Liquid Bread (Beer as an essential part of daily life)

Writing my previous post (Saints of the Suds: German Monks) got me to thinking about the role of beer in our daily lives.  It doing a little basic research into the history of beer consumption, there was a time in which beer held a much more prominent place in our daily lives.  Today most people in our culture see beer as something recreational… something we indulge in when we knock off of work or when we are partying with friends on the weekend.  This stands in stark contrast with much of the rest of the world where drinking beer or wine is daily and normative, and in some cases even begins with breakfast.  So how did this disconnect happen?  Is it something we should continue to embrace?

I am sure that a sociologist/historian might be able to posit more in depth and/or more accurate theories.  But you dear reader, are stuck listening to the babblings of a priest, which means your getting a religiously focused analysis.  We can begin by blaming the Puritans, which I find to be an effective panacea in assessing so many of our cultural woes.  These are folk who, after falling victim to the religious intolerance of their mother country, flee and set up their own colonies in the New World.  But do they learn from their harsh experience?  Hardly.  As unpleasant as it may be for us to admit now, at one point in their history the New England colonies (with the notable exception of Rhode Island) were theocracies of the sort that would make the Taliban proud.  In simplest terms the Puritans held that all earthly pleasures were BAD which of course included alcohol.  Their intolerance managed to seep into the collective subconscious of our culture where it still lingers even today.

The Methodists (a denomination that I respect to whom I mean no offense) also played a hand.  Founded by the brothers Wesley in response to profoundly deteriorating social conditions in the industrialized cities of England in the 1700, this movement did a lot of good for the people it tried to serve.  However, since abuse of alcohol was one of the chief social ills it sought to remedy, they too tended to demonize the drink.  As Methodism spread to the colonies and territories, they brought their morays with them and it definitely helped instill the view that alcohol was ungodly or immoral into a fair percentage of the populous.

Perhaps even more importantly than either of these socio-religious influences was the socio-economic influence of Prohibition which firmly established the rift we see today.  Driven by ethos like those of the Methodists, groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (my grandmother was a member)sought to eliminate the social evil of alcohol from our society.  Alcohol became illicit, both in terms of its legality and in the minds of the public.  It was something to be enjoyed only in speak-easies, something associated with the criminal underworld and with vice and corruption.  Although this was short lived in terms of its legal life the impact on our culture was very long ranging.  We see it still today in the limitations on beer and liquor advertisement, in blue laws and in dry towns and counties that are scattered across our nation (Don’t even get me started on Utah).

As a result of all these factors beer has been relegated from its rightful place as something that was once an assumed and natural part of life to the realm of vice.  None of this is to deny the truth that there are some people who have a problem with drinking.  Alcoholism is a very real addiction and it has tragically destroyed far too many lives.  But contrary to the intent, demonizing alcohol does not eliminate this problem.  It could be argued that such an approach actually increases the percentage of drinkers who abuse alcohol.

If we are ever going to re-establish a healthy relationship with beer, we need to completely reassess how we view and understand  it.  It begins by accepting that alcohol is not new.  Fermented beverages have been cultivated and enjoyed for 10,000 years and by virtually every culture and people.  For most of this period beer, wine and all other sorts of indigenous hooch had a rightful and respected place in daily life.  In many places around the globe it is still enjoyed that way… I have see it first hand in my travels in Ireland, Germany, France and Japan and if you turn on any episode of No Reservations you can watch as Anthony Bourdain is offered all kinds of alcoholic concoctions as he samples daily life all around the globe… it is as natural and automatic a part of his welcome as the food he is offered.

I am not saying that unless you drink daily you are somehow repressed.  But there is no need to see beer as being only appropriate for the weekend.  Therefore, we should stop feeling awkward or embarrassed about ordering a beer with lunch or having a beer or two with our supper.  The fact is that when compared toe the rest of the world our culture’s perspective on alcohol has been skewed.   It is time we allowed beer to regain its place as positive and even an essential part of our daily lives.

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2 thoughts on “Liquid Bread (Beer as an essential part of daily life)

  1. Nicely put. One must also consider that fermented beverages like weak beer and wine were clear of harmful bacteria, and may have been regularly drunk instead of water due to unsafe water supplies.

  2. Below is some information just sent to me by a friend who is uniquely qualified to comment and correct… Tlyer Flynn is a Professor of History at Eastern University and an award winning homebrewer. Please take the time to read since it corrects some broadly heald misperceptions which I myself repeated in this post.

    Dear Kirk,
    About your post on beer recently, I wanted to politely add a few comments privately about the Puritans, Victorians, and the origins of Prohibition. About the Puritans, I think it is a commonly-held idea that they certainly were intellectually at odds with their own principles in being so intolerant of dissenters like Roger Williams … as well as the often-severity of their requirements for church membership and community conformity. That said, this was the 17th century and every nation in Europe and the colonies treated religion as ideology, as an organizing set of ideas to create stability and avoid war, violence, upheaval, which was always a threat … sadly, the Puritans’ treatment of the native Americans was similarly lacking in moral reflection, as they were violent … the King Phillip’s War was, if I recall, the best example.

    But, with regards to the Puritans being “puritanical,” there is a tendency to conflate them with 19th century Victorians … here is the publication that pretty much dispelled the myth that the Puritans were condemnatory towards sexual intimacy, alcohol-influenced conviviality, and all things earthly and sensual:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-New-England-Mind-Seventeenth/dp/0674613066/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351706004&sr=8-1&keywords=perry+miller+the+new+england+mind
    Yes, by the time of the middle and late 18th century, and well into the early 19th, Americans were embarrassed about their Puritan origins … its intense religiosity, its fervent idealism, and its single-mindedness and intolerance of theological dissent … but Perry Miller’s scholarship in the 1930s to the 1950s rediscovered the Puritans and presented them in a far more accurate light: intellectually imaginative, human, and certainly lovers of ciders, beer … with an awareness that drunkenness was a problem to be guarded against. In reaction to Catholic other-worldliness, Puritans were decidedly this-worldly in much of their day-to-day life …

    The Victorians (Protestant culture of England and the U.S. in the early and middle 19th century, but carrying over well into the 20th) were entirely different … growing industry drew men from home and farm work into work … work, as a separate location from home … and thus was born an ideology to justify this break-up of the home that had once functioned as a single living/working unit/farm … but now was male spheres (work, public life, voting, business, ideas, aggressiveness, alcohol consumption, prostitution/vice), and female spheres (home, private, clean, morally innocent, child-rearing, restrained, morally superior to the male/public realm) … as cities grew, they also attracted massive populations … in the 1830s rum and whiskey were far more available than they had been previously, and public drinking went from 3-5% ciders and ales that were ubiquitous … literally everywhere … to bad alcoholism stemming from rum and whiskey now being easy to access. Public officials were bothered by the rise in crime due to alcohol abuse, business owners could not tolerate drunken workers being near factory machinery, and reformers bothered by an influx of immigrants and new poverty were worried that alcohol abuse would ruin the cities (which were, by comparison today, awful) … what was born was Victorianism as an ideology that placed the home, church, and women as the moral protectors of the nation … because it was through these institutions that women could control men, temper their naturally aggressive and appetitive tendencies … thus was born the idea that sexuality was intrinsically a bad thing, that women should discourage sex even within marriage … and that alcohol consumption was also tied to this out-of-control industrial Gilded Age (greedy) society … Victorians shunned sensuality as tied to evil forces at work in the world (urbanization, secularization, industrialization) … with good intentions, but the carry-over into the 20th century has been devastating, it could be argued.

    The Ken Burns “Prohibition” series is very helpful in spelling this out, too …

    Hope this helps sort things out … if you did not notice, I am not a big fan of Victorian culture and hold it responsible for equating alcohol consumption with alcohol abuse … prior to the 19th century, it was almost literally the case that fermented beverages were everywhere, consumed at all times of the day and night, and were as different in the public mind from alcoholism as, say, eating food and being grossly overweight are separated for us today …

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