The Unchanging Cultural Status of Beer


Beer gets no respect, many say. Yes, there have been many changes: the gazillion craft breweries, countless exotic beers, the ceaseless innovation. In the public mind though, one suspects beer retains its old image. Beer is beer, an honourable drink but a quaffer, for informal occasions. Beer suits the cottage, the cheap and cheerful outing, the barbeque – like that.

For the West End or Upper East Side, wine still rules. Maybe for edgier, fashionable haunts in Brooklyn or Bermondsey, beer has a place, for lunch perhaps.

Journalists and writers have laboured to elevate beer since the 1970s. Many have undoubted talent. But beer seems still to reside at the bottom of the drinks league. They general media reflects this. After all this time it’s easy to read in a food review: “Don’t try wine, even Riesling, with [often a non-western dish], drink beer”.

Well yes, but which one? Which style? Don’t care? I see.

The U.K. media still revels in lurid, full-page stories about lager louts disporting on high streets at holidays or on weekends. It delights in showing a Roman circus at rock festivals where half-dressed party animals clutch lager or some other can, maybe even craft beer. It’s anything but the dignified surroundings typically associated with wine.

Most big city papers don’t have a dedicated beer critic. The wine expert will do the job, it’s good enough.

In 1934 Australian editor and author Brian Penton (1904-1951) perceived this idée recue. Someone sent him a new book, A Book About Beer. Penton wrote:

As the writer points out, the mere mention of beer among Britishers always, for some obscure reason which only psycho-analysts could track down, elicits a snigger. Clearly there is, in British minds, some curious repression about beer, some strange and infantile complex of snobbery, condescension, superiority, and guilt. The word wine never excites amusement. It is a noble word and tomes, learned and ecstatic, are written around it. A man who talked about wine in the way it is our custom to talk about beer— as if all wines were just wine— who did not know that Burgundy must not be warmed, that red wine must not be drunk with fish, or that the mouth of a brandy glass must not be less than two inches in diameter, would be scorned and spat on for a barbarian. But who knows or cares anything for the canons of beer-drinking? Who knows why beer should be drunk out of a metal vessel, what dishes go best with beer, how beer is made, what times are most proper for absorbing it, and what its varieties and potencies are? If you go to a good restaurant you will find all the wines impressively set out and divided and sub-divided — all the Chateau Lafittes, the Chateau Margaux, the Chateau Yquems, the Chambertins, Clos de Vougeots, the Romanee-Contis, the Nuits St. Georges, the Steinbergers, Rauenthalers, Geisenheimers, Heidsiecks, Bollingers, Clicquot-Ponsardins, the Moet and Chandons. And stuck away in a corner you will see, perhaps, “Also Beer” — as in the passenger list of a liner you read “Lady So-and-So, and General Such-and-Such, and Mr. This and Mrs. That; also 250 in the steerage.” As if the 250 in the steerage had the vast, composite, undifferentiated personality of a bee-hive! As if beer, to a connoisseur of beer, was not also divisible into an infinite variety of classes and sub-classes! But connoisseurship of beer is one of the neglected graces of life, and the “Book About Beer” is an indignant protest against this.

You can read Penton’s full remarks here, in his column “The Sydney Spy” in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph. In wry, mock-indignant tone he mounted a rare defence of beer prior to the 1970s, when modern beer critique first arose.

The book he reviewed has nonetheless not entered the annals of serious beer appreciation. The anonymity of its author, A. Drinker, surely did not help its prospects. Snippets of the book are cited periodically by beer writers, but nothing revelatory, it seems. Penton’s review and literate defence of beer may be the best result from its publication.

Rare book dealers still sell the volume, though. One can be found, here.

Penton was a grammar-school product, like the best known serious beer writer, the Britisher Michael Jackson (1942-2007). Good writing on beer doesn’t require university credentials. Nor is it a particular bar.

Beer when all is said and done is a worthy, even noble subject, one open to any with the requisite curiosity and writerly skill.

Penton earned a luminous entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, by educator Patrick Buckridge. He also authored a 1994 biography on Penton. Wrote Buckridge:

He had been one of Australia’s great newspaper editors, an important novelist, a passionate but critical Australian nationalist, and a courageous liberal campaigner for what he called ‘a civilized mode of social living together’.

Writing of Penton’s calibre – I’m speaking in general now – seems a lost genre. Our relentlessly earnest age doesn’t prize, in particular, the subtle humour a skilled writer could evoke in the past.

Note re images: The quotation above is from Penton’s news article linked in the text, available via the Trove digitized archive. The cover of A Book About Beer is drawn from the vendor’s site also linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.