Ideas of Fermentation and Distilled History

On this 4th of July morning (which, in America, is a secular holiday, or holy day), I finally got around to one of my short reading lists that concerns the scholarly study, specifically, of beer, and broadly of fermentation, booze and alcohol (or what academics sometimes refer to as ethyl). The four books in front of me include The Oxford Companion to Beer (Oxford University Press, 2012), two monographs by Patrick McGovern including Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University Press, 2003) and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (University of California Press, 2009). The fourth work is The Archaeology of Alcohol and Drinking (University Press of Florida, 2008) by Frederick H. Smith, and this is perhaps the one that speaks most pointedly to the July 4, 2013 day since it is a part of The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective series.

Some booze studies scholarship.

Some booze studies scholarship.

Of all these books, the Oxford companion is put together like an encyclopedia rather than a narrative or anthology, and Oxford sensationalized it a bit by asking Tom Colicchio to write the short forward. Because I am in the dark on many facets of contemporary culture (it all moves and changes so fast, though; and Tom would have to Google our names as well), I had to Google Colicchio’s name, but when an image of his face appeared I recognized him immediately as one of those celebrity chefs. Tom noted how as he matured from his teens up to 2012, so did his appreciation toward beer. Of this work, though, I thought Oxford would have benefitted more to get a brew master to write the forward, or even a monk at a monastery that is renowned for beer. Tom works in the trade of acquiring James Beard Awards, culinary rage and sensationalism (which is how you make it in that business) whereas a monk devotes time to brewing, reflection, and self-reflection (in large part for humanity and the sustainability of the abbey or monastery). Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver drafted the preface to this work, and he speaks a bit more to the beer trade.

The Oxford companion is huge like an encyclopedia, numbering 919 pages, or around 2″ thick. I think the only way you’d go about using this book is to check up on a pointed question with the index, look at the topical features just after the preface, or to open it up to a random page. On page 674, the entry “public houses (pubs)” appears, noting that the institution of the pub did not have much renown outside of the U.K. until business owners decided to bring Irish Disneyland to the world with Irish-themed pubs (I suppose the idea was that not everyone can make it to Ireland to visit a pub, so might as well bring the Irish-themed pub to the non-Ireland world). It is moderately surprising to not see Kingsley Amis referenced in the index of this work, but I suppose if a person is building a scholarly library on beer and booze, they already know about it (Amis knew his booze, and he could be accused of being just as interested in its effect as he was the flavor and body of the stuff).

On the first page is the entry “abbey beers,” and this expands on the brewing expertise of the Belgian Trappist monks, and the established “appelation (controlee)” which lets everyone know where the monastic beer originated (time, space and chronology is important to the monastic tradition for many reasons). In reading and writing about this passage, for at least a couple years I have hoped that the monks of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, might at some point down the line consider brewing beer with North Dakota grains, barley and hops. And even better, sharing it (but that’s totally up to them).

As for the works by McGovern, I first came across his name in a popular history of booze put out by the Smithsonian in July-August 2011 (the great article linked to here). McGovern focused on fermentation in Western Civilization (the region of Mesopotamia is the cradle of fermentation), and he also made the case that we today are part of a long fermentation process (the long durée of beer drinking). In McGovern’s scholarship, he is a bit heavy-handed in his testimonies to the irrefutability of the archaeological record or the interpretation thereof (“There is no hidden bias lurking in a pottery sherd or a stone wall, as there might be in a written document.” [McGovern, 2003: 5]). But that sophomoric understanding of philosophy and theory is outweighed by a broad knowledge of the history of beer and wine.

German-produced Bartmann wine bottle from the British settlement site of Jamestown, Virginia. (Smith, 2008: 12)

German-produced Bartmann wine bottle from the British settlement site of Jamestown, Virginia. (Smith, 2008: 12)

Of the four books, the best on the subject is by Frederick H. Smith. And I define best in the sense that it is an academic treatment of the subject that tracks both the subject itself and what other scholars from the academy have said about it (like brewing, the origins of this tradition is monastic in and of itself). The first chapter to this work alludes to numerous scholars in alcohol studies (a kind of subfield in history and anthropology), and the subsequent chapters go on to discuss the Iberian storage vessels first used to transport the sauce throughout the Atlantic World, from the Old to the Jamestown colony in the New, and here to the production of alcohol to its trade and consumption and so on. By the 16th and 17th centuries, hand-blown glass bottles surpassed the ceramic vessels, and Smith notes that when these bottles are recovered, so is the booze. For example, an early 17th century glass bottle of wine was once recovered by marine archaeologists, and it turned out that the Dutch warship had wine at 10.6% alcohol content, this within the same range as the content of wine today.

The final chapter in Smith’s monograph stems from a 2005 study he did on the role alcohol played in the 1816 slave revolt in Barbados (four decades after elite Anglo-America got its start). These case studies are a more effective way to explore the social history of booze in all of its variety and nuance. Specific to this are the caves on Barbados, a place where self-liberated slaves could escape to on an island and carve out an underground existence. Without going too much further into these works, it seems that on July 4th it is important to acknowledge the philosophical substance of America’s Declaration of Independence, but more importantly to know that it was a document prepared by an elite minority on the backs of an enslaved majority.


One response to “Ideas of Fermentation and Distilled History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: