Of Ale and History


Earlier this year, Alan Eames passed away. I never got to meet him; the closest I came was drinking pints at the pub he founded, Three Dollar Dewey's in Portland, Maine. He's best known as "The Indiana Jones of Beer," an adventurer who traveled to remote parts of the world and gave us a glimpse at brewing methods older than recorded history.

Eames's The Secret Life of Beer is a lighthearted collection of brewing lore he'd collected over the years. It looks, and is arranged, much like those "365 Facts a Year" calendars that show up in shopping malls before Christmas. (It also makes a great stocking stuffer for the beer lover on your list.)

The book is loosely organized--there aren't even defined chapters--but there is a loose chronological progression, starting with the ancient cultures that were Eames's specialty. One of his favorite topics was women and brewing, a mainstay of ancient legends. Prehistoric people the world over believed that beer was a gift from a goddess to man. Actually, a gift to women who, until recently, had exclusive control over brewing.

At first, beer was at the center of religious rituals, and intoxication was considered a holy state of mind rather than grounds for arrest. Before humans developed written languages, village elders recited tribal legends at beery gatherings. Despite of the best efforts of prohibitionists, beer and religion have yet to be separated. Dozens of saints, many of whom have no known connection to beer, have been turned into brand names.

If time travel existed, I would take my next vacation in ancient Sumeria. It was there that beer culture met writing. The Epic of Gilgamesh is filled with references to beer; and so was the Code of Hammurabi, the first legal compilation. Long before the first Hooters opened, Sumerian brewers used attractive women to hawk their brand of beer. And even if they didn't invent it, the beer hall was a Sumerian institution. It was a place were people of all kinds could gather--something that a divided America could use more of.

Ancient Egypt also ranks in the top tier of beer cultures. Nearly every family made its own; and if homebrew wasn't enough to sustain a family, the man of the house was paid in kind for his labor: the minimum wage was two huge pitchers. Taxes and tribute were also paid in beer, and the Pharaoh and his court enjoyed specially brewed beer that was--pardon the pun--fit for a king. The Egyptians' philosophy of life was "eat, drink and be merry," and party hosts reminded guests of the second part of that quotation, "for tomorrow we may die," by bringing out a wooden corpse.

Skipping past Greece and Rome--prissy cultures that looked down on beer--Eames ambles around the barbarian regions of Europe. He pays tribute to the Picts, a warlike people who once inhabited Scotland. Their ferocity likely came from drinking ale brewed with heather, a plant that contained a fungus with LSD-like properties. Modern-day versions of the ale exist; while they won't induce acid trips, Eames warns that they do pack a punch.

As drinkers, the Vikings lived up to their legend, which is saying a lot. They admired the man who could down huge quantities without ill effect, and even Thor himself was up for the occasional chugging contest. Strange people, those Vikings. Their personal hygiene was awful, but they insisted on a white tablecloth at the dinner table. As for the Germans, if we can believe what tut-tutty British commentators wrote, their drinking habits hadn't changed much from the days when Tacitus, the Roman historian, commented on tribal revelries.

The author also delves into the cultural links between beer and death. At one extreme, there were well-to-Egyptians who got sent off into the next world with their own brewing equipment and British gents whose wills contained instructions about what to serve their friends. At the other extreme, there were people who brewed with deceased relatives' bones in order to drink in their spirit (the bones, by the way, made a good clarifying agent) and even tribes that drank beer to wash down the body parts of slain enemies.

Last but not least, Eames hoists one to John Taylor (1580-1653), who ought to be the patron saint of beer writers. After a stint in the navy, Taylor roamed the pubs of England and eventually wrote a guidebook that featured glowing reviews of the ales he'd sampled. His writing became so well-known by tavern keepers that cakes and ale were reportedly offered to him wherever he went. We should all be so lucky.