Martyn Cornell’s engaging and serious book, Beer: The Story of the Pint, set me to wondering about this universally popular beverage and the cohort of people—neither producers of beer, nor solely consumers of beer—who want to study, write about, and read about the stuff.
I’ll go out on a limb and venture that those of us who love the idea of beer as much as we love the taste—call us the beer info-geeks—are tied to the history of our beverage in a unique way. Distilled spirits are a fairly recent innovation, so the history of that branch of the drinks world is pretty well documented. That leaves the other family of ancient fermented beverages, wine, as the only similar subject for deep historic study.
I’ll creep further out that limb and hazard that wine, which owes so much to terroir, the character that comes from the vineyard’s locale; and to vintage, the character that comes from a particular year, owes less to long history than does beer. Tell me if I’m wrong, wine info-geeks, but I don’t think there are vintners making the wine equivalents of lambics and sahtis, or arguing about the real ingredients of gruit. History is beer’s hang-up.
So the received history of beer has great popular importance, and that makes Cornell’s book an important addition—and corrective—in any beer scholar’s library. It may not matter to a porter drinker that the tale of the origin of porter as it is usually told doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The beer tastes great, and that is enough. But for anyone who’s heard and re-told the story of Ralph Harwood and the birth of the porter style, this is a book to have.
Cornell is a beer historian, and winner of British Beer Writer of the Year for 2003. He has 20 years of solid research and writing, translated here into a very readable, Anglo-focused book: the introduction, entitled “Beer and Britainia,” is aptly named. In a cool and clear style, he spreads out for the reader all the historic threads that lead to beer becoming the most important social beverage in Britain today.
Early chapters cover the origin of beer (4000 BC) through the 18th century in less than 100 pages, but with careful attention to original sources. That takes the reader from Neolithic brewing to the introduction of hops. After that, such is the pace of change that Cornell devotes about a chapter each to every half century that follows.
Porter, pale ale, IPA, Pasteur, the social divisions of the Victorian pubs, the rise of the national brewers, and the counter-response to save traditional brewing: Cornell documents all these as social as well as brewing events, with thoroughness and humor. In the appendix, his “Short and Entirely Wrong History of Beer,” spells out 39 myths of beer history and Cornell’s best take on the most accurate historical data. That story about medieval ale-conners testing alewives’ beer by sitting in a puddle of the stuff it while wearing their best leather britches? Probably not true.
This is a book that should to be produced and marketed in a high-gloss, hard-wearing version instead of the rather light-weight paperback, because it deserves to be thumbed thorough more often than less worthy books that are given the all-star treatment.