the diachronic text of an autonomous literary history the synchronic text of a cultural system”, Montrose explained.

In other words, to apply this to Barthes’ essay on “Wine and Milk”, the myth of wine isn’t just a reading that becomes clear as we consider the background social and economic context of wine; the myth of wine is itself active in constructing and shaping our social and economic reality. When Barthes “reads” wine, he does not reveal its meaning, but its discursive role in a cultural system. As such, wine (or a book, or a wrestling bout) can be “read” politically, but in a deeper sense wine is always already political.

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“Someone must have been telling lies about Beavertown, for without having done anything wrong a chunk of it was bought by Heineken one fine morning…”

One of the most powerful myths in the semiology of beer is the myth of “craft”.

Genuine craft does happen in the brewing industry, but it is exceptionally rare, and certainly much rarer than the promiscuous application of the term suggests. That is because the term has been pressed into the work of mythology. It is used to appeal to consumers as a cool-defining contradistinction against the “macro” brewing of multinational businesses, and it is invoked most passionately when one of those macrobrewers acquires a smaller brewery hitherto identified as “craft”.

These periodic eruptions are intriguing in their curious mix of defiance and anxiety. Craft-beer advocates are simultaneously defiant about what craft beer is and is not, and deeply anxious that macro beer is about to appropriate the entire craft-beer ecosystem.

Practically and economically, such anxieties are nonsensical. Large multinationals do not intend to appropriate all brewing activity, nor could they  if they did intend to. But that is not what craft-beer advocates are really anxious about. The anxiety is instead rooted in the ideological dissonance of what each individual acquisition reveals about craft beer—that it is “an idea sufficiently nebulous to be appropriated without being utterly debased”; in other words, a myth.

To read that myth critically, as one would read a book, is not to reveal a conspiracy of industrial capital to appropriate craft beer. It is to reveal that the myth itself supports and normalises—through forgetfulness—the capitalist reality of virtually all beer brewing and retailing.

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If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was brewed, and what my lousy fermentation was like, and how my brewers were investment bankers and all before they made me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth…”

At this point it is worth pausing to acknowledge that we are now considering what the term “craft beer” is about, rather than our original stated objective, “what a beer is about”. Roland Barthes wrote an essay on “Wine and Milk”, not on the 1926 vintage of Château Margaux. It is one thing to understand that, through the 18th century, “the novel” evolved its form and its narrative tropes both to reflect and to shape the reading habits and moral expectations of an increasingly influential bourgeoisie. It is quite another thing to read “a novel” such as Tom Jones or David Copperfield or Lucky Jim as an exploration of those forms and tropes.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that a reading of “the novel” can provide more than a merely formalist framework for a reading of “a novel”. Can a reading of “craft beer” (or any other beer mythology) provide a similar framework for a reading of “a beer”? I think it can.

Next time you drink a juicy, thick, opaque New England IPA from a painstakingly designed can, for example, reflect upon the following question. Are you reading that beer more deeply if you are an Instagram “influencer” posting a high-sheen advertisement for it to your followers, awaiting your next box or sweatshirt freebie from the brewery? Are you reading it more deeply if you drink it without any knowledge of Instagram? Or are you reading it more deeply if you recognise that Instagram is the primary reason this beer exists, but drink it for its own sake?

When you settle down to enjoy an indulgent “Pastry Stout”, consider the discursive role of its processed-food ingredients in our cultural system. Does that lead you to think about how beer of any kind is a highly-processed product, and how “process” is linked to “craft” in food and beverage manufacturing? Which of the beer’s ingredients are “for the label, not for your taste buds”, and what does that imply about the mythology of craft? When did “craft” become complicit in the recycling of taxpayer-subsidised, rentier-produced corn and sugar surpluses, the pernicious agri-health-industrial complex that churns out so much of the junk that clogs the citizen-consumer’s arteries? How do the politics of Budweiser’s adjuncts differ from the politics of the adjuncts in Fudgie the Beer?

When that most adult of phenomena, the alcoholic beverage, is infantilized, it regresses us to the state we were in when our inchoate uprisings and rebellions could be soothed with a dose of tooth-rotting sweetness.

But when the time comes to rebel against our toothache and our heart attacks, will our sugared-up minds have the critical wherewithal to link what ails us with our addictive consumerism, and the complexes that forced it upon us?

Will we see that the myth of craft is part of the sugar-coating that dulls our critical faculties as we drink our beers, without first taking care to read them?

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