The Beer and Cheese Tasting: Some Archeology

In July, 2015, I looked at the pairing of Ontario cheeses and beer at the Monforte cafe in Stratford, ON.

In the last week of April, 2016 a series of posts highlighted the alliance of beer and cheese in the far north of France. I examined beer with French monastic cheese, with Vieux-Lille, Vieux Boulogne, and Maroilles, Mimolette, and Boulette d’Avesnes. 

I also considered the Welsh rabbit dish in America, here and here.

In all these instances except the first which is effectively a “tasting”:

a) beer is eaten with cheese as such;

b) beer and cheese are ingredients in a recipe; or

c) beer is used to wash (cure) a cheese in processing.

Cheese and beer as ingredients usually means the cheese is melted, or simply that beer is infused in cheese (no cooking). Hence, the “porter”-flavoured cheddar of Ireland, a tasty thing to eat although how traditional it is, is hard to say. Cheese, certainly the hard types, was not traditionally made in Ireland despite the reputation of Irish milk and cream. Cheese-making has taken root in the last 20 years or so.

The idea of cheese and beer in these latter ways is obviously quite old. The “ploughman’s lunch” of England is a snack of beer and cheese. The name itself may be quite recent as Martyn Cornell suggested a few years ago, but beer and cheese as a pairing in England must go back to misty times. Celery used to be eaten with it, maybe still is. Pickles in the English sense, as well.

Wine and cheese together have similar applications and no doubt as venerable a history, at least where both are staples, which takes in a large part of Europe certainly.

But as I discussed earlier this month, the concept of a wine and cheese tasting – a stand-alone, social event to assess the offerings and rate the combinations, if only informally – is something new.

This is a party, or reception. Wine and cheese are served and nothing else except crackers and bread usually, and perhaps some fruit.

From pairings on the dinner table, from the snack or informal meal, and from the idea of toasted cheese, “bucks”, and similar dishes, there sprung the wine-and-cheese tasting, a long-lived progeny.

The two 1930s New York wine-and-cheese events I discussed recently, held by the Wine and Food Society, featured sherry and port among the wines served. In Anglo-American cuisine, fortified wines, the sweet ones anyway, were served at the meal’s end. The example of port with Stilton is trite. Clearly, early wine-and-cheese parties borrowed from, or built on this tradition, hence sherry and port at the seminal 1930s events.

Today, dry wines are more typically served at the wine-and-cheese. This is probably new, as dry wines traditionally were served with main courses in British and “Continental” (French-influenced) dining, although the French were also said to eat cheese at the end of a meal to “finish the wine”. That probably played into dry wines becoming dominant at the wine-and-cheese.

Anyway, the American notion, now established everywhere, that a glass of dry wine can stand as an aperitif, surely is a spin-off of the wine-and-cheese.

Wine-and-cheese as a form of socializing has British roots as well in the same gestational period, 1930s-1950s, which deserve exploration.

What of a stand-alone beer-and-cheese tasting, when did that start? We think probably after 1975 as the craft brewing renaissance gathered speed.

And there are precedents which seem quite parallel to the wine area. Some Edwardian dinners paired cheese with beer, not just at the end of the meal. Just ahead of WW I, in the East Oregonian, a suggested Christmas menu was advertised by a wine and liquor dealer. Different drinks were shown for a lengthy list of courses. One can presume few dinners inspired by the ad included every course, readers probably adapted the suggestions for their own needs.

Beer is advised with a cheese “entree” (no wine), and no fewer than six brands are suggested, all American lagers.

The German-American table was pairing cheese with specific beers by 1900, as I discussed here, where Pabst Blue Ribbon accompanied hand kase and rye bread. The kase is a strong, soft cheese still consumed in Germany, a rather local taste but one that migrated to America with the emigrants.

Perhaps the earliest beer-and-cheese, i.e., as a separate, organized event, was the landmark 1944 A Tasting of Beers, Ales and Stout with Complementary Foods“.* It was held by, once again, the Wine and Food Society of New York, a tasting I recreated in a local restaurant a couple of years ago.

Numerous interesting cheeses were served at this event including a brandy-flavoured blue cheese, Swiss cheese, and various American types. They weren’t paired individually with specific beers, but were available for tasting at the participant’s will with the beer of his or her choosing.

The 1944 event was not limited to cheese, but all the dishes were cold – it wasn’t a dinner – and cheese was an important part. In essence, a tasting was held very similar to the modern beer and cheese tasting.

As well, the German Alps Festival, held annually at Hunter Mountain, NY since 1972, included a “beer and cheese tasting” at its 1977 event, see here. This was just at the dawning of the craft beer era. No doubt a similar idea had been around for some time. I seem to recall having one or two such tastings at my place in the mid-1970s, in fact. Perhaps CAMRA in England did something similar at one of its early festivals. 

The 20th century wine-and-cheese party/reception/mixer probably stimulated the beer version, but both are the outgrowth of earlier ways to consume two comestible products long seen as “flavormates”, to borrrow the term used in an early 1950s supermarket ad touting beer and cheese together. The alcohol needs a sop, first and foremost, and cheese provides admirably for it. Apart from that, is there a palate synergy between beer and cheese, and wine and cheese? Maybe. Anyway, tasting events for both are staples of the gastronomic scene everywhere.

Note: The poster of the Portland Beer and Cheese Fest shown above depicts last year’s event. This year’s will be held June 17, 2017, see all details here.


*In fact, a similar tasting was held by the same Society in 1942, but I consider the ’42 and ’44 events of a piece.




The California Way of Entertaining

Wine-and-Cheese Catches a Wave

In 1939, a second (at least) wine and cheese tasting was held by the Wine and Food Society of New York. It was reported on by Charles B. Driscoll, who wrote a column for the San Bernadino Sun in California, “New York Day By Day”.

Driscoll was mildly amused by this early New York foodie scene but isn’t as skeptical as the New York Times for a similar event in 1936, as discussed here.

The 1939 tasting was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, one of the posh venues where the Wine and Food Society held its events. I have discussed earlier the Society’s early events, with a specific focus on its historic 1940s beer and food tastings at the Waldorf-Astoria, see also hereThe Society had a pivotal influence on American food and wine culture –  gastronomy if you will. And it is still going strong in New York, to this day.

From the Driscoll piece:


The Wine and Food society is one of the interesting organizations of New York. It has grown from a nucleus of a few gourmets. Recently I attended a tasting at the Ritz-Carlton, and was astonished to find four or five hundred people filling the grand ballroom as they noseyed about, tasting a sliver of cheese here and a thimbleful of port wine there. On an occasion of this kind, there may be as many as 30 or 40 tables or counters, each numbered, and each dispensing only one kind of wine or food. The most accomplished gourmets sit at tables with rows of samples of wine and cheese before them, comparing, whiffing, making notes. The general membership and guests make a social affair of it, milling about and gathering in small groups, wine-glasses and cheese slices in hand.

With hundreds of attendees, the Wine and Food Society’s wine and cheese tastings had become sophisticated affairs. I’d think tickets were sold to the public. It seems unlikely, although possible, that the Society counted that many members at the time. Perhaps a current analogy is the whiskey festivals which occur regularly in large Western cities.

Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of the thing. Writing about it in sunny southern California must have boosted the idea locally, a “natural” given the restoration of commercial winemaking in California. The war would have interrupted the development of the wine industry and gastronomic interest in wine and cheese. By the early 1950s, consumer interest in these comestibles was patent. The notion of wine-and-cheese was spreading but not necessarily as a stand-alone event.

Cheese and wine are referred to in news ads as pairings for different courses in meals or for casual home entertaining. This 1951 advertisement in a Healdsburg newspaper offered free recipes for wine and cheese pairings. The wine and cheese are described as “flavormates”. The book: “The California Way of Entertaining With Wine and Cheese”.

Wine and cheese were the subject of lectures by industry promotional associations, with filmed accompaniment, at a 1951 Sausalito Womens’ Club meeting. It’s not clear if samples were made available at the event but I’d think they must have been. This Club appears to have been instrumental in introducing the wine-and-cheese idea to a broader audience.

California supermarkets were selling cheese platters and wine to go with it if they had a license, as shown here in 1954 (“taste their ‘go-together goodness’ at dinner tonight”). Wine-and-cheese suited the informal style of West Coast entertaining, but the idea was germinating nationally.

Once again: cheese and wine in a recipe, or pairing them as an appetizer or dessert course, is not like a wine and cheese party, but the connection is evident especially as wine-and-cheese were advertised for “snacktime”. It is a hop and skip from there to organizing a formal tasting where more thought is given to the types of wines and cheeses, and their suitability as pairings.

Clearly, a similar idea was starting in England about the same time, per the drinks writer Frederick Martin whom I quoted the other day. The Wine and Food Society in New York was a c. 1934 offshoot of a London group founded by Andre Simon (I’ve reviewed this earlier). Culinary London, the posh side, would have known the kinds of events in parallel Manhattan in the 1930s. Possibly the London parent group was organizing similar ones on its own.

The 1954 Kappa Nu tasting in Buffalo, NY, together with these California stirrings, are some of the earliest wine and cheese tasting events which appear after the landmark 1930s soirees in New York, at least to our knowledge. Kappa Nu’s may have been the first one post-WW II on the East Coast, or the first to be documented. It would be interesting to check manuals on entertaining and catering c. 1950 to see if the idea was already current in the country.

Note re image: The image above was extracted from the 1954 news article linked in the text, available via the California historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





The Greeks Do Wine and Cheese

Back in 1954, Kappa Nu, a college fraternity now part of Zeta Beta Tau, held a wine and cheese party at University of Buffalo in New York. A university newspaper, the Spectrum, chronicled the event together with doings of other Buffalo Greeks.*

The affair was dubbed Be Alive in ’55. You have to have remembered the “Red” and A-bomb scares of the Fifties to get the full humour in that.

The party was “open”, presumably not restricted to fraternity members and pledges.

Kappa Nu has an interesting history, it was one of the early fraternities (pre-WW I) largely composed of Jewish members. It later amalgamated with similar, yet-older organizations, of which Zeta Beta Tau is the successor. ZBT is well-known amongst the Greek societies in the U.S., and is today non-sectarian. Perhaps the open nature of Kappa Nu’s 1954 party was a harbinger of ZBT’s inclusiveness in 2017.

In the short article referenced, the words cocktail, beer, wine, and Champagne all appear. Of course it was the holiday period. Still, one gets a flavour of frat social life in the 1950s. (Or is “frat social” tautological?).

Beeretseq has nothing against the frats, but we moved in separate paths during my college years. Based on the Buffalo Greeks’ social calendar in 1954, a lot of it looked like good fun and socializing: wine tastings, “keggers”, football. To be sure, some of the doings have no place in today’s society (e.g., Apache parties), but this is 60 years ago. We live, we learn.

In my last post, I discussed a 1936 wine and cheese tasting held by the Wine and Food Society of New York at the Waldorf Hotel. 18 years later, a college social organization holds something similar. What links them is the privileged social status of the groups involved: an elite gastronomic society, a distinguished university fraternity. Participation in both required disposable income, but also the participants were likely well-educated, or on the path. Some would have been exposed to wine in Europe or at the parents’ dinner-table.

Further, both these events were held in the same state. The brother who hatched Be Alive in ’55 may have got the idea from his father or an uncle who attended the 1936 event at the Waldorf, or a similar event.

Bear in mind too the Finger Lakes Region in New York is not far from Buffalo. Long-established wineries there, including Great Western Winery, probably supplied some of the wine for these events. Perhaps its sales and marketing people helped organize them. I’d think the Greeks at Cornell in Ithaca, NY were doing similar events in the 1950s.

From an elite social base in the 1930s-1950s, the wine-and-cheese party idea went national, or so we apprehend.**

The breweries should have seen a similar opportunity but didn’t, not at that time. Ironically, a handsome ad appears on the same page of the Spectrum article from Iroquois brewery in Buffalo, a long-disappeared regional brewery. The breweries didn’t see their product as fit for upscale tastings and food pairings, and beer at college meant keggers, basically. There is some irony here, as the idea to pair beer and food intelligently probably predates the wine-and-cheese fete. We’ll explore this soon.

Note re images. The first image was sourced at the clipartfest site and is believed in the public domain. The second was extracted from the news article linked in the text, obtained via the New York State historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the sources of the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*From Greek-letter social fraternity.

**See my last post mentioned, clearly eating cheese with wine or beer itself did not start in the 1930s and expand from there. But the idea of attending a party or reception to appraise the flavours of different wines and cheeses, where nothing else was consumed, seems a 20th century innovation.



The Wine and Cheese Party

The wine-and-cheese party is a staple of middle-class and gentrified living whether in town or country. You see it all the time: wine and cheese for the vernissage at the new art store in Rosedale; the Unitarian Church holds one to raise money for an extension; a new book is coming out on climate change; a winery wants to tout a new release; call in the wine and cheese.


While hardly fashionable in the way, say, vegetarian food is today, or sustainable fish, wine-and-cheese is a permanent part of the culinary scene. It’s no trouble to find advice on how to hold one, here is an excellent suggestion from the website, Big Girl Small Kitchen.

Unlike one-time stalwarts of popular wine culture such as Blue Nun, say, or crackling rosé, or of the cheese world – Blue Roquefort, Camembert (unless deep-fried but that’s passé too now, isn’t it?), wine-and-cheese as an event is evergreen.

Why is this? How did this start? The old school used wine to accompany meals with the partial exception of Champagne, which goes with anything or nothing, for any reason or none.

Is it an old stand-by of the Paris or Lyon salon which transplanted here with its two components? No, it’s not. The French never drank plain wine as an apéro. They didn’t hold cocktail parties, either. Cheese ends a meal, or it did, and wine is consumed with food.

Frederick Martin, in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking said this circa 1970:

The habit of drinking wine as a beverage, largely unaccompanied by food, has much grown up in Britain and has been fostered by the trade through promotion of “wine and cheese” parties, which I personally find the dullest social events imaginable. Wine and cheese by all means, at the conclusion of a good dinner, but not as an end in themselves.

So what changed? Martin lays it at the feet of the wine agencies, they came up with it to promote wine to a larger market. He might be right, but I think in any case the Americans must have started it, as they and now everyone consider wine an apt aperitif, “a drink” in other words. Before you can think of wine to be consumed just with a tidbit, you have to accept that it can stand as a drink, as a whiskey, or beer, or Coke. And as Martin says, wine on its own is not part of traditional social habits.

Maybe Germany had something to do with it since the Moselle and other classic whites there are on the sweet side and drink well on their own. The taverns in the Rhine offer such wines between meals, at least I’ve always understood this. And Germans had a long influence in New York and other parts of the U.S., as I’ve discussed in other contexts.

Maybe it started in California wine country. Wine there probably had a larger social function than at formatted dinners. The “jug” idea is kind of consistent with that, you take the jug to a poetry reading, a folk concert, a picnic. Maybe it migrated to New York from San Francisco.

Someone should study this, but at bottom wine and cheese must have started in America, and thence to places like London, Montreal, Barca.

It sounds, too, in temporal terms, like a 1960s idea.

In fact, it’s older, reaching back at least to the Thirties. The Wine and Food Society of New York, of which I wrote in connection with my recreation of a 1944 beer and food tasting it held at the Waldorf hotel, held a wine and cheese party in 1936. You can read the droll report of the New York Times, “Wine Tasters Test Talents on Cheese”, here.

Was that the very first one? It may have been, or one of the first, e.g., the Limburger the reporter fled from to remote corners of the Starlight Room is not really suitable for a wine and cheese. They were working the kinks out.

I think wine and cheese is okay, beer and cheese too. But it’s not really a “natural” combination. You could as well combine wine with a selection of cold cuts, or salads, or biscuits and breads.

Stilton and port have had an association in English culinary history, but that alone can’t have started the “wine and cheese” of the modern era, i.e., a party or reception – an event – where wine and cheese are tasted and nothing else. The fact that cheese has been eaten with wine or beer as part of a fixed meal, or as a casual snack, probably for a very long time, is not the modern wine and cheese “tasting”.

Someone hit on it and the Wine and Food Society cum New York Times helped democratize it, not intentionally though. The 1930s Wine and Food Society was an elite group, e.g., its next event in ’36 was a dinner to commemorate Escoffier’s work and was chaired by the brother of President Taft.

But as often happens, influential small groups do something and it spreads from there. Doesn’t matter what it is: guitar feedback, bacon-infused cocktail, cloudy beer, free verse, somewhere somehow something starts and it grows.

Many food and drink trends have short lives. The wine and cheese is a hardy survivor.

Wine and cheese. Think about it…








A One Way Ticket to Munich

Another c. 1900 éloge of beer comes from another pen working for the Catholic Journal of Rochester, NY, this time scratching out praises to Munich, Bavaria. This pen had a unique way of talking, of which this is just a small sample:

Do you love the beautiful in all its forms – music, painting and architectures? – then go to Munich. Are you – pardon me for asking the question – partial to a flagon of real, lustrous, vitalizing, never-to-be-forgotten lager beer? Go to Munich. Would you rub shoulders with long-haired artists, ox-eyed musicians, bouncing women, hare-brained students, dreamy philosophers, ingenious workmen, sharp-nosed critics, sombre-robed clerics of all degrees of sanctity? You would? Then go to Munich. Would you, in fine, run headlong into the temptation of preferring a terrestrial, not a celestial  paradise? You would? Then book for Munich, one way.

It’s not that the capital of Bavaria is so fortunate in what nature has done for her, but because of what man has done. Her kings, princes, dukes, (whatever they like to call them) have been her best benefactors. It is they who have built all that she is most proud of, – her mighty triumphal arches, her gorgeous palaces, her noble churches. They ransacked the world on her behalf…

This is one of a number of ecstatic reactions to the local beer recorded by foreign visitors around this time; the brews must have been very special. Studies of hop rates and final gravities of the day, as well as the stylistic or perhaps production variety then evident, explain why.


I did visit Munich once. The picture conveyed here didn’t quite connect, in part it was the time of year (um, December), but also, the 8th Air Force and other allied visitors during the war reduced much of the city to cinders, and the rebuilding didn’t, I think, render the original charm. Even Munich beer didn’t really impress: too little dunkel, too little draft weizen, too much green flavour in the blonde lagers.

Of course I did have some good experiences, but the “fountain head”, as the article later terms the beer culture, is too strong a term. Industry consolidation and stylistic levelling have taken their toll.

Still, we had an enjoyable time, and would certainly return, in better season.

The rest of the article is well-worth reading, not least the part which states parents send their children to university half-expecting them to be scarred in duelling. (“Fighting is part of the educational curriculum”). This suggested a lurking militarism, nay undertone of civic violence, made all too apparent later in the century.

Articles as the one cited allow us to remember the best of past eras, but in doing so more recent history can never be quite effaced, it’s like whack-a-mole…

Note re image: the image above is believed in the public domain and was source from Wikipedia, here. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

Guinness of My Dreams

Ginny With the Light Brown Foam

I have discussed Guinness a number of times from different standpoints. It was a “real ale”, or naturally conditioned in the barrel, in Ireland until the 1960s. Bottled Guinness too was a live, natural drink in Ireland, also England, until some 30 years later.

Exported Guinness both draft and in bottle, except to England for the bottled, was subjected to modern processes of filtration and pasteurization at different points from the 1930s.

But in 1900, all Guinness anywhere was unfiltered and unpasteurized, thus “real”.

It is always interesting to get period assessments of its quality. One from the 1800s speaks of a “brisk, sub-acid” quality. One from about 1920 speaks of it as a complex black wine again with a touch of lactic flavour. These latter two were recorded in England and probably for the bottled type.

A person with some experience of beer and international travel reported on Guinness, and also Bass pale ale, in 1903 in a Catholic newspaper in Rochester, NY:


And if interested in processes of manufacture the visitor would do well to pay a visit to the famous Guinness’ Brewery, where he would see enough of stout to satisfy him for the rest of his natural life. There is no stinting of ” sample glasses” as one does the round of the immense plant, but it is well to be on one’s guard about these, or disaster may attend the footsteps on reaching the outer air. The stout supplied within the brewery is a very different concoction to that which crosses the seas, either to England or this country. It may be only a detail, but I noticed the collar of foam on it to be invariably white, instead of a dirty brown, as is often noticed in the case of imported bottled stout. Speaking of bottled stout I am reminded of the saying that Englishmen are to be tracked round the world by the heaps of Guinness’ stout, and Bass’ beer bottles left here and there on their trail. Stout is a favorite drink both in Great Britain and Ireland, especially at the midday lunch and the late supper. Wonderful nutritive powers are attributed to it by its devotees, and there can be little doubt that the most forbidding thing about it is its color. Like Bass’ ale it never tastes so good as in the place in which it is brewed and before it is aerated in bottles. In connection with beverages of an alcoholic kind, if one must take them, I have noticed it to be advisable to take the sort most popular in the country you happen to be in at the time. It will be generally found best suited to the climate. Lager beer is just as unpalatable to the English or Irish taste, as English beer or ale is to the American. It is astonishing bow a short residence in a new country will alter the tastes, both in food and drinks.

This beer fan noticed the different foam colour in domestic and export stout. I’d guess the exported version he was familiar with used some amber malt, whereas stout drunk in Dublin however termed (the names changed over time), used just pale and black malt. (Those who want more details should consult David Hughes’ 2006 history of bottled Guinness).

My sense even today is, porter and stout which use some form of caramel malt can acquire the brown tint when foaming up. I could be wrong and if Doug Warren or another brewer reading knows, please comment.

The 1903 writer’s sense that Bass was better before being “aerated” (carbonated) is rather jolting considering the world reputation bottled Bass had at the time. In effect, we are being told draught Bass was better. Or maybe it’s not such a surprise, as cask-conditioned beer would have been less gassy, probably less acid and perhaps less afflicted with the Brettanonyces (wild yeast) flavour.

But net net we are being told Guinness tasted best at the brewery. Is that a surprise? It’s an adage repeated untold times today, even when all Guinness is well-filtered and pasteurized. Is it right? I can’t say, as I’ve never been to Ireland except once in Dublin airport on a layover. I did have a Guinness there, it was iced and tasted exactly as here, but that wasn’t a fair trial I think.

I’ll be in Paris soon and plan to look for Guinness Special Export Stout there. That was a great drink 30 years ago, but the last time I had it, about seven years ago, it was disappointing, tasting much like regular Guinness Extra Stout but stronger. Maybe that was a one-off or my taste buds were off, I’ll try again.

Rather than organize anything elaborate in the matter of beer on this trip, I’ll just take it as it goes, see what I run into. There will be one visit to Sous Bock, off Rue St. Honoré as I recall as it specializes in French beers, but that’s it for the organized part (and looking for that Guinn-esse).

I did all the big cerevisical trips years ago, one with Michael Jackson, a week in Lille and environs. It was fun, especially in the Nord, but now I get as much enjoyment when running into a fresh glass of Pelforth Brune, or finding that Guinness, say. On verra.

P.S. The Catholic Journal’s writer was wrong, à la longue, about lager, it’s the staple drink today in Ireland and England. And conversely, ale and porter have a good market again in America albeit still a minority of sales. It’s not just residence, today, which forms habits, it’s conscious choices resulting from a fulsome consumer society. International commerce also has a certain amount to say about what people will drink. Still, some things don’t change, and he had his finger on some of them.


“The Story of Alcohol”, Finis

With the 40th instalment of The Story of Alcohol, printed in the Bridgeport Times, CT, August 29, 1919, the series of some 25,000 words ends. We reach the 18th century in England where it is explained the temperance movement started to gain a permanent footing, having been intermittent and fleeting in the past (while always still a feature of drink in society).

The satirist and cartoonist, William Hogarth, is mentioned as an influence in this respect. He is profiled not as a decided opponent of all drink, and of course his mirthy Beer Street is proof he supported use of beer, but because he opposed intemperate drinking and the societal degradation that followed. Of course his famed Gin Lane is the proof.

The previous 20 entries cover a large range of countries, Persia, France and England (both from early eras to near-modern times), Russia, Finland, Denmark, India, and Japan are the main ones. The Finnish discussion is interesting for the numerous folk drinks discussed, not just sahti, the juniper-flavoured drink known today as a rural alternate to beer.

The biblical controversy involving wine is reviewed. What did oinos mean exactly, or the salving of wounds with wine and oil and counsel to use a little wine for the stomach? The writer does not try to whitewash this in a modern Prohibitionist framework. It is acknowledged the Bible countenances use of wine in some instances.

(Reading between the lines, the writer seems to have approved of a prohibition that would allow beer and wine but not hard liquor. This was a mid-course on the alcohol question, indeed some brewers argued for it as I’ve written earlier. The writer notes too, in connection with Russia, that wine or beer-like beverage can be easily made at home from a wide variety of fruits and cereal starches. Long before vodka took hold in Russia, the peasantry had mastered making home alcohol of this kind. In other words, you can’t really ban all alcohol…).

The scope here doesn’t permit a summary of each article, anyway I have given you the means to find them and you can read them for yourself. I will say I liked the Samuel Pepys article, and the discussion of English fetes and fairs such as Southwark Fair. When you read this background, the modern images of provincial high street excesses, or at the annual social events the Daily Mail likes to profile, are no surprise. All this has a long history. The morning drink, which the Americans took to in the south, also has a long English heritage.

The English seem to have been fond of heavy drinking since early times with the exception of Cromwell’s era and also when Quakerism had influence. Had the series covered the 19th century (see below) it may have noted too where many Presbyterians and Baptists ensured a responsible, or no, use of alcohol.

Looking back from 2017, one can add the mid-1900s as an era of relative sobriety. The world wars and 1930s economic privation had something to do with this. Also, there was a kind of knock-on effect from prohibition, total or partial, where it took root elsewhere. One needn’t look to America as the example, northern Europe had legislated various forms starting from the later 1800s.

Some of the articles have typos and misplaced or missing lines. Whether this was typical of the Bridgeport Times I can’t say. Perhaps given the subject matter the editor didn’t feel it necessary to be punctilious, showing a kind of back-of-hand. It’s hard to say again.

The series omits all discussion of alcohol in America, however, many statements make it clear the writer was American, at one point he refers to hard cider in New England, for example. It seems odd America was omitted in the series since the article appeared in an American newspaper on the eve of American-legislated prohibition. Perhaps the series carried on but it was felt 40 instalments were enough. It was printed too over the summer, the slow season in journalism. Articles dealing with Kentucky whiskey, cocktails, Benjamin Rush, temperance societies, and Carrie Nation perhaps were felt not apt to start off September. (You know the old saloon sign: “We serve all nations but Carrie’s”).

Maybe dealing with drink in America, even in the previous two centuries, was felt too close to home. Still, the 40 articles are pregnant with implications for the prohibition case in 1919.

The missing instalment by the way dealt with Xeres receiving (before Christ) a cup of wine from Gyptis, daughter of Nann. In a word, this relates mythically to the founding of Marseilles, originally a Phoenician colony. It’s an interesting tale but the online environment permits one to glean the details in an instant.

And so you have The Story of Alcohol. The memorial tone foretold an era forever to end in January, 1920, the weighty but pondered decision of an enlightened and progressive America. Except, alcohol didn’t end. Far from it.

Alcohol control was the great crusade from 1850-1920. Many of the objects intended to be secured were justified. Contrary to myth, Prohibition improved the public health, e.g., cirrhosis rates fell as did admissions to asylums. But the age-old liking for liquor could not be stemmed by the motley of forces which sought its extirpation: suffragettes, many Protestant churches, many doctors, many businessmen.

Liquor came back in 1933 and today we have, in the beer arena which is our special province, many odd-sounding drinks to attract the attention of the cognoscenti. Some are flavoured with salt, vinegar, and herbs. Just like thousands of years ago in Greece and Rome.

Note re images: the images shown in this and the preceding two parts, excepted as stated therein, were extracted from the original news articles linked in the text. They are included for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources mentioned belongs solely to their lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.




“The Story of Alcohol”, Cont’d.

Alcohol Viewed Historically on Prohibition’s Eve

Paging through the second quarter of the 40 instalments of the The Story of Alcohol, one finds many entertaining anecdotes and asides. It’s a cook’s tour of the world’s alcohol regions, a survey of impressive scope which, as all history should, starts at the beginning.

The theme that alcohol’s dangers were always apparent, but more for olden times in retrospect, is maintained but not over-emphasized. The primary purpose seems memorial, to create a sort of verbal museum for a cultural institution finally determined as retrograde and damaging, but also to entertain.

In the Greece discussion, the point is made that alcohol did in a young Alexander the Great, and that but for his untimely passing he might have conquered Rome with the result Western history would have been completely altered.

The Legions of Roman Drinkers

Moving on to Rome, the series notes that Roman festivals and high-caste parties were often very intemperate. Women started to drink, previously forbidden them, and lower orders too, partly a result of alcohol becoming cheaper and more widely available. The other reason was the proverbial “degeneracy” which afflicted Rome in its later phase. These are veiled references to the year of writing, 1919, surely.

In order to ensure large quantities of wine would be consumed at fests, men took hemlock, a poison, because alcohol is a known antidote.

Horace lauded the rare and costly Chian wine, and was one of the first gastronomic wine writers, describing different qualities and tastes. This marked off Rome from the Greeks who were not particularly connoisseurs. Pliny too was a maven of wine, giving recipes for compounds and other formulations. For a certain hydromel (mead) he counselled using rain water that had stood five years. Nero’s era comes in for derision: drunkenness gets worse, slaves are made to drink –  so they won’t seem superior to their masters – funny speeches are given, etc. A prized drink of this era was made from honey, vinegar, sea water, rain water. 

The most expensive drink in history, at least to 1919, was gotten down by Cleopatra. She immersed a rare pearl in vinegar, let it dissolve, and then down the hatch. Contrary to myth, booze did in Marc Antony, not the alluring Cleo.

As Alaric and the Goths swept in from the north, beer drinking became more known, beer made from “barley and wheat”. It was probably like some beer today. The conquerers were fully capable of appreciating Roman wine vintages though and snapped them up on their raids. The series makes the point, which I’ve read elsewhere, that some beer was always available in Rome but had a relatively small market. A beer from cereals had to be made, and was, wherever cereal agriculture existed but tastes inclined Rome at any rate to products of the vine. Perhaps too the impossibility to keep beer in a hot climate limited its use as a comestible (something only really changed with the arrival of refrigeration later in the 1800s).

The Immortals of the Wine Cup

The part about China is interesting. Its rice wine, still made, is considered the model for the rice-based ferments of Korea and Japan. Li Po, the master poet famed for his addiction to alcohol, is given a close profile:

The most notable Chinese tippler was probably Li Po, who lived from 705 to 762, and is sometimes regarded as the greatest poet that China has produced. He was 37 years of age when he was first presented to the Emperor and he made such an impression that the ruler prepared with his own hands a bowl of soup for the poet. Soup unfortunately was not Li Po’s favorite beverage. He greatly preferred wine and contemporary accounts say that he was seldom sober and that he wrote most of his poetry while intoxicated. On one occasion, when messengers were sent out by the Emperor to find him, he was lying face down in the street. Cold water was mopped over him and he was finally led into the royal presence. Although he could hardly stand, his genius did not fail him….

[His verses] were so much liked by the Emperor that he made Li Po a high court official and some of the mandarins were ordered to attend on him and remove his boots when he desired this done. This naturally stirred up many feuds in the court and Li Po was finally compelled to seek elsewhere for a pleasanter place in which to live. With some other slaves to wine, he formed a drinking club which was called “The Eight Immortals of the Wine-cup.”

He met his death in a novel manner. One night while intoxicated, he leaned over the edge of a boat in a vain attempt to embrace the reflection of the moon in the water. He lost his balance and was drowned.

An amusing but also cautionary tale, as the historical conspectus in general…

Note re image: the image above of Li Po (aka Li Bai) is believed in the public domain and was obtained from Wikipedia, here. It is included for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

[A last part follows, here].






“The Story of Alcohol”

The Bridgeport Times of Bridgeport, CT featured an illustrated series called “The Story of Alcohol” between July 15 and the end of August, 1919. It comprised nominally 40 instalments (39 appeared as one was duplicated and one missing), an astonishing 24,000 words or so in total.

National Prohibition was slated to enter into force in January, 1920, having been approved in January, 1919 by the passage of the 18th Amendment. Indeed, a good part of Connecticut was already liquor-free under “no-licence” election. Why on earth would a newspaper do a lavish spread on the history of beverage alcohol? The series starts with alcohol in ancient times, bringing it to more recent periods and first stirrings of the prohibition sentiment.

There is a retrospective or memorial feel to the articles. Now that the prospect of alcohol disappearing from social life was patent, ruminative minds were thinking about a weighty legacy being disavowed in toto by a resolute country, forever. The paper called the changes “epochal”. It used the fundamental nature of the change as a pretext to survey man’s entire history of using and abusing alcohol. In the words of the opening, July 15 instalment:

In a good many ways the approach of the day when prohibition is to be enforced throughout the United States is one of the epochal events of history. Other things than alcohol have been put under the ban of law – gambling, slavery and numerous others that have seemed harmful to the progress of mankind. But none of them have been so universal as alcohol nor has any one of them been traced so far back into the dimmest period of human history. So it seems now the timeliest of timely subjects for illustration in this space.

In fact, I suspect there was more than a tinge of regret in the minds of the (anonymous) writer, and the editor. The series was perhaps a kind of guilt trip, a working out of psychic conflicts raised by an unprecedented and audacious attempt to re-engineer society.

The articles read as engaging popular history, stuff written for educated or thinking people by an expert, almost certainly an academic. The tone is even, friendly, and focuses on specific historical figures, from Noah to the Greek warrior Chares to Socrates. Does that remind you of anyone? Does the name Will Durant come to mind? It is an index of the mantra that life is change that few if any reading will know the name. Durant was a long-lived historian, famous for his The Story of Civilization and many other books.

(It is interesting to note he was of French-Canadian ancestry, part of a group which transplanted to New England before WW I to seek better opportunities. Numerous accomplished Americans have 100% or partial Franco-New England ethnicity including Will Durant, writer Jack Kerouac, John C. Garand (designer of the M1 Garand rifle), author Paul Theroux, and actor Matt LeBlanc).

I think Durant may have authored the Story of Alcohol series, or maybe his young wife and frequent co-author, Ariel, did albeit I could find no source to confirm it or even tending in that direction.

Durant had published numerous articles on history and philosophy by 1919 and had taught in various schools. He had worked earlier as a reporter in New York and would have had contacts in the press world.

The anonymity may have been requested by the newspaper as part of the compensation arrangement, or perhaps Durant, or whomever wrote it if it wasn’t he, requested it so his teaching career would not be affected. Showing an undue interest in alcohol, even an academic one, would not have been viewed robustly in the lead-up to National Prohibition particularly for a teacher.

The first instalments deal with alcohol in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Palestine, Greece, and Rome. There are many good stories and insights. The Greeks for example almost never drank wine undiluted. On the other hand, they drank large amounts of it and drunkeness was a feature of some parts of social life, especially the symposium. The Greeks didn’t seem to care much for connoisseurship, and would flavour their wine with a wide range of things, from cheese to wormwood.

The Romans were more conscious of different qualities of wine, but they too in drinking parties and other contexts drank large amounts.

Excess drinking was condemned in some quarters, mythology records that when Bacchus toured lands to impart wine-making skills, some kings sent him away and were later punished for this.

The message continually is that wine and beer had mixed blessings since the potential for abuse was always there. A skein of the series is that humankind was slowly realizing that alcohol at bottom was an evil to be controlled and ultimately abolished. One might think thousands of years was rather an extended time for even a prolonged experiment, but the series later suggests the onset and perfection of distilled spirits was an important factor to decide if alcohol prohibition should apply.

To my knowledge, these articles were never printed in another newspaper or other source.*

[A second part follows, here, and a third, here].

Note re image: the image above of Bridgeport, CT is believed in the public domain and was obtained from Wikipedia, here. It is included for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.


*Subsequently we found a further (earlier) publication, in the San Francisco Chronicle, see here. 



Thoughts on Jim Koch`s (Sam Adams) Recent Article

Jim Koch, major domo of Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams beer, hard cider and other beverage alcohol, wrote an article in the New York Times which elicited a lot of comment. Blogger Bryan Roth made some interesting arguments in particular, here.

Regarding Koch’s comments that anti-trust enforcement viz. large U.S. brewers is lagging, he seems to raise valid questions especially for certain wholesaling practices and acquisitions of craft brewers.

On pricing, he suggested prices have risen in the macro market unreasonably following certain international mergers and takeovers. Even if so, if prices come closer to craft levels, isn’t that an incentive for consumers to buy more craft? Craft beer is more expensive than macro adjunct lager anyway, so I don’t follow that part of the argument.

The question of who is behind a craft-looking label elicits sympathy in most craft circles but is probably not an easy fix. First, there is the multi-jurisdictional nature of the market. Second, identifying ultimate control is not always easy and a one-size-fits-all solution may not exist. I’m not sure it’s practical or fair to require an ultimate-control disclosure for a beer label.

My view is, anyone who really wants to know can find out who owns, say, the Creemore brand. And if you don’t want to know, it’s down to the beer. The product IMO is primary, not the producer.

BBC is an influential pioneer in craft brewing and has made some good products. Assuming it wants to retain a focus on beer as against other types of alcohol, I believe it should focus more on the beer itself, the number of offerings, type, and especially quality.

I feel it could do much better with a trimmed and focused beer range. The affiliated Coney Island Brewery’s Mermaid Pilsner has tremendous potential that should be maximised. In simple gastronomical terms, it’s superior to Boston Lager – a better taste – indeed better than most lagers I’ve had almost anywhere. Nor is it “old hat” as a helles lager, even if that “matters”. The formulation contains malted rye, a novel element that gives the beer a certain something without creating a narrow, “connoisseur” profile.

I truly believe this beer could be what Budweiser was c. 1900, it is that good.

Sam Adams Boston Stock Ale is one of the best of its type anywhere, a stylish, flowery, English-style pale, but hard to find and seems to get little promotion. The Baltic porter of some years ago, Dark Depths (a Small Batch release), was superlative.

As for Rebel IPA: no doubt BBC sees it as a strong contender in the IPA wars but the initial formulation was just not great brewing. The company seemed to recognize that by reformulating the beer. I haven’t tried the current iteration which uses all-pale malt and a proprietary hop, hopefully it is a decided improvment – but the beer should have been a winner out of the gate.

The new Fresh As Helles Lager, flavoured with orange blossom, is just so-so. The Sam Adams seasonal beers always struck me as weak, I’d retire the series.

I’d focus on between five and seven beers and issue one-offs for market trends and the consumers always looking for a new flavour. The small batch series in other words should remain. The Jamaica Plain facility in Boston is a perfect incubator for such projects, but they should not detract from a strong focus on a small group of high quality beers.

Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing do well in the current market as old-established craft breweries. They didn’t expand their range until relatively late and in general have always released strong beers from a palate/gastronomy standpoint. BBC should return to its roots as its first few beers, especially Boston Lager, Stock Ale, and Doppelbock were top performers in this sense.

BBC may decide to focus more on non-beer alcohol going forward, if so that`s a valid choice. I don’t think it matters whether its beer side continues to merit the craft label for a brewing association`s or anyone’s particular purpose. If the beers still made taste great, that is their justification.

To wit, good beer is what matters, the taste, and a reasonable variety, but taste foremost. That is why Pilsner Urquell is still around after 175 years or so and is growing as a brand.

Taste is why craft brewing started. It is the criterion by which all brewers, no matter their size or history, will rise or fall for most enthusiasts of the brewing art.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the Samuel Adams website, hereAll intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Use is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.