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 Receptions Catch a Wave

An early, 1939 wine and cheese tasting was held by the Wine and Food Society of New York, a pioneering American branch of the International Wine and Food Society founded in London, U.K. in 1933. It was reported on that year by Charles B. Driscoll in the San Bernadino Sun in his column “New York Day By Day”.

Driscoll, out in sunny California, was mildly amused by this early foodie foray in New York. The New York Times was even more arch when reviewing a similar event in 1936, as I discussed here.

The 1939 soirée occurred at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, one of the posh Manhattan venues the New York Wine and Food Society favoured for its events.

I’ve discussed the New York group’s early events in general, with a focus on its historic, 1940s beer and food tastings at the Waldorf-Astoria. See also here

The Society’s branches across America had a definite influence on American food and wine culture, on gastronomy if you will. Their 1930s-1960s events are remarkably rich in cultural reach and menu sophistication; we owe part of the lively and variegated modern food scene to their early dinners and tastings.

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 pre-war wine and cheese tastings were quite sophisticated affairs. Tickets must have been sold to the public as it seems unlikely, although possible, the Manhattan group had that many members then. Perhaps a current analogy is the whiskey and large beer festivals that occur regularly in North American cities.

Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of the event. Writing about it in southern California, he must have stimulated interest in the idea locally; it was a “natural” given restoration of commercial winemaking in California in 1933 and the richness of local agriculture.

The war hindered the revival of the California wine industry, and hence of gastronomic interest in wine with cheese. However, by the early 1950s interest had grown, stimulated by the postwar boom. The notion of wine with cheese was spreading but not necessarily, as yet, as a stand-alone event or reception.

By the early 50s in California, cheese and wine are suggested as a pairing in news ads as a course for a meal, or simply for casual home entertaining. This 1951 advertisement in Healdsburg offered free recipes to pair wine and cheese. They are described here as “flavormates”; quite so.

Wine with cheese was the subject of lectures by industry promotional associations, using filmed accompaniment at a 1951 Sausalito Womens’ Club meeting. It’s not clear if samples were 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 the wine to go with it in this ad 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.

At the same time, cheese and wine in a recipe (a Swiss fondue, say), or pairing them as an appetizer or dessert course, is not like a wine and cheese party. Still, the connection is evident especially as wine-and-cheese were also advertised for “snacktime”. It is a hop and skip from there to organizing a stand-alone event by invitation where different wines and cheeses are paired. In other words here, the wine and cheese form the centrepiece of the event, a kind of off-piste (as viewed then) cocktail party.

A similar idea was afoot in England about the same time according to the late English drinks writer Frederick Martin whom I quoted the other day. Culinary London, the posh side, would have known the kinds of events occurring at a parallel level in Manhattan in the 1930s. The various national branches of André Simon’s Wine and Food Society would have shared event programs and ideas.

I discussed earlier a pivotal, 1954 Greek Society (Kappa Nu) wine and cheese in Buffalo, NY. This event, together with the Manhattan tastings before 1941 and the California stirrings mentioned, are among the earliest “wine and cheese” activities in the U.S. to my knowledge.

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 (ZBT), 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 remember the “Red” and A-bomb scares of the Fifties to get the full humour in that.

The party was “open”, which meant presumably it was 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 organizations of a similar make up, of which today’s ZBT is successor.

ZBT, well-known among the Greek societies in the U.S., 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 1954 article linked, published nearing the year’s end, the words cocktail, beer, wine, and Champagne all appear. Of course it was the holiday period but still this conveys a flavour of fraternity social life in the 1950s. (Or is “frat social” a tautology?).

Beeretseq has nothing against fraternities but we moved in separate circles during my college years. Based on the Buffalo Greeks’ social calendar in 1954 a lot of it seemed good fun and socializing: wine tastings, “keggers”, football, and other sports – maybe I should have joined. To be sure, some of the doings today would be non grata, e.g., Apache parties, but this is 60 years ago: we live, we learn.

In my previous post I discussed a historic wine and cheese tasting held in 1936 by the Wine and Food Society of New York at the Waldorf Hotel. 18 years later a college social organization holds a similar event. What links them is the privileged social status of the groups involved, an elite gastronomic society, a distinguished university fraternity.

Participation required disposable income but in addition attendees were likely well-educated or travelled, or on the path. Some would have been exposed to wine culture either in Europe or at their 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 another similar event.

Bear in mind too that the Finger Lakes wine region is not far from Buffalo, NY. Long-established wineries there including Great Western Winery probably supplied some of the wine for these events. Perhaps their sales and marketing divisions helped organize them. I’d think the Greek organizations at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY were holding similar events in the 1950s.

Hence it was that from an elite social base in the 1930s-1950s the wine-and-cheese party went national as an American custom, or so it seems from early evidence we surveyed.**

The breweries of New York State and elsewhere in America should have perceived a similar opportunity but didn’t, not at that time. Ironically, on the same page as the Spectrum article a handsome advertisement appears from Iroquois brewery in Buffalo, a long-disappeared regional brewery, but the ad is otherwise conventional in nature.

Breweries didn’t see their product then as fit for self-conscious tastings and inventive food pairings. Beer at college meant “keggers”, basically.

There is further irony here in that the idea to pair beer and food intelligently probably predates the wine and cheese party. 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 pairing cheese with wine or beer did not start in the 1930s. But the idea of attending a party or reception to assess the flavours of different wines and cheese, where nothing else was consumed, seems a 20th century development.



The Wine and Cheese Party

The wine-and-cheese party is a staple of middle-class and gentrified living. Wine and cheese for the vernissage at an art store. A church holds one to raise money for repairs. A new book is out on climate change. A winery is touting a new release. Call in the wine and cheese.

While hardly fashionable in the way vegan food is, or sustainably sourced fish, wine and cheese as an event is a permanent part of the culinary scene. It’s no trouble to find advice how to hold one. Here is an good suggestion, from the website Big Girl Small Kitchen.

Unlike one-time vinous stalwarts such as Blue Nun or crackling rosé, or cheese sensations of the 1950s and 60s (Blue Roquefort, Camembert), the “wine and cheese” is evergreen.

How did it start? Old school practice was to drink wine, certainly, but with meals. Champagne proverbially goes with anything and any time, but traditionally red and still wines were not consumed outside a meal context.

Is pairing cheese with wine an old stand-by of the Paris or Lyon wine bar, transplanted here intact? No, it’s not. The French never drank plain wine as an aperitif. They didn’t hold cocktail parties, either. Cheese ends a meal, or it used to, in France and wine is consumed with food there. True, in the bistro one can order a plate of charcuterie or cheese to nibble with wine, but the food is an afterthought; there is no sedulous attention given to “what with what”.

The inimitable English drinks writer Frederick Martin, in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking stated c.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 wine promotional bodies, they came up with it to woo a larger market. He may be right but I think in any case the Americans started it. They were the first to consider wine an aperitif, or “drink”, that is. Now the custom obtains everywhere.

Before you can think of wine with a tidbit you have to accept it as a per se drink, like whiskey, or beer, or Coke. As Martin says, wine on its own is not part of traditional social habits.

Maybe Germany had something to do with it. Moselle and other classic German whites are on the sweet side and drink well on their own, after all. Taverns in the Rhine offer such wines between meals, certainly. And Germans long had influence in New York and elsewhere in the U.S. as I’ve discussed in other contexts, including for wine habits.

Maybe the wine and cheese started in California wine country. Wine probably always had a larger social role there than in the more settled East, less subject to the European carapace. The “jug” concept is consistent with that. You take it jug to a poetry reading, a folk concert, a picnic. Snacks will be found to go with it, daddio.

I’m starting to think, indeed, the idea migrated to New York from California, perhaps before Prohibition. But at bottom the wine and cheese is American, and thence to London, Montreal, Barcelona, and Hong Kong, no doubt.

In formal terms we can trace the idea to the Thirties. The Wine and Food Society of New York, of which I’ve written prodigally including on my recreation of a landmark 1944 beer event at the Waldorf Astoria, hosted a wine and cheese party in 1936. It was enough of a novelty to get press attention.

The soiree was an odd combination of the epicurean and down-home. Fine vintages, some inappropriately sweet, were paired with cheeses such as Limburger. Hmm.

A quasi-precedent is perhaps this tasting of cheeses and wine in 1890 as related in a magazine that reprinted the original New York Tribune report. It’s interesting that Limburger appears here as well. In this case it is divided into two classes: imported (“rank”) and domestic (much superior). This was surely pre-pasteurization days for cheese, and shipping raw milk Limburger to America required an iron palate at the other end.

The New Yorkers of 1890-1939 seemed to have a fondness for German cheese, probably due to the German element that formerly dominated in the Yorkville quarter. The 1890 event featured numerous toothsome cheeses, most familiar to us today. Clearly wine was drunk with them, but a formal meal was not reported. Hence an early “wine and cheese”.

What may have been an occasional Eastern foodie practice, tasting cheese with wine (or vice versa), or a California wine country practice imported from the West, finally was formalized in 1936 at the New York Wine and Food Society’s event.

Read the droll report of the New York Times, “Wine Tasters Test Talents on Cheese”, here:

Was that the first event one can properly call a “wine-and-cheese”? Perhaps, or one of the first. The Limburger apart, the essentials of the modern wine-and-cheese are there, and perhaps for the 1890 event.

I think wine with cheese is okay, beer with cheese too. But are these really “natural” combinations? You could as well combine such drinks with cold cuts, a salad of moderate substance, biscuits, or breads. Sweet wines go with even a broader range.

Stilton and port do have a long association in English culinary history, but that alone can’t have started wine and cheese as a special event. The fact that cheese has been eaten with wine or beer as a course in a fixed meal, or for a casual snack, and probably for a long time, is not the self-conscious modern wine and cheese tasting.

Someone hit on the notion early in the U.S. and the Wine and Food Society of New York helped democratize it, not intentionally though. The Society then was an elite group. At its next event in 1936 a dinner commemorated the great 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. It doesn’t matter what it is, guitar feedback, bacon-infused cocktail, cloudy beer, free verse, Buffalo wings, poutine, somewhere somehow something starts and it grows.

Many food and drink trends have short lives, yet the wine-and-cheese is a hardy survivor.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced from the clip-art website, here, and is believed in the public domain. The second image was sourced from the New York Times story linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.










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.